I have been a little occupied recently. I legally became the Bishop of Leeds on Sunday in a legal ceremony (called Confirmation of Election) at York Minster. We did the legal preliminaries before the big event, then concluded during the service attended by nearly 3,000 people. This was the first event at which all parts of the new diocese came together to celebrate a new beginning – and it was, thanks to the wonderful Minster staff – a great event: four cathedral choirs, a brass ensemble, an excellent church worship band, visitors from home and abroad, and full of colour. My friend and German counterpart as co-Chair of the Meissen Commission, Bischof Professor Friedrich Weber, did a reading – as did Professor Michael Clarke, chair of the Dioceses Commission which kicked off the whole transformation business in the first place.

What didn't come over in the service was the enormous amount of sheer hard work put in to the transition towards the creation of the new diocese by an army of brilliant people. The closer you get to the detail of the processes we are going through and the more you realise just how complex and demanding the whole business is. I would want to pay tribute to the unseen shapers of the infrastructure upon which we shall build the new diocese, orientated by a fresh and creative articulation of our vision. Watch this space, but hats off to the 'workers'.

While all this has been occupying my mind and time, some big questions have arisen in the world around us. I haven't had time or space to follow all the detail, but, sitting on a train to London, the following questions come to mind:

1. What are the 'British values' that Michael Gove wants taught in our schools? In what way are they 'British'? Who decides what is a 'British value'? (As I keep proposing, 'Britishness' is something we keep creating and not merely something we inherit from a real or imagined glorious past.)

2. Who is driving strategy for the British Humanist Association? To ride on the back of the 'Trojan horse' to attack faith schools seems particularly inept and disingenuous when all the schools involved are state schools. Has someone missed something here – or is this just another case of prejudice leading to narrow propaganda?

3. When did 'diversity' become a virtue as opposed to a phenomenon? The word describes a reality, but it has become elevated to a virtue or value that has to be uncritically revered. As Mark Easton points out, one man's diversity is another woman's extremism. So, what are the limits of diversity, who sets them, and according to which criteria?

4. Does Ofsted retain any credibility? Either they were inept when they last did their work on these schools, or they are inept now. How are we to judge the judgements of any Ofsted inspections – a question asked well before the latest credibility crisis? (This is tied in with the question of centralisation and accountability: a political dogma that proclaims decentralisation and the virtue of the small state has somehow managed to remove local accountability and replace it with centralised accountability to the Secretary of State. And nobody laughed…)

5. Who allows Sepp Blatter to run world football as a personal fiefdom, refusing even to disclose his salary? And why does the rest of the footballing world collude in this travesty?

That's all.


One day in the life of the General Synod of the Church of England here in London.

  • Women bishops legislation in groups
  • The naming of dioceses
  • Presidential Address by the Archbishop of York
  • Church schools
  • Review of how the General Synod works

OK, there was also some other exciting stuff in between – legislative, mostly, but also lunch.

What holds all these seemingly disconnected agenda items together? Well, they fit into the mosaic of imaginative and prophetic life and work of the Church of England at every level.

Women bishops will come to be – we are simply trying to get the best legislative way of doing it, but are also learning to behave more maturely and Christianly as we do so. This matter brings in questions of justice, ethics, theology, ecclesiology, mission and order.

Until now an English diocese could only be named after a city. So, even though the new diocese in West Yorkshire & the Dales is based regionally, it has to be named after the Bishop's see: Leeds. In future it will be possible to name a diocese after its region – as it has been for ages in other parts of the Anglican Communion. So what? Well, the change (not welcomed by all) is permissive and demonstrates a concern to see from the outside what we are about on the inside. Not an enormous change, but perhaps significant.

The Archbishop of York delivered a powerful Presidential Address in which any hint of us being 'the Conservative Party at prayer' was declared dead and buried. The scandals of poverty, homelessness and the inequities between rich and poor were cited and statistically exposed – along with references to Jim Wallis, St Francis, Pope Francis and Gustavo Guttierez inter alia. As the Archbishop of Canterbury commented on Twitter, this was a “powerful address on shocking state of UK poverty. Statistically based, ethically clear, spiritually challenging”.

Church schools are contentious and often misrepresented. They are not faith schools. They aim to serve the communities in which they are set and they need to regain confidence in their ethos and remit. This debate was not about 'schools for the sake of the church', but, rather, about 'church for the sake of schools'. There were some impressively informed and wise contributions regarding education per se and the impact good education can have on the ground. In other words, theology provided the context for consideration of the common good, good education for all and the broader development of society for which good education is vital.

Anyone with experience of the General Synod knows that business could be done differently and, probably, better. But, the aim of this is not simply to order the mechanics of our business better (as an end in itself), but to enable us to get our business out there (as an end which is better enabled if the mechanics are clearer). In other words, this isn't about internal plumbing and yet more introspective navel-gazing; it is about enabling the church to be better focused on its real mission.

So, the agenda looks a bit bitty. But, it has to do with creating a mosaic of church life and witness that works at the levels of individual commitment, congregational focus, parochial service, diocesan priority, national prophetic speech. It is held together by the vocation of the church to be grasped by a prophetic imagination – being drawn by a vision of God's character and the vocation of God's people to live for the sake of the world in which we are put. It is prophetic because it dares to engage with uncomfortable truth and the messy unclarity of human life and society whilst demanding imagination of a world that does not yet exist.


“My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.”

So writes the anonymous author of the most harrowing war-time diary I have ever read: A Woman in Berlin. Even though she is writing as the Russians approach in 1945 and the infrastructure of German society has all but collapsed, her recognition of the need for food applies always and everywhere. And today, here in affluent England, if children come to school hungry, it is a stupid person who thinks that child is going to be able to learn and grow and concentrate and thrive.

So, it is good news that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced this evening that all infant school children are to be served free school meals from some time in 2014. In fact, the Children's Society briefed the Anglican bishops meeting in Oxford just before the announcement. Unmitigated good news on a day when we had been taking a sobering and serious look at children, young people, education and schools. The effects of poverty sat high in our consciousness.

Here is the context:

  • 3.5 million children live in poverty in the UK (after housing costs have been deducted).
  • Around 1.9 children live in workless households in the UK – higher than in any other European Union country.
  • Yet, 63% of all children in low income households live in families where at least one of the adults is in paid work. (But, this doesn't spell out that so many of these 'paid jobs' are part-time or very low-paid.)
  • In 1979 c.14% of children lived in poverty; in 2012 it had risen to 27%.
  • Rather than eradicating child poverty by 2020 (a government commitment in the Cild Poverty Act), it is estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the figure will increase by 800,000 – which means that by 2020 one in three children in the UK will be living in poverty.

Shocking? Or acceptable?

Food bank reports indicate that most people come to food banks on their way home from work. Which bangs another nail into the shameful and misleading political categorising of poor people into 'benefit scroungers' – those who refuse to work and cost the country millions. This lie has traction in the country at large, but the evidence points to serious problems for poor people who do work.

So, what about the children? Good news about the free school meals – whatever the political motivation behind announcing it today – and news that highlights the importance of food and the iniquity of poverty for a society that wants its children to grow into educated, creative and altruistic citizens.

Now, what about the other children in our schools? And what about tackling the causes of the child poverty that the government, by announcing its policy today, has explicitly acknowledged?


Yesterday the Telegraph published an article I had written about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Jesus. Not his personal spiritual quest, of course, but the hunt for someone to play the character of Jesus in the stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. The response was interesting!

I was careful not to endorse the TV series or the tour, but thought it raised interesting questions for how alert Christians might engage with it creatively. Let’s just say some of the response wasn’t… er… creative. But, I stand by the points I made and the questions I raised. Sometimes the church is landed with a creative and imaginative opportunity to speak a common language with popular culture… and can’t see it. Well, here’s the latest opportunity and I hope people will see it.

The basic question it raises is simple: if you were looking for Jesus, what would you expect to find? A manipulable wimp in a white nightie? A ‘muscular Christian’ figure? Someone charismatic? Someone you might normally just pass on the street? And what prejudiced images do we filter our expectations through?

The question is pertinent not only because of Superstar, but I have just got home from an hour with a group of teenage lads in an RE class where they were exploring through Mark’s Gospel what discipleship is – what it means to commit to what you believe. They made strong points, asked good and penetrating questions, and made it a privilege to be there with them.

I actually spent four hours today (after a meeting with Bradford business leaders over breakfast) in this local Church of England secondary school. This is a school that makes a mockery of current ideologues’ obsession with simplistic measurements of achievement. Brilliant leadership in a building that isn’t helpful has still attracted excellent teaching staff. I loved being there (for the second time this year). Some of what I saw and heard was inspirational. I came away feeling very thoughtful and challenged, too.

The Church of England is constantly slagged off for cherrypicking the best students in the best areas. When people like me counter this with examples such as the school I visited today – and I have visited many, many others – which takes kids from its immediate catchment, including ‘challenging’ areas, we get dismissed. I seriously wonder if some commentators ever visit schools like this and open their eyes to what is demanded of teachers – such as that they should be surrogate parents, extended family, social workers, psychologists, counsellors, spiritual directors, friends, mentors, etc.

Not every school starts from the same point, but some are deemed to be ‘satsifactory’ in terms of certain markers when the starting points are ignored. No wonder that so many teachers and headteachers express the view that the (particularly Westminster) politicians ought to get out more and immerse themselves in these realities before setting policy.

Anyway, Superstar is intriguing. So is being grilled by teenage lads about what commitment really means.

I have just been to speak to representatives of many faiths who are all involved in education in Bradford. I was offered two themes to choose from, but addressed both of them (fairly superficially) ahead of a discussion time. The first theme related to ‘religious pluralism in the lives of young people in Bradford’, the second to ‘the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society’. The following is a bit of a nit-picky skeleton of the matters we addressed, but I began with the observation that some interfaith work at international level resembles a BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk.’ Of course, what we mean is that it is good to talk (phenomenon) as long as we don’t talk about anything (content). Fear of ‘division’ drives an agenda of ‘least potential disagreement’. However, if there is no real discussion of difference, there can be no honest relationship anyway and the whole thing is really either a farce or a fraud.

First things first: ‘religious pluralism’ simply describes a fact, a reality, a phenomenon. It is not a virtue – something to be honoured and revered and never questioned. Different people live alongside and with each other, seeing the world and living in it in different ways. ‘Pluralism’ is the word that describes this. It is essentially neutral.

Therefore, we need to go on to distinguish between two sorts of questions: (a) those about truth and how claims for any world view of way of living actually stand up, and (b) given the acknowledged differences, how we then should live together in a single society or on a single planet. In relation to our children this means we need to grow a generation that experiences life within a particular understanding of its meaning, is informed about its own (and others’) world view and how it can be lived in and with, and is acquainted with the world view, lived experience and practices of others. This assumes that we give our children an informed reference point from which to look at the world and those who see it and live in it differently.

The problem here is that our children – I really mean those who do not belong to a strong faith community – are too often assumed to know Christianity and know where they stand as a base line from which to look outwards. They are more likely to be shaped by (a) the myth of neutrality – the assumption by many in the media and academia that a secular humanist world view is neutral (and therefore privileged in public discourse) while a religious one is a bit loony (and should be kept private); (b) a pride in ignorance or scepticism – see Richard Dawkins’ pride in never having read any theology (or philosophy?); (c) an assumption that materialism is a given and that salvation comes by having stuff; (d) an assumption that we can live in the ‘now’ and take no account of a future arising from the past that has shaped the present – because there is no inherent meaning to life anyway. See the studies of last year’s rioters and how some of them see the world.

This brought us to the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society. (I refer to a piece I wrote for the Guardian in July 2011 in whcih I draw a sharp distinction between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools as the Church of England understands them.) My main point here is that (a) ‘cohesion’ is one of those words that too often describes a lowest common denominator ‘absence of tension’ in a community – a bit like ‘peace being the absence of war’ or ‘a good football season being one in which Manchester United gets relegated; and (b) justice is inadequate as a goal for human beings in society.

Now, this latter point might well be contentious if misunderstood. Experience (and history) tells us that justice by itself can easily become just ice. Fragmentation and conflict in the Balkans came about precisely because communities could not let go of historic injustices – but they saw justice for themselves as the priority over against justice for their neighbour. I maintain that we need to teach our children (with a massive dose of actual hypocrisy) that justice needs to be transcended by mercy. Mercy goes further and is much harder than justice; it recognises the injustice and the pain and refuses to be consumed by them. Too often the demand for justice simply creates a vicious circle of just ice.

That’s a brief and unillustrated summary of my address which was aimed at stimulating discussion and debate in a particular context. However, it also falls in a context of wider concern: events in Sudan.

The Diocese of Bradford is linked with the Anglican dioceses of Sudan where communal violence is flaring up – not as an intellectual notion, but in the burning of Christian buildings, the destruction of books and Bibles, and attacks on people. Here’s a link to this week’s events and here is a statement by the World Council of Churches that goes to the heart of the matter.

Words spoken by politicians and, sometimes, religious leaders are taken up by those more inclined to violence as sanction for action. When such words burn in the wrong people’s hearts and minds, the burning of buildings, books and people follows. Some politicians and Muslim leaders in Sudan have expressed anger at the recent attacks; we need to hear this echoed not only in Sudan, but also by religious leaders around the world – and especially by those who sit around the table at conferences saying how good it is to talk.

The best way to get people thinking and talking about things (like ethics) is to tell a story and let people identify with character. We all know that. People remember a narrative more than a series of statements. I’m sure that is why Jesus told stories rather than issue three-line definitions of, for example, the Kingdom of God.

Tomorrow a new way of engaging young people in such discussions and thinking will be launched on MTV. I post the press notice below, but it is worth checking out – especially if you are cynical about serious engagement through ‘new media’ with young people. It is produced by media production company CTVC (which belongs to the Rank Foundation, a charity based on J Arthur Rank’s Christian values) in collaboration with Shed Media (Waterloo Road, Bad Girls, Footballer’s Wives etc). The Telegraph reported on it, as did other media sources.

Being Victor is is a live action teen drama that breaks new ground in the classroom.  It is the first mainstream online drama to offer curriculum support for teachers via the award winning website, www.TrueTube.co.uk, whilst engaging the target teenage audience with compelling characters and plotlines on issues at the heart of the PSHE curriculum.

The drama will be available on MTV.co.uk in a series of 20 online episodes (2 released each week) for 10 weeks.  It will be supported by a discussion forum where the issues can be debated, and by lesson plans (teaching units) which enable easy use of the episodes in the classroom.   The teaching units will be available on http://www.truetube.co.uk/being-victor, a FREE online multimedia resource for schools.  TrueTube tackles the challenging subjects at the heart of RE, PSHE & Citizenship, using video as a catalyst for debate and discussion in the classroom.  Being Victor is an exciting evolution to the videos and lesson plans currently available on TrueTube.  The site will also contain links to guidance on how students can make their own films, inspired by the drama, on the issues and themes that it tackles.

The content of the drama has been developed to tackle hard issues and give young people a forum to stimulate thought, dialogue and debate.  Produced by the production team behind Waterloo Road, Being Victor follows the lives of Vinnie Dupe, his online alter-ego; blogger Victor Sage and his friends through college, family, work and the trials and tribulations of teenage life.   The series operates on several digital platforms and uses a variety of different mediums to engage audiences, including on-screen drama, blogging, music, animation and social networking.

The drama focuses on 5 themes that are key in the lives of 21st century teenagers: Relationships, Online Identity, Sex and Promiscuity, Depression and Young Carers.  TrueTube has carefully developed each teaching unit to utilise these themes alongside relevant episodes of Being Victor as a stimulus for PSHE and tutorial sessions.  Each lesson can be completed in 45 minutes but can also be extended and adapted to suit personal priorities if required.

I doubt if MTV or Shed would be bothering if they didn’t see real value in this approach. Certainly worth following up and promoting in schools and youth groups.

One of the things we have to get used to in England is the tedious mantra that so-called ‘faith schools’ are ‘divisive’. The charge is always put, but the evidence is never there to back up the (apparently) self-evident claim. It seems that the conclusion is assumed on the basis of prejudice and then the evidence adduced from the odd anecdote. Well, new research published today – Strong schools for strong communities: Reviewing the impact of Church of England schools in promoting community cohesion – might just force a bit of a re-think. (Dream on…)

The study by Professor David Jesson of the University of York (commissioned by the Church of England) examined the reports of 400 secondary schools inspected between March and June 2009 and 700 primary schools inspected in June this year. According to the press notice:

The data for primary schools, serving relatively small cohorts of pupils, suggested faith schools perform just as well as community schools based on the average grade received for promoting community cohesion. Grades are awarded on a scale of 1 (outstanding) to 4 (inadequate), with both types of school averaging 2.2 at primary level. However, the data for secondary schools indicates “clear evidence that Faith schools were awarded substantially higher inspection gradings for promoting community cohesion than Community schools,” according to Professor Jesson. The data shows that the mean average of grades given to secondary schools with a religious foundation is 1.86, compared to 2.31 for community schools.

In his research paper, Professor Jesson comments:

This finding is particularly relevant to the debate about schools’ contribution to community cohesion – and runs completely counter to those who have argued that because faith schools have a distinctive culture reflecting their faith orientation and are responsible for their admissions that they are ‘divisive’ and so contribute to greater segregation amongst their communities. This is clearly not supported by this most recent Ofsted inspection evidence.

In reaching their judgements on a school’s performance in promoting community cohesion, Ofsted’s inspectors look for evidence that schools have undertaken an analysis of their school population and locality and then created an action plan focused on engaging with under-represented groups outside the school and between different groups within the school itself.

Ofsted also looks for evidence that schools have strategies for promoting participation by learners in all the opportunities that the school provides and strategies for tackling any discriminatory behaviour between groups of learners. Comparing the data on grades awarded for this part of the inspection between different types of secondary school, Professor Jesson writes:

Here again the contrast between Faith schools and Community schools is clear. Faith schools achieve higher gradings on this aspect of their contribution to their pupils and their community.” Community schools received a mean average of 2.03, while schools with a religious foundation received a higher average of 1.68.

But, the response by Jan Ainsworth, Chief Education Officer for the Church of England, in her introduction to the report makes the point usually ignored by commentators:

Schools with a religious foundation have a particular role in modelling how faith and belief can be explored and expressed in ways that bring communities together rather than driving them apart. They can minimise the risks of isolating communities for whom religious belief and practice are core parts of their identity and behaviour. In Church of England schools that means taking all faith seriously and placing a high premium on dialogue, seeking the common ground as well as understanding and respecting difference.

Schools contribute most actively towards nurturing a shared sense of belonging across communities when they are clear about their own distinctive values and how that grounds their engagement with other groups at local, national and global levels. Promoting community cohesion is not about diluting what we believe to create a pallid mush of ‘niceness’.

Our Christian foundation places the strongest obligation onto Church of England schools to help children form relationships of mutual care and affection with people from every creed and background. For church schools, community cohesion is more than ticking a box for the government. It is about acting out the values articulated in the school’s mission statement in ways that serve and strengthen our human relationship with our neighbours.

Not surprisingly, this won’t be good news for some people, as evidence will be seen to have intruded into prejudice.There is more to be said about this latter point and an excellent article in the Church Times by a Croydon headteacher, Richard Parrish, makes a case for distinguishing between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools. I’ll come back to this one anon.

Tesco logoApparently our schools are so rubbish that Tesco supermarkets are having to come to the rescue. According to Sir Terry Leahy, who is not only the top man of Tesco – Britain’s largest private employer – but also an education adviser to the prime minister:

we depend on high standards in our schools… Sadly, despite all the money that has been spent, standards are still woefully low in too many schools… Employers like us … are often left to pick up the pieces. From my perspective there are too many agencies and bodies, often issuing reams of instructions to teachers, who then get distracted from the task at hand: teaching children.

Naturally, the government disputes his view.

I was chair of governors of a voluntary controlled primary school during the 1990s. As a governing body we frequently objected to the rate of initiatives pouring out of Whitehall, the forests of paper pouring through our letter boxes and the deluge of regulations that were demoralising teachers. These were the nadir years for many teachers who felt de-professionalised, despised and demotivated.

But all this would change when New Labour got in and concentrated on education, education, education – wouldn’t it?

Well, again, some strides were made, but the deluge of initiatives, paper and policies got worse. I was relieved to leave behind being a governor and having to cope with the sheer weight of paper and pace of ‘change’.

So, will anything change next time? Will teachers be trusted to teach and specialists be funded to advise? Or will we face another bout of endless change, initiatives and paper? Because I can’t see any new government leaving things alone for a while without wanting to change it all again. And that will mean more paper,  more initiatives, more bureaucracy. And, if conversations with educationalists yesterday are anything to go by, funding will be cut, governance will become more difficult (the demands on voluntary governors are ridiculous already) and schools will continue to be a political football. Will any party prove me wrong?

St Andrew's croydon crestSo, I was really pleased to be in a Church of England secondary school this afternoon where I met highly motivated, really articulate and very pleasant young students who were leading the drive for greater student involvement in their local community in Croydon. It was the students (supported and encouraged by staff) who were driving their colleagues into taking responsibility for changing their community by serving it. It was very impressive.

And this is not the only school in Croydon doing such things.

But what really encouraged and challenged me was the imaginative way the school is tackling its engagement with daily worship. Many schools find the concept of daily worship embarrassing and difficult and I understand the reasons why. But here at St Andrew’s School they have devised a way of bringing assemblies alive in tutor groups by providing simple, creative and mind-teasingly stimulating resources for group reflection and conversation. It is web-based, is called Soul Food and is projected in tutor rooms onto the interactive whiteboards.

Based on their website www.andyblogs.co.uk, Soul Food is used daily to enhance the spiritual and social side of the school. It is designed to encourage students to think about the world around them and the part they play in it – using the Bible as a springboard for discussion of everyday issues. It includes pictures, videos, music and youtube clips as well as text. The structure is simple: (a) introduction to the theme, (b) the Bible bit, (c) the thinking bit, (d) the activities, (e) a prayer. Students and staff can then leave comments and offer feedback on how it went for them or their group. This is, of course, in-house.

But the school has also created the andyblogs.community at www.andyblogs.com and this is open to the world, linking school to church to community and wider world. This is all very imaginative and excellent stuff, superbly managed by an art teacher at the school, Elysia Willis.

This is a creative approach that should be copied by other schools which are looking for simple and engaging ways of creating material for assemblies. Is there a ‘resource bank’ for such material/approaches anywhere?

Perhaps Sir Terry Leahy might pay them a visit and see where his criticisms don’t apply – in an urban school with a commitment to growing young people as whole human beings: body, mind and spirit.

Andyblogs croydon

theohobsonpicture-full3binit_Theo Hobson has an interesting piece in today’s Guardian newspaper. I have met Theo only once – doing a joint interview with the Today programme at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference in July 2008 – and I liked him. I have read some of his writing, but wondered at him being profiled as a ‘theologian’. He comments on religious (particularly Christian) culture, but the theological critique does not seem always to be consistent. Given his claim to liberalism, I am sure he won’t mind me questioning a series of statements he makes in today’s Face to Faith piece.

Right at the beginning, and without any supporting evidence or illustration, he makes this unequivocal statement: ‘…churches seem to gravitate to authoritarianism, and they seem unable to grasp that secular liberalism is a good thing.’ Does ‘authoritarianism’ mean ‘the wrongful imposition of authority/power in order to control’ – or does it really mean ‘churches believe things that are not always fluid and won’t change them to suit me’? Secondly, what is it about ‘secular liberalism’ (undefined) that is unarguably ‘good’ and that churches cannot grasp? Thirdly, does he not see the illiberal irony of categorising all churches as monolithic, centralised and monocultural? And we are still only on the third sentence of the first paragraph. So, let’s press on…

‘We dislike the fact that Christianity is assumed to take institutional form. If you are a Christian, the assumption is, then you will be in favour of policies that defend the interests of these institutions, the churches, which run Christian culture. This ties Christianity to illiberalism in a way we can’t accept.’ Theo, please explain the logic behind these assumptions. It seems to me it is you (not ‘the churches’ as institutions) who is setting up the churches in a way I don’t recognise as being universally true. Just take the Church of England (as just one of, and uniquely different from, thousands of other manifestations of Christian ‘institution’): aren’t the current debates in the Church happening precisely because your statement is false and your assumptions awry? If you were right, the ‘institutional church’ would have slapped down its internal ‘heretics’ and prevented other denominations or ‘churches’ from setting themselves up in the first place. (In South London new churches – mainly, but not exclusively, black majority or ethnically defined – are being established almost every week.)

And please explain how a ‘Christian church’ can define itself in a way it pleases, even if it departs from the nature of the one whose name it bears. The call for a ‘church made in my own image’ is like asking for Marxism without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the common ownership of the means of production or an uncritical acceptance of the Hegelian dialectic.

The then goes on to cite ‘faith schools’ to support his complaint. But he can only do so by caricaturing ‘faith schools’, ignoring the rationale behind them, avoiding any cognisance of how (for example) Church of England schools behave and actually understand their role. Has he ever been into one? (Come to Croydon and I’ll arrange meetings with headteachers…) Or is this just the simplistic reflex we have become used to in the schools debate where the basis of ‘church’ schools is either misunderstood or ignored because it is inconvenient?  ‘But some of us Christians are deeply uneasy about the way in which churches use education to bolster their power, and encourage phoney church attendance among pushy parents. This is horribly at odds with the sort of Christian culture we want to see.’ Not a shred of evidence: just propagation of a tired but unassailable myth.

‘The loudest voices, almost the only voices, seem to belong to atheists on one hand, and conservative church leaders on the other… People now face a starker choice of identity between “secular liberal” and “institutional Christian”. Really? So, why all the complaints from elsewhere that church spokespeople are too liberal or wishy-washy? It is clearly nonsense to say that only particular voices are heard in the public discourse – perhaps this is just the common complaint most bishops face: ‘If you didn’t write it in headlines in the newspaper I read, then you are not saying anything at all.’

Theo goes on to ‘demand’ (!) a new and alternative sort of ‘church’ capable of engaging with liberal culture. He maintains that the established (and other) churches cannot do this. Claiming (without evidence or support) that ‘all churches itch for social control’, he states that ‘a new sort of Christian culture must be attempted, away from the churches’ before admitting that he has no idea what this might look like. He also seems ignorant of the huge numbers of Christian communities now meeting outside of church buildings and opening up contexts in which Christians of all sorts of complexions engage openly with ‘liberal’ (and every other sort of) culture.

And so to Theo’s conclusion – a rallying cry to those who share his muddled ignorance and personal fed-up-ness.  ‘What do we want? We demand a new way of proclaiming Jesus Christ, one that feels authentic, contemporary. We hope that, by accepting the truth of secular freedom, Christianity can enter a new phase, in which communication with liberal people is possible, and new cultural forms emerge. Maybe, with such a new direction, this religion can recapture the imagination of the culture.’ I am speechless. Get out more and see what churches are already doing.

I hope that this article might lead to a greater debate – not about ‘institutional’ churches (what other sort can there be?), but about why the Theo Hobsons of this world are so illiberal and irrational in the assumptions they make and claims they state.

If I as a bishop made such claims – even in a newspaper article of limited length and space – without evidence or further reference – I would be castigated as arrogant, unthinking and arbitrary. So, what is it that allows others to write such unsubstantiated stuff without hearing that same charge?