The Church of England has issued a new course aimed at providing a basic resource for catechesis – that is, nurturing people in Christian faith. Hardly controversial, one might think. The course was launched a few days ago and it provoked some media interest.

I haven't read what the Times seems to have published this evening (but gleaned from what is being said on Twitter), but it would appear that in a phone interview I gave this afternoon I said that there is no point trying to convert anyone anymore because the people of England have gone too far away from the faith.

Well, how interesting. Compare what the Times seems to be saying with what I actually said.

The new resource is called Pilgrim. It starts from an assumption that people know little, rather than that they already know a lot about Christian faith. This is clearly a strong point and one I illustrated from when I ran 'Open to Question' courses in my parish in Leicestershire in the 1990s. We need to assume little knowledge these days, use language that is appropriate to this changed situation, and enable all people – including those who have been Christians for a while but are not confident – to enagage in such a course without fear of being embarrassed.

Many such courses work on the same basis – that it is better to be as inclusive as possible and speak a language everyone can understand.

OK so far?

I then went on to say that religious illiteracy is an issue – that one cannot any longer (even in preaching) allude to a biblical story without telling it. Academics complain that students of art, literature and history have so little basic understanding of (or familiarity with) biblical stories or language that they simply cannot begin to understand … er … art, history or literature.

Controversial?

So, how does this get translated into the Church of England giving up on evangelism – when the whole point of such courses as Pilgrim is to evangelise and catechise?

How does an observation about the challenge of religious or biblical illiteracy become a surrender instead of a creative challenge – which Pilgrim takes up with creative imagination?

I will read the piece tomorrow and see how (apart from Twitter) I have been reported. If the Twittersphere is right, I will respond with a piece on media literacy.

 

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.

Way back in March this year I read an article in the Guardian about the (in)famous American cartoonist Robert Crumb and his recently completed four-year project to illustrate the whole of the Book of Genesis. Described as an ‘acclaimed satirist’ and ‘hero of underground comics’, he worked directly from the King James Bible and Robert Alter’s translation to illustrate the first book of the Bible.

Genesis (Crumb)I thought at the time that this would be yet another attempt to upset religious people and pour sneering scorn on their holy books. After all, his publisher Jonathan Cape was heralding the book as a “scandalous satire” which “presents a complex, even subversive, narrative that calls for a significant re-examination of both the Bible’s content and its role in our culture”. The publisher also called it a ‘reinterpretation’ of the Book of Genesis.

Now, I wasn’t going to write or say anything about this book until after the Times had published an article about it. The writer had a copy of the book sent to me so that I could comment on it for the said article. I had a very interesting and intelligent conversation with the journalist over the phone after I had read the book quickly. But I didn’t want to preempt the article by blogging it.

Then today I saw myself quoted by Ben Leach on the Telegraph website saying:

I didn’t think it was satire. He set out to say; ‘this is important, fundamental myth’ and it seems to me he’s done a good job.

Well, I did say that … to the Times journalist. But I have not had any contact from or conversation with Ben Leach from the Telegraph. So, where did this come from? I am interested to know. [Note on 19. October: I have now found the Times article from which my quote was (partially) nicked.] Why? Because the article is headed as follows:

A sexually explicit illustrated Book of Genesis by controversial artist Robert Crumb, which features Bible characters having intercourse, has been condemned by religious groups.

Actually, it hasn’t. Or, at least, it wouldn’t have been condemned if the said journalist hadn’t rung up Mike Judge of the Christian Institute who (from his response) clearly has not seen or read the book. When I got my copy it said on the cover, ‘Adult supervision recommended for minors.’ And ‘The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!’ When I read it I thought it was excellent and realised that this is simply a case of an inept publisher trying to sell more copies by sensationalising what isn’t sensational.

Crumb's Genesis

In other words, what it says on the tin is not what you find within.

I would simply make the following observations:

1. Genesis is a bit racy at times and tells stories of sex, lying, violence, hypocrisy and all the other things that are to be found wherever you find real people. The book is about real people and real things. If you can’t cope with that, don’t read Genesis in the first place.

2. Surprisingly (to me, at least), there is no pornographic representation of sex acts that are graphically described in words in the original. If children need to be protected from drawings of breasts and a man ‘lying with’ a woman, then pity help the children.

3. The text of Genesis has been stuck to faithfully and taken seriously. Isn’t that brilliant?

4. The drawings bring the stories alive and impress upon the reader the ‘flesh and blood’ reality of the people and events described – thus rescuing them from the sort of ‘Holy Scripture’ we gloss over and making the stories powerfully and engagingly real.

5. Crumb faces the problem of how to depict God directly. In an interview he said: “My problem was, how am I going to draw God? Should I just draw him as a light in the sky that has dialogue balloons coming out from it? Then I had this dream. God came to me in this dream, only for a split second, but I saw very clearly what he looked like. And I thought, OK, there it is, I’ve got God. He has a white beard but he actually ended up looking more like my father. He has a very masculine face like my father.” He had considered, he said, drawing God as a black woman. “But if you actually read the Old Testament he’s just an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

Well, I disagree with the last bit, but I take his point.

So, who are the people likely to take offence at this book? I guess it will be the people who (a) haven’t read it or (b) take offence at anything that involves bodies, sex, God or cultural intelligence.

Ignore the sensationalist nonsense. If the publisher thought this was ‘scandalous satire’ and ‘subversive’, he should be sacked for having failed. It is an excellent book and well worth a read.

Yesterday I posted twice on basically the same subject. Ruth Gledhill of the Times responded pretty fiercely to my first post and I was happy to accept that what I had written could have been handled without having a go at the press again. I accepted her rebuke (contributed to, I suspect, by earlier spats I had regarding the Telegraph‘s handling of MPs’ expenses and issues arising from that), but responded as follows:

You are right to issue a corrective. But I would also ask you to recognise the sheer frustration that many of us (and I don’t mean just bishops) feel in having constantly to disabuse people of impressions they have got from poor media representation. I am not convinced, however, that it is adequate to tell us to be grateful for whatever we get – I think journalists deserve to be taken more seriously than that and held to account as I am. You might not believe this, but it is my concern for the media and my commitment to media engagement that makes me respond as I do.

Ruth GledhillI am glad Ruth picked me up on this because it made me ask why I feel so strongly when journalists ‘get it wrong’. So, not wanting to stir up another hornets’ nest, but wanting to open up a less heated and more intelligent discussion, I offer the following points:

  1. A good democracy needs good media. This requires of the media a sense of responsibility in informing the public mind, analysing public policy and praxis, provoking public debate – all the while attempting to report honestly.
  2. Journalists need to be respected and supported when they engage in this rather bruising and competitive business.
  3. Journalism and journlaists are to be taken seriously – which means that failure to report or write accurately must be exposed and challenged. To do otherwise is to say that what journalists do doesn’t matter.
  4. This also requires of journalists a willingness to admit when they have got it wrong – as well as being celebrated for what is done well.

I think the root of my personal twitchiness (as exposed on various blog posts) is experience of injustice and misrepresentation that simply damages people, their relationships and their reputations – and all this without the possibility of adequate redress. Journalists need to understand what it feels like to be on ‘this’ side of the fence.

Ruth Gledhill was right to pick me up, but I would be interested in journalists’ response to my conviction that journalism and journalists are so important that, being taken seriously, they must be subject to the same scrutiny they apply to the rest of us. Perhaps a more respectful relationship between the media and the public might then be possible.

As the Government’s Digital Britain report is published today, these questions will become even more acute. (I’ll comment on the report later.)

Any views?

How about this for weird?

Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party (BNP), has declared his happiness at boarding the gravy train to the Europe he despises. He was reported in the Times as follows:

His election and that of his colleague, Andrew Brons, to the European Parliament opens up a huge war chest: they will each have a salary of €91,980 (£80,443) and access to staff budgets of €210,480 and office allowances of €50,424.

Mr Griffin talked about opening a BNP office as his first step but added: “We promised we would give 10 per cent of our wages to local community groups and if we made anything in expenses we would pledge to do the same with that. We will not be putting any money into the BNP but to local community groups to help them celebrate St George’s Day or promote a Christian Christmas.”

I see several problems for him here:

1. ‘If we make anything in expenses…’ implies making personal profit from what should be accountable expenditure. He then commits to giving away ten per cent of what he ‘makes’ – implying that he will retain ninety per cent of what he ‘makes’. Excellent! very honourable.

Stgeorge-dragon2. The money will be given to community groups to help them celebrate St George’s Day. St George was probably a Roman soldier in the guard of the not-very-pleasant Emperor Diocletian. Now, I can see why Griffin would have an affection for Diocletian, but why he wants to celebrate a foreigner – whose entry to Britain he would wish to prevent – simply beats me. And look at the list of other non-Caucasians who ‘own’ St George as their patron saint! We don’t keep very good company, obviously.

3. It gets worse. He will give the money to ‘community groups to help them celebrate St George’s Day or promote a Christian Christmas’. Christmas IS Christian – hence the name. It also celebrates the birth of  a Jewish kid who was visited by semitic astrologers, who (with his parents) became asylum-seekers in Egypt, who welcomed the stranger and was persuaded by the Syro-Phoenecian woman that God was for all people, not just a particular group.

Has Griffin missed the point somewhere?

Scales-of-Justice-Above-the-Old-Bailey-Law-Courts-Inns-of-Court-LondonFurther to my last two posts on the MPs’ expenses scandal and the role of the press in exposing and reporting it, I noticed the report in today’s Guardian of contempt proceedings brought against the Times newspaper and the foreman of a jury that sat in 2007. The foreman spoke to the paper about how he disagreed with the verdict reached by jurors in a manslaughter case.

Two judges, sitting at high court in London, ruled that the jury foreman and Times Media, the News International subisidiary that publishes the Times, broke laws forbidding disclosure of “the secrets of the jury room” after the newspaper published an article on 19 December, 2007, outlining how two jurors questioned the verdict and the role played in the trial by complicated evidence from expert medical witnesses.

Part of the defence argument was as follows (and I quote the article directly):

However, the foreman should not have disclosed the approach taken to the evidence by other jurors,  [said Lord Pill].

[He] added that the “robust and highly valued” jury system depended on the open and frank expression of views between 12 people in the secrecy of the jury room, without fear that a juror’s possibly unpopular opinions might become known to his or her friends and neighbours or the public at large.

The defendants had argued that contempt proceedings could not be justified in the light of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression subject to exceptions such as the need to maintain the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

In addition, the defence argued it was essential that the press had a wide right to tell the public what happened in court proceedings.

Two arguments, then: (a) the right to freedom of expression and (b) the ‘right’ of the press to tell the public…

Clearly, the judges believe that others involved in the process also have a right to be protected. They further seem to believe that the press does not have an unlimited ‘right’ to tell the public whatever it likes. Transparency does not mean total exposure. The cost of such breaches of trust (against jurors who need to deliberate within the security of being able to express views and, possibly, change their mind) might well be that jurors will not articulate what is on their mind – even if that expression might possibly prove vital to the deliberation – for fear that confidentiality will not be protected.

The question here is (again) about unintended consequences of an erosion of trust, exposed by, but also promoted by the behaviour of, the media.

This is a fine line and a contentious argument to open up. But the press are so influential in our culture that the question needs to be laboured for the good of our common life and the protection of ‘rights’ on all sides. 

The Times was found guilty in this case while also having its argument treated fairly and the integrity of its decision (to publish) recognised. However, the fines that might have to be paid cannot repay the loss of trust and anguish of those who felt compromised by the decision to publish.

Whose rights trumps whose in a society that is in danger of losing any boundary between what is appropriately private and what is necessarily public?

Back in July 2007, following the furore over her spat with Shilpa Shetty in the Big Brother house, Jade Goody had  a miscarriage at 12 weeks. Subsequently she told Closer magazine: “After the miscarriage I did ask: ‘Why is all this happening?’ I thought it was God’s punishment for something I’d done… This year it’s been one thing after another. But after losing the baby I thought I’d never recover.” A statement went out from the Church of England in my name, aimed at questioning Jade’s dubious theology, but primarily as a pastoral response to a vulnerable woman.

jade-goody-1Today the newspapers are full of reports that Jade Goody now has only months to live. She intends to ‘wed before she’s dead’ as the Star delicately puts it. Her cancer is now terminal and she is sorting out her affairs in order to provide for her two young sons.

When the report of my response to her 2007 remarks hit the news websites I had a quick look to see how people were commenting. I am not easily shocked, but I could hardly believe the cruel, nasty vindictiveness of some of what I read. One I remember clearly suggesting to Jade that she and the world would be better off if she was dead. Because of her apparent publicity seeking, she was deserving of no sympathy, no kindness and no respect.

Assuming the people who typed such bilious stuff at the time are human and have some degree of sensitivity, I wonder what they feel about their earlier remarks now.

Jade Goody did not have the best start in life. She escaped the poverty (understood in more than one sense) of her childhood and adolescence when, against the odds, she won Big Brother. I wonder if she was ready emotionally and psychologically for the onslaught on her life that this would now permit. She entered a different world – the focus of thousands of camera lenses and the subject matter for a million commentators whose job in life was to tear apart the life of anyone who dared to ‘succeed’ at anything. No doubt she also courted the attention, but that in itself doesn’t justify the abuse (born of jealousy?) directed at her.

This morning’s headlines made me want to scream. The same tabloids which make their money and garner their readership from repeated exposure of people like Jade Goody now make her dying into a spectator sport. The audience can sit there smugly pouring judgement on her and attempting a mock ‘sympathy’ aimed only at selling more papers through celebrity grief. It seems we can now be encouraged to watch the change in her appearance and join in the soap opera of her demise – a sort of spectator sport that needs no justification. It stinks.

It seems sometimes that the tabloid editors are the new priesthood. They pour moral judgement on whichever victim takes their fancy, shredding their life and then moving on – all under the pretence that they are merely ‘reporting’ real life. They readily accuse politicians and clergy of hypocrisy, searching out the inconsistencies between word and action. Yet, these same people stand under nobody’s judgement, vulnerable to no charge of hypocrisy should their own private life contradict the judgemental preaching of their ‘news’paper. An untouchable priesthood behaves with reckless insensitivity, evokes all sorts of vile cruelty from the readership and then launches campaigns complaining about the nature of modern Britain with its crime, lack of respect and loss of moral compass. And the irony is lost on them.

Tabloid journalists have a tough task. They have to convey sometimes complex ideas or phenomena in short sentences with a limited vocabulary in a style that millions of people will read and absorb quickly. This is much harder (I suspect) than writing for the Times or Guardian where argument is expected and intelligence assumed. So, I admire those who manage this task and I offer no reproach for the skill they develop. My problem is with the editorial policies that drive the sort of ‘story’ they are required to follow.

Jade Goody has only months to live. I hope that Christians at the very least and others also will re-learn the power and value of kindness. One day her boys will grow up to read what has been written and said about their mother and we will wonder why they might grow up to be cynical or angry about the inhumanity they encounter.

I hope that people will pray for her and them. I hope people will consider what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of the sneering opprobrium targeted at Goody. I even dare to hope that people will consider what it would be like for their own children if they had – even by their own fault and invitation – been subjected to the public attention and shredding that has been levelled at Jade Goody.

Is there a chance that people might dare to be kind and generous?

I can’t believe what I have been reading in the newspapers today. The Times led on Obama’s inaugural speech, observing that it wasn’t his best. Apparently, he did not rise to the heights of rhetoric we have come to expect.

What sort of pompous irrelevant nonsense is this? I realise that journalists need to adopt observer status, but how detached do you have to be to think that judgement on the entertainment value of his speech is of the highest priority?

Obama faces some of the most difficult and testing crises of any US President in the last century and used his inaugural speech to issue a sobering reality check amid the euphoria surrounding his accession to power. He did the right thing in not winding people up with the inspiring cadences of rhetorical manipulation – had he done so, the same journalists would have criticised him for being triumphalistic or arrogant in the face of the challenges being faced by ordinary Americans and people around the world.

Obama got it right. He was sober and frank. He told people the situation is tough and will be both demanding and costly. He showed resolution and commitment. But he forced people to be realistic and to leave behind the fantasies that have driven the generalities propogated by his predecessor. The times are tough and the situation serious; this demanded a serious and measured initial statement. And that is what Obama gave the world.

Times journalists can think what they want about his speech. They can even give him stars or marks out of ten, if it makes them feel better. But – frankly – who cares what they think when the guy in question is doing the business. It costs the critics nothing to write their judgements on the speech of a man who has just assumed the mantle of overwhelming responsibility. Why don’t the journalists consider the relative poverty of their pontifications and let us make our own minds up?

The world is in financial and economic recession. Israel continues its violence against Gaza – to what possible end? Mugabe continues to disregard the world’s horror at his corruption and scorn for his people. Climate change cannot be ignored. There is a lot going on and everywhere I go people are asking hard questions about the future.

I was in a church in Croydon this morning and tried to bring together the insecurities of the real world into which ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ and the one we inhabit. Wise men travelled to find what God’s own people missed and, at what we call Epiphany, allowed the light of a star to shine into the darkness of oppression, violence, paranoia and mendacity. (Read Matthew 2:1-12) We don’t know what 2009 will hold, but we do know there will have to be changes not only in the ways we live and the choices we make, but also in the values that drive us. The ‘blind growth’ view of economics is being weighed in the balance. And people feel very insecure about themselves, their ‘normality’ and the future of the world itself.

So, it might be timely to recall that Christian hope is rooted not in a system or a prognosis, but in a person. The God who came among us in Jesus of Nazareth is one who is unashamed to live with vulnerability and insecurity (a baby born in an obscure part of the Roman-occupied Middle East) and is unafraid to show the wounds of real life when the risen Christ holds up wounded hands and invites the world to touch them. This God is one who has refused to let the violence, destruction and death of the world have the final word – God has the final word and it sounds like ‘resurrection’.

This sober rumination has just reminded me of the great Beautiful South song that exposes:

A plastic world and we’re all plastic too
Just a couple of different faces in a dead man’s queue
The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do
You’re trying to walk like giants but you’re wearing Pluto’s shoes

And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb
The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun
With Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.

Epiphany whispers light into a dark world and invites us to look for the God of substance beneath the veneers of security we crave.

This certainly puts into perspective matters such as the future of the Anglican Communion and those internal churchy matters which seem to fill some people’s lives and internet preoccupations. Having blogged the entire two weeks back in July/August 2008, I have just written a review of the Lambeth Conference six months on and it will appear on the Fulcrum website in the next couple of days. I will provide the link when I know what it is. But it all needs to be kept in sharp perspective as the sideshow it is to the real stuff of the Kingdom of God.

Having launched a broadside against Polly Toynbee’s unintelligent rant in last weeks’s Guardian, I now read Matthew Parris’s unlikely article about the Afrcian challenge to his own atheism in today’s Times (www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece).

Any chance of a debate between the two of them?