Saturday, May 31, 2008


Reaction to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's comments continues. Thinking Anglicans does its usual reliable job in providing an ongoing round-up. The response includes a sympathetic profile by Riazat Butt, a cartoon from Dave Walker for the Church Times, and a lead on my Guardian article in Episcopal Cafe ('Should the Church have special status?'). By the way, I did not choose the headline Blinkered bishop, and would wish that the disagreement could be conducted without calling names.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Surely bemoaning that society does not pay sufficient attention to church leaders and fails to implement their preferred policies or treat their ethics with respect misses the point - which is that it is the church's job to nurture disciples who might lead people to suspect that the Gospel offers something rather more significant than consolation to an in-group and a stiff telling off to everyone else? Aside from my concerns about the dangerously reactionary implications of 'Christian nation' rhetoric, that is my main theological objection to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's attempt to shake us back into restoring the civic religious mould.

Blinkered bishop Simon Barrow Guardian Comment-is-Free May 30 08, 09:00am: Michael Nazir-Ali has the wrong target. Rather than expecting the nation to be Christian for him, he should urge churches to practice what they preach.

118 Days: Christian Peacemaker Team Held Hostage in Iraq, edited by Tricia Gates Brown, is a new book that I have contributed a chapter to (on media reporting) with US Ekklesia consult Tim Nafziger. It is available in the UK through Metanoia Book Service. On November 26, 2005, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) members Tom Fox and Jim Loney along with delegation members Norman Kember and Harmeet Sooden were kidnapped in Iraq. Tom Fox was killed on March 9, 2006. Jim, Norman and Harmeet were freed two weeks later on March 23 after 118 days of captivity. The kidnapping of these four peacemakers was like a rock thrown into a pond. This collection describes the ripples on the water, the impact and results of that rock, in stories characterized by hope, courage, friendship, and forgiveness. 118 Days bears witness to vital peacemaking being done around the world in these times. Available from 5 June 2008. See also

I am speaking at a policy discussion on 'Renewing the Vision' in Exeter on 7 June, 2pm - with Ben Bradshaw MP, theologian Professor Tim Gorringe from the University of Exeter and Sue Errington from the Global Centre. It is organised by the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM). Further details:

The Guardian 's Comment-is-Free has carried a thoughtful response from Inayat Bunglawala (pictured) of the Muslim Council of Britain to Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's Standpoint article on the disintegration of 'Christian Britain' -- which is now available online here incidentally. (And I mention that not just because Inayat has been kind enough to quote me approvingly.) There's also a trenchant editorial calling on Rowan Williams to speak out in the The Guardian today.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


I have a new column up for the Wardman Wire Thinking Aloud series, examining some background to the recent Channel 4 TV 'Dispatches' programme - which looks at the views and tactics of extreme Christian groups in Britain. See: A fundamental problem?

Bishop Michael Nazir Ali - who is all over the media this morning - seems to have become spokesperson-in-chief for a Christendom vision of society. His main article appears in a new monthly called Standpoint. I fear that it is an essentially backward looking approach, and will succeed mainly in alienating more people from Christianity, ironically. There's an overview here, and I have made my own brief comment on behalf of Ekklesia, as follows: "It is misguided to try to defend the myth of a ‘Christian nation’ rather than looking at how Christianity has often historically lost its way by becoming a cosy part of a withering social, political and cultural order.

“There are indeed serious issues about moral cohesion in modern, plural societies. But diversity and disagreement cannot be wished away, and a vision of social justice and responsibility will not be created by lecturing people, seeking to restore Christian privilege, portraying Islam as the new threat, or bemoaning the loss of a monoculture."

"The churches need to be seen as small-scale communities of positive hope, not wounded dinosaurs complaining that people do not take them seriously any more and that the country is going to the dogs.”

When I worked for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland I sat alongside Bishop Michael on a theological commission for a couple of years. I also interviewed him not long after he came here from Pakistan to take up the general secretaryship of CMS. I've always had high personal regard for him, but I confess that I'm surprised and disappointed by how far he seems to have lurched to the right in recent months and years. His views always used to be on the conservative side, but thoughtfully so. Since the Canterbury debacle, however, he appears to have been increasingly marooned, and the outcome is not a happy one, unless you share a rather paranoid Daily Mail view of the world.

I have written more about this for The Guardian's Comment-is-Free. My piece should appear between 9-10am tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Here's a revised and re-published version of the reflection I referred to on 18 May: Hearing hope through the babble. Ekklesia, 27 May 08. Globalisation constructed as top-down control and the triumph of the powerful needs to be disrupted by a different and gentler logic, says Simon Barrow. But will we choose Pentecost or Babel?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


"Myth does not mean something untrue, but a concentration of truth."

"If you travel with us, you will have to learn things you do not want to learn, in ways you do not want to learn them."

"I'm always astounded at the way we automatically look at what divides and separates us. We never look at what people have in common ... this is a disease of the mind, the way I see it."

"All kinds of thing go on in life that are not permitted in our philosophies."

"That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way."

"What matters most is that we learn from living." -- Doris Lessing.

"These signs we call sacraments say to us that the power of the Holy is available to us not by way of magical rites but through the natural channels along which our energy flows for daily living; profound truths mediated through everyday deeds - taking, breaking, eating, drinking, washing and spilling." (Colin M. Morris)

Monday, May 26, 2008


Here's a very good article by Stephen Heap, who coordinates chaplaincy services at the University of Bedfordshire, on how we negotiate uneven and sometimes deeply antagonistic base-level convictions in a plural society. The answer, he suggests, is to create the space to face one another, rather than to try to write 'the other' out of the script. The term he uses for this, with an awareness of its richness which is wholly lacking among many who merely use it as an anti-religious slogan (including some respondents to this article), is 'secular' -- which, as he points out, "does not mean a space where there are no claims to absolutes, but one where together we learn to face the undoubtedly real and disturbing conflicts our opposing claims create."

"It means a level of public discourse in which truth and truth claims are dealt with without ridicule but with a deep acknowledgment that we disagree, at times profoundly so, and yet somehow have to survive together on the same plot of land. Creating such properly secular spaces is a major challenge to which we must rise if our conflicting allegiances are not to tear us apart."

This is no woolly liberalism, though. Heap gives some concrete examples of ways in which Christians and others may find themselves strongly at odds with the social or legal consensus on issues like war and civil rights. The idea that religious convictions must always be discounted or subsumed to the interests of the state is as dangerous and unhelpful (to all concerned) as the idea that they can or should claim dominance or special privileges. Rightly handled, our disagreements keep us moving forward together. Wrongly handled, there is hell to pay.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


A stand-out exchange (rendered from memory) in the moving Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which received its UK network premier on Channel 4 this evening.

Record company executive: “Listen, your audience are Christians. They don’t want to see you dressed in black and hear you singing for criminals, pimps, rapists and thieves in prison, trying to cheer them up.”

Cash: “They ’aint Christians, then.”

Friday, May 23, 2008


The World Council of Churches' communications staff have put Desmond Tutu's recent speech to staff on the occasion of the anniversaries of the WCC and the World Health Organisation (WHO) online as a podcast. It is also embedded in this Ecumenical News International story. Hat-tip to Jane Stranz.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom."

"Precisely because resignation is antecedent, faith is no aesthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart, but the paradox of existence."

(Søren Kierkegaard)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


"I know a great deal more about the world today than I ever did in government" -- former British prime minister John Major, illustrating why an over-slavish devotion to the realpolitik of high office may not always be as wise as it seems to those schooled in power.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


"Google [has been] coming under fire for operating a version of its search engine that complies with China's censorship rules. Google argues that it's better for it to have a presence in the country and to offer people some information, rather than for it not to be active in China at all... [S]hareholders and rights groups including Amnesty International... continue to push Google to improve its policies in countries known for human rights abuses and limits on freedom of speech... Sergey Brin, cofounder and president of technology for Google, abstained from voting on either of the proposals. 'I agreed with the spirit of these proposals,' Brin said. But he said he didn't fully support them as they were written, and so did not want to vote for them." More here, courtsey of NewsCloud.

Monday, May 19, 2008


"Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations." -- Rollo May

"The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." -- John 3. 8

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Well, Trinity Sunday is upon us. I was thinking I'd be preaching at St Stephen's again. My offering last year, Three Ways to Make Sense of One God, is up on Ekklesia. But due to a bit of a communications confusion, that privilege has now fallen to Bob Burn, and I have been freed to sneak off to Wembley and, um, wave my arms around.

Talking of which (dubious link, this) I have shamefully omitted to offer any reflections on Pentecost this year. I see that some biblical studies I delivered at an ecumenical conference in 2002 are still up on the web, the first of which is entitled, Other Languages: The global connectivity of the Spirit. Here's an excerpt:

"[Some] clues about .. very different ‘global futures’ leap out at us from the old politics of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and the new economy of the Holy Spirit made visible in its unexpected nemesis, the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2.

"First Babel: ‘And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them…’ (NRSV). And, so the story goes, God confounded the designs of those who wished to rule everything through the architecture of power and its corollary, a universal scientific language. ‘Come, let us go down and confuse their speech there, so that they will not understand one another.

"Of course this mythic reversal has its price. Confusion and dispersal leads to continued division and enmity among peoples, as we know from the promise/judgement dynamic of the Hebrew Scriptures. So what does the typology of Pentecost generate by way of an alternative? Well, contrary to what techno-logic might assume, its new solution is not a super-language, what post-modern philosophers now call a 'meta-narrative'. No, it is a proliferation of tongues once more – but this time with the extraordinary added gift of mutuality, communicability, the ability to live with and even ‘in’ each other’s speech worlds: ‘they began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’

"At Pentecost the outcome of diversification is not hopeless confusion. Rather, with no diminution of difference, indeed a huge multiplication of it, the various peoples each have the wholly unexpected, fulfilling experience of hearing their own speech picked up, recognised and honoured by the stranger. ‘Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each’.

"This interplay of mutuality based on difference is immensely significant. According to the politics of worldly power difference needs to be contained and restrained. Allowing ‘other languages’ means risking ‘other meanings’. Translation is never exact because the patterns of thinking that accompany distinct speech forms are also different. For those who wish to centralise, to lord it over others, this is disastrous. If you would rule the world you must first rule its meanings. That is true whether you are an ardent secularist or a religious ideologue.

"Systems of domination [Walter Wink] say that only one speech is fully legitimate. Yours. Conflict becomes necessary to subdue the potential for linguistic and political chaos. With a bit of civility mixed in you might just achieve similar control via a contract (a legal arrangement) or a democratic settlement, of course. The assumption in this instance is that the meaning of the ‘acceptable’ rules is determined in the same ways as the meaning of language. Indeed rules are language, to a large extent. But instead of trust and relationship it is hegemony and enforcement that ‘call the shots’.

"Chaos, conflict, contract, control. That is perhaps all that difference can lead to when it is bereft of genuinely loving connectivity. In the taxonomy of the Holy Spirit, however, there is a new possibility abroad. Our differences need not cancel each other out. Instead they hold the potential to become part of that endless interplay of voluntary, proximate relationship we call communion. Freedom thus proves the condition for love (attention to the other, as to ourselves) and vice versa." Full text here.

[Pic: (c) Julees stained glass]

Saturday, May 17, 2008


"Today we are more wealthy and less happy. I don't really know why, but I think it is to do with the loss of optimism. We no longer believe that things can change... What we have seen is... the defeat of politics by shopping." -- Andrew Marr, talking about the post-war years, in relation to his A History of Modern Britain.

"All we ever want is more,
A lot more than we had before.
So take me to the nearest store." -- Shania Twain, Ker-Ching

Two thousand years ago, in Palestine, a rich young man, was invited by an itinerant preacher to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor and to seek the kingdom of heaven. He chose not to and we are told he 'went away sad, for he had many possessions'. So the burden of riches is not new. It is James’ contention that this 'sadness', fostered by rampant capitalism, is no longer the privilege of a few but can grip whole societies." -- Francis Philips on Oliver James' Affluenza.

Friday, May 16, 2008


"Try again. Fail again. Fail better." -- Samuel Beckett

A Christian charity which works with people with learning difficulties, as well as supporting church ministries, has today been found guilty of acting illegally when in 2004 it began recruiting only practising Christians for almost all posts, and told existing non-Christian staff that they were no longer eligible for promotion. A former employee, himself a Christian, resigned over the policy and claimed constructive dismissal. An Employment Tribunal in Abergele upheld his case unanimously. See my comment on behalf of Ekklesia: Faith bodies should end discriminatory practices.

This is not, it seems, an exceptional case. As a Christian, I would want church and para-church groups to behave with greater not less courtesy, justice and love than is commonly required. But the habit in some quarters is often to complain that "we" are hard done by, to promote discontent, and to seek to get around anti-discrimination requirements, rather than to exhibit the kind of positive transformation the Gospel is supposed to be about. It's very sad indeed.

Trawling through media comment and reportage on a regular basis can sometimes be a depressing experience. At times it feels like mainstream journalism has lost its primary interest in conveying what others are actually saying and meaning, and has become over embroiled in the 'rush to judgement'. My latest Wardman Wire 'Thinking Aloud' column is on The struggle to be truthful (in at least the minimal sense of that term), and as examples looks at how both the latest Religious Trends survey and an article by Rowan Williams on embryo research got covered by the papers.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


A comment supporting the new parliamentary human rights report, which argues strongly for children to be given the right to opt-out of acts of collective worship that are, astonishingly, still mandatory in publicly-funded schools here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


One of the abiding memories from my time at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland was a visit to China at the end of 2004, which I reported on here. The work done by Caroline Fielder, Edmond Tang and others in sustaining and developing church relations, encouraging exchange, supporting theological education and promoting China concerns and understanding - on very slender resources - is one of the greatly important but largely untold stories of recent ecumenical endeavour in these islands.

The response of Chinese churches and NGOs is noted briefly here. Caroline adds: "We are sure that you are all as horrified as we are to see the situation in Sichuan unfold. We have spoken [to or] been in contact with all the Amity teachers [we know]. Those in Gansu had some effects from the earthquake, those in Guangxi also but less severe; all are safe."

Humanitarian support is possible through the Protestant-backed Amity, and also through the Catholic Jinde charities. I don't propose to publish the bank account details on the web, but if you want to make a direct contribution (in US dollars or Chinese RMB ), drop me a note and I will pass them on to people I know or who provide credible contact details.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


This one passed me by at the time. But I see that back in January '08 there was an amusing little story doing the rounds claiming that a motion calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England has been listed in the British House of Commons as 666 (the number of the Beast in the book of Revelation). First picked up by Agence France and Yahoo News UK, it was further syndicated by the evangelical agency Assist, who helpfully noted that "Ekklesia, the UK Christian think tank, was the first body publicly to call for moves towards the formal disestablishment of the Church of England in the wake of the engagement of Prince Charles and Ms Camilla Parker-Bowles, announced in February, 2005" and that "Ekklesia associate Simon Barrow contributed to a recent volume of essays, Setting the Church of England Free (edited by Kenneth Leech, Jubilee Group) among whose authors was an Oxford Professor and other senior Anglicans, including the late Archbishop Trevor Huddleston (pictured)." The book actually appeared in 2002. There are still copies around, and we are endeavouring to liberate them from somebody's store in order to make them available through Metanoia.

Monday, May 12, 2008


"I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censure it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, and cowardice. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating, until it wounds my thigh with 'new-ancient' words. And the Holy Spirit is there the whole time, strengthening us both." - biblical scholar Walter Wink

Here's something I wrote on the Bible a few years ago - for a website thats now rolled into InclusiveChurch, by the way. Not so long ago, I recall my astonishment during a public meeting when a humanist friend made a comment about how easy it must be for Christians, "just having to do what their book tells them."

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said that he will "listen and lead" in the wake of the Labour Party's disastrous showing in the local elections last week, in the opinion polls generally, and in the London Mayoral contest. So I was intrigued to receive the following email in my inbox this morning: "Hi, simonbarrow. DowningStreet is now following your updates on Twitter. Check out DowningStreet's profile here:" And yes, it is the Number 10 crew, getting the word out via the latest micro-blogging sensation. I'd better get those 140 character policy suggestions flowing urgently, huh? Here's my first pitch. Judging from this recent pic, I think Gordon's impressed already...

"There is hope in honest error. None in the icy perfection of the mere stylist." -- Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Or as Snoopy once put it: "A mistake is evidence that somebody tried to do something." I also liked his, "The world can't end today, because it's already tomorrow in some countries."

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Writing in The Spectator (former editor: Boris Johnson), writer and fellow freelance theologian Theo Hobson meets Gene Robinson, the only openly gay Anglican bishop, who says that homosexuals are more open to the Christian message of radical change.

"His book, In the Eye of the Storm, is pinch-yourself bold in its association of homosexuality with authentic Christian faith. Being gay, he says, is his ‘little window into some of what it must be like to be a woman, or a person of colour, or a person in a wheelchair — and countless other categories the dominant culture has controlled, diminished and oppressed’. So being gay enables Christian empathy. No wonder I’ve always found it so tough," says Theo.

On the book, Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, writes: "‘This is Gene Robinson’s own story, told with simplicity and humility and revealing his passionate faith. He recounts how his experience has made him particularly close to vulnerable groups, such as the inmates of a women’s prison, and how we all need one another for our very salvation. This honest account will encourage anyone seriously committed to the message of Jesus, and shows him deeply committed within the Anglican Communion, even to those who vilify him."

Not least through the work of Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice, which has maintained a critical dialogue with radical Christian community campaigner Bob Holman and others (even at the Labour conference!), the Conservative Party seems to have moved on poverty issues - as Church Action on Poverty has acknowledged. However, we are entitled to ask what the policy substance is behind this. As Bob has pointed out, some of the much vaunted concern has been underwritten by a continuing legacy of paternalism and individualism. So the idea that David Cameron is a saviour of the poor whose party has gone progressive is a claim deserves further examination.

Take the "10p tax" issue, which the Tories hope will win them the Crewe by-election. David Cameron has remorselessly attacked Gordon Brown on this -- not because the Conservatives support a truly progressive income tax regime (their policies suggest otherwise), but as an issue of "competence". In other words, they are trying to persuade lower income people that "we're on your side"; but when challenged about re-introducing the 10p tax band, Cameron does not want to be drawn "on specifics". Of course. The gap between rhetoric and reality on this is bound to be large for the traditional party of organised wealth.

The estimable Kerron Cross, leader of Three Rivers District Council and vice chair of the Christian Socialist Movement (which I left when it affiliated to the Labour Party, by the way) has unpicked some of the contradictions here. Deeper issues, meanwhile, are raised by Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford.

While we are on the subject of the Tories, Jesuit e-journal Thinking Faith has an interesting article (Who will show respect?) on new London Mayor Boris Johnson's 'get tough' youth policies, backed by 'muscular Christian'. It has been put together by researchers from the Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life.

Friday, May 09, 2008


The United Nations and development agencies are furious about the obstructiveness and incapacity of the Burmese military in the face of the "immediate and vast" aid need. St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London has a direct link into the devastated country, for those interested in making a personal contribution.

A bit of a barney has broken out over the latest Religious Trends data on church decline in the UK. The Times gave a spin to the statistics which included several unsustainable claims. The Church of England reacted with fury, and said it was weathering the storm thank you very much. Christian Research have been accused of bad methodology. But CR has defended its data and the overall situation remains the same. Inherited church institutions in Britain continue to be in decline - dramatically so since the 1950s and 60s. This is not the same thing as saying that Christian faith is dying, however. Indeed the demise of assumptions about being 'the majority' may be good for the moral, political, spiritual and communal health of the Christian churches, if they can begin to see things differently (which is the burden of my comment for Ekklesia ). Thinking Anglicans collates more responses and debate here.

Communicating development issues to a broad media audience is tough. Often, there's an awkward trade off between what the fundraisers say will generate donations and what the educators want to raise awareness of the deeper issues. Christian Aid are to be congratulated in trying to get the two to work together. This video of their current TV campaign makes a simple but important point that disasters hit the poorest worst, and then highlights community-based and longer term solutions that people can see their money being invested in. The graphics are also nifty. Visibility, durability and credibility.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Land of hope and glory? Ekklesia, 08 May 2008, 18:07. -- The notion and shape of 'the land' means many things to many people, as the contradictory responses to this 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel are showing. Simon Barrow looks at the relationship between rootedness and aspiration.

Over 140 Christian leaders have made a unified call for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel. Their declaration is published today in The Independent newspaper.

Never before has such a diverse range of prominent Christians acknowledged that for Palestinians, Israel’s celebration has become a ‘Catastrophe’ (Nakba). They seek a shared solution to the longstanding conflict. Here's the story on Ecumenical News International. And an interesting comment from Jane Stranz.

See also ex-US president, Baptist layperson and peace / human rights envoy Jimmy Carter, on the appalling tragedy of Gaza this morning.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Yes, but can Obama beat McCain? LibCon, 07 May 08, 18.45 GMT -- Convention bloodletting or litigation aside, Hillary Clinton has now almost certainly lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama. Those who want to see "real change" in the USA mostly regard that as good news, including an American I happen to be married to! But I'm not nearly so sure. Can Obama take on John McCain in the campaign that really counts, and how much of his emotional energy will translate into the new politics his backers want?

I maintain an occasional 'work blog' at Ekklesia. We are seeking to transform this area in the near future using an aggregator facility. In the meantime, here's a couple of recent entries: * Obama, Wright and wrong The Democratic contest has been getting ugly. And Barack Obama's church ties have become both a boon and a bane. * Seeing both the positive and negative in religion Much of the current public discourse on 'religion' assumes that 'it' (actually a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon) is either a good or a bad thing per se.

The Christian leaders' declaration on a just-peace for both Israelis and Palestinians will be launched tomorrow, the 6oth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. It's still not too late to sign up.

Latest news reports indicate that three-quarters of structures in the region were destroyed by fierce winds, rain and storm surge. The number of casualties could rise to as many as 30,000, as relief workers are able to reach hard-hit islands and remote villages. The junta has been pushed into accepting worldwide support. Christian Aid is doing its bit, as part of the Action of Churches Together global ecumenical network. The storm was brewing in the Bay of Bengal for several days but communities in the affected areas would have been ill prepared due to a lack of early warning systems. Here's an eyewitness account from the BBC. Development agencies say that the final outcome of the Burmese cyclone disaster, which latest reports suggest has claimed over 23,000 lives, may be on the scale of the Asian tsunami a few years ago.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


"Creativity is the supreme mystery of life, the mystery of the appearance of something new, hitherto unknown, derived from nothing, proceeding from nothing, born of nothing other..." -- Nikolai Berdyaev

Actually, I don't quite agree. Creativity as we understand it (and however surprising or unmerited it appears) is always premised on, or emerging from, something. Only the world as a whole is given ex nihilo, as both atheists and believers accept. Though on very different grounds and to very different ends.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Oh dear... for reasons I'm still fathoming, I've finally given in to Twitter. You'll find mine ( under my profile in the column on the right. Is this a useful new tool, or is the world being buried in meaningless technobabble? As I wrote last month, the jury is out. Unless you're some kind of public figure, a human rights lawyer, or you're being tagged to keep the rest of the community safe, telling people what you are doing every moment of the day really is gratuitous (in the modern, pejorative sense of that word). But the idea of micro-blogging ("less is more", "let them have clips", "to be interesting be interested") has more going for it. I think. We'll see.

Meanwhile, my delightful father-in-law, Willard Roth, has given me a signed copy of friend Daniel P. Schrock's charming book Prayer Practices for Terrifically Busy People for my 50th birthday. It's a little worrying to be thought of in that category, since there is no real excuse at this stage in life. You are most likely to be taking too much on, taking youself too seriously, failing to combat disorganisation (cough!) or filling the void. But that's the point, I suppose. And it is the maelstrom around us that sucks us in, if we allow it. The point is to filter out the twaddle from the twitter - if there's any difference. Gratifyingly, Dan's exercises all take about 30 times longer than micro-blogging. That's about 15 minutes.

I shall conclude by repeating that famous story about Archbishop Michael Ramsey. Asked by an interviewer how long he spent praying each day, he replied, "about two minutes... but it takes several hours to prepare for those minutes."

Sunday, May 04, 2008


"To think as a Christian is to try to understand the stellar spaces, the arrangements of micro-organisms and DNA molecules, the history of Tibet, the operation of economic markets, toothache, King Lear, the CIA, and grandma's cooking--or, as Aquinas put it, 'all things'--in relation to that uttering, utterance and enactment of God which they express and represent. To act as a Christian is to work with, to alter or, if need be, to endure all things in conformity with that understanding." -- Nicholas Lash, in a fine interview with The Christian Century, December 2007.

"A theologian is someone who watches their language in the presence of God." -- Gerald O'Collins

Saturday, May 03, 2008


"Pangea Day plans to use the power of film to bring the world a little closer together. We're divided by borders, race, religion, conflict... but most of all by misunderstanding and mistrust. Pangea Day seeks to overcome that -- to help people see themselves in others -- through the power of film.

"On May 10, 2008 -- Pangea Day -- sites in Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro will be linked to produce a 4-hour program of powerful films, visionary speakers, and uplifting music. The programme will be broadcast live to the world through the Internet, television, digital cinemas, and mobile phones.

"Your film could be part of it. The online video revolution has helped spawn a new generation of grass-roots film-makers worldwide. Much of the output, of course, is mediocre. But hidden in there are amazing talents capable of using film to astonishing effect... and capable of telling stories that can create powerful bonds between us."

"Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards." -- Soren Kierkegaard

Though, frankly, sometimes it isn't understood at all, and is appropriated in strangely backwards ways. But life does, indeed, go on...

Friday, May 02, 2008


Update 23.56: Johnson has won; followed by the BBC report.

Well, I said there was no room for complacency. As Paul Linford makes plain. And while Sunny Hundal has given up for a bit, writer and commentator Dave Hill is still live blogging on CIF from the London Mayoral election count. He says (9pm, 2 May): "I've been talking to Sian Berry, the Green candidate. She's hoping her party will hold on to its two assembly seats but is worried about the BNP. They and the Greens continue to vie for fourth place in the mayoral vote and on the London-wide party list and the BNP showing well in some constituencies. I'm told a bunch of their supporters have arrived downstairs, establishing a presence, as it were. Speculation here in the media bunker is that they will hit the 5% mark and therefore take a seat. Two seats is a possibility."

If fluffy Tory hampster Boris Johnson does win (and it seems he will, driven by the divide between inner London and the suburbs), it will be interesting to look at the differential turnouts. In traditionally Labour areas that could be one of the decisive factors for the successes of the BNP, I'd calculate. We'll see. Sian Berry (pictured) has fought a good campaign, by the way. As I've mentioned, I'd have given her my first preference had I qualified for a vote in London.

My friend Henry Potts, who's also my landlord in Parliament Hill Fields, came bottom of the poll for the Lib Dems in Highgate, I see. Bad luck, Henry. Alex Goodman, a 30-year-old planning and human rights barrister, won the election by more than 290 votes from his nearest challenger, Labour's Michael Nicolaides. That's a breath of fresh air.

Incidentally, I see that 'Christian Choice' (says who?) candidate Alan Craig lost a High Court bid to have its party election broadcast (PEB) repeated last week, after claiming it had been censored. Craig said the BBC had "commanded" the words be changed about the Muslim group planning to build a large mosque in east London; a proposal which he opposes.

But judge Justice Collins said the BBC had indicated that if a legal challenge had been issued before the broadcast it would have "backed down and let them publish as they wished." This had not been done and he has ordered Craig to pay the BBC's £11,875 legal costs. The BBC says the judgment upholds its right to raise proper concerns about election broadcasts.

One piece of good election news, especially given the depressing outcome of recent polls in Italy, is that the far-right and racist BNP - in spite of making some gains and taking its first seats in South Yorkshire - has seen its tiny share of the vote fall overall, having surged in 2006 with a spate of additional candidates and then having dropped off comparatively in 2007. The party will not now make anything like its target of 40 seats, though it has made some gains. It failed across the board in Broxbourne and recorded losses in many other areas. This is not to say that there's any room for complacency, of course.

The Anglican Bishop of Barking and other national and local church leaders spoke out strongly against the BNP and extremism before and during the elections, though to what effect is uncertain. It's clearly got to them, and the cracks have been showing. But working with people rather than lecturing them is what's needed at community level. The BNP had previously tried to colonise a certain 'religious' position, and some of the reactionary 'Christian nation' rhetoric around the churches has not helped, as Ekklesia pointed out last year.

The key to outflanking and responding to the far right is to address issues of urban decay and disenfranchisement that act as its breeding ground, without pandering to the anti-migrant and xenophobic instincts that can become the displaced home of disaffection. The problem is, the main parties are struggling with the former and are too tempted by the latter - fuelled by tabloid scaremongering.

Who knows what PM Gordon Brown's confidants [See my Brown keeps politics in the family, Ekklesia, 1 May 08] will be saying this morning, following a truly appalling set of local government results across England and Wales. He'll be hanging on to see if Boris Johnson can cross the line in his clown costume at County Hall this evening, in order to confirm it was all a bad dream, I suppose. Meanwhile, the BBC's election night TV coverage was a comedy of errors and embarrassment for everyone concerned.

What was worse, I wonder. The silly 'Stalin or Mr Bean?' schtick for the PM (which even high profile Tory blogger Ian Dale told them probably crossed the line of political comment), the childish 'Wild West' set (with presenter Jeremy Vine operating in a complete dignity vacuum, apparently!), or the bafflingly inane "homo electus" theme (pictured)? It was so insulting to the intelligence, it beggared belief. And without even the redeeming feature of being remotely funny or witty. Ed Pearce (terrible photo, nice guy) sums it up perfectly.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


More from me at the Wardman Wire e-zine on Papal authority and human rights (01 May 08). Whether the overbearing, centralist and often impersonal form of power wielded by many of those who now run the Holy See is 'traditional' (as Matt's standfirst suggests) depends, of course, on which bits of the tradition are being read by whom, to what ends. I'd argue that a very different kind of approach is warranted by the shape, form and style of the company Jesus gathered in his movement to free people from the type of religion and politics that claims a monopoly of divine grace, truth, justice and wisdom.

If democracy is going to work anywhere, it ought to do so closest to where people live, through involvement in vibrant neighbourhoods and communities. But central government wants to retain control for itself, the voting system is skewed against pluralism, grassroots talent has been siphoned off, and the poundingly unimaginative local party machines do their best to keep voters badly informed, frustrated or just plain bored. (See my polling day reflections, Leafleting us into submission, LibCon, 01 May 08). 'Your search - "renewing local democracy" - did not match any documents', Google News has just helpfully informed me. No good moaning, though. Better get stuck in. I shall vote for positivity over world weariness. Meanwhile, an anonymous local government worker has it about right here.