Friday, February 29, 2008


"Take away the paradox from a thinker and you have a professor." -- Soren Kierkegaard

"There can be all the difference in the world between a point of scholarship and a matter of thought." -- Mark C. Taylor

"Resentment and anger are bad for your blood pressure and your digestion... Without forgiveness there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations...There are different kinds of justice... Restorative justice is not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew." -- Desmond Tutu, in interviews with the BBC and New Yorker magazine.

"In every sphere, we seem to have lost the very elements of intelligence: the ideas of limit, measure, degree, proportion, relation, comparison, contingency, interdependence, interrelation of means and ends. To keep to the social level, our political universe is peopled exclusively by myths and monsters; all it contains is absolutes and abstract entities. This is illustrated by all the words of our political and social vocabulary: nation, security, capitalism, communism, fascism, order, authority, property, democracy. We never use them in phrases such as: There is democracy to the extent that... or: There is capitalism in so far as... The use of expressions like "to the extent that" is beyond our intellectual capacity. Each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil; and at the same time we make all these words mean, successively or simultaneously, anything whatsoever. Our lives are lived, in actual fact, among changing, varying realities, subject to the casual play of external necessities, and modifying themselves according to specific conditions within specific limits; and yet we act and strive and sacrifice ourselves and others by reference to fixed and isolated abstractions which cannot possibly be related either to one another or to any concrete facts. In this so-called age of technicians, the only battles we know how to fight are battles against windmills."

-- Simone Weil, 'The Power of Words' in Selected Essays 1934-1943.

OK, I'm going to question the "all" in this, and suggest it goes against the drift of the message -- which is against totalisation. But it also arose from specific circumstances at a particularly dark stage of European history, and in context it is hardly an exaggeration. What's more notable, in a way, is how disturbingly prescient these words are as they echo down the years...

Last night there was a curious BBC TV discussion about tabloid newspaper attempts to revive a debate over the death penalty - a practice which, thankfully, is outlawed by the European Union. One of the protagonists is someone I have crossed verbally on a previous occasion. On my work blog ('Christian' societies and the death penalty) I recalled: "I had an interesting encounter with John Gaunt on TalkSport Radio a year ago. Well, I say encounter. Mainly it was being shouted at by the self-appointed megaphone of People's Democracy. Not surprisingly, he was none-too-keen on Ekklesia's idea that cultivating non-violent alternatives was a legitimate part of remembering the victims of war. 'Go hang', he said. Or words to that effect. Then he pressed a switch and cut me off. Dead." [Image: Salvador Dali from the Washington Post archive, believe it or not. Looking very drive-time]

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Over the past twenty years, the profile of Christian organisations operating in the parliamentary political arena has increased considerably. But the nature and character of this engagement is something that needs much more examination. My colleague and friend Jonathan Bartley has charted some of it in his book Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster, 2005), which looks at both 'positive' and 'negative' responses from churches and church-related groups to the gradual erosion of a 'natural alliance' between the authority of organised religion and the authority of national governance. Ekklesia's viewpoint is that loss of conventional power and influence for the churches as institutions can and should give way to alternative Christian practices, possibilities and political positions - ones which connect us with the needs and concerns of those pushed to the edges, rather than a 'functionalist' ethos predisposed towards propping up the existing order. In February's Third Way magazine, I have a Westminster Column reflecting (both seriously and light-heartedly) on tensions at the recent Channel 4 Political Awards. The version of this piece just published on Ekklesia, Gongs, grins and faith in politics, goes on to ask what these arguments about the plying of influence within and around 'the system' have to say about lobbying and advocacy ‘after Christendom’ - after the era in which the church can or should count on preferential treatment by the powers-that-be. There is much more to be said about this. What would be helpful, perhaps, would be some profiles of 'alternative approaches' to doing politics Christianly, further theological reflection, plus a post-Christendom code of ethics for advocacy and engagement. Watch this space.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


"I've gone on a whisky only diet... so far, I've lost three days." - Tommy Cooper

The other evening I turned the TV news on to see a rather smug and affluent looking young man dismissing Fairtrade Fortnight as a "marketing ploy" and suggesting that it did little good in the world, and some harm. This was a spokesperson from the Adam Smith Institute, seeking ways to defend inequality by moaning, extraordinarily, that Fair Trade as a growing market is, er, unfair to unfair traders. This is logic, but not as many know it. It is true, without a doubt, that since Fair Trade has become big business all kinds of problems have arisen in the process of something that has been an overall good. Some landowners have cashed in at the expense of tenant farmers (as ASI points out), there have been accusations of supermarket suppliers using sweated Eastern European labour to shift goods which have been ethically sourced earlier in the chain, and so on. It is also true that some big companies (Tate & Lyle is the latest and largest example) have been persuaded to get on board as much by pressure and profits as any free ranging altruism.

But these are arguments for further campaigning and change, not a rationale for giving up on the whole enterprise and allowing a 'free' market system controlled by the haves and frequently deployed at the expense of the have-nots to dictate global economic terms. In fact we should take heart, despite the problems. This year Fairtrade Fortnight is putting on display the huge leap forward (see my comments for Ekklesia) that small-scale individuals, churches, NGOs, community organisations and others have made over the past couple of decades. Back in 1984, when I first got involved, this was a fringe activity for the few. No-one really thought it stood a prayer, apart from a relative handful of activists and some determined entrepreneurs. Now most people have heard of 'fair trade', many are buying the goods, it is mainstream not marginal, and not a few people are getting involved in the broader issues it signals.

Cynicism is easy, but hope takes a bit of effort. It's worth it, though.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


"[T]hankfulness must be learned and practiced... Thankfulness reaches beyond the gift to the giver. It arises from the life that it receives... The thankful are humble enough to receive something as a gift. The proud take only what is their due. They refuse to accept a gift... To thankful people everything comes as a gift, because they know that for them there is nothing that is earned... In thankfulness I gain a proper relationship to my past; the past becomes fruitful for the present... but to regain [it] completely regret must join thankfulness... [through memory]. Ingratitude begins with forgetting: forgetting is followed by indifference, indifference by dissatisfaction, dissatisfaction by doubt, and doubt by curse." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(Konspiration und Hoft 1940-45, ed. Jorgen Glenthoj, et al, 1996. From I Want to Live These Days With You, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005)

Saturday, February 23, 2008


"At the bottom of the heart of every human being... there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience... that good and not evil will be done... It is this above all that is sacred...The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it." - Simone Weil, Selected Essays 1934-1943 (published in 1957).

Every time I turn on the radio and there is a discussion about belief, someone seems to equate 'the sacred' with religion and 'the secular' or 'the profane' with no religion. Theologically as well as practically, this as wrong as you can get. As ever, Weil hits the nail on the head. For her, the good we wait expectantly for, grieving over the tragics of life, is but a taste of the wholly unconditioned goodness that is God - a life-givingness not qualified by contingency, bargaining or conditionality (unlike anything we can approximate). By its nature, this goodness has the capacity to reshape and redeem anything and everything. To restrict it to the sphere of human activity labelled 'religion' is both blasphemous and non-biblical. The God of Jesus commits to the flesh, not 'religious flesh'. There is a legitimate secularity that seeks independence of the self-interest of religious institutions, but for those who see the whole of life as gift (which can only finally mean divine gift), there is nothing ultimately 'profane'. This in turn re-defines 'religion' away from self-interest and towards life-interest; beyond the rhetoric of the divine to the life that is the free offspring of divinity. As Weil also observed (and I am quoting from memory): "If you want to know whether someone is truly religious, don't listen to what they say about God, listen to what they say about the world."

Friday, February 22, 2008


The mess occasioned by the recent encounter between Rowan Williams and the media over his speech about religious and civil law is well observed by Elizabeth Kaeton here. Meanwhile, Margot Kaessmann, who is a German Lutheran bishop with a wise and humane perspective, has recently engaged in a discussion with journalists in Berlin on how the church sees the media and vice versa. I am in broad agreement with what she says, although unfortunately I have been let down over 'off-the-record' comments made with great care about their status. That was with a church newspaper based in England, in 1987. They stitched me up something rotten. These days the environment in the UK (Germany is a bit different) can be even more feral, and while I think perspicacity is the best policy all round, cue cards are sometimes necessary to avoid it being abused too! As well as church 'spin doctors' who need a bit of de-spinning, there are some naughty journalists out there who are much more interested in the story they would like to write than the one that might actually be on offer, and whose ability to distinguish the two is somewhat lacking under pressure. No names, no pack drill.

Both the specific instance of the Sharia row and the general question of how one achieves an integrity between extended thought and straightforward communication are issues that interest me greatly, it won't surprise you to know. More thoughts on the former shortly. In the meantime, here is an offering from a few years ago about the meaning of Christian truth-telling in the 24/7 wonky-but-wonderful (and sometimes dreadful) alt-universe known as Mediaville. Of course I never dreamt that I would become so fully enmeshed in the commentariat when I delivered this speech, working as I was as a humble "ecucrat" [my neologism for 'ecumenical bureaucrat'] back then. Serves me right, huh? See: Speaking truth in an age of public relations, [Mennonite] Council on Church and Media, Washington DC, June 2002.

[The picture, (c) Stephen Brown/ENI, is offered simply because I happen to think, inter alia, that Margot is one of the most visually appealing episcopal figures I have encountered - a comment which is not intended to be gender specific, though I fear it might be. Perhaps someone should run a fully inclusive, non-sexist "cutest bishop" competition? I'm bold. But not that bold.]

"Finally, I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell." Frederick Buechner

I have mentioned the wisdom of Frederick Buechner at least once before on FinS. This quotation calls three interrelated thoughts to mind.

First, the 'ray of darkness' that is God-talk. Our words never reach or capture the divine, who is unsurpassable love. Much modern scepticism confuses the inevitable fallibility of our speech toward the transcendent with a positivistic desire to 'prove' (or rather, disprove) its 'existence' (thereby using a contingent category to falsify the non-contingent). No-one can 'prove' the reality of God in empirical terms, for to attempt such an exercise is to misunderstand that of which we speak. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, the transcendence of God is not the transcendence of our epistemologies. Rather one 'lives into' God (Augustine), and discovers the truth of God in that way. Or not. The final 'verification' is eschatological, or not at all. The assurance offered by faithfulness is not the certainty of 'proof', as Jesus' episode with Thomas illustrates. (See also the discussion on doubt here.)

Second, there is an important distinction to be made between "invitation into a mystery" as the final form of Christian experience, and the promulgation of mystification aimed at the elevation of a supposed 'spiritual elite' over the 'common herd' (which is what Gnosticism can so readily be about). The former is wholesome, the latter a corruption. Jesus, in his filial relation to God, entered the darkness of Gethsemane and the light of transfiguration in a way that his disciples could neither emulate nor comprehend, because the conditioned (humanity) can never grasp the unconditioned. But he spoke and acted God's domain (kingdom) as arriving in the simplest and most accessible actions of justice, peace, love, hospitality and forgiveness. It is in these deeply human, natural, repeated gestures towards embracing life in its fullness that faith subsists and grace abides, not in six impossible metaphysical propositions before breakfast.

Third, Bonhoeffer, who said that in extremis (the world of Nazis that he lived in) the Christian vocation was simply to pray - to open oneself to ultimate love - and to act for justice, also spoke tantalisingly of 'the arcane discipline' in the Christian life. This has occasioned much scholarly debate. He meant, I think, the realisation of communion in the Eucharistic ritual and living which testifies to the final interconnectedness of everyone and everything in the new kind of life that Christ makes possible. There is mystery here, but it is preserved for the nourishment of all, not reserved for the edification of the few to whom it is granted.

[Hat tip to Elizabeth Kaeton's fabulous blog, Telling Secrets, of which more soon. And, yes, A Ray of Darkness - illustrated - is the title of a collection of Rowan Williams' sermons. Very good stuff. That is the title of the US edition. The English version is called Open to Judgement.]

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Here's the agenda setting introductory piece for my new Wardman Wire column, published today. Kudos to Matt Wardman. The style and presentation is a bit different to the ones I usually employ, so it will be a useful learning experience to work in a different way. While I am here, and apropos of something else whirling around my mind, let me do an additional commendation for Savi Hensman's essay, Binding the Church and Constraining God, in which takes a usefully askance look at what might be going on within the sub-structure of all the Anglican and Lambeth shenanigans at the moment, indicating some wider lessons.

Savi "shows that inflexible, one-sided, naïve or ideological conceptions of God in sections of the Christian tradition can reinforce domineering models and practices in the Church – which is in fact supposed to be a creative vehicle of Jesus’ broken body in the world, not a defensive fortress. God is not confined by rules set by humans and our institutions, she argues, however powerful they may be by earthly standards. In the biblical tradition, God is at work outside as well as within institutions, including those that claim to be about God’s business. Liberation, reformation and healing will continue to happen even if, at first, they are not acknowledged by the authorities (ecclesial and otherwise); and in time truth will break through our illusions."

"A great philosophy is not that which passes final judgments, which takes a seat in final truth. It is that which introduces uneasiness, which opens the door to commotion."
Charles Péguy, Note on M. Bergson

"Rowan Williams doesn't just think outside the box; he has boxes which are shapes and sizes no-one has ever really considered." —Martin Reynolds

"Religion, insofar as it is a source of consolation, is a hindrance to true faith; and in this sense atheism is a purification.... There are two atheisms, of which one is a purification of the notion of God... Whenever one tries to suppress doubt, there is tyranny." —Simone Weil, from Lectures in Philosophy and The New Christianity.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


"Words don't fail me. In fact, they come quite easily to mind, and only retroactive editing has deleted many colourful words from this very sentence." - Mark Clapham (on TV-mediated pointlessness)

Sometimes people accuse Ekklesia (and me) of being The Guardian at prayer. Well, I confess to being a long-term Guardianista and more recent CIF-er. But the paper can infuriate as well as inspire me, and you only have to see the comments on my pieces to realise that its interlocutors can despise thinking religion as much as any other kind. Such is the fad of the moment. I also like to think of myself as hard to pigeon-hole. Well, I find it difficult to describe my 'position', anyway! Ekklesia certainly does its best to mess up the simplistic liberal -v- conservative theological game by having some radical arguments to make about God and the world which, we hope, are derived from sources that are surprisingly and creatively traditional - understanding the tradition to be a pool of wisdom and argument, not a fixed entity with a pair of handcuffs attached. Politically, my heart, if it's anywhere, is on the green ex-Eurocommunist democratic left, but my head gets mad with some kinds of leftism, and the dialogue across received labels can be stimulating too. It's vital, in fact, in order to avoid degeneration into dogma and factionalism. Plus, for me, politics is founded in theological convictions, rather than the other way round. (If that sounds a contradiction, then you are thinking of the wrong kind of theology. Mine is about opening the world, not closing it.)

Back in 1992 I wrote an article for the international Christian journal, The Way, published jointly by the Jesuits and Heythrop College in the University of London, where I was working at the time. It was called 'Spirituality left and right'. I tried to give a fair survey, and then ended up saying that I personally found the humanly aspirational, egalitarian and compassionate instincts of the left far more encouraging (and conducive to my Christian outlook) than the often reductionist, privileged and pessimistic view of the right. But, I suggested, in line with Charles Peguy's fear that "every mystique descends into a politique" - adult conviction in a broken world seeking healing requires more, much more, than inherited political ideologies can offer. I believe that even more strongly today, as a floating voter (though admittedly never a Tory one) and a supporter of grassroots, associational, movement-oriented and independent politics.

All of which is a prequel to saying that in addition to contributing occasionally to the broad church that is OpenDemocracy ('discussion forum offering news and opinion articles from established academics and journalists covering current issues'), to the denizens of leftism on Liberal Conspiracy, to the Guardian newspaper's Comment-is-Free, and to the evangelical-based Christian current affairs magazine Third Way (the monthly 'Westminster Watch' - and an interview with Nick Clegg coming soon), I have just agreed to a trial fortnightly column on right-of-centre The Wardman Wire, having admired it for sometime. Not always agreed, but appreciated. I hope it will be a fruitful relationship. The aim is to improve the general discourse about religion and society. Well, a tiny, tiny bit. Hopefully.

Monday, February 18, 2008


"I accept Your Majesty as the sole source of ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal power." (The oath of loyalty sworn by Church of England bishops as members of a Church established under the Crown").

"They all act in opposition to the decrees of Caesar and claim instead that there is another king, Jesus." (Acts 17.7, describing how early Christians were seen in relation to the imperium).

Worth reading on how Christianity became established -- Jesus and Empire: The kingdom of God and the new world disorder by Richard Horsley (Fortress Press), based on his earlier studies, and God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, then and now by John Dominic Crossan (Harper San Francisco).

What kind of state are we in? That is the one of the important issues lurking behind various contentions about religious and civil jurisdiction, faith and society, establishment and disestablishment right now. The Economist, herald of a brave new globalised order, has weighed in on the latter this week, calling for the cord between church and state to be cut in England. They are wrong about many things, but not this one. It is, I have suggested, a matter of establishing fairness for church and society. It also raises powerful questions about the nature of Christian discipleship and the church. The issue about what a post-establishment church settlement would be like is also a neglected topic, with many people assuming (wrongly, and for worse more than better) that what we have in the USA now would naturally follow. The Economist falls into that trap, incidentally.

Then there is, as I have said, the state. How should the mechanisms of governance relate to civil society? How far does the regulation of the state extend? What really is the state in a changing, multi-layered world (not for nothing are 'state theorists' on the wane!), and how does the concept and reality of 'sovereignty' work across the overlapping effective magesteria of different regulative institutions, where the boundaries between power, control, influence and persuasion often overlap? These are tough questions. Much tougher than current popular discourse allows.

As I mentioned the other day, part of what lies behind Rowan Williams' recent interventions, apart from a specific issue (family Sharia), a general concern (religions as communities of obligation in a plural society and a unitary system) and a network of interest and privilege (the Church of England itself) is a good deal of thought about the pluralist state. The late David Nicholls' book of that title (1975) is well worth reading to get a handle on this. But the debate has moved on since some earlier Anglo-Catholic Anglican thinkers and political theorists on the centre-left tackled it. Which is where RW may be getting a bit tangled.

See also 'Associational Socialism in a Pluralist State' by Paul Hirst, in the Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 15, No. 1, issue on Law, Democracy & Social Justice (Spring, 1988), pp. 139-150, and his own fine overview of thinking in this area. In addition, there is the website dedicated to Nicholls himself. A fascinating man (pictured). His work on power was very revealing, but he was also comfy in a way that sits uneasily with some of today's sensibilities.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


"One of the things about being in a position of privilege over many, many years is not just that you take it for granted, but that it seems perfectly and inviolably 'natural'. Indeed having your position at the top table questioned seems like an affront to your dignity - as it no doubt did for Jesus' disciples when they were rebuked for putting themselves first.

"So it was that Anglican Bishop of Liverpool James Jones spoke effusively of the 'unique position' and responsibility of the Church of England on BBC Radio 4 this morning.... Would it be too much to ask the Church of England to give up Establishment for Lent, to rediscover its vocation and evangel alongside people; existing with them, not in a protected zone; speaking with them not for them? At the moment it would. But it is right that some of us go on asking, no matter how unpopular or puzzling its is - even to bishops like James Jones, who has shown courage and dignity in other respects."

See the full article here.

There is a report in the Sunday Telegraph (Sun 17 Feb 08) which indicates that a number of Church of England bishops are concerned that moves to end the prime minister's involvement in key clerical appointments may prefigure disestablishment. Some in the church have also been expressing the view that the reaction to Rowan Williams' religious and civil law intervention makes it more likely. I suspect they will not be using the word "unavoidable". The issue will be explored on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme tomorrow morning, and my colleague Jonathan Bartley will be on sometime after 07.45 - or 'listen again' online.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


My latest contribution to the religious and civil law debate is Law, free religion and civic pluralism (OpenDemocracy's OurKingdom project exploring the future of the UK). This seeks to look at the distinction between the public role of voluntary associations in civil society and models of establishing or integrating religious interests or practices within systems of governance. I suggest that Rowan Williams' well-intentioned explorations are overshadowed by 'the Christendom mindset' and I follow Akhandadhi Das in his differentiation between the regulative function of civic law, which tries to establish common boundaries about what is acceptable, and the exemplary function of religion (and other life stances) which try to commend higher virtues and aspirations - though you wouldn't always know this, sadly.

The other important context for understanding Rowan's approach, as Nick Townsend, who teaches political theology on SEITE and STETS, has pointed out to Ekklesia, is the debate about the pluralist conception of the state grounded in the work of J. N. Figgis, G. D. H. Cole, the guild socialists, later strands of associationalism (and, I would argue, communitarianism). I do agree that this forms the backdrop to RW's understanding of pluralism. But I think it has a number of problems attached to it, including certain Whiggish assumptions about hierarchy, stability and the role of the church, that render it vulnerable to a privileging of organised religion which undermines both the freedom the theory espouses and the capacity of church to be truly radical. Put another way, it mortgages its ecclesiology and its understanding of civil society too much on a particular corresponding theory of the state.

I certainly do agree, as I mentioned at the end of my paper on Rethinking religion in an open society, that "Britain needs to move towards is a civic state rather than a market one" (Thatcher/Blair) "or a corporatist one" (old Labour/Butskellism). But I don't think that is best achieved by trying to pattern state functioning on the pre-existing make-up of civil society. Rather, the state has to be challenged and re-shaped from the ground up. A plural conception of the state can help in this, but in certain respects the way it has been attended to historically has been superseded by developments in postmodern organisational contexts. I will expand on this at some point. Sorry if it sounds too gnomic right now!

Meanwhile, I'm afraid I don't think Figgis lets the Archbishop off the hook of having his current discourse caught up too readily in the vested interests of the institution of which he is the figurehead, or, ironically, of being tempted by the role of "defender of faiths" he once warned Prince Charles against.

I am currently working on more material for part of OpenDemocracy (the excellent e-zine and discussion forum offering news and opinion articles from established academics and journalists covering current issues in world affairs) and others on the continuing ramifications of the Williams/Sharia debate. Well, eruption of opinion, more like. Disentangling the issues is a challenge in itself, because they were bundled in such a difficult way. One of the key ones is about religious conscience and exemptions in what the Archbishop (interestingly) acknowledged to be a "unitary secular system" of law making, something he did not contest overall - pace Anthony Andrew's conveniently simplistic conclusion that “Rowan Williams’ remarks were a strategic attack on secularism” (quoted from the National Secular Society site). Actually, they were both critical and supportive, in different respects, if you read them carefully.

Anyway, I did a piece for the OurKingdom debate on the future of the UK, The real purpose of the archbishop [13 February 08], which is in fact more about the wider purpose of the institution he now serves, the contestable definition of religious interest it is aligning itself with, and the way Rowan's otherwise subtle and interesting mind has been decisively sucked into this mindset, I fear. Meanwhile, on Guardian Comment-is-Free [also 13 Feb], I penned A question of conscience. I had actually originally called it 'The religion of exemptions', and I was not thrilled that they did a standfirst turning it into a competition of consciences between myself and the Archbishop, which was not the indended tenor at all.

My point, which I hope is clear from the piece itself, was to argue with a definition of conscience premised on the idea of incorporating certain narrow religious sensibilities within civil governance - by pointing out, first, that this is unhelpful and unnecessary in terms of what one might reasonably expect in terms of protection and provision from a liberal settlement (even if one's own moral formation is not circumscribed by the liberal state); and second, that a deep radical tradition within Christianity points in a very different direction. You do not have to be a monochrome secularist to be worried by the larger implications of what RW is saying, that's the whole point. An inclusive but not separatist social fabric can be resourced from a range of contributions, including religious ones. Likewise, those traditions are voluntarist ones which do not have to be dependent or built into that fabric, and may be damaged if they are; as I shall go on to argue in my next OurKingdom article, employing parts of the post-Christendom analysis.

Meanwhile, there have been a range of sympathetic responses to Dr Williams from two kinds of quarters. One is that broadly characterised by Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at the University of Glasgow, writing in this week's Church Times (Why sharia is so misunderstood - subscription needed, unfortunately) and by the author of Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea, Tariq Modood, in Within the law (Guardian CIF). Tariq, Professor of Sociology at the University of Bristol, who I had the pleasure of meeting recently at an Oxford seminar where we were both speaking, is kind enough to describe my CIF article as a "powerful piece". But he goes on to say that "Williams' argument is not primarily about exemption but pluralistic integration and so depends ultimately on the idea of inclusion through respect for difference rather than toleration, exemption or separatism." I will suggest in due course that while that may be the Archbishop's aspiration, it is not, in fact, either where his institution is leaning or where he may be heading. The revealing word is primarily. But primarily for whom, the man or the machine?

From a very different angle, that of the Cambridge-originated 'Radical Orthodoxy' school of Christian theological thought, now housed at the University of Nottingham in the Centre of Theology and Philosophy, Philip Blond (fascinating guy - we talked a bit at Cumberland Lodge a couple of weeks back) and Adrian Pabst put a very different kind of case for and against RW in The International Herald Tribune - Integrating Islam into the West. What they say, which raises awkward issues of supercessionism, overlaps in certain respects with Andrew Goddard on Fulcrum, the broad evangelical thoughtspace - Islamic Law and the Anglican Communion: Is there a Common Vision? Interesting stuff which I think is in danger of collapsing into sophistry based on unclarity when it thinks it at its most profound. From a diametrically opposed angle, there is uber-Protestant Theo Hobson in Catholic weekly The Tablet, The quiet voice of modernity's enemy (see picture) and in his editorial this month for Third Way. I value and disagree with all of these, to some degree and in different ways, and they with me, no doubt. But this is the kind of argument that more mundane rhetorical butt-kicking doesn't really begin to grapple with, sadly.

After the hubbub and hysteria, a slightly more rational debate about civil and religious settlements in Britain has begun to emerge, albeit mostly underneath the news headline radar, and exhibiting some significant differences of perspective and approach. Well, that's good. Meanwhile, that section of the public who like to pontificate on a rapid series of 'controversial issues' without necessarily grasping them in any depth (the down-side of the 'democratization of knowledge' culture) are already off with a "can we move on, please?" - as a Guardian correspondent put it. Well, you can, dear sir or madam. But the issues are here to stay, I'm afraid. That is the price and joy of a plural society, rather than one where homogeneity rules with ease and viewpoints reducible to sound-bites take us forward.

So it is frankly no bad thing that some of the, um, "jerks with knees" on all sides soon turn their less-than-healing fire elsewhere. But the acrimony leaves a legacy, and it would be good if more substantial lessons could be stored for the future. These include the fact that tough questions need to be asked from within the BBC and elsewhere about how to retain care and perspective in the face of the demands of a competitive 24/7 news environment. For example, Matt Wardman, a thoughtful right-of-centre commentator, raises important and detailed issues about how the Rowan Williams row came into the public arena in the run-up to, and aftermath of, his BBC Radio 4 World at One interview. You do not have to agree with the Archbishop to see that issues of misrepresentation and unhelpful oversimplification are involved in this, even if he clearly expressed himself badly at a couple of key points, and overall attempted to cram in too many diverse issues in one discourse (as I think he clearly did).

Second, we need more substantial spaces for a better and more temperate civic debate about hot political, cultural, social, economic and (yes) religious issues. Some years ago a TV company tried the experiment of bringing a large number of specialists and non-specialists on a controversial subject (criminal sentencing policy, which many see as "too soft") into an extended and structured conversation in one venue over several days. People were voluntarily subjected to information and analysis from different viewpoints, and part of the proceedings was filmed. The outcome was that when those with strong but under-resourced opinions really did have to sit down and meet, face-to-face, people with whom they disagreed, or who brought a different story or account, a much better and more connected set of opinions emerged - with greater ability all round to deal with complexity and ambiguity as well as conviction.

We desperately need forums of that kind. I certainly don't think the world's problems can be sorted out just by discussion and education (that's a certain kind of liberal fallacy!) We need radical changes of heart both personally and politically in the direction of openness toward 'the other' - what I as a Christian would call metanoia, conversion, a change of direction away from self and toward a sense of shared community. But personal encounter and growth in knowledge are undoubtedly civilizing factors, in the non-orientalist or occidentalist sense of the term 'civilization': the development of civic virtues and character among people who come to see themselves as neither isolated individuals nor warring tribes, but relationally inter-connected. This is the opposite of the "feral new media" if you like, but it needs to be built on Web 2.0 and 3.0, too.

In a very helpful BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day earlier in the week, Hindu academic and commentator Akhandadhi Das succinctly identified three key factors missing from the debate about Rowan Williams' lecture and interview of religious and civil law. First, the sources of the system of law we now have in the UK are themselves plural. Second law and religion (or any philosophy concerned with transcending the immediacy of life with a 'higher moral purpose') are different kinds of enterprises. Third, therefore, and bearing in mind the distinction between voluntary practice and unitary codification by the state, they can run as a series in different spheres, rather than having to be seen as integrated or competing. Spot on. Read the whole thing here. The crucial excerpts are as follows:

[M]any of the laws we think of as British have been borrowed from other sources and it's been customary to draw on ideas that work elsewhere. Some of those sources have been religious. For instance, 19th century British legislators adopted aspects of the ancient Hindu text, the Manu-smrti, particularly to do with land law and inheritance. But, that's a different proposition to what the Archbishop seems to have suggested. [...]

I agree that our laws reflect some of the best principles of any civilisation and have created the country I am most happy to live in. However, it is wrong to say that state laws embody the highest values of a society. They actually define the lowest level of behaviour we are willing to tolerate. State laws don't promote the best behaviour - they're designed to stop the worst.

But, a civilised society shouldn't hover just above the lowest boundary of what is acceptable. It must aspire to so much more. We need inspirational influences which extol positive qualities of kindness, generosity and responsibility to others. Religion often gets into a mess when it tries to affect the laws we all agree to live by. It succeeds best when it offers a vision of ideal human behaviour and provides a spiritual process of personal transformation that helps us grow towards that ideal.

I agree with the general response to the Archbishop's speech that we cannot have separate or alternative legal systems. Religious and state standards should not be run in parallel. You could say that they're meant to run in series.

Friday, February 15, 2008


In a new document entitled Theology, science and the problem of ID, I briefly set out the religious, philosophical and political context of both the 2007 British government guidelines on science teaching and the recent report and, in particular, the very encouraging statement of the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR), explaining why 'intelligent design' (ID), popular among some religious groups, is neither sound science nor good theology. Indeed, it is a major obstacle to a proper understanding of the fruitful relation between the two. The paper includes notes, an overview of 2005-7 Ekklesia comments on creationism and ID (from my press, broadcast and journal briefings), and a select bibliography. This also chimes in with Evolution Weekend and Darwin Day, in which the US clergy project and over 800 churches, 550 scientists, hundreds of educators and thousands of believers were involved. The summary of my welcome for the ISSR statement is here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Anger. Mostly, I wish there was less of it and that is was better considered in relation to stopping us in our tracks and promoting positive change, rather than simply accusing, blaming and turning despair into a feeling of smug-but-impotent rightness. Which I suspect is what is happening a lot of the time. I very much speak to myself, not merely to others, though the feral environment of a lot of 'public debate' undoubtedly soils many attempts to distinguish what is truly worth getting annoyed about, and what is a trivial irritation that simply reveals our unhelpful egocentricity. Me in a painfully slow shop queue for example.

As I mentioned earlier: "Anyone can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way... that is not easy." - Aristotle.

But what provoked (if that is the right word!) this post, apart from a number of things going on in the world which, as they revealingly say, have "got to me", was:

“One who is not angry when there is just cause for anger is immoral. Why? Because anger looks to the good of justice. And if you can live amid injustice without anger, you are immoral as well as unjust.” - Thomas Aquinas.

Which is very true, though it is always worth bearing in mind, as the complementary and sometimes countervailing truth, this:

"Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for human anger does not bring about the just life that God desires... If [we] consider [ourselves] religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on [our] tongue, [we] deceive [ourselves] and [our] religion is worthless." - Epistle of St James

Do not let your anger, even when it is justified, put you beyond correction and awareness of your own fallibility and complicity, or of a good which is greater than the negation of wrong, in other words. And make it an occasion in life, not a condition of life. The words of St James were first quoted to me by a long suffering vicar in a parish I attended getting on for 30 years ago, after he had received a very long and intemperate letter. Needless to say, it was from me. Needless to say, it didn't do my cause in the world much good. But it did end up humbling me a bit, so it wasn't an entirely wasted effort. A more recent episode with a charitable trust (of all things) taught me the same lesson, when I had forgotten it again. As we do.

The Aquinas quotation was prompted by Episcopal Bishop Sergio Carranza in Los Angeles. He is a splendid man, and very annoyed indeed about the state of the Anglican Communion and those visceral hard-liners who seem to feel that they own the tradition and 'orthodoxy', when there is a very great more to be said on the matter - starting with the need for humility, compassion and a sense of perspective. Carranza is angry because people (women, gay people and others) are suffering as a result of all this. He is right about that.

Overall, however, I prefer the tone and approach to this wrought situation brought by the wonderful Savi Hensman, whose paper Binding the Church and Constraining God I am sure I will return to again very shortly. Do read it if you have any interest in understanding what may lie beneath current disputes, beyond the 'liberal' versus 'conservative' stereotypes, which are not bereft of truth, but which seriously mislead, too. (Thanks also to Susan Russell, whose blog is well worth a look).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


This quick reflection arises from a news brief about reactions to the Archbishop of Canterbury's Church of England General Synod address on the sharia row yesterday, and press statements I made on behalf of Ekklesia about two aspects of it - the global context on religious law, and the issue of 'conscience'. I will focus here on the latter.

A key part of Rowan Williams' claim that a unitary secular system of governance and law necessitates the granting of exemptions to religious groups within UK legislation is the 'conscience' argument. In the way that it is being presented, this is seriously skewed in both its formulation and its effect. First, it mixes individuals and organisations. Second, it does not acknowledge that consciences, like rights, clash. Third, it fails to address the specific consequences of a general exemption-based position.

Allowing conscience in life-or-death questions is one thing. Wherever possible we need provisions of this kind. But should Catholic and Muslim pharmacists, for example, be allowed by law not to sell condoms in chemist shops? Where do we draw the line? And who decides? The answer at the moment is a democratically elected parliament acting in concert with the executive and legislature. To change that would be a pretty big deal. Moreover, which consciences and which religious or other civic bodies do we recognise for exemptions? There is a need for discussion, deliberation and decision about conscience and the law, but not wholesale waivers for certain groups of people.

The situation we are in now is one where these issues are becoming much more vexed as a result of two trends. The first is the increasing eagerness of church and other bodies to take public money, sign contracts for public service delivery, run taxpayer-funded schools, and so on - and then to say that they wish to refuse to serve, admit or employ certain kinds of people. This does not seem reasonable to me, or very Christian. It is not a human right to run or offer public services, and it is not a denial of religious freedom of conscience (or any other kind of conscience) for the authorities to make comprehensive equalities requirements for service delivery. Opting out and acting differently - rather than demanding legal exceptionalism - remains a possibility for those who object, whatever their hue or interest.

Second, under pressure from the growing pluralisation and (in certain key respects) secularity of public life, combined with the rapid decline and shift in the overall ecology of institutional religion, some religious groups are pushing for more and more exemptions. But while it is absolutely right that personal conscience is allowed for in public life (for both the religious and the non-religious), a government elected from a cross-section of the whole of society will not unreasonably want to ensure that the ability of people to access facilities intended for all is not thereby comprised. And the basis for this will be exclusion not exemption.

There is also a big difference between making allowance for personal conscience and taking taxpayers' money and public contracts for schools and services while maintaining a 'right' to select and discriminate. Using 'conscience' as a wedge for a wide and unspecified raft of exemptions is at best confusing, and at worst dubious. If churches and other faith bodies do not feel that full equality of access in public services is something they can endorse, they do not have to take state money or engage in works of public benefit beyond their own premises and membership. They are not compelled to do so, and nor should others be compelled to accept discriminatory practices as part of a public service.

Regarding the Church of England, of which I remain a member, I have argued elsewhere that moving beyond an Establishment mentality and practice (including the desire to enshrine threatened vested interest through some muddled multi-faith extension of them) "would take imagination, bravery, intelligence and prayerfulness." I continued: "Dr Williams has those [qualities] in spades. It is a crying shame that they are currently being applied to a totally misguided strategy – defend ourselves by extending religious exemption; use church schools to get the next generation (demographics suggest that won’t work); and try some ‘fresh expressions’ of church locally without transforming the core of the institution. Maybe the shock of this current archiepiscopal humiliation will shake some of the church’s leaders into a more radical, creative and outward looking re-think?"

The underlying point is not, as some critics of Ekklesia suggest, that the choice is between exemption and privilege for faith or the exclusion of faith. It is, for Christians at least, a matter renewing our trust in a Gospel message that points beyond exclusion, injustice, partiality, self-interest, self-justification and the defence of institutional interests - and invites us instead to work courageously for a new community in the company of Jesus, who was prepared to face down religious and political domination to the point of being executed by those vested interests, and whose vindication came through life as a gift rather than life grasped away from others.

The whole meaning of the Christian faith, when seen through eyes not clouded by power and privilege, points the churches in a direction which is demanding but exciting, rather than fractious and (frankly) embarrassing. If that's "woolly liberalism" (as someone suggested to me recently), I'd suggest that the wool is wire wool and the liberality arises from the depths of the tradition, not from some feeble accommodation to 'secularism' (understood partially, as just an attempt to suppress the religious, rather than to negotiate an open and plural public square where people can come and go.) Christians need robust consciences, for sure. But not special exemptions from fairness and justice.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Here's a good article by Alex Kirby, former chief religion correspondent for the BBC. I think it is right in both its identification of the problem and its final generosity of spirit and judgement. It's interspersed with two cartoon assessments, the first from a broadsheet paper, The Guardian, the second from the iconic (though not in a good or meaningful way) tabloid, The Sun. Both are copyright (c) of their originators. And they may say more about us than their subject. Just a thought...

"If Rowan Williams ever imagined his explanation could get him off the hook, he is wrong. The damage is done, and it will take more than his elegant mea culpa to undo it.

"The archbishop was wrong to accept in his BBC radio interview that there could be anything inevitable about any part of Sharia ever holding sway in the UK.

"He was also pretty certainly wrong not to ask someone to rewrite his speech so he would not have to apologise, as he has, for its "unclarity" and his own "clumsiness".

"And he should have had some idea of how the very word Sharia is enough to drive reason from many minds.

"All that said, though, the damage he has caused is minuscule by comparison both with what his critics are doing and with the good he himself has done."


"There is a tradition in Christianity of holy men and women known as fools for Christ, innocents who often used unconventional or even shocking behaviour to challenge accepted norms. It seems an apt description of Rowan Williams.

"His tongue sometimes stumbles, but his brain and his heart are among the church's best, and probably better than it deserves."

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Here's my overall analysis (Ekklesia, trailed below) See also my Real problem, wrong solution (OpenDemocracy), media comments on civil law and religious practice here, and a piece which will appear today on Guardian Comment-is-Free, 'A Multi-Faith Mess'.

[There is also an analysis of the specific argument about family sharia and its relation - or not - to Jewish Beth Din, Anglican law, and Catholic family tribunals.]

"What is happening here, it seems to me, is that the dilemmas of a withering and shrinking (if not dying) institution, the established Church of England, are being awkwardly welded onto the insecurities and threats experienced by other minority communities in order to produce a case for the preservation of one in conjunction with the granting of new influence to the other. This turns out to be misguided for all kinds of reasons. [...]

"Maybe the shock of this current archiepiscopal humiliation will shake some of the church’s leaders into a more radical, creative and outward looking re-think? I wouldn’t count on it. But if one truly believes that it is the Holy Spirit rather than the spirit of what J. K. Galbraith called ‘institutional truth’ (the story of our own conveniences) that disrupts and rearranges us in the midst of human compromise, culpability and confusion, then stranger things have happened. Post-Christendom awaits you, Rowan."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


"A nation is not civilised because a handful of its members are successful in acquiring large sums of money and in persuading their fellows that a catastrophe will occur if they do not acquire it...What matters to a society is less what it owns than what it is and how it uses its possessions. It is civilized in so far as its conduct is guided by a just appreciation of spiritual ends, in so far as it uses its material resources to promote the dignity and refinement of the individual human beings who compose it."

"Clever [persons] are impressed in their differences from their fellows. Wise [persons] are conscious of their resemblance to them" - R. H. Tawney