Friday, December 26, 2008


A short Christmastide reflection on the God who defies our expectations of 'godness' in the vulnerability of the Christ child.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


A very happy Christmas to one and all. I hope I'll be able to get up to speed with FaithInSociety by the New Year. In the meantime, here's an Advent/Christmastide reflection ('Which Jesus are we expecting?') and an excerpt from a poem...

"In the days of Caesar, when his subjects went to be reckoned,
there was a poem made, too dark for him (naive with power) to read.
It was a bunch of shepherds who discovered
in Bethlehem of Judah, the great music beyond reason and reckoning:
shepherds, the sort of folk who leave the ninety-nine behind
so as to bring the stray back home, they heard it clear..."

From 'In the Days of Caesar', The Poems of Rowan Williams (The Perpetua Press, Oxford, 2002)

Friday, November 28, 2008


“We’ve lost the ability to hold our breath. Everything is instantly available, regardless of longer-term costs, and the damage we do to ourselves and our planet is immense. So we get into debt, we produce more emissions and become unhappy if we are not immediately gratified.” - Ann Pettifor

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The carnage in Bombay (officially known as Mumbai), in which gunmen have killed over a hundred people, injured many more and taken hostages, has shocked the world. It has thrown a spotlight on religious extremism of various kinds. Savitri Hensman has written a very useful piece looking behind the headlines and asking deeper questions about who and what might be 'responsible' for this carnage.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Oikocredit shows that microfinance, fairer finance and small scale investment in impoverished communities and ground-up creativity can make a difference way beyond its size on paper. More so when big capital is turning sour.

My column in this month's Third Way magazine (Political capital out of culture spats?) heads for the weird and makes-you-wonder way politicians get caught up in public moral panics about celebs, when they're not trying to bask in the reflected glory of Barack Obama. There's a theological twist at the end. And a work-in for John Sargeant and 'Strictly Come Dancing'. What more could you want on a dark winter's evening? Russell Brand Live, maybe...?

Friday, November 21, 2008


“We do not detach ourselves from things in order to attach ourselves to God, but rather we become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God.” – Thomas Merton (Catholic religious and mystic)

“The lack of a caring community that incarnates the Word makes us more and more incapable of being heard.” – Melba Maggay (Filipina evangelical theologian)

Thursday, November 20, 2008


I've been involved in the mini-debate provoked by Phil Woolas' inept comments about asylum, the law and the work of charities and human rights organisations. Ekklesia's response was 'Immigration Minister has wrong target on asylum'. My other press comments are collated here. That a Minister of the Crown should make it publicly plain that he will not accept the verdict of the law in this area is quite stunning. These days there are often calls for resignations when politicians make gaffes. Mostly they are driven by partisan advantage. That there are no such calls in this instance is a significant commentary on warped priorities and the depressing consensus between government and main opposition that exists around this issue. The statement by the Free Churches moves in the right direction, and at least one senior Anglican figure has been working very well behind the scenes in relation to those seeking refuge from Zimbabwe. I also wrote about 'Migration's real meaning' for Guardian CIF some time back. Caroline Slocock of the Refugee Legal Centre has made an excellent response to Woolas here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


The New Statesman asked me to write something about faith and economy in the context of the present situation. I penned The Church in the crunch, published today... Following huge losses during the financial crisis, can the Church of England and other churches return to the Christian principles and practices of using material wealth for the common good, and especially in favour of the most vulnerable? (Yes it can, to coin a phrase. Whether it and we are willing for the tough decisions and actions involved is another matter.)

Monday, November 17, 2008


I prefaced my remarks in this sermon at St Stephen's, Exeter (Coming under liberating judgement) yesterday with the observation that, in addition to not working with animals and children, you shouldn't give 'texts of terror' to visiting preachers, lest they try a "hit and run" sermon. I don't think that's what this is, and I'm not a visitor - though I'm much less regular at the Central Parish of Exeter than I would like, due in large measure to the strange kind of geographical limbo created by existing between Devon, Birmingham, London and various other places... most notably Manchester, for the World Christian Student Federation Europe region theology conference on faith and pluralism, this week. [Icon of the Last Judgement provided by ΕΚΔΟΣΗ και ΕΠΙΣΚΟΠΟΥ , ΓΑΛΑΚΤΙΩΝΟΣ ΓΚΑΜΙΛΗ ΤΗΛ. 4971 882, ΕΚΤΥΠΟΣΗ Μ. ΤΟΥΜΠΗΣ Α.Ε.]

Friday, November 14, 2008


"If the love within your mind is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue." - the Dalai Lama.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Today is Remembrance Day. But what is ‘remembering’ in human and Christian terms? How can we probe beneath the emotion and ceremony associated with this poignant public occasion in order to discover (and practice) something life-affirming as we recall the tragedy of war? This article has been excerpted and adapted from a considerably longer chapter ('Remembrance as radical anticipation') in my forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, which will be published in December 2008. A day seminar on its themes is due to be held on 26 November 2008 at the London Mennonite Centre. Meanwhile, my colleague Jonathan is taking some stick after the BBC reported his own article as an "attack" on the churches. Rather than as a suggestion that they might expand, revise and develop their practice in terms of a fuller memory and a more concertedly Christian practice. Some of the emails we are getting are not pretty, but they kind of illustrate the point we are trying to make. (Actually, Ekklesia hadn't done anything to publicise this, other than some very low-key blogging, but since the 2006 furore it seems we are now on the 'events' calendar as the source of a nice media bust up. [image courtesy and (c) of Taringa]

Monday, November 10, 2008


On his own blog, Jonathan Bartley reflects positively on recent Remembrance developments. He is due to be in discussion with the Anglican Bishop of Manchester, Nigel McCulloch, chaplain to the British Legion, at 08.45am on the BBC R4 'Today' programme tomorrow, by the way. Also worth watching tonight will be Channel Four's documentary on conscientious objection in World War one, presented by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop.

Unless the agenda changes (and it can) my colleague Jonathan Bartley will be on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme tomorrow morning, discussing how the relationship between church and state impacts on war remembrance. He also has a piece on Ekklesia (The default politics of Remembrance), and one coming up on Guardian Comment-is-Free. My forthcoming book, Threatened with Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, has a chapter called 'Remembrance as radical anticipation', which looks at the decisive theological character of re-membering, specifically in terms of Eucharist and our memory of the execution of Jesus and his vindication beyond violence. There is an accompanying seminar on 26 November at the London Mennonite Centre. The problem we need to address is that of partial remembering, fuelled by an often unacknowledged ideology of war as salvific.

On Saturday the Telegraph got a pre-emptive strike in, with an editorial which condemned us - for what we are not saying. Back in 2006 both the Times and the Express reported (wholly inaccurately, and in defiance of very clear statements to the contrary) that Ekklesia was wanting to scrap red poppies. In fact, we were (and are) calling for churches to enlarge remembrance symbolism to include white poppies alongside red ones, so that it is possible to honour the search for non-military means of addressing conflict alongside honouring those who have died as a result of war. Corrections were refused, as were letters from a number of people pointing out the 'mistakes'.

When your cause has to be defended by insistent falsehood, surely something has gone wrong? But this just goes to show what a difficult issue war remembrance is, and how rationality plays second fiddle to emotivism in any attempt to address it in a way that is seen as falling outside an acceptable consensus.

Friday, November 07, 2008


Of all the media blather I've read (and contributed to) over the past few days, this article by an African-American priest in the USA is most interesting, in many respects. From an excellent Jesuit e-zine. Some years ago I was briefly on the staff in the Institute of Spirituality at Heythrop College, University of London, so I'm biassed, of course...

On Monday 10th November I will be taking part in a conference on equality, human rights, religion and belief in London. This is an area where new and creative thought is much needed, especially from the institutional churches. They have been far too defensive and negative.

I won't be involved in the HealthServe HIV-AIDS gathering on 1 December 2008, though I know a few people who will and wish it well. I cringe somewhat at the title 'Christians leading the way', however, which seems crass and insensitive given the ambiguous reality. Bold humility would be more helpful, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Teachers' TV has done a survey which purports to demonstrate that many science teachers are unhappy with government guidelines on the teaching of creationism, namely that they shouldn't. What it seems to show, however, is that if you conduct a self-selecting survey and ask imprecise questions you will most likely get an unreliable picture, which nevertheless will get into the papers because people like a good row about something they haven't quite grasped. Oh dear. Must try harder.

The week after next, incidentally, I'm talking about the changing demography of faith at a theology conference in Manchester and Sheffield organised by the Europe Region of the World Student Christian Federation. Then I'm speaking alongside Professor Bernard Crick and others about "Living with difference" at a Sea of Faith event in London (22 November). I'm also preaching twice in the Parish of Central Exeter (St Stephen's and St Mary Arches) and doing a day seminar around the themes from my upcoming book, Threatened with Resurrection, at the London Mennonite Centre (26 November).

In early '09 I'm conversing with humanist groups in Durham and London and some progressive evangelicals in the Midlands, then doing a Lent talk on the Gospel and money in Birmingham. All go. But it's an honour to be involved in such wide-ranging exchanges. [Image courtesy of the International Society for Science & Religion] Link

Thursday, November 06, 2008


The exuberant optimism and idealism I expected. The world-weary cynicism, too. But the advent of Barack Obama raises interesting questions about the nature of hope (as distinct from wishful thinking), not least for Christians. The prevailing Christendom mindset seems to me, simultaneously, to invest far too much in "the powers that be" (and the 'new guard') while displaying thinly veiled scorn for the possibilities of change arising from what seems vulnerable and the unexpected (if one does not see the divine potency in it). This is primarily because we Christians do not believe in the Gospel, or we have turned it into self-serving ideology, or we have split its principle concerns off from arenas like politics and economics, or we have projected it all into a conveniently abstract future.

The alternative is to let practice reshape our theory. To re-invest ourselves in the difficult work of peacemaking, sharing resources, extending hospitality, deploying forgiveness, acting for justice, truth-telling... and many other concrete actions which can then enable us to see and develop a different polity, as well as to recognise the source of our (and the church's and the world's) potential transformation in learning to "live beyond our means". This is what Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke of in what remains my favourite prayer-poem.

All that said, it would be as dangerous to underestimate what Obama may open up for us as it would be to believe that a new dawn will be birthed in the White House, rather than some grubby stable.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


"Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart." - Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 11 December 1964. (Thanks to Sojourners)

"We campaign with poetry, but we govern in prose." - Mario Cuomo

"Bad news is news, good news is advertising" - an old, cynical adage from which news editors are far from immune

But even so, the dream persists in seeking to take shape.

"I see myself standing at the cusp of something wonderful." - Jim Gabour, film director and writer, from in New Orleans. See his article 'Living the American movie' on OpenDemocracy.

"I comment, therefore I am". Well, Descartes may have got it wrong in trying to resolve existence and identity in the autonomous subject rather than persons-in-relation, but it is our culture (of which I am a clearly culpable part) that is in danger of reducing everything to commentary. Then again, communication is of the essence of humanity and change. Oh, I don't know. Maybe I should go for a walk and have another cup of tea, not necessarily in that order...

Well, yes and no to the former. Here are some astute immediate comments from the Amnesty International blog on human rights and Obama. There is also a broader mobilisation occurring. A number of them, in fact. My friend Michael Marten, who is a Middle East expert, is preparing some reflections on the new US presidency and the Palestine-Israel situation. I am mulling the theology of change, and how the mechanisms we place our hopes in are not always the ones that bear the kinds of truths and realities we seek. This is not a moment for pouring cold water, but nor is it one for facile optimism. The space available for leaders within established orders to change is very small, in reality. But small shifts can be significant, not least for those at the margins. Plus they signal the possibilities of a wider set of changes in hearts and in the fabric of our polis and economia which we need to act on rather than just talk about. He says. The real question is always, "who and what are we putting our trust in - and why?" Not principalities and powers at the end of the day, though they can work for good as well as ill. [There are further initial ponderings here]

Meanwhile, an American friend of mine, a peace worker, has just written to say: "Before, we said 'yes we can.' Yesterday, we cried 'yes we did.' Today, it's 'now we will.' The work continues."


"This victory is not the change we seek, it is only the chance to make that change" - Barack Obama, upon becoming US president-elect.

Senator Barack Obama is making his victory speech at just after midnight Washington DC time, after winning the presidency of the USA in dramatic fashion tonight. Whatever the challenges that lie ahead, including the enormous constraints built into the political and economic system he will inherit, it is hard not to be moved by this immense sea-change, especially for millions of African-Americans. Expectations among Obama's supporters in the US and across the world are inevitably very high. His majority in the popular vote will likely be around 53 per cent, alongside a large victory in the electoral college (some 370+) and major gains for Democrats in the Senate. This is a significant mandate. But a huge number of people also voted against Obama, indicating that historic divisions of opinion continue, and crucial swing voters remain more pragmatic than idealistic. President Bush has been decisively rejected, but by those with different views about what needs to happen instead. In the longer run, what has not changed in the US may prove as significant as what has changed. But tonight the possibility of "making a difference" nationally and globally is rightly at the centre of our attention. As a voice from Chicago commented on the BBC: "[Obama] appeals to the world, we have to start thinking in different ways."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


It's an event that's all over the web and crawling out of every conceivable televisual orifice, but if anyone wants to follow the BBC's live text feed on the US election throughout the night, here it is. A less reverent affair is the live blog on Liberal Conspiracy. Or if you just want a single headline result and can't bear the agony of detail, try this. (I've been live-tweeting in a light vein.)

As I write, some 29 million people in 30 states have already voted in the US elections, with a record turnout anticipated and the polls still predicting a win for Barack Obama. When he was about to be chosen as the Democratic candidate, I was sceptical as to whether he had the experience to take on McCain. The campaign has proved otherwise. I shall be very happy to be proved wrong at the ballot box. Though I remain less convinced than many that a win for Obama will bring the sweeping change many hope for, it will certainly revamp the general 'mood music' of American and global politics, and open up positive vistas and pressure points which have not existed in recent years. At one level this can only be good, though the reaction of others can never be predicted. Nevertheless, we shouldn't kid ourselves. In a modern, money-driven, corporate-led, technocratic age, there is a sense in which the old anarchist slogan remains true: "It doesn't matter who you vote for, the government always gets in." The former premise is not validated by the latter, however. It matters. If it provides an inch for people to live in when they might otherwise perish, it matters. Only those who have the luxury of retreating to their armchair are privileged to think otherwise and adopt a feigned neutrality or a hip cynicism. Go, Barack. And go those who at the grassroots who will be there to hold him to at least some of his practical ideals.

Monday, November 03, 2008


The government has been commenting on alternative community use of church (mainly Anglican) buildings declared redundant. The issue is complex and often over-simplified. I have made a brief comment on behalf of Ekklesia. The Telegraph's report said that "Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, has suggested churches with low attendance could be turned into gyms, restaurants and multi-faith centres." This fascinating construction equates churches primarily with buildings (rather than people, prayer and purpose) and reduces the issue to attendance. But the question of use and sustainability is larger than congregational size, as is the question of what kind of buildings and what kind of arrangements for space are needed in post-Christendom. The real conversation has only just begun. And its current assumptions are ill-fitting to the reality.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." - Jane Addams [With thanks to]

Monday, October 27, 2008


“[If] people’s beliefs – secular or religious – make them belligerent, intolerant and unkind about other people’s [beliefs], they are not ‘skilful’. If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honour the stranger, then they are good, helpful and sound.” - Karen Armstrong

As it happens, I reached page 392 in Karen's stimulating book The Great Transformation at the same time as someone sent me a link to this. See also 'Empathy in a polarised world'.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Two days ago I heard the very sad news that United Methodist Church minister and research psychologist Andrew J. Weaver has died in the USA. I never met Andrew, but we were due to get together in person in New York next Spring, having corresponded for nearly two years, on and off. We connected because of his principled campaign, alongside others, to try to stop the historic Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas from dedicating a George W. Bush library and research centre. He became a good friend of Ekklesia and wrote for us on a number of occasions. We subsequently discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that we had a number of friends in common, including John Lee in the Church of England and the late, great religion writer and Christian feminist, Monica Furlong. Andrew was a colourful and committed character, by all accounts, and left an abiding footprint for the Gospel of justice and peace in troubled times. It would have been wonderful to lunch with him at the Met. He will be in my heart and memory when I travel to the Big Apple in March '09, by God's grace. I believe I have at least one article from Andrew in my Ekklesia 'pending' folder. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Friday, October 24, 2008


"There is no justice we don't make daily like bread and love." - Marge Piercy, from the poem The Ram's Horn Sounding.

"The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope." - Barbara Kingsolver, novelist.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Living in a Multi-conviction Society: Conversion, Conversation & Co-existence, with Simon Barrow - St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, 6.30 - 8.30pm, Thursday 23 October 2008, 78 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG. Entry free. All welcome.

That's "conviction" as in "belief", by the way. It's not about the different number of prison sentencing options available!

There have been some good blogosphere comments on the 'atheist bus campaign'. I have highlighted some in Cold water, buses and shared humanity. Among others I have discovered since, referring to my Guardian article, are a supportive one from a doctoral student in Manchester, and a constructively critical one from Iain Clark ('Storm in a Teacup'). I think Iain has misunderstood a couple of my points - and certainly the underlying point about rationality and God-talk. But that may well be my fault, not his. I hope to respond shortly.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for the Baptist Times about some recent research into references to religion, faith and God occurring in the conference platform speeches of major British politicians. A version of this has now been published on Ekklesia as Beware politicians and God-talk. The history of distorted speech in the two-way mirror that is religious and political power-broking has a long and inglorious history; one which is regularly recapitulated across the Atlantic, I fear. But before we cheer or boo politicians talking about faith, let's look at the content.

"At its core the Gospel is about God’s suffering servant opening the door to a new kind of life not circumscribed by ‘the powers that be’. It involves speaking and acting act for personal and social transformation in ways that may prove deeply uncomfortable to both political and religious elites [...] Significantly, none of the political speeches Theos surveyed mentioned Jesus’ disruption of the status quo, and few sermons do either. But what if faith is not a flag to be waved? What if it is a call to conversion – starting with us?"

My colleague and friend is in action about this tonight, by the way: "God bless America? Should Politicians 'Do God'?", with Jonathan Bartley - at the crypt, St James Clerkenwell from 7pm, Weds 22 October 2008, Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0EA.

Also, a reminder for: "Conversion, Conversation & Co-existence: Living in a Multi-conviction Society", with Simon Barrow - St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, 6.30 – 8.30pm, Thursday 23 October 2008, 78 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG.


"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" - Saunders Lewis.

Thanks to Sze Zeng (Singapore) for that quotation. He also said some kindly positive things about the work I've been involved with on post-crunch economics. The Lewis quotation rings very true with me, though more so in the arena of the written word, where I probably feel most at home. (Well, OK, I can talk for Britain, too ... but radio and TV soundbites are not me, because I like to unpack ideas with others rather than flash them and instantly move on.)

I recall also a delightfully honest (and typically convoluted, but illuminative) quotation from David E. Jenkins, I think from his very fine 1967 Christology book, The Glory of Man (SCM Press), where he says something to the effect of, "I'm not at all sure that I know what it is that I think I am trying to say about this, even as I reflect on writing it." And then there is autodidact lyricist Jon Anderson's injunction: "Look in the light of what you're searching for", which contains the idea that the object of our attention may effect our way of seeing. This is true not just in physics, I find.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


The immediate fundraising hit of the 'atheist bus' is more evidence of the changing nature of our multi-conviction society, and the challenges this poses to all of us - and to a form of Christian witness which is about love that embraces and challenges suffering (in the spirit of Jesus), rather than imposing itself as yet another power ideology in a competing 'supermarket' of beliefs (in the pattern of church-of-power Christendom).

I was due to hear and meet Richard Dawkins tonight, as he is involved in a debate in Oxford (with the silly title of "Has science buried God?"). Unfortunately, other urgent issues have intervened. Anyway, as it happens, his 'Atheist bus project" has just been launched. Well, sort of. They have the wheels, but the bus and its slogan (“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”) are still in the garage, pending enough fuel to get out on the road in January 2009. It's a curious business, as the Methodists have observed. Apart from my Ekklesia comments, I have done an article for Guardian Comment-is-Free on Atheist evangelising?

Monday, October 20, 2008


"We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it." - Dorothy Day

Public debate about religion, non-religion and much else is in a mess right now - bogged down by confrontational politics, personal anger, intellectual cul de sacs and simplistic dualisms. But it doesn't have to be this way. On Thursday 23 October (this week!) I'm leading a practical seminar at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace (78 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AG) entitled Conversion, Conversation & Co-existence: Living in a Multi-conviction Society. It runs from 6.30pm - 8.30pm, and entry is free. You are more than welcome. If you can't make it, please pass on the information to those you know in the London area who might be interested. You don't have to say in advance that you're attending - but it would help the organisers if you did! Notes to

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


I have expanded a 'Westminster Watch' column I wrote for this month's Third Way magazine (which is devoted to Christian social ethics, culture and society), in order to look at the economics, politics and theology of thinking and acting our way beyond the global credit and banking crunch. There's an excerpt below. The full article is: Seeking to build a just economy.

"Markets per se are not the issue [..] The greedy, one-sided and shortsighted assumptions and systems that markets are often embedded in are the problem. And those can be changed. Fatalism about this is not, despite its pretensions, realism. And reality is more intriguing, open and multivalent than many self-styled ‘realists’ allow. It’s always worth asking, “which kind of realism are you seeing as contradicting a radical (to-the-roots) Christian hope, and does its version of ‘reality’ include the transformation wrought by the Gospel?" Or is this something the church has simply filtered out in its attempts to appear ‘credible’ to those who dismiss its message?

"In political terms, the challenge, as theologian Jurgen Moltmann acutely pointed out some years ago in his book The Future of Creation, is that a qualitatively different social and economic order cannot be imagined purely on the basis of the one that now exists. It requires a stretching of our current capacities and therefore has to be critically envisioned, spiritually dared, and practically edged towards from a position of faithful agnosis. We see darkly, but we still press forward."

Friday, September 26, 2008


The churches now have a major opportunity to re-think their economic strategy. But both they and the politicians face a language crisis in seeking to do this, quite aprt from institutional inertia. We've all been convinced for too long that "there is no alternative" to the current pattern of globalisation that has taken economic hold of our minds as much as our world. Not so, but it is a hard job to go against the money stream. Among other things today, I've updated Towards an economy worth believing in.

When Ekklesia pointed out yesterday lunchtime that the Church of England's finance managers had been involved in the very speculative short-selling the archbishops had just roundly condemned, we didn't immediately realise how big the story would go. (See the news overview here and the Google news trail here.) After all, the main focus is on the world credit crisis and its domestic impact, the 'global impacts local' angle. Unsurprisingly, the media picked up on the 'negative' angle: "church accused", "hypocrisy", etc. But while the tendency of Christians to preach virtue to others while not examining their own behaviour too carefully remains a problem in this and other areas, the real issue is that this presents a positive opportunity to look at the "global economy of the churches", the alternative values we can and should be enacting, and the contribution this could make to necessary larger arguments about the reform of regulative financial systems, the operation of markets, and so on.

This is a profoundly theological issue, because, as Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as having pointed out: "Where your treasure lies, there lies your heart also." Indeed, Rowan Williams was correct yesterday to pinpoint the issue of idolatry at the heart of the current system: the attribution of ultimate worth and value to things that are purely instrumental and should have no such claim to control our lives. Both the economic and spiritual issues are raised in the detailed paper I produced in 2005, Is God bankrupt? This was a response to an ecumenical report which tried to get the British and Irish churches to "cosy up to the market" in a way that was just as simplistic as some alleged earlier ecumenical attempts to dismiss markets completely. There's also a summary of issues and initiatives involving church and economy, called An Economy Worth Believing In.

A slightly enhanced variant of this piece is on my Ekklesia work blog here. Plus a post on Williams, Marx and 'Red Tories'.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Somewhere in the attic of my life there is a postcard depicting Wall Street in the 1930s. A penniless worker is holding out his hand to a worried looking banker. The speech bubble reads: "Lend us a dime until the inevitable downfall of the capitalist economic system, eh guv?"

Of course the current banking and stock exchange panic is no laughing matter. It will cost jobs, livelihoods and much else besides. Plus it will be the most vulnerable who suffer most, as always. Fairness doesn't come into it when blind forces collide. Many of us have been saying for years that an increasingly boundary-less and virtual money economy dependent on gambling, avarice, manipulation, febrile 'market confidence' and a basic disconnect from the actual productive economy (let alone actual human needs) is unsustainable in the long run. But that doesn't make the current massive jolts funny.

The overall picture is not totally apocalyptic, but it is very, very serious. Neoliberalism has failed and global capitalism needs fundamental change. As do the people who have come to be gods and priests in it, and those who have turned it into a secular worship space: "Thou shalt have no other products and desires but Mine."

Years ago, some of us imagined the day when capitalism would collapse and the world would be taken over by left-wing paper sellers with no idea as to what to do next, other than to flog the next edition. Times have changed, state socialism is dead, markets rule. But the moral, spiritual and practical critique of the dominant global order remains vital for a viable future.

That is what Marx, who in some ways turned out to be the last of the great Hebrew prophets, was about. His dream was turned into a living nightmare by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. They, plus a fatal non-religious Messianism, ecological blindness, bureaucratic dehumanisation, the creation of militarised state machines, and a lack of understanding of the contradictions of human nature.

As a totalising theory of action, Marxism was found wanting and failed appallingly. As a cogent reminder that unfettered capitalism can be monumentally destructive, Marx and his plural critics remains vital. We need to re-imagine an economic future not based on greed and might, or the world will continue to devour itself.

Yes, I know. You've often wondered if I've asked myself that one. Actually I don't spend that much time on the web or in the blogsophere (it just seems like that!), but it is undoubtedly true that the internet has changed the way many of us think, write, work and interact in a massive way -- for good and ill. One discovers the fuller reality of that when it is taken away from you. So my recent (relative) quietness has been partly due to connection and server problems, which I hope will be rectified after trips around the West Midlands, Scotland, London and then Devon. Meanwhile, my work environment has mainly been... J. D. Wetherspoon's pubs. Yup, they have free wi-fi, not bad coffee, a good cheap veggie breakfast and a music free atmosphere. Even rolling news on the telly. If only they paid their staff better and went fair trade. But that is something I have been discussing with them. Can't avoid smiling at the irony, though. When I worked for a Church of England agency some years back, there was a nearby hostelry which called itself The Office. Now, temporarily, my office is a pub. Sort of. Cheers, y'all.

Friday, September 12, 2008


It is many years since I took much of an interest in the internal affairs of the British Labour Party (which I'm not sure really exists anymore, anyway), but today it has been a hard issue to avoid - with a junior minister being sacked for saying she thinks a leadership contest should be allowed to focus the debate over Labour's future. (That was her position over Brown's original 'coronation' too, and who can now say she was wrong?)

But the main point for me is as much about process as content. To put it bluntly, does anyone in the government understand quite how shameful and grubby their treatment of Siobhain McDonagh looks - and, indeed, is? Ms McDonagh, who comes across as pleasant, thoughtful and principled, wrote what was in effect a private letter expressing her views to the chair of the Party. First, someone leaked this, and then she was immediately sacked - although she had to learn this fate from a journalist who had cornered her outside parliament, because the PM's office could not be bothered to tell her, or spitefully chose not to, before making it public. Talk about "the nasty party". Then a Labour spin doctor dismissed everyone who would like to see a more open conversation about the future and about Gordon Brown, who opinion polls suggest is heading for oblivion, as "a ragbag of malcontents". So that would be impeccable loyalist McDonagh, would it? Plus leading local government luminary Graham Stringer, and a former Home Secretary?

Disagree with them as the PM's allies may, this level of utter contempt sends out a clear message to the wider public about the degeneration of Labour as a moral force for change. As a token of 'mainstream' party politics in this country, it also dissuades many - me included - for wanting much to do with it. The whole system needs reshaping. Good on Siobhain McDonagh for having the courage (and good grace) of her convictions. She might be a Blairite, but above all she's decent and honest. What a refreshing change.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


"The only dream worth having ... is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead ... To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or to complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget." - Arundhati Roy from her book, The Algebra of Infinite Justice. [Courtesy of]

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


“Instead of being so eager just to reform others, let us also make a serious effort to bring about out own transformation.” - Dom Helder Camara

“We can move in the direction of justice, but if our personal relationships don’t become more human, we haven’t moved in the direction of the reign of God and, in the long run, we will discover that our point of arrival is just another form of tyranny.” - Arturo Paoli, liberation theologian

Sunday, September 07, 2008


"The sudden assertion of human criteria within a de-humanising framework of political manipulation can be like a flash of lightning illuminating a dark landscape" - Vaclav Havel , writer, philosopher, activist and ex-politician

"Respect for the people’s word need not mean approval for whatever they say. Any criticism becomes constructive when based on a fundamental attitude of respect and listening." - Clodovis Boff, Brazilian theologian

Friday, September 05, 2008


Among the books I have been reading for intellectual and spiritual refreshment over the summer is Theology for Pilgrims, by Nicholas Lash (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), which collects together more stimulating essays from the former Norris Hulse Professor of Theology at the University of Cambridge. This includes perhaps the best response so far to the philosophical and forensic confusions of Richard Dawkins' thinking about God and religion, and many other gems. I will do a full appraisal at some point, but I am glad that Robin Ward has flagged up the book in a short review published this week in the Church Times.

He declares: "These essays intrigue, illuminate, and convince with their watchful, waspish eye for imprecise thinking and tendentious assumptions. Whether you are a curial cardinal, an atheist evolutionary biologist, or a complacently establishment dean, make sure you verify your references: if you don’t, be sure Professor Lash will." This is true, but there's also a warmth, humanity and thirst for hope here, and in all Lash's writing, which elevates the soul as well as challenging the intellect.

One of Nicholas Lash's major themes is that we fall at first base if we try to think about the reality of God in terms of some kind of "object" within or attached to the universe, something which many polemicists seeking to "prove" or "disprove" God simply take for granted. The transcendent God who grounds all being and becoming cannot meaningfully be conceived of as a member of a category of things called "gods", he explains. I have unpacked this in my paper What difference does God make today?, and more briefly in The God elusion and in Three ways to make sense of one God - which is partly in debt to Lash's earlier thinking about the fabric of historic Trinitarian formulations.

Theology for Pilgrims "exposes the crisis in our thinking about God which is at the root of our misunderstandings and mistakes about science and politics, ethics and economics, life and death" says the blurb on the back. It does just that. And it has some great stuff on Diderot, Foucault and Joseph Conrad.

Monday, September 01, 2008


Here 's my piece on OpenDemocracy's 'Our Kingdom' ("a conversation on the future of the United Kingdom") website: Changing the agenda on faith schools. It seeks to show why Accord is not simply "more of the same", as some of our pre-emptive critics are suggesting, but a new direction in the debate and in the practical possibilities. There's also an article from me on Guardian Comment-is-Free, more on the immediate need for change ("Granting privileges and exemptions to any one group builds barriers rather than bridges in the education system").

During the summer break, I was involved with others in developing the launch of a new coalition, Accord, which is seeking to help change the character of the public debate around faith schools -- to focus on the case for community-wide rather than selective schooling, and to move away from overheated rhetoric towards attention to specific policy proposals on admissions, employment, curriculum, inspections and assemblies.

It all began to hit the media on Friday, after the Jewish Chronicle decided not to honour the embargo. There have been some interesting responses, and some extraordinary. The official Accord launch press conference is in London today. Unfortunately, I can't be there to speak in person as I am still recovering from a fever and viral infection. Among those contributing will be Adam Hart-Davis, the scientist, author, photographer, historian and broadcaster, and Alison Ryan from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), which has a very good position paper on the issue.

You might not think that arguing for non-discrimination is controversial, but it is. I am being published on Guardian CIF (where a debate has been set up), OpenDemocracy, Liberal Conspiracy and Wardman Wire (covering the main political bases). On Ekklesia I have written A Christian case for Accord. There are also statements from clergy and others, plus some documentation. After the initial flurry, I will largely cover this on my work blog on Ekklesia, when that gets going again later tomorrow.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


"Love is the prime force in the creation of art; and love is not a work." - Stanley Spencer

Faith In The Frame is a new 10 part series for ITV1, and sees Melvyn Bragg chair lively 30 minute discussions on the themes and relevance of ten of the world’s most fascinating religious pictures. The works chosen are, rightly, far from easy or comforting. In programme one, tonight, the panel discussed The Resurrection, Cookham by Stanley Spencer: This is a highly individual vision of 'heaven on earth', painted between 1924-27, and set in Spencer’s local Cookham churchyard where he had played when young, ostensibly the perfect English idyll. The panelists were Howard Jacobson, novelist; Tim Marlow, art writer and broadcaster; and Richard Harries, former Anglican bishop of Oxford. [Picture courtesy]

Friday, August 01, 2008


I was very pleased to hear that Barry George has finally been cleared of the awful Jill Dando street murder eight years ago. Right from the outset a number of us had argued that the original 'guilty' verdict, resting on discredited forensic claims, was a travesty of the evidence presented. It required us to believe that a severely disturbed man who found it difficult to think straight in the simplest of circumstances could have carried out a 'hit' requiring great sophistication and split second timing. The police have said they are "disappointed" at the exoneration. Why, for goodness' sake? Would they prefer an innocent man to be locked up? It is tragic for Ms Dando's relatives that her killer is still at large, but they have not been served well by celebrity allies like Nick Ross who constantly objected to a re-trial, even though the case for it was overwhelming. When 'closure' means a miscarriage of justice it does no-one any good.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Peacemaking after Christendom, Simon Barrow, Ekklesia, 13.07.08

[excerpt] After Christendom there is both fresh hope and fresh challenge for Christian peacemaking. The core question is: “how is peace written into the fabric our lives and our Christian commitment?”, not “OK, I’m a Christian. Now, what sort shall I decide to be, a pacifist or a just warrior?”

If 'just war' means “just another war”, the defence of “Christian Empire” or the overwhelming conformity of the church to an ethic promulgated by the modern delegates of Caesar, then it is the wrong path.

If, however, it is a way of moving away from violence ... a kind of Christian equivalent to the lex talionis (the Jewish law for limiting retribution), then it has a role to play. Not as an end in itself, but as part of a journey whose destiny is the shalom, the just-peace, that is ... shaped by Jesus and the great Hebrew prophets.

The point is this: the Body of Christ is a broken body offered unconditional life by God, not life grabbed at the expense of entrapping others in death. To be baptised into this body is to share a life in Christ that is brought about by grace not guns. More here.

Friday, July 11, 2008


"Only when the well has dried up, do we realise the value of water." -- Benjamin Franklin

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


"[I]n our highly competitive and greedy world [..] we often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don't know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others." -- Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill has been maintaining an admirably informative 'live blog' from the Church of England's general Synod, as the decision on women bishops is taken. Dave Walker has been doing a good job, too.

Viewed from the outside, these proceedings can seem rather bizarre. This is something the C of E has partly brought upon itself by pompously setting up its central body as a quasi-parliament. That means living in the blinking headlines of a constant media culture, so that moments of decision and emotion which might previously have been conducted with public eyes averted are now available for all to stare at -- often uncomprehendingly, since mere sight does not necessarily equal understanding of what is viewed. The distinction between privacy and secrecy is also lost. I'm in favour of public scrutiny, especially when power which otherwise might be unaccountable is being deployed. But there are losses, too, in terms of human and spiritual process.

Last night, for example, Jeremy Paxman (on BBC2's Newsnight) heaped ridicule on the idea that Synod had passed a motion without full resolution of all the details - as if the notion of going through a dispute process was inherently absurd. The idea of trying to accommodate rather than crush dissent is thereby portrayed as weakness and vacillation. It can be, of course. But compromise based on principle rather than expediency, where this is possible, is not to be despised and can make a real difference. It's difficult to get at when every move is being politicised, however.

That said, I am nervous about the word "statutory" attached to the 'code of conduct' idea. The Church having decided, at long last, to consecrate women as bishops, the purpose of pastoral measures should be to aid reception with sensitivity, not to set up road blocks or assist those who wish to do so. That is a crucial distinction. In the long run, those who cannot recognise women in positions of authority cannot expect (or be expected) to live in permanent ecclesiastical "no fly zones", and it is cruel as well as unhelpful to pretend otherwise. That is not conflict transformation, it's the institutionalisation of incurable pain - to everyone's harm, as the disastrous Act of Synod preceding the ordination of women in 1994 has demonstrated.

Monday, July 07, 2008


The good news from the Church of England (for once) is just emerging (22.53 GMT). But watch out for the small print... this on Ekklesia: Church of England makes historic decision for women bishops (23.34 GMT).

I have just been watching a very moving C4 documentary, The Miracle of Carriage 346, on the aftermath of the London bombings on 7 July 2005. The term "miracle" is often misused (by religious believers and non-believers alike) as a synonym for arbitrary magic. A better definition would be "a potent sign of life". This programme used it with dignity - not positing a deus ex machina protecting some and ignoring others in the midst of tragedy, but highlighting the life-giving and death-defying significance, as Gill Hicks put it, of "every person who touched me and who I touched that day." Gill, the last person to be rescued alive from the train carriage in which 26 died, has gone on to be a vigorous advocate for the excellent NGO Peace Direct, and talks of her post 7/7 existence as "my second life" which she will use to work for humanity because "it did not come without preconditions": a sense of responsibility she has willingly embraced through and beyond her disfigurement.


"[The] love of God for the world does not withdraw from a reality into noble souls detached from it, but experiences and suffers the reality of the world in the harshest possible fashion. The world takes out its rage on the body of Jesus Christ. But he, tormented, forgives the world its sins. Thus does reconciliation come about." -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Saturday, July 05, 2008


It being Church of England Synod and all that...

"Becoming Christ-like swings on keeping close to Christ himself, being part of his living body. This means constantly coming close to his bread-body lying on the table as his breathing-body standing around the table. The table of Christ demands that we grow up, and growing up means learning to live with those we find awkward and uncongenial as well as those we warm to naturally. It means living in a community where we don't always get our own way." -- David Wood, writing in Fear or Freedom?

[The picture is the former mural from Santa Maria de Los Angeles, Managua, Nicaragua.]

Friday, July 04, 2008


I'm really sad to hear of the death of veteran correspondent Charles Wheeler - though, as they say, he had "a good innings", and contributed more to the integrity of reporting and journalism than almost anyone else in Britain over the past six decades. That his demise became news on 4 July, given his long years in Washington, seems strangely appropriate. BBC Radio 4 will be paying tribute with a special 45-minute programme, Charles Wheeler In His Own Words at 1100 BST on Saturday, 5 July 2008 or afterwards for a week at the Listen Again page.

Responding to the broader concern attached to a high court judgement issued on 2 July 2008 ('Faith Schools judgment fails to consider human rights angle'), Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "It is time that both religious communities and government were more direct in tackling the issue of discrimination in admissions and employment in faith schools, with a view to eliminating such practices." Our concern about this is theologically grounded. What message does this kind of thing send out to people looking for integrity, love and fairness from Christians and other people of faith?

Without doubt, I am a 'political animal'. Always have been. But political processes can easily become overbearing, distorting, disconnected and over-determining of the many features of life that they touch upon. In my latest Wardman Wire 'Thinking Aloud' column, which I have entitled 'The Limits of Politics' , I explore how and why the church might play some role in generating alternatives in this area. There's also an anecdote about Nelson Mandela at the 9th WCC Assembly in Harare ten years ago, illustrating my point that "grace as well as power is needed to triumph over injustice, and to hold on to the vulnerable dream that a different world is possible."

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


Deep disagreements between followers of Christ over the nature and mission of the church are not new. In fact the recent goings on in Jerusalem may remind us of the Council that Acts of the Apostles records as the first in the early Christian movement's history. It came up with a classic Anglican-style fudge (which was at the same time rather radical), unlike the Anglican one held last week, ironically enough. Here is my recent sermon tackling these issues for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul: Whose mission is it anyway?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


Meanwhile, the nascent Fellowship of Confressing Anglicans hasn't quite made its acronym stick on the net yet. If you Google FOCA you get a whole variety of intriguing alternative possibilities, including cuddly seals (very, very cute and quite unschismatic-looking), an appealing holiday destination in France, and the Federation of Cottagers' Associations in Ontario, which to those who believe that Canadian Anglicanism has now been irreversibly taken over by a "gay mafia" may sound rather more sinister than it actually is.

Sorry, couldn't resist that one. Nor could Andrew Brown, I see. I am travelling at the moment, and so only logging in fitfully (yes, it does happen), but I see that Riazat Butt writing on the front page of the Guardian this morning, no less, reports an "unusually robust" response from Lambeth to the declaration from GAFCON - one that Theo Hobson describes as more of a coup than a schism: an observation which is both politically true and theologically literate... it seems that most people who use the latter term have nary a clue as to what it really means, assuming it just to be a synonym for 'split', when historically it has referred to a major uprooting of the tradition, not simply a division within a denomination (which, in the case of Anglicanism, has never claimed the kind of permanency that would be necessary to make sense of this kind of description).

That said, there are many evangelicals (including some quite conservative ones) who are unhappy with the attempted putsch, so while Theo is right on one paradigm, he is in danger of succumbing to another mistaken one. Anyway, it is all rather unpleasant and diversionary to the major challenge Christianity faces in an era where a top-down, institutional version of church is being threatened as never before. In all this, a certain kind of bogus anti-colonialism has arisen, where the abuse of power and attempts to impose a new version of the old imperial order is disguised with guilt-tripping rhetoric about liberation. About which more, later.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


"Tradition is the living faith of dead people to which we must add our chapter while we have the gift of life. Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people who fear that if anything changes, the whole enterprise will crumble." -- Jaroslav Pelikan

"Whoever thinks he understands divine scripture or any part of it, but whose interpretation does not build up the twofold love of God and neighbour, has not really understood it." -- Augustine of Hippo

Friday, June 27, 2008


Ekklesia's press release on Savi Hensman's paper and my book - Anglicans challenged on power, sex and 'traditionalism'.

In another fine research essay, Savitri Hensman, who has also contributed several chapters to Fear or Freedom?, gives a much broader picture of the current Anglican struggles over sexuality, authority and scripture. Her article Tradition, Change and the New Anglicanism looks at how the tradition claimed exclusively by hard-liners as their own has actually developed in the past, and she locates it in a wider concern for authentic interpretation, love of neighbour, the history of authoritarianism and the search for a universal code of human rights - something endorsed by the Lambeth Conference back in 1948.

Well, happy birthday Gordon Brown. One year in Downing Street, but not very much to celebrate at the moment, it seems. I admit that I had greater hopes for the new PM after the stains of the Blair years. The hammering he is getting at the moment seems excessive, and though I'm not keen on the political project to which he is conjoined, he is a decent man. But I suspect Jonathan Freedland is right. A number of us mistook his tactical acumen for strategic capability. Now, I suggested recently, his challenge is to find ways of moving towards the confidence building 'yes' that Prime Ministers' need to generate (otherwise known as political purpose and energy), in the same way that he was successful by dint of his capacity to say 'no' as Chancellor. Meanwhile, the poll shocks continue.

So who will be next through the door at No 10? Neither of the dodgy characters in this photo, for sure. The one on the right looks especially suspect. The one on the left is my good friend Andrew Bradstock, of CSM. As a likely parliamentary candidate, he stands more chance than me, of course. He's even generously willing to consort with me despite the fact that I left CSM twenty years ago when it affiliated to the Labour Party. The occasion of this particular photo op was a recent reception for faith groups. But since I was Andrew's best man a few years back, we regard it as a happy 'reunion' snap.

One of the questions people asked me (and each other) during the course of the reception was "have you been to 10 Downing Street before?" The answer for me is yes, on two occasions. Though not quite as some might have anticipated. The first was when I joined an anti-nuclear weapons sit-down with a wonderful group of nuns, organised by a former Christian CND coordinator, the equally wonderful Barbara Eggleston. A rather officious police officer marched up and demanded, "who's in charge around here?" Without missing a beat, Barbara looked up and replied sweetly, "The Holy Spirit", dumbfounding him completely! Goodness, I miss her. The second occasion was when I was arrested during another sit down (no 'standing on ceremony' for me), following the bombing of Libya in 1986.

So this, as far as I can recall, is the first time I have actually been to the PM's residence on what might be called diplomatic duty.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Mark Russell, who heads up a prominent evangelical Anglican mission agency, is to be thoroughly commended for his forthright condemnation of violence against gay people, and his willingness to take a stand on the recent goings on at the GAFCON conference.

Lately, I've spent a fair bit of time talking to journalists, including one from the international edition of Newsweek yesterday, about the latest fissures in Anglicanism and the GAFCON conference. Even though I'm a member of the Church of England (St Stephen's in Exeter is a very special place), once worked as an education/training adviser for a major diocese, and have just edited a book on 'Anglican wars' and beyond, I do find all this stuff, like Jane Stranz, a little tedious -- and, as Steve Fouche says, painful. The "will they, won't they split" stuff has been around for ages. The capacity of Anglicanism to produce formulae to keep people who don't talk or share communion arguing about each others' status is very deep indeed. What it all amounts to, one seriously wonders.

The really fascinating question is why a relatively small religious group, in global terms, can get everybody (well, a lot of people who should know better) so worked up, and what that truly signifies. The end of a certain kind of era, I think. About which, more in a while. Suffice it to say, though, that while Fear or Freedom? is aimed partly at the Lambeth Conference and what's going on within the Anglican world, it has a much broader and longer concern with Christianity and its provenance in a changing international order. For those who do want to follow what's happening on Planet Anglicana, however, I thoroughly recommend Thinking Anglicans (they do as it says on the can) and Episcopal Cafe (who curate a range of resources of really worthwhile scope and depth). Now, I'm off for a refreshing cuppa. It's far too early for a gin. [Image (c) R. Wilson and courtesy Episcopal cafe]