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]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


"Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." - Wendell Berry

"He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in." - Edwin Markham

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Gordon Brown’s search for purpose Ekklesia | Column | 24.06.08 |

Gordon Brown
's recent poll humiliations have left him seeking to rebuild support, says Simon Barrow. The 'faith constituency' is one that he has a particular interest in. And though not unproblematic, it won't go away - no matter how much the liberal sceptics sneer.

"It is useless to dream of reforming the socioeconomic long as there is not a correspondingly deep change in our inner selves." - Dom Helder Camara

The late Archbishop of Recife in Brazil also famously said: "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. Why I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist" - and he pointed out that personal piety without social change is equally useless.

Holding these two insights together seems to me very important. When I started to engage in politics as a Christian in the UK in the late 1970s, it was hard to persuade some (especially in the evangelical sector) to get out of the pew and into society at large, or to recognise that reforming individuals could still leave the wider social structure damagingly unaltered. These days, such Christians can often be seen zealously trying to change the social order while themselves behaving in the same old power-grabbing way that characterises "the political game" as a whole.

Likewise, in the '70s and beyond, there were some "social justice Christians" who eventually found themselves spiritually dried-out: partly because they implicitly kept hoping that altered structures would make people behave differently without the need to change hearts and minds. What we have come to discover, I think, is that the process of transformation is always about connecting the structural and the interpersonal, the spiritual and the political, the macro and the micro, in positive, life generating ways. This is the connectivity that "church" ought to be about.

[Picture: the cover of Camara's marvellous book, The Conversions of a Bishop, which documented his own transformation by those he sought to work with.]

Monday, June 23, 2008


Ekklesia Press Release, 23.06.08: Anglican wrangling about sexuality and authority in the church is missing the big picture about how the relationship between religion and society is changing, says a new book from the think tank Ekklesia to be published next week.

Christians need to be beacons of hope, not signs of decay, it argues, suggesting that the 'conservative versus liberal' stereotype disguises a deeper tension between establishment religion and the Christian message of radical transformation.

With a preface by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who declares, "in God's family, there are no outsiders, no enemies", Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, is edited by Ekklesia co- director Simon Barrow.

The book contains essays by clergy, a peace activist, an equalities adviser and two New Testament professors. It is aimed at substantially challenging the argument that will take place at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in July. Continued here.


As a group of leading Anglicans gather in Jerusalem to debate their quarrels with another leading Anglicans, the world looks on with a combination of mild amazement and disinterest, one imagines. The whole thing is deeply bizarre, unless you inhabit a particular strange corner of the universe. Anyway, Anthony Barnett kindly prompted me about this earlier today on behalf of openDemocracy's 'Our Kingdom' project, and the result is When Jerusalem turns to Little England, bringing William Blake into the picture. It will be the first of a number of pieces connected with the new book I've edited, Fear or Freedom? Just to warn you! [Picture (c) the Blake archive]

Sunday, June 22, 2008


Among the major aims of Refugee Week (16-23 June 2008) in the UK is to give a human face to the often misinformed and tendentious public debate about asylum and refugees, to counter propaganda put out by the British tabloids and their allies, to hear voices from the margins, to reframe our policy thinking, and to highlight the superb work done by a number of voluntary agencies in assisting people whose often desperate plight does not stop where borders begin. Incidentally, I see that a new sanctuary blog has been created in the US. Last year, CTBI, the ecumenical body, drew up a set of important principles and guidelines for churches working with migrants. There's also a powerful piece by Mark Haddon on The hell of being an asylum seeker.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


A bit of a book update... the orders are already coming in for the new book I've edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change. The publication date for that is 30 June. So if you have put in an order you can expect delivery then or shortly after. Given Ekklesia's new publishing arrangement with Shoving Leopard in Edinburgh, my other book, Threatened with Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ (pictured - now due 31 October 2008) is being switched to this imprint from Darton, Longman & Todd and has a new ISBN. There are also other publishing projects in the offing, including one on church and welfare. Looks exciting.

Friday, June 20, 2008


As many of the inherited institutions of Christianity struggle or crumble, the temptation to take on a new role as a kind of ancillary social service agency to society at large is huge. I wouldn't wish to condemn the pastoral activities such agency might involve -- far from it. But if a social concordat between church and government starts to reinvent the old, tame 'civic religion' in a different guise, then the church's "social curia" (as Ken Leech once described its army of advisers and practitioners) is in danger of becoming less and less about deep personal and corporate transformation, and ever more in danger of losing sight of the core message of the Gospel. Some of the church's most politically engaged thinkers, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil, have been among those to realise this acutely, not least in moments of crisis when something more substantial than "caring" or a social compact is needed: resistance, in fact. These are some of the concerns which, combined with the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, produced my reflections on A real agent of transformation (Ekklesia, 20.06.08).

One would expect the courageous and inquisitive decision of experienced Christian journalist Huw Spanner (pictured) to go to the Middle East to interview a senior Hamas figure, not something that happens every day (to put it mildly), to elicit real interest -- beyond the "don't talk to terrorists" brigade, that is. People who have genuine enough concerns but not, I judge, hope and history on their side. However, Huw tells me that since he has returned he is "shocked" at the general apathy towards the obvious questions about what Damascus, Syria, Hamas and Khalid Mish'al, widely regarded as the most senior figure in the movement, are all like. Americans are often accused of parochialism when it comes to assigning global understanding on their list of priorities, but it is a problem that reaches deep into Europe, too. We assume more than we learn. The longer-length interview (with the aforementioned Third Way) is here. Huw asks some penetrating questions and cannot be accused of giving his interlocutor an easy time. The main purpose of the 'high profile' interview slot, by the way, is to probe behind the influences and background of its subject, rather than to "do a Paxman". This one provides some fascinating material as well as some possible skirting round the edges.

Long-time friend of the London Mennonite Centre Dave Nussbaum (I'm on the LMC Council) has been moving up in the NGO world for some time. Finance director of Oxfam for a number of years, he moved on to head up Transparency International and is now director of the World Wildlife Fund UK. Environmental concern has put a new twist on animal welfare, pushing it into the species protection arena. You can even adopt a monkey now: Less than 63,000 orangutans are estimated to survive in the wild today. Orangutans are now found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Habitat destruction and fragmentation - caused by commercial logging and clearance for oil palm plantations and agriculture - are by far the greatest threats that these creatures face.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


.... is the name of the column I've been doing for the monthly Third Way magazine ("Christian comment on culture') for a little over a year now. I've tended to amplify these, often incorporating some element of theological reflection, for Ekklesia -- as part of my regular op ed pieces there. But now, I'm pleased to say, the revamped and upgraded Third Way, published since 1977 and inspired by a quotation from cultural critic and theologian Os Guinness (rather than any affiliation with the Blairite term coined by Anthony Giddens and others associate with the London School of Economics) has a new website. My July 2008 column, Is it me, or has everyone gone ‘leadership potty’ lately? is now online. The Ekklesia version (pretty much unchanged in this particular instance) is here. This issue of TW will also be going out free to all Church Times subscribers next weekend, I gather. Should get it some attention.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


The new book I have edited and contributed a number of chapters to, Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change, will be published later next week and is available for order from our Metanoia/Ekklesia online bookshop now. In due course it will be available via Amazon world-wide, but only in a limited number of bookstores.

"With a short preface from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Fear or Freedom? takes a constructively critical look at the significance of ‘Anglican wars’ over sexuality, scripture and authority in the run up to (and well beyond) the much publicised 2008 Lambeth Conference, signalling some important fault lines in post-Christendom life and faith.

"Drawing on material from the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, the book asks why many historic churches are in a mess and how they can change. Its message is positive. The churches can - and must - abandon their obsession with top-down control, and rediscover the Gospel as a subversive source of hope in society at large.

Contributors: Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley (Co-directors of Ekklesia), Glynn Cardy (St Matthew’s-in-the-City, Auckland, New Zealand), Deirdre Good (Professor of New Testament, The General Theological Seminary, New York), Savitri Hensman (Equalities adviser and writer, UK and Sri Lanka), Tim Nafziger (Christian Peacemaker Teams, USA), Chris Rowland (Dean Ireland Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford) and David Wood (Parish priest and university chaplain, Western Australia).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Last week I attended the reception for around 120 people at Number 10 Downing Street at which Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched a new Labour consultation and dialogue with faith communities, which raises many interesting questions about religion and public policy. There was also a celebration of some award-winning Faithworks projects. My own press comment on behalf of Ekklesia is summarised here.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Here's my latest piece about the Von Hugel Institute report on church, government and social welfare. Penned for OpenDemocracy's 'Our Kingdom' conversation, to which I'm an occasional contributor, it is entitled Whose welfare, what provision? and begins to probe into some of the underlying public policy issues. Essentially, though, it's a short review of Moral, But No Compass. Also available via the UK Politics aggregator.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


A good reflection from Keith Walton (who attends my parish in Exeter) on Common sense, mercy and sacrifice.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


I spoke at this year's annual council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation back in April, and an abbreviated version of that talk, 'Peacemaking After Christendom', appears in the June-September 2008 FoR England newsletter Peacelinks. A version will go up on Ekklesia in due course. It looks at the way in which the changing place of institutional religion in society, principally the loosening of its past cultural privilege, is opening up new, creative possibilities for Christians who see justice and peace as central fruits of the Gospel, both within the church and in its engagement and encounter with wider society.

Back in January '08 I also spoke to the Oxford Secular Society, based at the University, on the theme of 'Does religion have to be the enemy?' (to which the answer is 'no'). They are a very open and engaging bunch, by no means exclusively non-religious, and Peter Hughes has done an interview with me for their publication, too.

One of the questions was about what the hot church-state issue might be in the coming years. I responded: "The really big issues are going to be over faith-based organisations involved with publicly funded services... If churches are going to be involved in service delivery (and this is a ‘functionalist’ approach to social engagement which I am sceptical of on other grounds), then it needs to be on the basis of a comprehensive equalities agenda, not on ‘cherry picking’ who they will assist. [This is a case to be made through] Christian arguments, not just secular ones." At that stage, I didn't imagine the Von Hugel research would create such big waves.

"Passion and prejudice govern the world, only under the name of reason. It is our part, by religion and reason joined, to counteract them all we can."

"An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge." - remarks published in The Letters of John Wesley (1915) edited by George Eayrs.

"Think not the bigotry of another is any excuse for your own."

Friday, June 13, 2008


I talked with all three authors of the Moral, But No Compass report on church and social welfare yesterday - at a reception hosted by PM Gordon Brown at No 10 Downing Street for Faithworks and the Christian Socialist Movement. (More on this event shortly). They were naturally looking forward to the public conversation turning from immediate, sometimes superficial reactions, to deeper issues. Though my own interventions so far have been far from uncritical, the researchers all seemed positive about them, which is heartening. Whatever you think of it (and I have decidedly mixed feelings) a lot of work has gone into this document.

My latest piece, Churches and public service, is on Wardman Wire (a predominantly but not exclusively right-of-centre website and group blog on politics, culture, technology and sport). Matt Wardman will also be hosting what he hopes will be a wide ranging conversation about the issues involved on the forum.

In addition the Exeter and Devon regional paper Express and Echo carried a short 'viewpoint' column by me yesterday, which they entitled Churches acting as arm of government very wrong. This followed on from a curious report in the same paper of a public meeting on faith and politics, with Exeter MP and health minister Ben Bradshaw and others, where I might have come across as an uncritical cheer-leader for collusion: Government 'is not betraying' Christians say religious leaders.

In fact I had carefully explained to the journalist (who wasn't actually able to stay for most of the meeting) that the Von Hugel Institute report, at that stage awaiting publication, was not "written by the Church of England". And while I emphasised that there was plenty of official and unofficial consultation with faith communities, even if data was sometimes thin, my main concern was that churches should not simply be absorbed into government agendas. Insofar as Christians are involved in receiving public funds, I added, they should act in a way that shows a clear Gospel-based commitment to fairness toward our neighbours (as a corporate outworking of love), rather than privilege for ourselves. This didn't get reported.

There are of course, a spectrum of collaborative possibilities (involving statutory, 'third sector', civil society and private bodies) existing between purely voluntary endeavour on the one hand, and charities or faith groups being hired as public service deliverers with taxpayers' money on the other. This is evident in my Wardman piece, but perhaps not so much in the Express and Echo one - aimed at a more popular audience.

The areas arising from all this that I want to examine further at this juncture are, first, the question about when it might be appropriate for churches to receive or use public money, and when not; second, the burden of Moral, But No Compass in terms of previous Anglican documents on church and society; third, the shifting position of the established Church in relation to the main political parties; and fourth, questions that need to be posed to the "commissioning state" model of welfare.

Meanwhile, Thinking Anglicans continues to provide a useful overview of commentary on the report. Of course I realise that FaithInSociety regulars may rather wish to read about other things, too!

Thursday, June 12, 2008


"Story re-orders, sifts through experience, and allows others... to hear what we think truly matters. We are constituted by the stories we tell ourselves and others. Thus stories serve an ontological purpose. Story connects us with that which lies beyond ourselves and this process makes us ask questions about the meanings of our lives. It is, in fact, a way we can begin to define what we mean when we use the term 'spirituality'." (Barbara Kimes Myers)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The government has been behaving shamefully in its ever more desperate attempts to cajole Labour rebels into backing its plans to extend the period of detention without trial for terror suspects in Britain from 28 days to 42 days - against the great bulk of expert advise and opinion on issues relating to security and human rights. I've made a media comment on this today. While I may disagree with the Church of England on some issues, it has got it absolutely right on this one. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty was, as usual, very articulate on TV and radio about the key issues yesterday and this morning. Recognising its enormous significance, the BBC and Channel 4 are running regular blog updates on the debate throughout the day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Compass points, Simon Barrow, Comment-is-Free, Tuesday June 10 2008, 18:00 Some believe the government discriminates against Christian groups, but the reality is more complex. A new report tackles some of the important questions.

(Incidentally, the revamped CIF site now has a dedicated religion section, consolidating material published across Guardian Unlimited online and in the print edition)

I have revised and slightly extended my short Ekklesia article, A wonky church and welfare debate. There will be more appearing on Wardman Wire tomorrow and my Guardian CIF piece is due sometime this evening. There's a short round up here, and an angular response from the Zaccheus 2000 Trust. Meantime, it would be good if some more of the people weighing in actually read Moral, But No Compass. But the lack of an e-edition is hampering that.

'[A]side from its rather sensationalist introduction in the media, the Von Hugel Institute's report is a substantial contribution to the debate, and provides plenty of fresh evidential material. Hopefully the rush to judgement which is so common in public life these days will not obscure the important detail and the full depth of the wider picture it seeks to present - whether we agree with its conclusions and emphases, or not."

Monday, June 09, 2008


If there's going to be disagreement, it's good to figure out where, why and how it arises. But when it comes to religion and public life, there is more frequently unhelpful confusion. Here is Francis Davis, one of the authors of Moral, But No Compass (now being styled as the 'lead author') writing about it in the Jesuit online journal, Thinking Faith - 'A challenge to every politician'. On the other hand, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association is decidely less than impressed.

[This article on Ekklesia continued here - updated 9 June 08].

I have further articles on the Von Hugel report due this week on The Guardian's Comment is Free and in the Express and Echo (which today published an article about a recent Exeter meeting on faith and politics that made it looks as if I am an uncritical approver of government schmoozing with the churches and vice versa. I asked for a column to clarify my view.)

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Something of a fuss has broken out about a new report, commissioned for the Church of England, concerning the role of faith communities (actual and potential) in relation to publicly-funded and sanctioned welfare service provision. I have talked to one of the authors, who I know personally, and I was also interviewed for the research along with many others. But that is my only direct link with the Cambridge-based Von Hugel Institute publication, Moral, But No Compass: Government, Church and the Future of Welfare (Matthew James, £9.95), other than as someone who shares a direct concern with the issues it tackles. Among other things, as the title suggests, the report reveals some significant gaps in data and knowledge on the part of government departments, related agencies and the church itself, as far as Christian involvement in voluntary work is concerned. I have spent a good chunk of time today responding to media enquiries about all of this.

Ekklesia has already commented critically on the emerging 'new deal' between church and state over public services. I tackled some of the questions involved in the latter part of my chapter on "the churches' caring role" in Street Credo: Churches and Communities (edited by Michael Simmons, published by Lemos & Crane in 2001). Jonathan Bartley did so in his book Faith and Politics After Christendom (Paternoster, 2006).

The initial reporting about Moral, But No Compass has been rather selective, "well spun" and based on what was either a leaked document or a deliberately placed one. In any event, the full report was originally embargoed until a press conference in London tomorrow at 11am and will still be unveiled in full then, though the tone of reception and response has already been established. The archbishops of Canterbury and York will apparently issue a statement.

There is much more to be said about this (I'm respecting the embargo, even if the rush to summary judgment has already begun), but my opening comment on behalf of Ekklesia was as follows: "We believe a more careful, calm and critical evaluation is needed of the role of faith groups in public service provision. It is particularly important that the needs of the vulnerable and the reasonable expectation of all people (whether religious or non-religious) for equal treatment from public services should not be subsumed too readily in a ‘contracting-out’ culture that can put the interests of providers – government, voluntary and private agencies – ahead of those they are supposed to be helping. Research and thought is badly needed, but a confused ‘debate’ fuelled by sensational headlines and half-truths will not help anybody.”

Saturday, June 07, 2008


"Understanding is the key to valuing, valuing is the key to caring, and caring is the key to acting."

(Adapted from the ending of a National Trust and UNESCO-supported AV presentation that I watched at Liskeard Museum yesterday, introducing historical sites across Cornwall.)

Friday, June 06, 2008


The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) Christian Network is holding a day of prayer on Sunday 8 June 2008, as part of a week of action aimed at highlighting the deleterious impact of global weapons sales in a world of conflict and suffering. The specific aim of the week has been to put pressure on the British government to re-open the corruption enquiry into BAE Systems' Saudi links, following the landmark High Court ruling against the Serious Fraud Office's earlier decision to drop the investigation. CAAT played a key role in securing that judgment. I am particularl pleased to have been able to offer a message of support on behalf of Ekklesia. Back in the '70s and 80's I did a fair bit of research and writing on the arms trade and development, and I served on CAAT's national steering committee from 1976-1987.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Moving religion from harm to healing Ekklesia, 4 June 08. Religion that binds others with condemnation and superstition is far from the heart of the Gospel, says Simon Barrow. The church needs to face its arguments and seek to be a place of healing if it is to rediscover its global role.

Here's the first interlinear plug for a new book I have edited (and have five chapters in) which is due out for the beginning of July - possibly a little before. It's called Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change, and I'm honoured to say that it has a preface by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Contributors include Deirdre Good, Savitri Hensman, Christopher Rowland, Glynn Cardy and others. It takes a constructively critical look at the significance of ‘Anglican wars’ in the run up to (and well beyond) the 2008 Lambeth Conference, signalling some important fault lines in post-Christendom life and faith. Its message is positive. The churches can - and must - abandon their obsession with top-down control, and rediscover the Gospel as a subversive source of hope in society at large. Fear or freedom? will be published jointly by Ekklesia and Shoving Leopard, a new Edinburgh-based imprint run by my friend Janet de Vigne, whose mantra is "life in all its fullness was never 'safe'." You will not be able to order it yet, but as soon as it is online the information will be made available.

The BBC reports that Hillary Clinton will finally step down from the Democratic US presidential nomination race and endorse Barack Obama on Saturday 7 June. America clearly needs a substantial change of direction, but I confess that I remain sceptical about all the romantic hype surrounding Obama, and also about his capacity to win. If you look at his policies, he's not quite what the wide-eyed idealists imagine. I was hoping for something much more positive from Hillary, having admired her since her earlier attempts at substantial health care reform (which was extraordinary as a creative policy exercise, but from which she has had to learn hard lessons politically). So I feel more than a touch of sadness at the implosion of her campaign. Almost everyone else I talk to (including my American wife) is positive about Obama. I still think that Clinton would have been far stronger working the Washington system -- which, frankly, is what you have to do. Plus the anti-Hillary narrative has been drenched in sexism and an anti-women backlash, which is deeply disturbing.

Real change isn't dreamt up from the top. It comes from people at the grassroots challenging the shape of the agenda on which power politics (never less than a messy business) gets played out. So if people sit back and expect Obama to deliver whatever it is that they want - a reversal of Iraq policy, climate action, anti-poverty strategies, an Israel-Palestine settlement - they will, I fear, be sorely disappointed. The defining issue is likely to be the economy, where both he and McCain are less than sure-footed, both caught up in the neoliberal paradigm, and each -- for different reasons -- reluctant to challenge the vested interests of corporate America. For example, on a universal health care mandate - which one opposes and the other avoids. Hillary Clinton would have been in the same boat, and is in many respects an establishment figure. But I suspect she may have been bolder than in practice Obama will end up being, shorn of the rhetoric, if he gets to the White House. I would be delighted to be proved wrong, of course.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


"Our desires do not become respectable because we offer them to God in prayer. Prayer is the purification of desire. It is not only pointless but unintelligent to entertain a thousand desires when there are only a few choices." (Colin Morris, A Week in the Life of God )

Dave Walker, of the excellent 'Cartoon Church', has done a good follow-up piece on the strange fuss about 'Faithbook', over at his regular Church Times blog. I belong to at least two inter-religious pages on Facebook, so I'm pretty sure that the idea of getting the whole gang "on the same page", so to speak, is very far from unique. But it seems that any time some "official representatives" from a religious group get somewhere near a newish medium that "ordinary people" have in fact been using for ages, it becomes a "story". The Times' "it's about combating extremism" angle was especially cute. Spend a moment or two trying to think how that might work and you will see why it seems a bit thin. This is not to say that there isn't value in as many ventures as possible to get people to talk across divides of world-view, belief and ideology, I stress. It's just the hype that doesn't help.

I wonder whether the unfortunate "with-it vicar" syndrome of the '60s and '70s (when a hapless cleric would be meaninglessly lauded for getting a motorbike, going down the pub or featuring in a pop video, say) hasn't morphed into pretty well any place where "faith leaders" try to latch onto the spokes of a fast-turning a-religious culture that many suspect they don't really "get", having been advised by anxious acolytes to throw themselves at in order to "communicate". No doubt we will have the Archbishop of Canterbury on Twitter soon, a few weeks before it is declared to be formally passe by some Arbiters of Cool.

Chill, everyone.

[Cartoon (c) Dave Walker and He also has at least one book out, which is very good. Now go keep him in cookies by buying it.]

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Boy, you have to be careful what you say these days. This morning I noted the small story by Riazat Butt of The Guardian on the launch of something called 'Faithbook', which aims to promote dialogue between people of different religious persuasions. So I Googled to find out what it's about. As far as I can see (and I may be wrong), Faithbook is simply another page on the Facebook social networking site. Which doesn't seem quite such a big deal as the media interest (which is growing by the minute) might suggest. There are a variety of other, mainly evangelical, initiatives out there that use the term, by the way.

Anyhow, I "joined" the page and left a comment, which simply said, in a spirit of puzzled enquiry: "Um, is this it, then? Just another group on Facebook?" Lo and behold, a few hours later, I get pinged from a page on The Times, where Joanna Sugden duly informs the world that, in my capacity as co-director of Ekklesia, I have "criticised" Faithbook. Goodness. That's news for you. And to me, frankly! For the record, I'm a bit sceptical about the fuss, but if it promotes sensible conversation (as distinct from immediate pigeon holing), so much the better.

When the Emperor Ptolemy sacked Jerusalem in 63 AD, and entered the Holy of Holies in the Great Temple, he was baffled to find an empty room -- no picture, ascription or image. Emptiness is a negative description of the God who cannot be named, described or contained." (Colin Morris, The Word and the Words)

"The characteristic form of God's presence is absence" (Deny Turner)

Monday, June 02, 2008


The Prodigal Kiwis (Paul Fremont and Alan Jamieson) have a new post on William Stringfellow - an inspiration of mine, who died 23 years ago. Stringfellow was a lawyer in largely black East Harlem, an Episcopalian, a radical activist and a very substantial lay theologian who took American Christianity by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shaking. Indeed, Karl Barth once famously told a staid theological conference that this was the man they should listen to. His work (including An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land) appeared in a series of now out-of-print books and latterly in Sojourners magazine.

In 1997 I helped with a conference in Oxford about Stringfellow's legacy, primarily organised by Tony Dancer. I led a seminar which became an essay called 'Talking Nonsense to Power' in Tony's book William Stringfellow in Anglo-American Perspective (Ashgate). There's a brief excerpt here. Among the other contributors are Rowan Williams and Chris Rowland. Unfortunately (especially for a book that seeks to represent a grassroots intellectual) it costs £45 in hardback. A paperback edition is sorely needed. When I met ++Rowan at a Lambeth reception a year or so ago we mentioned approaching the publisher about that. I ought to follow up. Thanks, Paul and Alan, for keeping Stringfellow's profile up there.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


I am neither a greater follower of celeb news nor a regular reader of the Mail on Sunday, it won't surprise you to know. But, cynicism aside, there was a touchingly authentic article today by actor Natascha McElhone -- whose husband, surgeon Martin Kelly, suddenly and tragically dropped dead of a severe heart attack recently, at the age of 42. Its tenor was not self-pity but gratitude, which makes a refreshing change in the narcissistic world of 'Californication'.

"I don't know why I'm not surprised that his life came to an abrupt end. I didn't think 'Why us? Why me?', I just thought, "Thank God I've lived like this thus far. Whatever happens, it was worth every ounce of pain I'm going through now."