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Author Archives: Rosie Dawson

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It is now mid-January, and the weekend’s newspapers were still full of the story that captured people’s attention on New Year’s Day – the  hundreds of  sub-postmasters and mistresses  wrongly  convicted of theft by the Post Office.  People went to jail, lost their homes, marriages, even their lives. The fault lay not with their own malpractice or miscalculations but with a new  computer system. Each time another postmaster rang the Horizon helpline they were told that they were the only one experiencing problems. One man rang  the helpline 91 times before he gave up hope of being heard.  

It’s not as if journalists and politicians hadn’t  been on the case, although it took a while. Computer Weekly was the first to investigate in 2009 – BBC Radio 4, Private Eye, Panorama  all covered the story,  as did news bulletins once the truth began to emerge.  But it was the ITV dramatisation which catapulted the issue onto the front pages and launched an outraged  national conversation.   Why did it take a drama  to wake up the Great British Public to the scandal?  My favourite response to this came in a tweet from Classicist Mary Beard. 

“This is the real power of arts and drama. Message is: we need to fund the arts. Good democracy needs good drama“.    

The   declared mission  of Paula Vennells, the CEO of the Post Office between 2012-2019 , was to transform it and to protect its reputation as a “brand.” After the drama 1.2million people demanded that she was stripped of her CBE.  She duly returned it (although technically it requires the King to remove it from her).  Paula Vennells was not alone in turning a deaf ear to those raising the inconvenient truths about the computer system and subsequent miscarriages of justice. Some of the responses and comments to her can feel like a pile-on, but it is  certainly legitimate to ask how she came to be awarded the honour with so many  of the Post Offices failures already apparent.  According to the Sunday Times, some people on the honours committee voiced concerns but they were not heeded. 

The drama has ensured that there’ll be plenty of  interest in the findings of the  Public Inquiry into what went wrong at the Post Office.  But where can broader questions be raised – about our society’s capture by technology and what its failures and complexities do to people? About both the status and vulnerabilities of institutions and their leaders which mean they’ll do anything to avoid being seen to mess up?  Can such conversations  rise above the rowdy ya-boo exchanges of an election year?  

The church should be one such space of course. But the crisis for one national institution poses uncomfortable questions for another.  Paula Vennells is a non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England, and was an associate minister in the St Alban’s diocese until  2021.  Last Tuesday it emerged that she had been on the short list of candidates considered for the position of Bishop of London in 2017. This news was scooped by the BBC’s Harry Farley and Henry Zeffman and goes to show what can happen when journalists who have done time in reporting religion get involved in politics. The broadsheets picked up the story, adding their own details;  Paula Vennells nomination had the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed the Telegraph.  Channel 4 pointed out that, had she been appointed the Bishop of London, she would have been the third most senior cleric in the Church of England with an automatic seat in the House of Lords.  

The news was greeted with incredulity.  “Our gobs are smacked,” tweeted one London churchgoer who has  written to the Crown Nominations Commission to ask how Paula Vennells came to be on the shortlist.  The CNC doesn’t comment on the process,  but that shouldn’t stop questions being asked at February’s General Synod. What had the vacancy-in-see committee, responsible for  drawing up the episcopal job description, seen as the  essential qualities and experience for the role?  Paula Vennells may have helped shape Justin Welby’s thinking, served on church ethical investment boards and helped  deliver leadership development programmes for senior bishops.  But she’d never been in full-time ministry or run a parish.  

Others who delivered the bishops’ training include organisational psychologists and management and behavioural consultants. Their aim to help realise the church’s goals of numerical and spiritual growth.  It’s like asking a  plumber to tell you how to fix your crashed hard drive, wrote Rev Gerry Lynch. Critics argue that applying business models to the Church risks undermining its historic mission and core values. A culture of managerialism leads to a language of metrics and spreadsheets rather than of relationship and exploration, they say.   It presupposes the story it wants to tell rather than being open to new ones that are taking shape in its midst, or old ones which have been closed down but which refuse to be silenced.   Abuse survivors and their advocates see in the  Post Office’s denial, cover-up and  gas-lighting  echoes of the church response to their own calls  for justice.   And just as delays have left the Post Office victims waiting years for resolution so, with the Church too, delays in publication of reviews into cases of historic abuse mean that it becomes less and less likely that  those responsible for abuse and its cover up will ever be held accountable.  Unless, perhaps, those fighting to be listened to  could  join forces with a screenwriter and beat their way to a drama commissioner’s door.  

Leslee Udwin is a screenwriter who co-produced  “Who bombed Birmingham?” the TV drama which led to the release of six men wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA pub bombings.  Drama is unique in its power to force change, she told Radio 4 last week. 

“It is almost the only vehicle through which we can truly empathise experientially …. we subvert our own concerns and worries and give ourselves over to the experience of another human being. That’s the most generous act we can make”.  

Giving ourselves over to the experience of others, empathy, generosity.  We could try and do that through drama, as Udwin suggests, or we could  make them the marks of mission for a lost church.

Rosie Dawson is a freelance journalist and radio producer who specialises in religion. As a BBC producer for more than 25 years she worked creatively on a variety of genres in both Radio and Television. She has won many industry awards for her work – including the Foreign Press Associations radio story of the year (2015) for a documentary on child soldiers. Her work on Radio 4’s “Sunday” and “Beyond Belief” means she has excellent connections across faith communities in UK. More recently she devised and presented Bible Society’s #SheToo podcast on narratives about the rape and abuse of women in the Bible. Rosie runs media training events, writes for the Religion Media Centre and sits on the Higher Education Funding Council’s panel assessing the quality of research in Religion and Theology.

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Brandishing the Bible: division amongst evangelicals in Trump’s America

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Associate Research Fellow Rosie Dawson reflects on Trump’s highly controversial pose outside St John’s Episcopal church last week and wonders if the key to the American election lies in the divergent response amongst evangelical Christians.

“To describe all that has happened within sight of this spot, all that this church has seen, looking across the square, would be to tell in large part the history of the United States.”

So wrote Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of the “President’s church,” an elegant, white building on the north corner of Layfayette Square opposite the White House. It was designed by a Yorkshireman, Benjamin Latrobe, and consecrated in December 1816.

Former Presidents have sometimes looked to St John’s Episcopal church in times of national crisis. Lyndon Johnson asked for a service there on the day after Kennedy’s assassination; George W. Bush went there to remember those who died in 9/11 on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Last week, the church was again at the centre of political events engulfing America as a nation rose in protest at the murder of George Floyd. But the presidential style was different. Donald Trump used police and tear gas to clear the square in front of St John’s of protestors so that he could have his photograph taken outside. He held up a Bible. According to his supporters this showed leadership akin to Joshua’s storming of the city of Jericho. According to his critics it desecrated the Scriptures and the Church.

But there’s no mystery as to the President’s motives. It is to be found in one of the shorter tweets he directed at his opponents last week: “NOVEMBER 3rd”. Donald Trump’s stance was aimed at the electoral base crucial to his chances of re-election, the eighty per cent of white evangelicals who voted for him in 2016. Fifteen per cent of Americans identify as white evangelicals but they are more likely than any other demographic to turn out to vote. Will that level of support hold? Will his action last week pay off?

Evangelicals can be broken down into many sub-categories, of course. But for the millions for whom being a white evangelical is a political identity, reading the Bible or going to church isn’t necessarily what they sign up to. They are religious in the way that Trump himself is religious. It’s about memory and nostalgia and was summed up in a podcast made by David Brody, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network.

“He remembers a time in the 1950s, back when he was growing up—remember, born in 1946, he’s 74 years old—he remembers a time where you dressed up for church, where you prayed in school. He remembers a time when there was Bible reading in classes. This is Donald Trump’s America”.

This was also a time of racial segregation and the Jim Crow Laws, but Brody said he didn’t want to get into that.

In 2016, research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that white evangelicals were the only group who felt that America’s culture and way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s. Three quarters of them thought it had. The demographics and culture of the country have shifted around them: it is no longer the predominantly white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant country they thought it was, and they feel under siege. Bizarre though this may seem, for many of them, Trump’s stand outside St John’s Church was a statement in support of the persecuted, by which they mean themselves.

Then there’s another group of conservative evangelicals that are very serious about their Bible-reading.  Some of them, including the flunkies who make up Trump’s religious advisory group, look in it for prophecies that Donald Trump is God’s anointed. But, more generally, this group read their Bibles purely from the perspective of the individual’s need for salvation rather than society’s need for transformation. Sin is individual, not structural. The African American evangelical Darrell Harrison used Twitter last week to draw a distinction between the “social gospel” and the “biblical gospel”.

“The social gospel preaches structural transformation that works in society from the outside-in, whereas the biblical gospel preaches spiritual transformation that works in society from the inside-out.”

George Floyd’s killing was caused by hate, rather than something called racism, he suggested. The solution to ending hate is “by repenting and believing the gospel”.

The Washington Post, however, noted protests in the capital last weekend which were organised by groups of conservative evangelicals and which appeared to call for change from the outside-in. Among them was David Platt, the white pastor of a huge mega church, McClean Bible, which Donald Trump has visited in the past. Standing alongside another conservative evangelical Thabiti Anyabwile, the pastor of Anacostia River Church, Platt prayed for forgiveness “for our history and our present”. Pastor Anyabwile, who has often spoken out about racism, told the Post that the moment felt significant.

What happens within these groups of evangelicals in the coming months will be reflected in future histories of the United States. Donald Trump will hope that actions such as his gesture outside St John’s will stoke just the right amount of fear among his supporters to make them feel threatened, but not so much that they are don’t trust him and stay away from November’s poll. The Democrats’ hopes may depend on the evangelicals who marched at the weekend, and the fact not just that they read the Bible but how they read it.

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Review of ‘Tragedies and Christian Congregations: the practical Theology of Trauma’

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Rosie Dawson, Associate Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation, reviews ‘Tragedies and Christian Congregations: the practical Theology of Trauma’ edited by Megan Warner, Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch-Miller and Hilary Ison, and reminds us that churches can be both comforters after, and perpetrators of, trauma.

“This is an extremely important book,” writes Bishop James Jones in his foreword to Tragedies and Christian Congregations. And so it is. The field of trauma studies itself—let alone of trauma in relation to Theology—is still relatively new. The understanding of how traumatic events come to dominate the lives of individuals and communities has developed greatly since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 with which Bishop James was so closely associated through his chairing of the independent panel. Many who, like me, were assessed as adoptive parents 20 years ago will wish they had been privy to some of the more recent research into how trauma affects the young brain. This book offers a comprehensive resource to those wanting to understand what trauma is, how it manifests itself individually and collectively, and how churches might respond liturgically and pastorally to traumatic events both within and beyond their congregations.

The Tragedy and Congregations project at the University of Exeter from which this book grew was started in 2016. The following year terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and the fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington presented an urgent challenge to churches which sometimes found themselves overwhelmed by the demands placed on them. Some of those involved shared their experiences and liturgies with the authors. The Revd Prebendary Alan Everett wrote in his memoir After the Fire that perhaps the most important thing that he had done in his entire ministry was to open his church and turn on the lights as the fire took hold of Grenfell tower. Liturgies included as appendices in the book include the national memorial service held for the Grenfell victims at St Pauls cathedral and a “reclaiming” service held in Salisbury following the Novichok nerve agent attack in 2018.

As the title of Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal work of 2014 says, The Body Keeps the Score. Trauma refers not only to an event or experience but to the imprints left on brain and body and their long-term consequences. Hilary Ison details the physiological aspects of the trauma experience which trigger the responses of fight/flight. Trauma is what happens when an individual is overwhelmed, has her beliefs about how the world works shattered, and is unable to process what has occurred. Healing the trauma lies not simply in a cognitive acknowledgment and acceptance of what has taken place but in identifying the sensations in the body which give rise to dis-regulated emotional states. Kate Wiebe’s chapter “Towards a faith-based approach to healing a collective trauma” explains how the tissues of a whole community can be damaged, creating an injury or culture which is both different from and more than the sum of the private wounds of the individuals involved.

But, as Meg Warner explores in her chapter on “Trauma through the lens of the Bible”, we are not left comfortless. The Bible is a book borne of devastating loss. The Hebrew Scriptures were put together in their present form in the aftermath of war, exile, and the destruction of Israel’s holiest places. God’s people cry out for justice; they wonder if their God has abandoned them. Much of the New Testament too was written after the destruction of the second temple in AD 70. The Bible provides an invaluable and tested resource for those seeking to express and heal their trauma. When I visited the area around Grenfell Tower a few months after the fire I found the walls of underpasses graffitied with quotes from Scripture, including the Beatitudes—”Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted”—and Psalm 61—”Hear my cry Oh God; attend to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I cry unto thee when my heart is overwhelmed.

The events of 2017 provided churches and other faith groups with many opportunities to reach out effectively and with compassion to their neighbours. But the authors note the danger of the church focussing so much on this role that it fails to recognise its own propensity to inflict trauma. Carla Grosch-Miller considers the trauma visited on congregations when a religious leader is found to have sexually abused a child or adult. Clergy abuse creates “spiritual havoc” among congregants who will question every sacred moment they have shared with the offender. Inadequate institutional responses to the abuse may compound the trauma. Grosch-Miller speaks of congregations being “in recovery” for years. “Afterpastors”, as they are known in the US, may find themselves the focus of displaced anger and mistrust. The job of guiding a church through the process involves giving clear information about what has happened, creating safe spaces in which people can express their feelings, and providing reassurance that those feelings are normal in the face of terrible reality.

The aim of recovery from trauma, we are reminded, is never to return to things as they were. But facing trauma has the potential to transform and to heal. A story which Grosch-Miller considers in the second chapter of the book, but which resurfaces several times in subsequent contributions, is that of a Manchester teenager who committed suicide because she felt that her church and God would not be able to accept her as gay. The response of the minister and congregation to that tragedy is offered as an example of the transformation that is possible when trauma is faced head on and allowed to reshape peoples’ understanding of Scripture, faith, and practice.

Healing trauma is not the work that the Church must get out of the way in order to get on with its core mission. Healing trauma is the Church’s core mission. Grosch-Miller quotes John Wall: “To be created in the image of a Creator is one way of saying that we are in part perpetually responding to furnish new moral worlds within the… complexity and tragedy of human life.” (John Wall, Moral Creativity: Paul Ricoeur and the Poetics of Possibility, OUP, 2005)

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Come the Resurrection…?

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Associate Research Fellow Rosie Dawson reflects on the fire at Notre Dame and sex trafficking in New York—and warns against moving on too soon.

The Pope may have to take a bit of a back seat this year. Of course, the TV crews will be there at the Colosseum for the traditional Stations of the Cross but there’s only really one set of images for Good Friday this year—those of the shell of Notre Dame cathedral, and particularly the photograph of an illuminated cross shining out among the debris and smoke of the fire.

The significance of the fire happening during Holy week was lost on no one. Parisians could only watch and weep as their cathedral burned; just as Mary and the disciples could only watch and weep as Jesus died. But even on Monday evening the talk of restoration and rebuilding had begun. Reassuring messages, confident about resurrection, were sent from Coventry Cathedral and York Minster. I found it rather unseemly. A bit like telling a grieving friend that it’s time to move on before they’ve even planned the funeral.

Donations for the restoration fund have poured in, prompting debates about whether its right to spend so much money on a building when half the world is hungry. President Macron launched an architectural competition to redesign the spire, declaring that the cathedral will be reborn in even greater glory and within five years.

I’ve just returned from New York where I was following a Stations of the Cross specially curated around the theme of sex trafficking. Pilgrims gathered at the Port Authority Bus station where young people coming into the city for the first time are easy prey. We heard from a young woman, Gigi, who was ensnared by her abuser there. This was the First Station—Jesus taking up his cross. A strip club was the location for the Station where Jesus falls for the first time.

A Catholic refuge offering comfort to vulnerable young people was the Fourth Station; I interviewed “Jonesy” whose daughter was lured from the street into a “trap house” and was missing for six days. I was struck by her reflections on the gospel story of Jesus meeting his mother. “I definitely have a special feeling for Mary,” she said, “When I was going to meet my daughter after she’d escaped her abusers I didn’t know what I was going to find. She looked different—they had changed her hair colour and her clothes. I just wanted to wrap my arms around her and tell her I loved her and that none of this was her fault. And I think that is what Mary would have wanted to say to Jesus too—this isn’t your fault.” Such a fresh and original insight. I’d never heard anyone understand Mary that way before. As Andrew Graystone, an advocate for abuse victims, has said, “Survivors of abuse are amongst the church’s finest theologians.”

The resonances continued. If anyone feels they are forced I would recommend reading the work of David Tombs from the University of Otaga in New Zealand, who argues that the humiliation of Jesus by his torturers included sexual abuse. At JFK airport Jesus was stripped of his garments—or rather, Shandra was stripped of her passport and return ticket by a man who was purportedly picking her up to take her to her job as a hotel waitress. The reality was rather different—she was sold several times a day for $145.  The Eleventh Station where Jesus is nailed to the cross was a notorious Brooklyn motel where the “services” on offer are the talk of Trip Advisor. The pilgrims prayed outside and waved to women looking out from their windows.

What is the promise of resurrection here? How long the wait from Good Friday to Easter? It is easier to assess the damage to a building than to a person. Healing can take much longer than five years and is rarely complete. “The week of Jesus’ resurrection is his first week home from prison after a very public arrest, trial, imprisonment, and death sentence,” I read on the Sojourners website. He is unrecognisable and scarred. We forget that sometimes.

So as the bus headed back into New York city at 3pm in the afternoon, the time when Jesus is said to have died on the cross, I asked Gigi what she has to say about the idea of resurrection. She paused to think about it. No false confidence here. Her reply was striking for both its power and paucity. “Well, it’s possible,” was all she could say.

You can listen to Heart and Soul: New York Stations of the Cross here.

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With malice toward none; with charity for all

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Rosie Dawson, Associate Research Fellow here at the William Temple Foundation, reflects on the Kavanaugh hearing and the state of American politics during a recent trip to Washington DC.

I was up at first light last Thursday morning, walking the length of the Mall in Washington DC from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill. I’d spent the previous few days conducting interviews with Evangelicals of various hues about their relationship with President Trump’s administration. I hadn’t had much time to see the sights—hence the early start before my first appointment of the day and then the flight home.

On either side of the marble sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in the Memorial are two inscriptions. The first is from his 1863 Gettysburg address with its famous opening:

‘Four score years and seven ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’

The other, less well-known quotation is taken from Lincoln’s second inaugural address on 4 March 1865 during the final days of the Civil War and only six weeks before his assassination. There is no gloating in the Union victory; he interpreted the war and the loss of over 600,000 lives as God’s punishment on both sides for 250 years of slavery.

The following line stood out for me:

‘Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.’

Given the nature of my assignment, you won’t be surprised to learn that I had the Bible quoted at me rather a lot during my stay! At the ‘Values Voter Summit’, an annual convention of the Religious Right, I was told how God is using Donald Trump, a not-so-godly Christian, to bring about a godly society in the same way that He used the Persian King Cyrus to bring the Jews home from exile. 2 Chronicles 7:14 has become a favourite verse, used and ‘weaponised’ (to use the current jargon) against the liberals who they believe are threatening their religious freedoms:

‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’

The ‘Red Letter Christians’, on the other hand, are holding ‘revivals’ in the strongholds of key evangelical Trump supporters such as Jerry Falwell Junior in Virginia and Robert Jeffress in Dallas. They want to draw attention to the words of Jesus (printed in red in many Bibles), especially those which speak of his concern for the poor and marginalised.

The fear of those at the Values summit was palpable. Conservative evangelicals genuinely believe that Christianity is under siege. As they see it, only Donald Trump stands between them and the loss of the Christian values that made America great. Meanwhile, Progressive Evangelicals are having to fight their own despair at the deep divisions tearing at their country.

By the time I arrived at Capitol Hill the rush hour traffic had begun, and the first trickle of protestors were arriving ahead of the Senate committee hearings into the sexual assault allegations made by Dr Christine Blasey Ford against the President’s nomination for the Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I followed developments online as I went about the day and then in an airport bar where the announcement of flight delays barely seemed to register with passengers glued to the television and their phones. Twitter messages reminded people that they could and perhaps should switch off if they found the proceedings too disturbing and distressing. And disturbing and distressing they were—at so many levels. Not just because of what they showed us of the pain of Dr Ford, but about what they told us about the state of American politics and society.

I found a rare moment of grace in the decision of the Jesuit’s America magazine to withdraw its support for Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination. In an editorial published in July it had argued that, ‘anyone who recognizes the humanity of the unborn should support the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh.’ After Thursday’s hearings it reconsidered its position and decided that a place for Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court was no longer in the country’s interests; its unity had to be put ahead of the individual policy issues that might come before the court:

‘[T]his nomination battle is no longer purely about predicting the likely outcome of Judge Kavanaugh’s vote on the court. It now involves the symbolic meaning of his nomination and confirmation in the #MeToo era. The hearings and the committee’s deliberations are now also a bellwether of the way the country treats women when their reports of harassment, assault and abuse threaten to derail the careers of powerful men.’

The magazine did not pass judgement on the truth or otherwise of Dr Ford’s allegations. Some may wish that it had. But its statement reminded me of the closing words of Lincoln’s speech which I’d read earlier that day, a gracious effort to reach out and seek reconciliation:

‘With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.’

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Rosie Dawson, Associate Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation, prompts us to recognise the invisible victims of abuse.

There were numerous jaw-dropping moments during the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) hearings last week. An extract from the evidence given by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey was relayed on Radio 4’s news bulletins. He explained that he had accepted Bishop Peter Ball’s protestations of innocence because he could not believe that a bishop in the church of God could do such evil things. But it was Lord Carey’s attitude to the victims that stopped me in my tracks. “I didn’t know these people,” he said. “These people” were outside of his normal range of contact and therefore, it seems, not to be taken seriously.

It is testimony to the staying power of the survivors, their supporters, and a couple of dogged journalists (including the BBC’s Donna Birrell and Colin Campbell) that some of these stories of abuse are finally being heard. Along with stories of the ways in which many in the religious establishment closed ranks to protect themselves.

Hidden in the pages of the Bible – among tales of the powerful leaders and religious heroes of the Establishment – are many victims of sexual abuse. We will never know their names and in some cases their stories are presented as collateral damage. The Book of Judges records how the unmarried women of Jabez Gilead were kidnapped and trafficked to a camp in Shiloh. You would hope that any modern commentator might find a more accurate headline than the biblical sub-editor’s “Wives for the Benjamanites,” but after the spin put on events this week at IICSA I would not be too sure.

If we read these Biblical passages at all, we may still be desensitised to their horror by their antiquity or their inclusion in Holy writ. I was appalled by the abduction and forced marriage of the Nigerian girls of Chibok by Boko Haram, but I was still reading the story in the Book of Esther as a story about an un-PC beauty contest rather than another account of sexual trafficking.

The Shiloh Project at Sheffield University’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies analyses the contemporary ways in which these texts are interpreted. Sometimes the texts are ambiguous and afford more than one possible interpretation. The Biblical writers depict David as an adulterer for sleeping with Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan, sent by God to call the King to account, names his sin as theft, the taking of another man’s property. Artists down the ages have depicted Bathsheba as a seductress. But read between the lines and you might conclude instead that Bathsheba was raped. With other passages it is less about reading between the lines and more about simply noticing them. One line or verse can be easily overlooked within a larger narrative. Take verse seven from the Song of Songs chapter five, in which the female narrator, while proclaiming her desire for her lover, also tells of how she was beaten, shamed and possibly worse by the watchmen of the walls as she searched for him.

Rev Dr Helen Paynter from the Centre for Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College teaches the importance of an ethical reading of these passages. Just as someone who hears a disclosure about sexual abuse has a responsibility to act upon it, so the reader of these stories must decide on their response. Neutrality is not an option. Helen asks the reader to interrogate the text, to ask who is telling the story and why, whose voice is heard and whose is silent? Is there a reading of the story – however terrible – that can empower victims of abuse? Work of this kind has long been going on with survivors in some parts of the world. For example, activists and theologians in several African countries have been reading the story of Tamar in such a way as to challenge the church and religious authorities to confront sexual violence. Tamar’s story is told in 2 Samuel 13. It is the one place in the Bible where a rape victim is heard to protest against what is being done to her.

Increasingly UK churches and Christian organisations designate a particular Sunday of the year to focus on issues of social justice. There is Homelessness Sunday and Racial Justice Sunday. A Sexual Justice Sunday could only ever form a very small part of the response that is needed to address the issues highlighted by the IICSA hearings. But perhaps it could have a role in enabling a wider Christian public to engage with these “texts of terror” alongside the experience of survivors of abuse within and outside the churches; “these people” whose voices have been silent or silenced and whose stories have been passed over by the need of the Establishment to control the narrative.

I recently came across a woman struggling to resource a small Christian charity in Derbyshire which helps people come to terms with their experiences of abuse. She sometimes reads the story of Tamar with them. It can take them weeks to discuss it, she says. If anyone from the Church would like to contact me with a view to supporting work like this I would be happy to put them in touch.

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Broken, Apologetics and Faith in the Media

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Rosie Dawson reflects on Christian apologetics in the media as she considers a recent publication by Elaine Graham.

The brilliant Jimmy McGovern drama Broken was yesterday shortlisted for the Radio Times Reader award in collaboration with the Sandford St Martin Trust, which recognises and celebrates the best programming about faith, belief and ethics. Sean Bean plays Father Michael Kerrigan, a Liverpool priest, doing his best and often failing to accompany parishioners in their struggles – against poverty, addictive betting machines, corrupt police – all the while fighting the personal demons arising from childhood abuse and his own past mistreatment of two women in his life.

We see him in private moments with his Confessor and with individual parishioners where he lights a candle to remind them that Christ is with them. But it is the public performance of the Mass around which every programme pivots and which provides the redemptive finale for the series. I watched the last episode with my lap top open and there were people weeping all over my Facebook page.

I was reminded of this drama as I read Professor Elaine Graham’s book Apologetics without Apology (published by Wipf and Stock) in which she argues that a method of Christian apologetics which is primarily performative and sacramental is best suited for our time.

The society she describes is one familiar to those of us in religious journalism; one where fewer and fewer people participate in organised religion, and where religion is frequently seen as provocative and divisive – but also a society in which faith and religious identity is held ever more tenaciously (often defensively) by those to whom it does matter.

This world presents the religious broadcaster with perennial questions and dilemmas. How does public service broadcasting fulfil its duty to reflect the beliefs and practices of all sections of society? What does balance and fairness mean in these situations? Does the promulgation of one view necessarily require the promulgation of the opposite – and within what time frame? How do we meet the needs of general audiences who need schooling in the basic language of faith without patronising those who understand every nuance of creed and behaviour in the groups within their own tradition?

One of the key arguments of Elaine’s book is that apologetics has to get away from the idea that religion is solely or primarily about propositional belief. There are plenty of religious and anti-religious people who appear to think that this is the case, and the media hasn’t always helped. A soundbite news culture, the desire for clear, oppositional argument, as well sometimes the appetite for entertaining shouting matches which illuminate no-one – these are the ready-meal staples of our media diet alongside, thankfully, more considered long-form programming and long-reads.

Elaine talks about beginning the task of apologetics in autobiography. The media has always had an important role in enabling people to tell their stories. These stories often communicate what “I believe” actually means in the lived experience of individuals. Students of Greek and Latin know that the words we translate as belief have much richer reserves of meaning than our language commonly suggests; “I commit to” would be a far better rendering. Observing the lives and hearing the stories of people of faith shows us what they believe, what they commit to in terms of behaviour and action. Some of that may confound assumptions about the relationship between assent to certain beliefs and actual behaviour.

The work of social scientists is important in shedding light on the complexities of lived religion, and challenging the assumptions about what religion is and means. Not long ago I met Anna Strhan who has conducted ethnographic research into conservative evangelical churches in London. As you might expect, her respondents took the view that homosexual relationships are contrary to God’s desire and purposes. But this did not necessarily translate negatively in terms of interactions with neighbours, decisions about who their children had playdates with, even their decisions about close friendships.

Elaine speaks of apologetics as “performative religion.” The space social media has opened up in society and which is literally performative has a huge role to play in the presentation of religion as it is lived. I was very struck by social media performances in the wake of last year’s atrocities and tragedies. After the Manchester bomb a Muslim man stood blindfolded outside Marks and Spencer on Market street, his arms held open to receive the embraces of passers-by. Many of those responding at the crisis centres around Grenfell Tower wore the symbols of their faith – turbans, crosses, hijabs – not self-consciously as shouting badges of identity but as marks of our diverse and compassionate humanity. What Elaine Graham described in her book as “the practice of faith and exercise of citizenship” – actions but more than actions, actions with a sacramental quality, speaking about “what matters to us, what we hope for, how we live.”

But while apologetics may shift away from an emphasis on propositional statements of belief, I nevertheless think it remains important that those for whom religion is significant speak about their faith rather than simply practice it. People of faith need to say what it is that they do believe and to demonstrate the grounds for that belief. If they don’t then they vacate online and media spaces for those who reduce faith to a set of beliefs and set about it accordingly. Far worse, they surrender it to those who speak of their faith in a language that is hateful and exclusive and comes to dominate the wider narrative about what faith is about.

So – back to Jimmy McGovern’s Broken, each episode telling a story of the priest’s encounter with people which pulls you in, has you on the edge of your seat and makes you care. Each story of his parishioners colliding with another – the particular and rehearsed story of the Eucharist.

But what is it that Father Kerrigan’s celebration of the Mass adds to the drama? I asked a friend.

“Hope,” she said.

“Even if he’s clinging on by his fingernails?”

“Maybe that’s all any of us can ever do,” she replied.

You can vote in the Sandford St Martin Radio Times Reader Awards here.

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Masters of all they Survey? Pollsters and Religion

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Rosie Dawson considers the role of pollsters in perpetuating misleading narratives about religion and religious people.

The newspapers on 9th June, as you might expect, were full of articles analysing the fortunes of the political parties and their individual candidates. It wasn’t long, however, before I came across an assessment of the success of another group of people at the heart of the election, for whom the result really mattered – the  pollsters, I read, had experienced “a mixed night.”

After wrongly calling the results of the 2015 general election, the EU referendum and the 2016 US presidential election, we could be forgiven for wondering whether the people who were meant to know what everyone was thinking knew very much at all. What had gone wrong? Was it the sampling methods used, or the wrong questions asked of the wrong people? Did people suddenly start responding in new and contrary ways to the questions asked?

Why this matters for pollsters was explained in a BBC Radio 4 programme by James Morris, then Labour’s polling adviser. Political polls are the publicity engine for market research companies; predict the election result correctly and you will be trusted by commercial companies wanting information on what products they can sell to whom. “It’s a way of getting your name in the newspapers, and the result of that is to turn your market research firm into a household name.”

Journalists need their news. We are now officially into the silly season; a few dramatic survey results between now and the start of the party conference season would cheer up the producers and copywriters who have to scrabble even harder than usual to fill the allotted newspace and airtime.

Polls have also been telling us about religion since Gallup in 1939 produced information about Americans’ voting intentions based on whether they were Catholic or Protestant. In 1944 it conducted the first poll asking Americans if they believed in God. 96% did. Polls about religion have been growing exponentially ever since, particularly with the arrival of internet polling. Are they telling us anything useful? What can’t they tell us? Which pollsters should we trust?

This year the market research consultancy ComRes has established a faith unit. It maintains that policy makers need to be better informed about the part religion plays in people’s lives, and that the public also wants to be asked more questions about it. A specialist unit will know the questions to ask to get the most precise results. So a poll ComRes conducted at Easter asking whether or not people believed in the Resurrection of Jesus differentiated between those who believed in the Biblical version and those who believed in the Resurrection but not as told in the Bible. Which is an interesting approach, although for awkward pedants like me still begs a lot of questions about the assumptions made about what the Biblical version(s) say and how they are being read.

It’s tempting to seize hold of the latest poll headline without reading down to the more nuanced questions some pollsters are asking; easy to skate over their different methods, or the aims of those who commission them. It’s not unkind to suggest that last month’s survey from Premier Christian Communications asking whether people felt Christianity is being marginalised, and which was conducted  alongside a campaign for a stronger Christian voice in society, delivered the very result its creators wanted. This isn’t to dismiss the views expressed by a large number of people (12,000 and still counting) but I’m unconvinced by the argument that they are representative of anyone beyond Premier Radio listeners and their circles. Surveys which purport to reflect who we are as individuals and as groups, and how we relate to others, need to be meticulously reported, because polls are so often received as fact. They create reality and feed into our views of ourselves.

This is the point made by the eminent social scientist Robert Wuthnow in his book Inventing American Religion; Polls, Surveys and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith. He argues that polls have led to America understanding itself as a nation of Evangelicals. In launching his campaign for the nomination for presidency in 1976 Jimmy Carter famously identified himself as a born again evangelical. Polling organisations rushed to find out more about this group and in so doing, according to Wuthnow, defined and over-exaggerated its importance, and this has had negative consequences for those who don’t fit into the narrative of how America understands itself.

Not everyone accepts Wuthnow’s argument  but he’s surely right to suggest that people’s view of religion will be based in part on the opinion polls they come across, and that false opinion polls will lead to false narratives about religion being spread abroad.

Wuthnow’s critique is largely directed against quantitative surveys, but robust academic quantitative research into religious affiliation, worship and belief is indispensable in enabling scholars to map social change over decades. However rigorous, though, it can’t tell us everything about the everyday realities about what is now routinely called ‘lived experience.’ As the saying attributed to Einstein, and much beloved of qualitative researchers goes: “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

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Not the Sun Wot Won it: Social Media and the Election

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Associate Research Fellow and BBC Producer Rosie Dawson reflects on the changing media landscape and the influence of social media in the recent General Election.

A hundred years after Edmund Burke said that there were four estates of the realm – the Lords Spiritual, Temporal, the Commons and the press – Oscar Wilde was complaining that the first three estates had been gobbled up by the fourth.

And now the fourth estate (which you could say has done a pretty good job of eating away at itself with scandals such as phone hacking) is being gobbled up by the fifth – social media.

If it was the Sun wot won it for the Tories in 1992, it was social media which last week dashed Theresa May’s hopes for a landslide in the General Election and made Jeremy Corbyn the darling of a parliamentary party which had been desperate to get rid of him only weeks earlier. 88% of young people are on Facebook, and Labour ‘s online campaign to get the vote out resulted in more than 2 million of them registering to vote before the deadline; it also had a positive inclusive twitter hashtag #forthemany, promoted celebrity endorsements and used social media to counter reporting from sections of the mainstream press it perceived as hostile. Corbyn factors aside, Labour’s success at the polls was largely down to its grasp of the role that social media plays in delivering news and other content to young people.

A survey from Reuter’s institute for the study of journalism revealed recently that 44% of people consume news via Facebook, and 10% use Twitter. 28% per cent of 18-24 year-olds say social media is their main news source. The report noted that people who access the news online are more likely to trust a story that comes to them via a share from a friend rather directly from the news provider. This – and the fact that many of the stories they read will be delivered to them by algorithms based on their previous viewing habits – creates the “echo chamber” in which their own opinions are amplified and alternative views drowned out. There is a lot of legitimate concern about this, although it could be argued that similar allegations about lack of balance can be levelled against traditional media outlets.

Social media is a sharing platform, not a content provider. At the same time as it is used to undermine dictatorships, get around government censors and give a voice to the voiceless, it also allows those who shout the loudest to shout even louder and makes it harder for its users to identify the sources of what they come across, hold publishers to account and tell truth from lies.

The “Fourth estate” still produces most of the serious news content read by online audiences – even if  they are not paying for it. High quality journalism is under threat from the economy of the web.

So how do we create a demand for this, particularly among young people who aren’t used to getting their fingers grubby with newsprint and are accustomed to having their news served up 24/7, hot and algorithmically?

One of the things we might do, assuming some of you share my prejudices, is to check the knee jerk  response that occurs in education where an A level student or undergraduate is taking Media Studies. “Pulp education,” Niall Ferguson once called it – a Mickey Mouse subject for students who haven’t the aptitude for proper arts subjects such as English or History.

This is a view sadly given some weight by a visitor to the Student Room, an online forum for current and prospective university students:

“I’m applying (to university) next year and was thinking about doing media studies since I don’t have the A levels to do anything else. I am mildly interested as well. So should I?”

Recently, my daughter’s English homework was to watch a Youtube clip of a horror film and discuss the effectiveness of the panning and top shots, cut-aways – and other terms I didn’t learn until I went into television. I had to bite my lip and not mention the Merchant of Venice, but actually these skills of knowing how visual media is constructed and how audiences are manipulated to respond in certain ways and believe certain things are exactly the kind of analytical skills young people need. Similarly, in History she is already being asked to judge between different sources for events, assess their vested interests, appreciate the role of money and ownership, and understand the appeal of a conspiracy theory,

Among the various literacies we worry about these days, I would suggest media literacy needs to be top of the agenda.

The Oxford dictionary’s word of the year in 2016  was “Post-truth” – ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. There needs to be space within the curriculum to understand not only the nature of news provision but also the role that emotion and experience play in forming our beliefs and influencing our behaviour, including the decisions we make at the ballot box.

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We need to talk about Unbelief

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“Speak English!” said the Eaglet to the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, “I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

“I know what “it” means well enough, when I find a thing,” said the Duck.

Researchers I’ve spoken to within the growing academic field of Unbelief would agree that they are still finding out what this thing is – they speak of it as a slippery term – and debate the relationship between the categories of Non-religion and Unbelief – terms which still probably don’t mean much outside academic circles.

“Do you mean atheist?” asked a friend. Not just atheist  – I said – it’s more non-religion. And what is it about non-religion that is so interesting? She said. In other words – what’s the story?

All of this poses a challenge to those of us in the media who are interested in telling people’s stories and communicating the shifting patterns of religion, belief, identity – and straight away, I know, I have fallen into the same semantic quagmire that academics find themselves in – and have to ask how appropriate is it to use the terms associated with religion when we’re talking about things which are in contradistinction to it.

I think we all know the overarching narrative of the trends which are taking place in Britain – growing number of Nones or unaffiliated, an overall decline in church attendance, while at the same time the continued and increasing importance of religion as a marker of identity for certain groups. What we hear less of are the stories of the individuals behind the first of those trends.

In particular I’m interested in how important a non-religion identity is for the Nones? What makes up that identity? Is it a positive one – as it is for many atheists and humanists – which says something about who they are as people and what motivates and inspires them? Or is it a negative  descriptor which tells me very little about them and which even they may not care about very much?

I become interested in the None identity when it denotes more than a simple label. So, in learning about Unbelief and non-religion, I want to hear from those carrying out qualitative research which tells me about the individuals for whom this is an important descriptor. I want to know how they came to the position they hold, family influences, life events, how their views have changed over time, where they look to for guidance and authority, the communities to which they belong, their daily behaviour and practice. Most of all, though, I want to know whether and how having a non-religious identity makes a difference to the way they live their everyday lives.

The other thing I want to know is how non-religion is changing as a result of being studied and as a result of non-religious people becoming more self-conscious about that identity. Is non-religion becoming a movement? Is it providing communities of belonging? The obvious example of course is the Sunday Assembly where atheists and others meet to sing, hear inspiring talks and socialise. It is a church without God. Are groups such as these developing mechanisms to identify and support the pastoral needs of their members? Are they motivated to look outside of themselves to the neighbourhoods they are part of, to respond to the needs they see there?

For many Christians the church provides the locus out of which they live many aspects of their lives –  spiritual, social, volunteering; they campaign on a range of issues they care about, because (they might say) they are Christians. The church has an infrastructure to help them do that. Does non-religion – as a category – aspire to any of this? Do Nones want to hang out with other Nones because of that shared identity, do they want to do their volunteering and campaigning as Nones rather than as members of the other groups to which they belong? Do they feel they lack the resources and infrastructure to do so? To what extent does being a None provide any of the motivation for social activism?

Those are some of the questions I want to know from researchers in this field and which I think my audience – which most of the time is the BBC Radio 4 listenership  – would also be interested in. Because of their age (average 55), Radio 4 listeners are less likely than the general population to be Nones, but we can probably assume that non-religion and Unbelief will increasingly reflect where they are at. That doesn’t mean that they’re not interested in religion. 92% of them look to Radio 4 to keep them up-to-date with news and current affairs and you can’t do that if you don’t take account of the role that religion plays for good and ill in the lives of people the world over. An ICM survey last year suggested that only 15% of Radio 4 listeners claimed to listen to programmes on religion, but it wasn’t clear what was meant by programmes on religion –was it worship programmes, or programmes with a specific remit to discuss religion, or any number of one-off documentary series?

This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with Dr Lois Lee from University College, London in which she said, “I research an interesting  group of non-religious people who think of themselves as not interested in religion and non-religion but demonstrably are.”  I’d be interested to know about their listening habits. There’s a really useful piece of research to be done on which general newspapers, websites and broadcast programmes self-conscious Nones feel best cater to their interests and needs. I’m not a None so perhaps am not qualified to comment, but one of the strongest radio contenders I can think of would be selected interviews from a BBC Radio 3 series with Joan Bakewell, which is sadly now no more and was – ironically – called Belief.

A new book Religion and Atheism; beyond the divide reflects the  overlap between religion and non-religion, belief and Unbelief. I’m grateful to the academics and others who have pushed us beyond the adversarial debates of a few years ago. It seems to me that we are now in a space where a growing number of people are prepared to say – to paraphrase the words of the Cheshire Cat in Alice – “you’re not crazy. Your reality is just different to mine.”

This post is adapted from a talk given by Rosie Dawson at University College London during a roundtable on Non religion and Unbelief in 2016.

Rosie Dawson is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation and a Producer on BBC Radio 4.

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