1. Kenny Ball died today. We got our first stereo before I was a teenager. One of the first records we got was a Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen album. I was just starting to play the trumpet and the two I tried to imitate (I failed) were Louis Armstrong and Kenny Ball. His jazz was fun and the you could never get bored with the songs. I eventually played in a couple of jazz groups as a teenager – I was rubbish, but I never lost the love of trad jazz.

2. Hugo Chavez is to be embalmed and put on display. I just think there is something weird about this. Is it a corporate inability to comprehend the finality of death? Or something more ghoulish? One of my great regrets is that I never got the chance (I wasn't allowed) to visit the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square – I worked professionally as a Russian linguist and was intrigued by Soviet history. But, it was to glimpse mortality and to note how fragile even the most powerful human beings are: Lenin stuffed. Chavez deserves better.

3. The programme for the 19th Bradford International Film Festival has been published. It looks brilliant. Running from 11-21 April, it makes Cannes look lightweight. Bradford is a very surprising place. Not all about curry and the relics of a textile industry, but inspiring people with cultural vision.

4. The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have arrived in Rome for the conclave that will conclude with the presentation of the new pope. Not a role many people would covet, surely? The rumours around and charges levelled at the church in the wake of Cardinal O'Brien's resignation and the unending abuse scandals must make being the top man something you would only wish on someone you didn't like. It will take remarkable courage, intellect and integrity to argue confidently for the credibility of both church and faith – but it might also commend a refreshed humility, rooted in a theology that speaks less of authority and more of mutuality.

5. The Psalmists of the Old Testament constantly bemoan the fact that the wicked always seem to prosper while the just simply suffer. Then the prophets decry a society in which justice can be bought and the poor be trampled in the dirt – and all this be seen as 'normal' or 'acceptable'. And then comes Silvio Berlusconi.

Good grief…


Every now and then (about twice a day) I think about giving up blogging. I think it is the enormity of it all and the capacity to get it wrong or say silly things that then stick with you for ever. I sometimes wonder if it is worth all the effort.

But then something comes along that gives new energy and renewed vision: the Pope tells us to do it. The Telegraph reports the Pope’s latest message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications on Saturday and quotes him as saying:

Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audio-visual resources – images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites – which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelisation and catechesis.

Church Mouse picks up on this and comments:

…the Catholic Church seems to be getting the web and new media in a way that the Anglican Church hasn’t yet, and in his speech yesterday, the Pope was spot on.  You can engage with the Pope on Facebook, on your iPhone and the Vatican has a pretty natty website.

Oh dear. Several points to bear in mind once you have read the message itself through the link above:

1. The Pope didn’t actually write his message; I’ve got a shrewd idea who did and he works in the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. So, all the ‘he’s 82 and he can manage it, so why can’t we?’ stuff is a bit off the wall.

2. The Church of England is accessible on phones and web – that’s how I access its stuff most of the time. No, we don’t have the variety or range of access that the Vatican has, but neither do we have the cash to do it. (And, though this is screamingly obvious, the Vatican heads a multilingual but monolithic worldwide Communion – the Anglican Communion has a different (provincial) ecclesiology and a different approach to resourcing its work.)

But, the real point it this: naive (but understandable) appreciation of the Vatican’s operation ignores some pretty significant features which I reported on directly from Rome back in September 2009. (Go to the link and then read back for a few days to get the full picture.)

Vatican Radio (for example) has a budget of 23 million Euros: no one could tell us who set the budget, according to which criteria it was agreed and where it ultimately came from. The total communications budget for the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, but try getting that sort of operation through a General Synod containing (lay) people with views on accountability…

Secondly, what came out of our discussions in Rome was that however flash and wonderful the Vatican’s webby stuff might look, it is a one-way operation. The Church propagates, tells, informs and instructs: it does not need to discuss or debate. Indeed, when I specifically asked about the impact of ‘social engagement using new media’ – that is to say, how such engagement changes the relationship and sometimes means that the interlocutors change their mind as they learn to see from a different perspective – I was told that this is a way of getting people to then join a real community ‘where we can tell them the truth’.

Now, I am not criticising the Vatican for this approach. It is entirely consistent with its understanding of itself as a church (or, more precisely, the Church). It puts on a good show when it comes to communication, but that communication is intended to be one-way only. This became clear at a meeting at the Salesian University back in September which exposed a gap between the aspiration and the reality of Vatican communications.

Look at the wonderful Pope2you site aimed at young people, for example. I have just had a quick look at it and noticed a significant difference from when it was introduced to us in Rome: Wikicath has gone. The single defining characteristic of a ‘wiki’ is that it can be amended, edited, supplemented etc in ‘democratic’ fashion. You couldn’t do that with Wikicath – and now it seems to have disappeared.

I thought the whole point of new media was that it allowed for conversation, engagement and mutual learning. That is, basically, why I started blogging – and I have learned a lot in just over a year.

But, if we are going to romanticise the Vatican’s very impressive and hugely resourced operation, then we must first recognise the theology and ecclesiology that dictate its missiology and communications principles. Secondly, if we are going to compare this with the Church of England (or, even, the Anglican Communion), we have to ask who will provide the financial resources, who will set the priorities, who will dictate the boundaries of engagement and what will be the fundamental purpose of it all.

Incidentally, the connection between communications, Gospel and world is rooted in the priests. When reading such messages as the Pope’s latest, ask if lay people have any role other than to learn ‘the truth’ from the priests – who are the ones who really matter. The Anglican way?

I’ll probably keep blogging – for a while at least.

There is an interesting report in Ecumenical News International about Reformation Day celebrations in Wittenberg – where Martin Luther set in motion what became known as the Reformation. It shines an interesting light on the Pope’s recent venture into disaffected Anglicanism.

Cardinal Walter KasperCardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, joined other Christian leaders at a tree-planting ceremony ahead of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. He said:

It is possible for us today to together learn from Martin Luther… This newly planted tree reminds us that Martin Luther’s call for reform in the Church was a call of penitence that also affects us today.

Cardinal Kasper went on to say that he hoped the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be marked jointly by Catholics and Protestants. The 16th-century events,

divided our people and divided the Church… It is a day we hold in common and for which we have a joint responsibility… Now again that which belongs together grows together.

Read the whole report and read in what you will.

Today brought me from Rome to Blackburn via Croydon and emergency root canal treatment by my wonderful dentist. The travel also afforded me the space to think about the communications conference in Rome that ended last night. The last few days demonstrated to me again what a gift the Diocesan Communications people are to the Church: committed, creative, professional and open to learn. Some are compelled to reactive roles (firefighting – ‘naughty vicar’ stories, etc) when they should be given the space to be proactive in telling the good stories of God and the Church.

Rome september 2009 023The last few days in Rome have seen them engage with intelligence, curiosity and professional articulacy in meetings, debates, discussions and conversations with a variety of varied and various people. Whether with media professionals, professional academics, clergy or church communicators, they have made the most of every encounter and the conference proved to be excellent in every respect. It also raised serious questions which will need to be taken forward now we are back in Blighty.

At the department of Social Communications at the Salesian University yesterday, I asked a question that goes to the heart of the matter for us in Rome and at home. It went something like this:

Any genuine encounter between two parties must leave open the possibility that each might be changed by it or by the other. The dynamic has to be two-way. The same must surely be true of our theology – it shapes our experience, but must also be subject to re-shaping by our experience. How, then, does a ‘controlling’ and dogmatic church (such as that of the Vatican) engage in genuine discussion and conversation if it sees the media simply as a one-way vehicle for conveying the truth to the world?

The ensuing conversation was very interesting. The media, we were told, are not simply to be exploited by the Church, but should enable the Church to listen, understand and then respond to the world outside. Not just ‘talking at’, but ‘listening to’. And that is why the Dean of the Faculty described communication as ‘an act of love’.

Via a discussion of communication as conversation, it was noted that:

  • communication cannot be a separate (or free-standing) discipline, but must be the lens through which everything else is seen
  • there has been a massive shift in society from ‘mass media’ to ‘individual media’ – the shared and common experience of watching a TV soap opera (for example) giving way to isolated interaction with media via the individual’s computer screen
  • the need to grow media-competent young people in order that they can grow up as persons of integrity, able to critically analyse media and negotiate the world they are in
  • the need for clergy to be ‘animateurs’ and not just catechists
  • the need for the Church to forge the connection between media -competence and good citizenship
  • the need for the Church to listen to/for the voice of God in and through the world to which it pays attention.

These weren’t the only questions – and it would take too long to expound them all any further. But we did discover the frustration produced by trainee priests who engage in ‘conversation’ with culture and theology generally, but, when it comes to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) simply say that ‘conversation’ doesn’t apply here because here we have ‘revelation’. Now, that rings a lot of bells. So, they will engage openly with everything else, but then close down the shutters when it comes to the Bible. This is the sort of impenetrable self-protection that emits a ‘don’t-blame-me-it’s-what-the-Bible-says’ disclaimer that releases the fearful from having to think.

Yet this was pointed out to us a number of times in relation to the Church’s understanding and exploitation of communication media: they exist to enable us to propagate our message. So, the Vatican website tells you stuff, but you can’t interact with it. The youth-oriented www.pope2you.net has a section called ‘Wikicath’ – but it isn’t a wiki bacause it can’t be fiddled with in any way.

Of course, none of this is unique to the Vatican. Similar questions need to be directed at the Church of England as well: just how do we understand the dynamic of our own communications functions? What is actually going on in our world? And is the messiness of the Anglican Communion precisely what happens if a Church takes the same risks Jesus did and gives the Gospel away to people who might twist, distort, half-remember or mis-remember what he was trying to tell them about himself, God, the world or us? Can the good news of Jesus Christ really be controlled by a Church institution without it being fossilised into a tool for the preservation of that institution and the elite who are served by it?

Or, to put it more provocatively, is the messiness of the Anglican Communion evidence of genuine risk-taking Christianity – compared with the controlled didacticism of a Church that cannot let go for fear of what might happen if the Gospel got out?

Change the names of the denominations, if you wish. But the questions won’t go away.

Rome 5 002This morning the conference group in Rome went to visit the SAT2000 media centre. Set up by the Bishops Conference (and paid and controlled by them), this company makes, broadcasts and distributes television and radio programmes across Italy. Now, this sort of outfit would normally get my hackles rising: paid for and controlled (in terms of agenda and direction) by the Roman Catholic Church does not sound to me like a recipe for independence and rational analysis of the world. But, that prejudice needs to be examined.

We questioned the controllers and presenters in some detail and they were open, frank and helpful in their engagement with us. The big question for British communications people is around how a religious establishment with a particular profile can have the credibility to speak to a sceptical world that doesn’t share its beliefs or assumptions. There is a common view that it is surely impossible – that only secularist assumptions or convictions about the world can be credible or independent (or even rational). This, of course, is twaddle of the first order.

SAT2000 is confident about the worldview it assumes and represents: that God is there; that God has created us to love and be loved; that deviation from the Creator’s way leads only to problems; and that those who hold to a Christian world view have something not only unique (in a descriptive sense) but also vital for all human beings. They then look at the world through this lens. This leads them to produce analyses of news, of news output across the media, of moral/ethical issues as they impact on public policy, and of cultural phenomena such as theatre, film, etc. In other words, no sphere of life is excluded from such a perspective and a religious media is not (stupidly) condemned only to address directly ‘religious’ affairs.

Rome 5 005This is because the business of any church is not primarily the church, but the world the church is called to serve. I think it was the great german preacher and theologian, Helmut Thielicke, who asked God to preserve the church and the world from ‘stupid Christian philistines’. The church’s agenda is the world in which we live and which we shape together.

So, SAT2000 produces radio and TV programmes that open up discussion and debate, bringing a unique critique to the world’s business and inviting audiences to question the assumptions they themselves bring to the analyses of the world that shape their thinking and critique.

This is good. I  might not agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s line on particular issues and I might not like the line propagated in some programming. But I like even less the aggressively arrogant secularist assumptions that a Christian (or, rather, theistic) world view is invalid whereas one that starts from a different (but not argued for) place is – rather conveniently – the only legitimate one. Surely we should be big enough to let people bring their perspectives to the table and then let them stand or fall in the market place of public scrutiny? To fear this is to doubt that our view will stand if scrutinised closely (described by someone today as ‘given a rigorous scrute’).

But I also discovered today that the word for a ‘remote control’ in Italian is ‘telecomando’. And I thought this sounded like someone who attacks people with a telly. Which reminded me of Richard Dawkins and the wonderful condensed parody of his new book The Greatest Show on Earth. A weird link, I know; but not half as weird as some of the links Dawkins makes.

Anyway, I had time to think about this while running round central Rome looking for Jane Bower’s (Director of Communications for Wakefield Diocese) lost passport. She’d left it in the church we were in earlier. It was still there. We were pleased. Sweaty, but pleased. Here she is:

Rome 5 006

Rome 3 013It was only a few years ago that I discovered the existence of a UK Ambassador to the Holy See. I hadn’t fully understood that the Vatican City was an independent state or that over 170 countries have ambassadors here. I think, like many of the group I am with, we had little understanding of why we have an ambassador here or what such a person might actually do.

Last night the current incumbent of the office, Francis Campbell, explained what the job involves and how the Vatican works. He had invited us to the rooftop of his Palazzo almost next door to Berlusconi’s little pad, the Quirinale. We were generously entertained and spent some time just staring at what the former Austrian Ambassador (who also happened to be there with his wife) said was the best view in the whole of Rome. Eventually we went downstairs and discussed just how the diplomats engage with the Vatican and other ambassadors.

Rome 3 012The benefit of an overview is that you cut out the unnecessary detail and go to the heart of the matter. Francis explained that the Holy See can be seen in two ways: as China or San Marino. The total population of Roman Catholics in the world accounts for around 20% of the world’s population (I think). So, this is a tiny city state with a huge reach and massive influence. yet it is still a tiny state covering only 1 square kilometre.

It is, therefore, vital that governments such as ours engage fully with such a state for the sake of the interests of the world. We discussed the Millennium Development Goals, climate change and other matters of political, economic and cultural importance. What became clear is the interdependence of the different states in working together to maximise influence in order to mobilise the strong in the interests of the weak (and everybody else).

Rome 3 011Look out over Rome and you see thousands of years of history. Times come and go – so do the characters, the scandals, the triumphs and the transient powers. So, it is incumbent on contemporary powers to do their bit with integrity, change the world where we can, but always keep it in perspective. One day groups may be looking out over our city and wondering at why we chose what we chose and did what we did.

Cliches weren’t invented in a day either. Like the elephant in the room, they usually take some time before they become embarrassing and merit the epithet of ‘cliche’. That Rome wasn’t built in a day, however, is evident after only a few hours in the place.

Rome 1 002I have never been to Rome before now. I am only here now because I am at a conference beginning on Sunday evening and thought it would be worth coming a couple of days early and doing some sightseeing before the work begins. And the conference will be work as it is focused on Continuing Professional Development for communications professionals in the church and involves a series of meetings which, in this heat, promise to be exhausting.

We met a friend yesterday evening and he took us for dinner in the Vatican behind St Peter’s. Everywhere you look history bears down on you. The Romans left their marks and every generation since them has made their presence known for future generations. It clearly never occurred to previous generations that something had value simply because it was ‘old’. The useless or the symbolically inappropriate simple made way for something more useful.

Rome 1 008So, now you see modern apartment blocks nestling next to huge 500 year old churches. The impression of my first view of Rome is simply that you can trace history in everything your eyes light upon. And that massive and powerful symbol of continuity and spiritual power (for good and ill) sits looking down on a city of amazing vibrancy, diversity and history.

Rome 1 004In England – and especially in our ‘old’ churches – history ended a hundred years ago. Try changing something in one of our churches in order to fit the building for worship and service in the modern world and the amenity societies come running out demanding that we retain them as museums. Surely a church ought to reflect in its physical changes the changes in the generations that have used it? But try telling that to some of the guardians of our ‘heritage’ who loathe any change and try to prevent anyone from interfering with their ‘wonderful example of such-and-such an Edwardian, Victorian/Georgian architect’s work’.

The parish where I was vicar for eight years had everything: Saxon foundations and a Saxon cross, mediaeval rood screen, Elizabethan monuments, a Victorian chancel, early 20th century pews, a late-20th century dais … and we drank out of an Elizabethan chalice. That sense of continuity with previous generations was really powerful.

I understand the need not to vandalise precious buildings, but sometimes it gets out of hand. Rome obviously wasn’t built in a day and nor were our own English churches. But Rome betrays the changes of the centuries and so should our English churches.