I haven't been writing much recently. Too many other things going on (or not going on, as it were) and not much to say.

The Pilling Report needs more thought and the House of Bishops meets next week for a first discussion of it. So, silence isn't a bad policy before then – even if I am reading other people's views and weighing them up.

Our educational standing has caused loads of polemical analysis. I am not inclined to join in when I haven't got time to say anything useful.

Then, last week someone on Twitter asked if my blog is just a 'vanity project' as I am always telling where I have been or whom I have met (like in the Chris Evans studio a couple of weeks ago). Well, er, yes, I guess it is. A blog is by definition an online journal and I use it as a record of things I might otherwise forget.

Anyway, to continue the theme: today I received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford for my contribution to the university and the city. It is a real honour to be considered for this as I have only been back in Bradford for under three years and will have to leave after Easter when my post comes to an end. I owe the university a huge debt: my time studying German and French here between 1976-80 opened my eyes to a bigger world, challenged my world view, stirred my curiosity about language, shaped my mind to an interest in and understanding of German politics and culture, grew my confidence, and in so doing fulfilled the fundamental purpose of a university.

I am grateful.

 

Last Monday I left home early and drove through the most beautiful countryside up to the north of my diocese. The Yorkshire Dales are gorgeous anyway, but add in a massive dollop of snow blizzards, high winds and freezing temperatures, and you get a bit of a taste of wild life. I was there two days, visiting clergy and parishes, dropping into village schools, chatting with colleagues and loving the views (when you could see them). I remarked to a friend that, unlike in London (where I spent the last eleven years), here the weather is real: real driving sleet, real snow, real winds – the sort of weather that makes you realise you’re alive.

Well, I hesitate a little before loving this too much: Scotland is enduring enormous storms today. I was at Bradford University with my wife for a graduation ceremony and even inside the building we were aware of the hammering rain outside… when it began to drip through a light fitting on the stage inside.

And if the weather isn’t enough, Angela Merkel has begun the Euro-Summit with the claim that the euro has ‘lost credibility’. European leaders are aiming their weapons at David Cameron – who faces pressure from inside his own party as well. Trying to hold some middle ground might not be possible when the high winds start blowing across the small island we call home.

All this paints an inauspicious picture for those graduating from the university today. Many of them now have degrees in subjects I never knew existed. But, sitting in the Great Hall for the first time since I graduated from this same place thirty one years ago, the names of some of the degrees summed up the insecurity of the world in which we now live: lots to do with security, international justice, criminology, conflict resolution, etc. Many of the graduands came from parts of the world where conflict was real and not just the notional theme of some academic study.

This is not the best time to be emerging from the academy and looking for work. But, it will certainly stretch the creative ingenuity of those who want to make things happen.

This wild world comes together with the world of the church (believe it or not). The parishes I visited in the Yorkshire Dales this week are communities of real people who live, work and move in a world of transience, mortality and insecurity. Anyone close to the land cannot be a stranger to the contingency of living in a changing world. They can’t hide in the bubbles of imaginary security that can so easily be created in the glass towers where numbers on a screen cease to relate to anything real. I once argued with an economist that money doesn’t exist – that it is simply a system of values set in ratios agreed by some arbitrary conventions for mutual benefit; he thought this was a bit naive (and it might be). But, as we have seen in the last three years, economies that appeared sound simply collapsed like a deck of cards. Empires that appear invincible simply melt under pressure. Nothing stands still – and we forget our mortality at our peril.

I am dead proud of the clergy I met who get stuck in to their communities, often against the odds and with limited resources, sometimes with little confidence and too little reward. But they stay in the heart of communities, available to all, a visible reminder (with their congregations and church buildings) of that prophetic Christian refusal to go away – committed to accompanying people through their living and dying, enjoying and losing, celebrating and weeping. Like God at Christmas, they embody that gift that is freely offered, that looks vulnerable and sometimes weak, that opts into the real world, that names reality and embarrasses fantasy, and that cries hope for a future when the present seems to be closing wildly in.

Life in Bradford is very full on and there is little time at the moment for blogging. But, one of the things I did a couple of days ago was welcome several chaplains to the University of Bradford. I licensed two Anglican ones, but the short welcome ceremony, led by the Vice Chancellor, also included a Muslim and a Quaker. It was a good ‘do’ and it was preceded by a personal re-introduction to the university where I did my first degree.

During the brief ceremony, the Vice Chancellor and I were asked to speak. I spoke about the university as a place for intellectual inquiry, rigorous exploration of the world views of others and the sort of ‘sorting out’ of the commitments deriving from our world views that a university provides the space to encourage. I also had a go at the myth of neutrality – that there is a level of opinion or discourse which is assumed to be neutral and, therefore, suitable for dominating the public discourse – and questioned the thinking behind this. My point was that chaplaincy is not simply about being available to accompany people through their spiritual (or other) crises or experiences, but is also about contributing (encouraging) the sort of intellectual discussion that compels people to look at the world through their own ‘world view lens behind the eyes’ and subject their own faith to scrutiny. Faith that doesn’t ‘work’ in the real world is not a faith worth having.

Contrast this, then, with the pile of nonsense written by very highly paid commentators following Rowan Williams’s guest editorial of the New Statesman. I am behind the game now, but the matter (not just the content of what he said) still raises questions worth articulating.

Several commentators tell the Archbishop that he has no right to comment on this (or, presumably, anything else. In the Sunday Times Minette Marin tells him to ‘go’. She would, wouldn’t she. But her thinking (if that is what it it; it seems to arise from a rather uncritical lack of thinking) appears rooted in the assumption that the Archbishop’s views are delegitimised by virtue of his office or role. What on earth does she think an archbishop’s role is? And does she seriously believe that his views should be dismissed – not on the basis of what they are and whether or not they hold water – simply because he shouldn’t have any?

Marin often assumes that she occupies neutral space along with others whom she assumes share her neutral views of the world. This isn’t only arrogant, it is nonsense. Is her assumed view to be privileged above that of someone who knows at first hand what he is talking about? Are Christian leaders living in a fantasy land of remote abstraction, confused by the luxury of their guarded palaces and enormous salaries? When commentators like this get upset by someone like Rowan arguing for a set of questions to get raised, I think he’s probably hit the mark. People like the idea of prophets, but hate the reality.

It is unbelievable that this degree of uncritically assumed ignorance should be rewarded with a huge salary – something the Archbishop is criticised for by Carol Malone of the News of the World – an organ famed for its serious analysis of current political, social and economic thinking. (For those unsure, that last statement is ironic.) Victoria Coren has demolished Malone’s case and doesn’t need further help from people like me. However, I will admit to having a prejudice here. When I was ‘stung’ on Christmas carols being ‘nonsense’ a couple of years ago, I did the Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV. Malone and Ken Livingstone were on the set with me for this item. Ken Livingstone was fine. Carol Malone went for me big time – which was fine and was her job. I asked her if she had seen the book, let alone read it, or if her entire case was based on a Sunday Telegraph headline. Suffice to say, she hadn’t seen the book and hadn’t read a sentence from it.

I have no idea how huge the salaries of these commentators is. But, if I was their editor, I think I might be asking for a refund. Argue with what the Archbishop says, by all means – that’s important. Understand the status and context of his observations (guest editorial in a magazine in which other invited writers don’t necessarily agree with him). Explore where his views have come from and why they might be fundamentally wrong. But, please don’t assume that he has no right to say anything anywhere other than the privatised sphere of the religiously backward or that a case can be dismissed simply because he has made it.

The privatisation of religion is a nonsense stated by people who assume their own ‘neutrality’ to be self-evidently true (hardly a rational position). Neutrality is a myth and a distraction that offers an excuse for not addressing the arguments.

 

… isn’t what it sounds like.

Last night we went into London to meet old friends from university days. It was the thirtieth anniversray of my graduation and a few of us from the University of Bradford Modern Languages department got together for a curry. We got plates and forks and serviettes – which is totally different from what we used to get in the great Bradford curry houses of our youth. But, then again, we are older and more sophisticated now…

What was surprising was how everyone was still recognisable after all these years. Voices and mannerisms are the same. Haircuts have changed – or, in my case, disappeared. But it was funny to realise that the people I thought were über-confident at university were actually wracked with the same insecurities as me. People I thought were the life and soul of the student party also experienced loneliness and all the other stuff that makes us human.

What was really nice, though, was coming away thinking what nice and interesting people they are and how the evening was simply too short to catch up on thirty years.

What was funny was the reminiscences and memories, particularly of times spent working in industry in various parts of Germany and France. And that’s where the title comes in. While I was languishing in isolation and depression in one part of Germany (and, later, Paris), they all seem to have been meeting up and living it up in Munich. I can’t remember now what the story was about dancing in Dachau ( a suburb of Munich) – other than that it would make a great title for a novel – but it was great fun catching up and re-living the past.

While they were dancing in Dachau, I think I was probably reading a book and feeling miserable in Schwäbisch Gmünd. They got the better deal, I think.