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The ever growing and changing Pope Francis

2016 November 29
by Paul Vallely
Massimo Faggioli’s review of the second edition of
Pope Francis – Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism

(Photo: CNA)

Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, Paul Vallely, Bloomsbury, 2015, 470 pp.

This is the only major biographical work on Pope Francis that has been substantially updated after its first edition.

Untying the Knots – The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism adds nine new chapters, which constitute a thorough analysis of the first two years of the pontificate.

The most important is Chapter Six, “Exile in Cordoba”.

It represents, in my opinion, one of the keys to understanding the “mystery” of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the man and the priest, and therefore to understanding his pontificate. It is clear to me that the turnaround of this Jesuit – who, in his fifties, took stock of his failures – has a parallel in the life of the young Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and the future John XXIII’s embrace of the idea of the “medicine of mercy”.

The chapter that follows, “How Bergoglio Changed”, is one of the best analyses of the cultural and spiritual complexities of Bergoglio-Francis. Vallely accurately describes the deeply anti-ideological approach to the issues that been seen as so typical of this pope. Francis transcends the divide between a Catholic culture focused on social justice and a more spiritualized Catholicism that saw such political engagement in the period after the Second Vatican Council as a distortion of the nature of the Church.

But for all Bergoglio’s complexities and paradoxes, Vallely convincingly shows that there is a trajectory in his life and thought. He was not a liberation theologian, but as pope he clearly expresses a liberationist perspective. In this sense, as the pontificate continues to add new elements to the trajectory of the pope’s life, it is interesting to read Vallely’s analysis of how top clerics perceived Bergoglio in different ways at the conclave and at the beginning of the pontificate (especially Cardinals Mueller, Burke, Nichols, and Woelki).

This book is particularly valuable for its nuance. The chapters on Bergoglio during the dirty war in Argentina, on his handling of the sex abuse crisis at the Vatican and his approach to the role of women in the Church and in theology offer a healthy reminder. For all his conversion from the authoritarian Jesuit to the synodal pope, Francis has idiosyncrasies stemming from his background, formation, and culture as a cleric.

I disagree with Vallely’s judgment in only a few passages. For example, I would not say that Francis’ statements on contraception represent “ambiguity” (page 193). I think rather it is because the matter itself is complex that a pope finally decided to address it in a complex way. In this he points out that Catholicism is full of contradiction, like every Christian experience.

But what is even more typical of Catholicism is not the contradiction, but the paradoxes. In Francis’ case, the paradox of reconciling the validity of the overall message of Humanae Vitae on marriage and love with the very problematic (to say the least) reception in the Church of the passage on contraception. Francis is, in fact, the first pope that has gone through the reception of Humanae Vitae as a young priest.

Secondly, I do not think it is correct to affirm that Francis confirmed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (page 369). I think the dossier of the American sister was part of the complicated transition from Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis. In fact, in December 2014 Francis put an end to the whole investigation.

Finally, I believe it is unfair to say Francis’s view of women is that they are like “strawberries on the cake”. Along with that remark, which the he made in December 2014 during an address to the members of the International Theological Commission in December 2014, the pope also said quite clearly that women should not be seen that way and must have a more visible role in the Church (page 376).

The subtitle of Vallely’s new edition – the struggle for the soul of Catholicism – comes up explicitly two times in the book, according to my count. On page 264 the author talks about “a war for the soul of Catholicism” in reference to Francis’ critical speech to the Roman Curia in December 2014.

Then at then end of page 326 he reports on a comment made by an Downton Abbey kind of lady at a Cardinal Burke event in Chester, England: “This is a battle for the soul of the Church”.

Vallely’s inclusion of the subtitle concerning Pope Francis’ “ struggle” is part of this revised and expanded edition for a reason. The pontificate is meeting resistance from the establishment of the Church – much more than any recent predecessor on the chair of Peter.

The author’s story of Bergoglio is “a story of change” (page 412). The Church is also a story of change, and this book helps us understand the connection between the deep inner transformation of its current leader and the possibility of transformation of the Church.

Massimo Faggioli
Vatican City
December 15, 2015

A bravura performance from Niamh Cusack in a new translation of Ibsen’s Ghosts

2016 November 24
by Paul Vallely


Home, Manchester

4 stars


The stage appears to have been turned through 45 degrees so it protrudes, in a diamond shape, into the auditorium. In the corner nearest to the audience stands an empty bentwood chair. It was only after the play had ended that I worked out what this curious mise-en-scène represented in Polly Findlay’s ingenious production of a new translation of one of the foundational texts of modern drama – Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The empty chair is the chair of Captain Alving, the character who never appears but whose dissolute personal life dominates the action even so many years after his death. It is eventually occupied by Alving’s son, Osvald, only at the point where he realises that he is the inheritor of his father’s legacy. In public that inheritance is a home for orphans as a tribute to the life of a man lauded as the apotheosis of virtue. In private the inheritance is the terminal syphilis with which Osvald has been born thanks to his alcoholic father’s endless womanising. The sins of the fathers visited upon the children.

There is a bravura performance from the peerless Niamh Cusack as the Captain’s widow, struggling years later to come to terms with the life he led and the deception she practiced in pretending to the world that he was the acme of righteousness. Much of the skill of the new translation by the playwright David Watson lies in lines which are superficially banal and yet shot through with subtext. Cusack gives an extraordinary performance in which the very thought-processes of the philanderer’s widow come alive in a compelling between-the-lines piece of acting.

Ibsen wrote the play in 1881 when its critique of puritan religion, portrayal of extra-marital sex and allusions to venereal disease, incest and euthanasia deeply shocked his contemporaries. It’s difficult for a modern translation to convey that sense of outrage; today Osvald’s defence of promiscuity sounds like commonplace received wisdom. Yet David Watson combines a sense of colloquial modernity with the claustrophobic atmosphere of a repressed society.

The Olivier award-winning director draws nicely-judged performances from William Travis as the cloven-hooved ever-so-umble Engstrand and Norah Lopez Holden as the daughter determined to break away but entrapped in the orbit of her debased father. Jamie Ballard makes credible the anguish of the Calvinist pastor and Ken Nwosu deftly captures a mix of worldly knowingness and self-delusion as the doomed Osvald. Go and see this.

from the i

A great crack, where the light got in

2016 November 15
by Paul Vallely
Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes I thought it was there for good so I never tried

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried

By one of those eerie coincidences, a few days after the death of Leonard Cohen, one of his songs came up in something I was watching in the theatre. The play was called Things I Know To Be True and though it was written some time before the Canadian songwriter’s death it highlighted why the departure of such a figure on the cultural landscape can feel like a personal rather than a public loss.

The play, at one point, takes Cohen’s song Famous Blue Raincoat and uses it as a device by which a young woman can tell her mother (played by Imogen Stubbs, above) that she has always understood something which her Mum thought was hidden. The daughter had noticed her mother would cry when she heard it. I won’t spoil the plot as this fine play – a tender and moving study of family life by Andrew Bovell – is currently on a national tour. But various lines from the song became an unnervingly threnody along the woman’s life.

Popular song is the soundtrack to the lives of a generation who live, love and age along with the songs’ singers. It’s why musicians of longevity, like David Bowie or Prince, leave such a bewailed gap in the lives of the fans they leave behind. Leonard Cohen did that most distinctively because of the elegance and depth of his poetic sensibility.

To a pop star’s romantic charisma he added an eroticised intelligence. He was more than a womanising poet singing songs of melancholy. He delved deep into love, suffering, depression and despair – and then offered a fragmented redemption with his holy but broken Hallelujah. Pleasure and pain to him were inseparable parts of what it is to be human: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen could gaze up to the heavens and down to hell and yet his feet were planted firmly here on earth. He had “this direct line to the galaxy”, said Rufus Wainwright, “whilst at the same time knowing exactly when to take out the trash”. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh, Cohen said.

He showed that “being spiritual but not religious” can be more than a shallow secular slogan. Brought up an Orthodox Jew he flirted with Scientology before spending six years in a Zen Buddhist monastery in California – an experience which eased his lifelong depression. Latterly he revealed: “Occasionally I’ve felt the grace of another presence in my life.” On his final album, last month, he borrowed a Jewish prayer of preparation and humility, singing Abraham’s response when God called on him to sacrifice Isaac: “Hineni, hineni; I’m ready, my lord”.

The response to his death showed that his work and his words have reached beyond his peers to resonate across generations. As he wrote to his old lover Marianne on her deathbed only weeks ago: “Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”. His steps will always rhyme.

from the Church Times

Donald Trump, the Daily Mail and post-truth politics

2016 November 9
by Paul Vallely

They call it post-truth politics. Donald Trump is its most grotesque embodiment. But it is gaining a foothold here, as we saw from the hysterical reaction of pro-Brexit politicians to the High Court ruling that Parliament must be consulted as Britain leaves the European Union.

Politicians have always lied. But “post-truth politics” is something new. It was first defined in the late 1990s when US conservatives became alarmed that laws to reduce carbon emissions would hit them in the pocket. The way to fight back was to question the underlying science. The strategy was laid bare by a leaked memo to President George W Bush which suggested that public opinion would harden once people came to believe the science was settled.

Throughout the presidential campaign Donald Trump told lie after lie, beginning with the claim that he started his business empire with a “small loan” from his father, when in fact he inherited $40m. His falsehoods were too many to catalogue here. When the professional fact checkers PolitiFact scrutinised his speeches they found 70% of his factual statements were ‘mostly false’, ‘false’ or ‘pants-on-fire’ untruths. Washington Post checkers agreed, and found much of the remaining 30% also untrue.

But there is more to post-truth than a lack of factual accuracy. It also involves insult and innuendo, scares and smears, paranoia and the psychology of conspiracy. The response of our populist press to the High Court ruling on the process of Brexit reveals that post-truth politics have taken root here too.

The Daily Mail was particularly egregious with a front page which set out – with the headline “Enemies of the People” – mugshots of the three judges who had ruled that Parliament must have a say on the mechanism of Brexit. You might have thought the system of checks and balances between the executive, the legislature and judiciary embodied in the British constitution was a key part of the national sovereignty which Brexiteers voted to restore. The Mail, however, preferred a diatribe about “the will of the people” having been flouted by judges who, it informed its readers in a classic dog-whistle smear – included a gay Jew, a committed Europhile and a “pal” of Tony Blair’s.

 Donald Trump has for months been up to similar tricks in the United States with slurs on Mexicans, Muslims and menstruating women. Often he acknowledged he was merely insinuating with the preparatory phrase: “A lot of people are saying…” (He aired no fewer than 58 conspiracy theories in his campaign.) But many times he told barefaced lies with brass-necked audacity. Then, when his accuracy was questioned, he riposted: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Mostly his audience roared with approving laughter.

What was at work here was an advertising industry model of communication in which the important thing is not what you say but how you make people feel. So long as something feels true, that is enough. The American comedian Steven Colbert even coined a phrase, “truthiness”, to describe ideas which “feel right” or “should be true”. British politicians should be wary of following our sillier newspapers onto this dangerously debased territory.


This first appeared in the Church Times

Female Lear fails to land emotional punch

2016 November 4
by Paul Vallely

Our half-term treat was a trip to the Old Vic to see the amazing Glenda Jackson play King Lear. We’d been well-primed by her masterly portrayal of the 104 year old narrator in Radio 4’s recent dramatisation of Emile Zola’s epic family saga of sex, greed and intrigue. Sadly the Lear was a grave disappointment.

At times the veteran actress was powerfully moving. She was particularly touching in Lear’s maddest scene in which he hallucinates a mouse and much else. But there was a lack of emotional coherence and narrative thrust.

Perhaps we have been spoiled. There have been a lot of Lears about recently. The Royal Shakespeare Company is offering a performance of commanding range from Antony Sher as the abdicating monarch who addresses his failing powers by carving his kingdom into portions for his three daughters. This was monarch by divine right, a high priest who channelled the celestial when he called down maledictions upon those who fell outside his favour. His was a disturbing descent from cosmic command to personal collapse.

Before that we saw Simon Russell Beale at the National. His Lear began as a merciless dictator who held his court in a state of nervous dread. His behaviour – along with that of his boisterous and brutal knights – made his daughters’ demand that they should be reduced seem entirely reasonable. His subsequent disintegration into madness then became all the more moving.

Glenda Jackson lacks such a story. Her director, Deborah Warner, has filled her production with gimmicks and tricks but they feel empty. Edmund’s gymnastics, buttock-baring, and most bizarrely of all his entrance carrying a 10 foot ladder, seemed pointless. Regan’s lustful sexuality before her acts of cruelty or violence, appeared gratuitous rather than organic. Most problematically the central gender swap added nothing to the psychological burden of the drama.

When Gillian Bevan played Cymbeline as a queen rather than a king at the RSC earlier this year the switch added a dimension of maternal anguish. But this female Lear merely prompted the thought that most women have too much emotional intelligence to do anything as silly as Lear does.

Two days later, at the Liverpool Everyman we had a happier experience with Two Gentlemen of Verona. Generally considered Shakespeare’s first play it feels a try-out for all the theatrical devices of his later comedies: lovers’ trysts, elopement, cross-dressing and betrayal rounded off by the conventional happy ending. The play lacks the emotional richness of Shakespeare’s later comedies but a touring production from the Globe Theatre gave a splendid modern integrity to all that.

It relocated the play into the world of 1960s pop. 45rpm vinyl discs replaced the Elizabethan love letter. The earnest young hero became a figure of mild fun. And it was decidedly contemporary in its take on gender relations.

The play infamously contains a knotty line in which one of the men offers his fiancée to his friend as a mark of male bonding. Modern audiences find that preposterous but director Nick Bagnall confronted it head on with a demonstration of female solidarity between the two heroines which spoke to our times. If only the same could have been said about King Lear in the Old Vic.

from the Church Times


Pope Francis is slowly dragging the Catholic Church back from the right to the centre – but he still has a way to go

2016 October 14
by Paul Vallely

The lineaments of the papacy of Pope Francis became even clearer this week with his announcement of the kind of men he has chosen to become cardinals – and the electors who will determine whether he is succeed by someone who cements his reforming instincts or by someone who steers the Roman Catholic Church back to the conservative ground to which it was shifted by his most recent predecessors.

The priority he accords to courageous conflict resolution was clear from his placing at the top of his list Mario Zenari, the dauntless Vatican ambassador to war-ravaged Syria. It will be the first time in recent history a papal nuncio will have the rank of cardinal. Also prominent was the youngest candidate, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, who has worked with resolution for an end to the bloody conflict in the Central African Republic. Bangladesh’s new cardinal, Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario, has been intensely involved in interreligious dialogue though he has spoken out against radical Islamic indoctrination. And there was a testament to bravery too in the appointment of the only-non bishop on the list Father Ernest Simoni, the priest who brought tears to the Pope’s eyes with his account of his 30 years of prison, torture and forced labour in atheistic Albania.

His preference for the peripheries was evident as Francis makes the College of Cardinals less European. The new men represent all five continents and 12 different countries with 11 coming from places like Bangladesh, New Guinea, Malaysia and Lesotho which have never before had a cardinal.

All the new men are pastors who “smell of their sheep” rather than theological ideologues. From Madrid he has chosen Carlos Osoro Sierra, a man nicknamed the “Spanish Francis” who walks around his diocese and has a devotion to Our Lady of La Paloma whose feastday celebrations attract thousands of non-church attenders who live “on the spiritual outskirts”.

The new cardinals favour collaboration over confrontation and put mercy before judgemental condemnation. From his native Latin America, Pope Francis has picked men prominent in the continent’s conference of bishops, CELAM, rather than those conspicuous for their conservatism. In Belgium he has chosen Archbishop Jozef de Kezel who was twice put forward by the papal nuncio to take over the country’s primatial see and twice rejected by Pope Benedict XVI in favour of a hardline conservative.

The Franciscan shift is most clearly seen in the three new American cardinals. The Pope has passed over those who had been lined up by Pope Benedict by being placed in sees when the incumbent expected an automatic red hat to follow. (Francis has decoupled hats and sees across the rich world – in Venice, Turin and Toledo). But most pointedly the leaders of the ideological Right among the US bishops have all been disregarded. Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles have paid the price for resisting the pope’s desire to open up communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, combatting the Obama administration over contraception and entrenched theological conservatism.

Instead one American red hat has gone to Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, a key Francis ally on welcoming into the Church those in irregular family situations. Another has gone to Bishop Kevin Farrell, recently moved from being Bishop of Dallas to head the new Vatican on the Laity, the Family and Life, and an outspoken advocate on US gun control. And a third has been given to Joseph Tobin, the former superior general of the Redemptorists, who was demoted from a top Vatican job in the Benedict era for criticising the Holy See’s controversial investigation of US nuns. He was relegated then to the small diocese of Indianapolis where he did battle with the Governor, Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, and refused to obey the politicians instructions not to welcome Syrian refugees to the city.

What it all boils down to is an attempt by Francis to take shift the Catholic Church from the right back to the centre. It will mean that this Pope has appointed more than a third of the electors for his successor. The majority however will still by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI men. So if the reforms of Francis are to be cemented by the next papacy it will require intervention once again by the Holy Spirit.

A truncated version of this appeared in the Church Times


5 star review for Milk at the Traverse Theatre

2016 August 18
by Paul Vallely


Traverse Theatre

Edinburgh Festival

5 stars


The Traverse guarantees to read every play that is submitted to it. It costs a fortune but, if this first play by Ross Dunsmore is anything to go by, it’s really worth it.

A perceptive study of three couples it’s full of acutely-observed humour which darkens as the play proceeds to a charged close.

Two 14-year-olds, Steph and Ash, are in the foothills of their first relationship. Together they fantasise about their future. She will be a singer and a model and an actress who will go to Africa to “adopt a little black baby and bring him back in a Gucci bag”. He will be a game designer and a rap artist and make movies.

Their teacher Danny and his pregnant wife Nicole are about to have a baby. Nicole, in her late 30s is on the brink of fulfilling a long-awaited dream. She is hubristically confident she will be a perfect mother.

Their neighbours Cyril and May, both in their 90s are struggling to survive with no money for food or fuel. Afraid of the present live they in the past. They recall a prime in which Cyril liberated Europe in his tank and after the war they had a happy family, with food aplenty and a toddler son.

But for each couple things unravel. Steph – who is a bundle of colliding female hormones while her boyfriend Ash is still more fired up by the menu in Nando’s – turns her sexual fantasies onto her teacher. Nicole becomes distraught when it transpires her new baby can’t latch on for breastfeeding. And Cyril can’t steal himself to walk past the local youths and dogs to reach the shop for bread for his malnourished wife.

Milk is a metaphor for sustenance in the play in which the themes of food, sex and love intermingle. The resonances are not precise. It’s not clear where milk fits in the teenage relationship, nor what motivates the teacher in his minor transgressions in his relationship with his pupil, nor why the authorities haven’t intervened with the hungry baby or the starving old folk. But the social issues are background. This is a play about relationships and our need for love.

The cast is so strong it would be invidious to single out one actor. Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is pitch-perfect. The scenes move briskly but build a steady sense of tension. After the crisis she conjures a poignant moment of redemption. Funny, sharp and tender by turns it’s a play to make you laugh and cry.


an edited version of this review appeared in the i newspaper

Don Warrington’s black production of King Lear mistakes shouting for passion and melodrama for horror

2016 April 12
by Paul Vallely

King Lear

Royal Exchange, Manchester

2 stars

There is a conundrum with productions of classic plays by black companies. Is the aim to give black actors a crack at big roles the theatre often denies them from unconscious prejudice? Or is it to bring out new resonances, or even an extra dimension, in the text.

The latter happened at the RSC last year when Othello and Iago were both black, with a performance of immense intensity from Lucian Msamati as the villain. And in 2012 the RSC’s African Julius Caesar rang with renewed conviction from the world of Amin, Mengistu and Mugabe.

Don Warrington’s Lear with the black-led Talawa theatre company was eagerly awaited. He gave a performance of real power at this theatre two years ago in All My Sons. Sadly his Lear is lacklustre and Michael Buffong’s production – despite extensive programme notes about age, dementia and race with its section on BAME Shakespeare – brings no new insights.

There are flashes. Miltos Yerolemou’s Fool is shot through with irony and pity. Thomas Coombes adds camp menace to the often anonymous role of Goneril’s steward. And Alfred Enoch’s Edgar feigns madness with a vigour which suggests a subliminal psychological disturbance. Signe Beckman’s cleverly tilted set conjures a world where things are out of alignment.

Warrington’s Lear works in its final pitiful scenes, where the outcast king regains his autonomy and assurance through madness. But otherwise it lacks subtlety, which is true of the whole production which mistakes shouting for passion and melodrama for horror. It does not just lack dynamic range, it is unmodulated. The Bastard has no sexual chemistry. There is no tenderness in this shouty Cordelia. And the first night audience actually laughed openly when Gloucester’s eyes were put out and bits of rubber flew out all across the auditorium. Oh dear.

This review appeared in the i newspaper

The secret letters of Pope John Paul II raise serious questions about fidelity and celibacy

2016 February 22
by Paul Vallely

DID Pope John Paul II have a secret lover? That question was asked by several newspapers and websites in half-baked previews of the BBC broadcaster Edward Stourton’s extraordinary disclosure that more than 350 letters were written by Pope John Paul to an attractive, vivacious, married Polish philosopher, Professor Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.

In the event, the BBC made no suggestion that the pontiff ever broke his vow of celibacy. And yet the intimacy and intensity of the couple’s relationship raises important questions about celibacy, fidelity, and the emotional intelligence of the priesthood.

The letters, and the testimony of close friends who survive her, suggest that Teresa-Anna — as the Pope called her — fell in love with him when he was Archbishop of Krakow in the 1970s. A passionate relationship ensued for 32 years. We heard only from the Pope’s letters, not hers to him, but it seems clear that she declared her love for him, and he wrestled with how to respond.

“You write about being torn apart, but I could find no answer to these words,” he wrote. “The words ‘I belong to you’ woke a great tenderness in me but at the same time an enormous anxiety.”

Most priests, confronted with such passion, would have broken off the relationship. But John Paul continued it, inviting her to go skiing, hiking, and even camping with him. In one letter, he wrote: “It was good you sent your letter by hand — it contains things too deep for the censor’s eyes.” He spoke of “issues which are too difficult for me to write about”.

Eventually he wrote: “I was looking for an answer to these words ‘I belong to you’ and finally I found a way — a scapular.” He gave her the devotional object that was his most treasured possession; his father had given him the scapular when he made his first communion. John Paul had worn it against his skin ever since. “I feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, when you are close, and when you are far away,” he wrote.

We were not told what Teresa’s husband made of all this. What impact can the intensity of such a relationship, and her frequent trips abroad, have had on her husband, and on the quality of her marriage? Fidelity is emotional as well as sexual; for many, emotional detachment is a deeper betrayal even than sexual duplicity.

For a pope, who sits at the head of celibate clergy, it raises questions about priestly isolation and loneliness. The need for relationship and companionship is psychologically far more profound than the focus on sex that is assumed in most discussions about celibacy. Was John Paul’s solution paid for at the cost of an emotional fidelity in Teresa’s marriage?

The Pope reconciled all this by calling her “a gift from God” to him. He wrote: “If I did not have this conviction, some moral certainty of Grace, and of acting in obedience to it, I would not dare act like this.” This “Grace is stronger than our weaknesses,” he wrote. But it is hard not to conclude that the pontiff was playing with fire.


Paul Vallely’s biography, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.

What the Woolf Institute report says about school assemblies and faith schools shows up its whole approach as binary and reductive

2016 January 11
by Paul Vallely

There was a short letter in The Times just before Christmas. It said: ‘At our little parish church in our quiet corner of Cornwall, the carol service on December 20 will begin with the first verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, sung by a child. This year that child is nine years old and a Hindu. Her entire family will be present to support her.’

The report by the grand-sounding Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life came in for a fair amount of flack when it was published in the same month. The Church of England accused it of having been hijacked by a ‘humanist’ agenda. But that letter about the Hindu participation in a Christian carol service hinted at the key deficiency in the report – its lack of political sophistication.

A big part of the problem lay in the failing of the panel which produced the report – assembled by the interfaith Woolf Institute and chaired by the former high-court judge Dame Elizabeth Butler- Sloss – to understand the difference between theory and practice. Take one of its most prominent recommendations, the proposal to abolish the requirement for state schools to hold a daily act of worship.

In an era marked by a decline in formal religious observance, coupled with the growth of non-Christian religions, and the spread of an ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ popular sensibility, the Butler-Sloss proposal sounds sensible enough. But look what is happening on the ground. Just as a Hindu child – and indeed a girl – can take the lead in beginning a Christian celebration, so in schools across the land a pragmatic accommodation has been worked out in daily or weekly assemblies. Though the 1944 Education Act creates a statutory obligation on schools to hold nondenominational daily acts of collective worship few schools now do so. At least three quarters of schools were not adhering to the requirement, according to Oftsed.

So the issue is theoretical rather than practical. If you were designing the system from scratch you would not include such a requirement. If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here, as the old country bumpkin joke has it. So why not remove the requirement? Before answering that it is important to know what would replace it.

Butler-Sloss suggests an ‘inclusive time for reflection’ drawing upon ‘a range of sources’. Given the materialist utilitarianism which informs the rest of the report the suspicion must be that it would be replaced by something social and ethical rather than spiritual. The fear must be that a whole dimension of children’s development would be neglected in line with the general drift to a devaluation of the spiritual life. That is why a law that requires daily worship (more honoured in the breach than in the observance) might be the lesser evil.

The 1944 Act requires a daily assembly which is a ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. That wording is a happy example of our national genius for compromise. It keeps a spiritual and moral yardstick before the eyes of educators while allowing wide flexibility in its application. The same question – what will replace the status quo – is one which others faiths clearly ask themselves when faced with the idea of disestablishing the Church of England, another hoary favourite floated by Butler-Sloss. She seems to fear it must cause offence to other religions as it does to the humanists whose agenda has driven much of the report. The problem is that other faiths are overwhelmingly unhappy about the notion of CofE disestablishment, fearing it will be another attempt to erode the status of faith within national public life.

Ditto on faith schools, on which the report opines: ‘in our view it is not clear that segregation of young people into faith schools has promoted greater cohesion or that it has not in fact been socially divisive and led rather to greater misunderstanding and tension’. It is not clear. On that rather flimsy premise it recommends that the government should require faith schools to limit the number of children from religious backgrounds they admit.

Others have rather different views. Though it is true that in some middle class church schools pupils never mix with anyone outside their elite social peer group, there are many other faith schools which are far more diverse than mainstream schools. They almost always have broader catchment areas and a wider ability range. The school attached to the first church I attended in Manchester contained immigrant children of 42 different nationalities.

Moreover faith schools adopt different mission visions; CofE schools focus on serving their local area, where Catholics, Jews and Muslims see their purpose as serving the needs of their specific faith communities. It is hard to see how Butler-Sloss’s prescriptions can apply equally to both. Few in the faith communities take offence at the schools of other religions; indeed many Muslim parents prefer Christian schools over secular ones. Large numbers of non-religious parents also chose a church school – and in numbers which outweigh the groups of agnostic or atheist parents who object to a religious ethos. That is why faith schools are among the most oversubscribed in the country. The report’s cheap jibe about religious parents wanting “to have their children raised in a religious ethos at state expense” fails to consider that such parents pay the same taxes as those in secular schools.

The face of faith is changing but it is becoming richer and more complex. Addressing those changes needs an approach which is less binary and reductive. A real opportunity has been missed.


from Third Way


The Woolf report: a vision of hollowed-out religion

2015 December 17
by Paul Vallely

It seemed like a good idea – a commission on religion in public life. It’s a shame then that the report just released by the interfaith Woolf Institute under that badge is such a hodgepodge of interesting insights, unexamined prejudices and muddled thinking.

Let’s start with the good parts of this curate’s egg, if that’s not too narrow a simile for our diverse era. The report has important things to say on the need for greater religious literary among our opinion-makers and policy-framers. It’s good on the balance needed for sharia law to play a positive role in the UK.  It points out unhelpful legal anomalies that protect Jews and Sikhs but not Muslims. But when it argues for abolishing the collective act of worship in schools, or cutting the number of bishops in the House of Lords, it is bald and reductive.

The report lacks clarity on the tensions between declining institutional or affiliated religion and the emergence of more subtle forms of faith – not to mention what endures in the cultural and moral legacy of Christianity. It repeatedly assumes that those who say they are not religious must be humanists. And it ties itself in knots over the relationship between faith and ideas of Britishness.

When its chair, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, launched the report on the radio it was difficult to work out whether she was being naïve or disingenuous in all this. Reading the full report makes that clear. Though it calls itself a “commission” – a word with official overtones –this self-appointed group has produced an ideological document which assumes from the outset that liberal humanism is the only sensible option in a diversifying society.

The report quotes the British Humanist Association ten times, the National Secular Society five and even the Humanist Society Scotland gets three mentions. By contrast there’s a single quote from an Anglican Archbishops’ commission and a solitary reference to a report by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. Humanists are crammed in, even in the most unrepresentative contexts, as with the insistence that some volunteers on Christian soup runs might be atheists.

In the end the dominant paradigm for the report is sociological. (Linda Woodhead gets ten mentions). But it lacks philosophical, theological, historical and political sophistication.

It jumbles the universe with the meaning of life. It thinks religious identity is fixed and final. It has a fuzzy portmanteau understanding of the common good. It thinks humanism began at the Enlightenment (poor Erasmus). It suggests that respect for life, human rights, peace and equality are humanist not religious values.

It takes no account of the practical politics of replacing the requirement for an act of worship with a warm and woolly “inclusive time for reflection”. It replaces evidence with assertion in decrying faith schools and neglecting the fact that religious parents also pay taxes.

The vision it offers is of a lowest common denominator society which hollows religion out. By contrast society needs a highest common factor vision which draws on the best of all faiths rather than seeking to neuter them with an impoverished secularism.



from The Church Times

The questions MPs need to ask before voting on bombing in Syria

2015 December 1
tags: ,
by Paul Vallely

There are a number of questions MPs need to ask before they vote on whether to bomb Islamic terrorists inside Syria – and they should be refracted through Just War theory which, imperfect though it is in an age of terrorism, is still our best guide for ethical thinking here.

A number of criteria are clearly fulfilled. ‘Just cause’ and ‘right intention’ are evident. So is ‘competent authority’ after last week’s UN Security Council resolution calling on member states to take “all necessary measures” against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq – though what is necessary is not universally agreed. But is this ‘last resort’? And what of ‘proportionality’ and ‘probability of success’?

It is through that lens that MPs should look when they ask whether the prime minister has fulfilled the requirement of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee – whose Conservative majority said bombing in Syria should not be approved without a persuasive case that air strikes are part of a “coherent international strategy” to defeat ISIS and end Syria’s civil war.  Any benefits of air strikes in Syria would be outweighed by the risks of “legal ambiguity, political chaos on the ground, military irrelevance, and diplomatic costs”, the committee said.

So the first question is: What material difference will it make if the UK joins the US, France and Russia in bombing?  The PM’s insistence that it is “standing by our allies” is dubious in Just War terms. We might call it the Blair Defence. MPs should be convinced of a clear military advantage.

Next, may bombing be counter-productive? It could act as a further recruiting sergeant for ISIS whose internal literature makes clear it wants to provoke a battle against all “the forces of Rome” – that is the entire Christian heritage world from the US through Europe to orthodox Russia. It sees an apocalyptic battle with “Crusader forces” on ISIS territory as part of a divine plan.

War has changed.  In traditional warfare the aim was to smash the opponent’s army; now it is to break the will of the opponent. Terrorism is a tool for that. But so is provoking disproportionate responses which result in civilian casualties which will make the broader Sunni population – among which ISIS hides – see the West as a bigger threat than ISIS. We should have learned that from drone bombings of wedding parties and children’s hospitals in Afghanistan.  But technology makes an imprecise hitting back too easy, without endangering the lives of our own troops.

What will replace ISIS on the ground if it is militarily obliterated? There are not two sides in the Syrian civil war but at least four, each with international backers. Assad is backed by Russia and by Shia Iran. ISIS and other salafis groups are unofficially backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Syrian Free Army is backed by the US.  Then there are the Turks who are using the cover of fighting Isis to bomb the Kurdish even as they fight ISIS.

The story of Iraq and Libya is that when a bad regime is removed something worse can rush into the vacuum. Is there a coherent strategy to avoid that?

Finally, by bombing Syria, the UK will lose some of its diplomatic independence, and sacrifice leverage in the current round of  international diplomacy in Vienna. Is the military gain worth the diplomatic loss where, in the end, there can be no military solution only a political one? A coherent realpolitik transition for Syria must be negotiated internationally.

The Paris massacre may provoke us to the conviction that “something must be done”.  But MPS need to think very carefully about what that something should be.


from The Church Times