Questions to ask about extremism

That ICM Poll – common sense or populist media

The ICM opinion survey which was commissioned for Trevor Phillips programme has drawn – perhaps not unexpectedly – vastly contrasting opinions. Miqdad Versi said in a Guardian headline: “What do Muslims really think? This skewed poll certainly won’t tell us“. The  Sun had: “Muslim ghettos in the UK: Warning that a nation within a nation is developing with different values”

How do we ordinary folk navigate between these two poles? I suggest two means to guide us.

Firstly , to read the actual ICM document which is easily available on line. Relying on media headlines is no good and only tells us more about the prior views of the newspaper in question. And as for the radio, the BBC in particular, we simply get a repetition of two different views. Online is no better with a multitude of voices with every conceivable opinion

Second, to draw on our personal experiences of contact, hopefully even relationship, with real live Muslims. If we do not know any Muslims, then that disqualifies us from having a valid opinion and should send us out to do something about it.

The ICM survey is available to read at:

As far as I understand these things, the poll met the best standards of statistical investigation and there is not much point in arguing about its representativity. Of course we should have a healthy scepticism about polls commissioned or a particular programme, but ICM are a reputable organisation and I doubt they would be willing to skew their methodologies for the benefit of a particular programme

So the question, as always, is how we interpret the results and what lens we use to interpret them. What pre-existing ideas, even stereotypes, do we bring to bear in assessing the significance of the poll? Is it possible that, especially where we do not have a ‘control’, that is, a personal relationship to start from, our interpretation might be skewed by what we have read in the media?

The tables include for each question the responses of the different generations. That seems to me to be an important indicator of the extent to which attitudes change by the impact of cultural adaptation. It is one of the more interesting results that generational attitudes have not changed as much as one might have thought they would.

On some of the specific questions which have attracted particular attention






Questions to ask about extremism

I listened to an item recently on BBC Radio 4 which consisted of a religious affairs correspondent visiting Bradford and interviewing a number of Muslim people about extremism and their views. The responses were mixed with some saying that the problem was not so much in the mosques but in homes with access to the internet; that not enough was being done and said by Islamic communities to challenge the ideology of ISIS and related organisations; and that Muslims felt at risk from the backlash from acts of Islamist terrorism.

What struck me was that the correspondent’s questions, though interesting,  were superficial and added nothing to our understanding of the issues that we all, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or any other, need to address. The current emphasis on ‘extremism’, particularly where ‘extremism’ is defined in a shallow way as being against ‘British’ values of democracy, equality and respect for others, is insufficiently sharp edged to get at the roots of the problems we face or are perceived to face. One person’s extremism is another’s norm. For some, perhaps many, ‘radical’ is an honourable title. Christianity’s challenge to the dominance of the market over human relationships, attitudes to sexual relationships and gender and much else, might be ‘extreme’ to libertarians; Islam’s prohibition on alcohol and interest might be ‘extreme’ to hedonists and financiers; Judaism’s commitment to keeping Shabbat and to kashrut might be extreme to some commercial interests. ‘Extremism’ is too relative and culture specific to be  a useful term. ‘Are you an extremist’ would seem a strange question to virtually everyone, probably including ISIS.

What is needed is a set of straightforward questions – the questions which are actually the kinds of ones that ordinary people ask, and particularly ask of the three Abrahamic religions. These should be questions, which although capable of being discussed and debated as to their precise meanings and particular exceptions, do give the possibility of straightforward answers of a yes or no kind. The questions below are a first attempt at this. They are drawn from a religious perspective but are relevant to people of no religious belief as they draw on Article 18 of the Universal Convention. The questions are at the present time particularly acute for Islam, but can be legitimately asked of anyone.

  • Should every person in every country be free to choose or change their religion without hindrance or penalty?
  • Should every person in every country be free to practise their religion publicly as well as privately without hindrance?
  • Should everyone in every country be free to advocate their religious belief to others?
  • Do people who kill innocent others in the name of their religion go to paradise?
  • Should men and women in every country be considered, in doctrine and in law, to be of equal status and value?
  • Should there be a nation state of Israel?

Each of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have passages in scripture and tradition which advocate or can be used to advocate, both the answer yes or no to the above questions. It is insufficient simply to cite passages or texts which provide a superficial yes or no. Each of us must be ready to say how, whether by contextualisation, reinterpretation or abrogation, our religious belief, rooted in our scriptures and reinforced by oral Torah, Hadith or tradition, can and does provide a deep and consistent yes or no to the questions

3rd January 2015

Anti extremism policy

Together with a variety of other faith leaders I attended a meeting recently at the Department for Communities and Local Government as part of the consultation about the “anti extremism” report by Louise Casey for the Prime Minister. After the meeting we were asked to offer any further thoughts, and these were mine:

  1. I do think that separation of communities is not something unique to Muslim communities but is part of the much more general fragmentation of society where because of technology, mobility and other factors, those who can move to be in areas where others ‘like them’ will congregate, do so; and those who cannot are left behind. Of course there are particular factors for Muslim and some other communities, notably Jewish, where patterns of prayer encourage clustering around mosques or synagogues. But beyond that there are also particular issues of separation for the Muslim communities which arise from for example: numbers and density where all needed services can be found within the community; cousin marriage and intercontinental marriage ( I saw a study in Bradford which indicated that even amongst 4th generation South Asian Muslims, inter continental marriage still accounted for 50% of marriages); satellite tv access and more. I think that whilst there are general societal problems of separation and clustering, there is a particular and significant issue in the clustering of Muslim communities
  1. There are many language issues that we discussed particularly in relation to integration/segregation, extremism etc . Whilst I appreciate that the report is to do with ‘anti-extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’, I think that these are rather unhelpful and over polemical words. What we really need is to normalise the idea that ordinary people can/should engage across all the differences that we know exist. We need to think of this as a fundamental aspect of society, that local human interaction in our neighbourhoods in a multiplicity of ways is necessary and enjoyable. The rebuilding of social capital is at the heart of this.
  1. Keep programmes well away from security programmes as much as possible
  1. The thrust of policy and programmes needs, I think to be focussed on ways in which encounter, association and mutual involvement are encouraged and facilitated at neighbourhood levels using local initiatives and organisations. There is a considerable amount going on already but it needs to be intensified and broadened. Examples are Near Neighbours, Presence and Engagement, the network of parish churches etc from the Church of England’s side; the work of other organisations such as St Ethelburga, Initiatives of Change, Search for Common Ground, Bridge builders, Catalyst, Feast, Three Faiths Forum, Faith Matters and many more across the communities. I think it is important that we should not over focus on ‘inter faith’ work. ‘Normalisation’ means understanding the work of bringing people together as being a much broader agenda than simply inter faith, which can add to the problemisation of faith in general and Islam in particular
  1. Much of this ties in with Mehri Niknam’s point that the issues are at least as much cultural as religious. Schools have an important part to play here
  1. Of course there is real room for inter religious and other leadership organisations to play their part. It is helpful for communities to see their leadership speaking positively about programmes and policies which aim to bring people together. IFN,CMF,CCJ etc are part of this swathe of leadership organisations. I was however quite struck by the participants in the meeting – pretty much the same generation as I was working with six years ago!
  1. Much greater use of social media seems to me to be very important – encouraging and facilitating local organisations to tell positive stories on social media. One aspect of this is the making of short videos for circulation through Youtube and all the other channels that are available. As we know, the ISIS and other related organisations are extremely competent and I read recently that their output exceeds by far the counter narratives on social media
  1. I think that there could helpfully be an emphasis on the organisations which promote training courses for young adults. Where these involve a residential component, in my experience, the impact can be very powerful in changing perspectives



The latest Vatican document on Jewish – Christian relations is of great significance

Here are some thoughts on the Vatican’s Document by the Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave, Bishop of Woolwich and Chair of CCJ

 The recent Vatican document issued by the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews – The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable – is highly significant both for Catholic-Jewish relations and more widely as a call to all Christians. It asks the Christian community to look back on the past 50 years of improved relations with Jews with gratitude, and it also provides a new stimulus for the future. Although it is not a magisterial document or a doctrinal teaching of the Church, it reinforces the ground breaking call of Nostra Aetate for the Church to revisit her approach and attitude to Jews and Judaism on several key theological questions, and emphasises the duty of those in authority to ensure that the message is heard.

While dialogue with all faiths is important, and should follow the principles outlined for dialogue with Jews, nonetheless, this document emphasises that the dialogue with Jews is qualitatively different for Christians because of the history and the role Judaism has played in Christianity. Indeed, the document declares that Christian-Jewish dialogue is not a matter of choice but a duty.

While affirming Christian beliefs about the person and work of Christ, the new document points out that both Jesus and his disciples studied and taught within the context of Torah observant Judaism; “Fully and completely human, a Jew of his time, descendant of Abraham, son of David, shaped by the whole tradition of Israel, heir of the prophets, Jesus stands in continuity with his people and its history.” Jews are to be regarded as the “elder brothers” and “fathers” of the Christian faith. Moreover, the document clearly states that one cannot understand Jesus’ teaching or that of his disciples apart from the horizon of the living tradition of Israel. More importantly, it warns that we would understand these teachings even less if they were seen in opposition to this tradition. While the Jewish origins of Jesus and his first followers is less controversial than it was when Nostra Aetate was first issued, there are still many parts of the Christian world where this has not truly been acknowledged.

The new statement also rejects supersessionism or ‘replacement theology’, the erroneous teaching  which taught that Judaism had been made redundant and was now ‘replaced’ in the covenant relationship by Christianity. Instead, the statement explains that the New Covenant is not an annulment nor a replacement, but rather a fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant.

Another significant development in the statement concerns the question of mission. It aspires to articulate the logic for a very real tension between two seemingly incompatible claims: that there is only one path to salvation through Jesus Christ, but also that the Jews are not excluded from salvation because of their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. The document declares that it is unquestionable that the Jews are participants in God’s salvation (for the Scriptures affirm that salvation comes from the Jews), but how that is possible without confessing Christ is and remains a “divine mystery.”

The title of the document itself is carefully chosen, quoting the letter of St Paul to the Romans regarding the enduring relationship of God with the Jewish people.  By quoting this text, it is clear that the statements made here are emphatically following the teaching of the Church from its first days, and are consistent with Christian scripture.

The Church clearly and unambiguously is recommitting herself to a right relationship with Jews and Judaism.  Vestiges of old, harmful and erroneous teachings are to be cleared away.  The document also recognises that although texts and documents are important, they cannot replace the ongoing commitment to personal encounters and face-to-face dialogue. For these reasons, this document provides a significant signpost and must be welcomed by all who value Christian-Jewish relationships.


Power to Change

This is a new Trust set up in 2015 with Big Lottery funding. I have not seen much publicity about it and so I am pasting below some of the material from their website.

This kind of funding could be very helpful to churches, amongst others, which are seeking to adapt their buildings to wider community use. This is something which is happening in many local churches across the country, transforming them from being buildings ‘privatised’ by the Victorian addition of pews.

The recent report to General Synod by the Church Buildings Council highlights the challenges faced by many of the Church of England’s 16000 churches and emphasizes the need for creative and imaginative schemes which continue to provide for worship but offer new possibilities for serving the parish community.

Across England communities are coming together to set up businesses that improve their local area. We are here to help these businesses to thrive and to champion the good work that they do.

The Power to Change is an independent charitable Trust set up in 2015 to support, develop and grow community business across England.

Over the next decade, we will use £150 million provided by the Big Lottery Fund to deliver grants and practical support to encourage new community businesses to start and enable existing ones to grow and becoming more self-sustaining. We will also provide a voice for community business and raise awareness of the valuable social, economic and environmental benefits that community businesses deliver.

Across the country there are examples of communities coming together to save local shops from closure, setting up community centres to provide a place for people to meet, and developing community-led housing to help regenerate local areas. We want to help these organisations to thrive. We also want to help more people to set up businesses that respond to local need and change the place in which they live for the better.

Our mission

At the heart of our vision and mission is the devolution of power to local communities. We want to support people in local communities to take action and to take control of vital services that are important to them that might otherwise disappear.

Our overall vision is ‘better places through community business’ delivered through a mission to ‘back people to build successful local businesses for the benefit of their communities’.


At the heart of this vision and mission is the devolution of power to local communities.  In the wake of the economic recession, many local communities are challenged by cuts to neighbourhood services, by the closure of local amenities and by the decline of the high street.  In the face of these difficulties many local people are taking matters in their own hands and we think that’s a good thing. In fact, recent years have provoked a groundswell of local responses that not only see people coming together to improve their local areas but they do so in increasingly innovative and enterprising ways that are sustainable over the long term and allow local people to directly benefit from local ventures. We want to support people in local communities to take action and to take control of vital services that are important to them that might otherwise disappear.

Across the country there are countless examples of local communities coming together to save local shops, pubs and post offices from closure, creating locally owned sports clubs and facilities, community-managed woodlands and green spaces, joining forces to develop community energy-saving schemes, setting up local community centres and enterprise hubs for local people and business to work, meet and share ideas, and developing community-led housing to help regenerate local areas.

We believe that community businesses like these represent a unique way of truly empowering local people, addressing market failure and providing solutions to some of the most significant challenges faced in local communities.  So we want to help these organisations thrive and help more people to set up businesses that respond to local need and change the place in which they live for the better.


Recent awards


Organisation Award Region Sector Funds allocated for
Bamford Community Society £120,000 East Midlands Community pub Capital funding for work on the Anglers Rest in Bamford, a community hub run by the Bamford Community Society, to improve the building’s energy efficiency. Revenue funding to develop future business plans to fully realise income generation potential of the asset. Find out more from our case study.
Centre at Three Ways £499,200 Yorkshire & Humber Workspace and training provider Capital funding to retrofit school interior used for business and voluntary community and social enterprise tenants, a sports and conference centre. The centre covers seven blocks set in three acres of the former school’s grounds.
Goodwin Development Trust £200,000 Yorkshire & Humber Arts and culture Capital funding to support refurbishment of church to create an arts space and offices, with future income to be generated through room hire and arts programming.
Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust Ltd £391,454 North West Community housing Capital funding for the refurbishment of five empty homes that will provide affordable housing for local people. Longer term, these buildings will provide an asset base for the local community from which it can continue to generate income to reinvest back into the area.




community, diversity and the common good

“Religion, to repeat, is not always and for everyone a matter of personal choice. It can be given and unchosen and in this respect it is similar to human characteristics such as ethnicity and gender”

I am reading through the report and begin with a couple of thoughts on the way in which the report refers to religion and belief. No doubt as I read, more will become evident

First, in relation to the quotation above (paragraphs 2.5 to 2.8). Whilst it is true that all of us are born into a religious/cultural context, there remains an irreducible difference with respect to gender and ethnicity and a difference which should be nurtured rather than elided.  It is, I think a mistake to over emphasise, as this part of the report does, the difficulty of changing religious or belief affiliation and does no service to freedom of religion and belief. There are too many who use this argument to prevent co-religionists or co-believers from exploring or taking on another identity. We need more freedom to ‘convert’ rather than less as this is an essential aspect of Western liberal democracy in politics, science and the arts where we actively encourage each other to consider whether one hypothesis or political programme is better or truer than another.

My second comment in relation to the report’s concept of religion and belief is that it follows the common attitude that these can be lumped together as essentially the same thing. Of course the report refers frequently to the different religions and beliefs, and indeed emphasises the need to pay more attention to the ‘Dharmic’ religions but underlying this and shown by the very title, is the assumption that fundamentally all religious systems are of the same nature. This is as odd as assuming that it is possible lump all scientists or politicians together as phenomena which do not at heart need to be disaggregated. Virtually all holders of religious or belief frameworks – which is pretty much everyone – would say that their perspective has some element of truth not held by others and is distinctive for that reason. That is why indeed, societies coming from different religious histories are so very different in the present day. The report seems to speak ‘from the outside’ of religion and belief as if the inside view is less significant or can be acknowledged as existing but then laid aside.

A third comment, related to the above, is that the report assumes that a cohesive and plural society does not need any particular underlying religious philosophy, that ‘British values’ (not a term actually used in the report) or a deracinated idea of the Common Good, can provide a sufficiently robust platform on which all can stand. There is little evidence from history and decreasingly around the world today that this can be so.

Baroness Warsi again

This time I spotted an article which was first written recently for the Daily Telegraph reprinted in the Pakistan Observer. It’s worth reading the whole article, but one paragraph is particularly interesting :

Time and again, we encounter the assumption that some people of some faiths can be trusted while others cannot. Today, for example, we see some in the Muslim world questioning whether Christians can be trusted. In the Western world, we see some doubting the loyalty of some Muslims. But as a proud British, Muslim, Conservative woman – one who has the privilege of serving her country as the first Muslim in full Cabinet – take it from me: there is nothing incompatible about a world of many religions and one of strong, vibrant nation states. Here in Britain, we have a proud history of pluralism and inter-faith dialogue. Now we need to go further: beyond the photo calls outside the mosque, beyond hosting the local imam for tea in a draughty church hall. This dialogue needs to be congregation-to-congregation, community-to-community. That is why we are working with the Church of England on the Near Neighbours programme, building up multi-faith social action using the existing parish infrastructure.

It’s such a shame that the St Paul’s fiasco has once again distracted from the real life and work of the Church of England and given the media every opportunity to reinforce the idea that what goes on in Cathedrals or in Synod debates or at the Commissioners is really central to the Christian life. These places have their role, but if they would only have a bit of  selfeffacing humility and point to where the heart of the church really beats, it would be better for us all.

Acts of Settlement and Union – past present and future

Archbishop Cranmer’s latest post is a long and detailed account of the various   provisions of the complex of legislation which weave together the many elements of our constitutional arrangements, mostly dating from the early eighteenth century and particularly the Act of Settlement in 1701 and the Act of Union in 1707. His Grace writes against the ‘post modernism’ of the present government in failing to understand the rationale, context and interwoveness of the provisions which prohibit the monarch from being or marrying a Roman Catholic. The post is well worth considering and it led me to a reading of the texts of the Act of Settlement and the Acts of Union, which I had not previously done.

Quite apart from the argumentation of his Grace, there were two things which struck me particularly from a reading of the legislation: the first concerned the Act of Union and the continuing debate about Britain’s present and future position in relation to the European Union; and the second to the notion, commonly stated, that it is only Roman Catholics who are ‘discriminated’ against by the Act of Settlement.

On the latter point it is quite true that the Act of Settlement includes multiple provisions against the monarch ever being or being married to a Roman Catholic:

“Provided always and it is hereby enacted That all and every Person and Persons who shall or may take or inherit the said Crown by vertue of the Limitation of this present Act and is are or shall be reconciled to or shall hold Communion with the See or Church of Rome or shall profess the Popish Religion or shall marry a Papist shall be subject to such Incapacities as in such Case or Cases are by the said recited Act provided enacted and established And that every King and Queen of this Realm who shall come to and succeed in the Imperiall Crown of this Kingdom by vertue of this Act shall have the Coronation Oath administred to him her or them at their respective Coronations according to the Act of Parliament made in the First Year of the Reign of His Majesty and the said late Queen Mary intituled An Act for establishing the Coronation Oath and shall make subscribe and repeat the Declaration in the Act first above recited mentioned or referred to in the Manner and Form thereby prescribed”

What is less often referred to is section III which makes it clear that only those ‘in communion with the Church of England’ can be monarch

” be it enacted by the King’s most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That whosoever shall hereafter come to the possession of this Crown, shall join in communion with the Church of England, as by law established;”

This provision makes it clear that it is not only Roman Catholics, but people of other faiths and of no faith who are disbarred from the throne. Archbishop Cranmer notes that since the Church of England currently accepts that Roman Catholics may receive at the Holy Communion, the onus for a Roman Catholic to be able to ascend the throne might well be upon the Vatican. By accepting that Roman Catholics may receive at the Holy Communion in Church of England churches, at least this provision would be satisfied, if not the others.

It seems then that this is not a ‘particular’ discrimination against Roman Catholics, but a general prohibition against people of other faiths or none from ascending the throne

The Act of Union in which the prohibitions are repeated, is an interesting illustration of the shortness of our historical memories. Many commentators on the European Union speak as if economic and monetary and political  union, is an unknown thing in our history; an anathema and sacrilege against our pure and unsullied history of English independence.

However the Act of Union uses language in bringing together the Scottish and English kingdoms into a single political entity, contains language which is very reminiscent of the language of the European Union. A few examples:

Article 3 (united parliament)

That the United Kingdom of Great Britain be Represented by one and the same Parliament, to be stiled the Parliament of Great Britain.

Article 6 (customs union)

That all parts of the United Kingdom for ever from and after the Union shall have the same Allowances, Encouragements and Drawbacks, and be under the same Prohibitions, Restrictions and Regulations of Trade and lyable to the same Customs and Duties on Import and Expor

Article 16 (monetary union)

That from and after the Union the Coin shall be of the same standard and value, throughout the United Kingdom, as now in England, And a Mint shall be continued in Scotland under the same Rules as the Mint in England And the present Officers of the Mint continued subject to such Regulations and Alterations as Her Majesty Her Heirs or Successors, or the Parliament of Great Britain shall think fit.

and a wonderful catchall provision:

Article 25 (repeal of conflicting laws)

That all Laws and Statutes in either Kingdom so far as they are contrary to, or inconsistent with the Terms of these Articles, or any of them, shall from and after the Union cease and become void, and shall be so declared to be by the respective Parliaments of the said Kingdoms.


1493 in Collioures – another expulsion

Coming down from the Western Pyrenees to the pretty seaport of Collioures on the Mediterranean coast was a contrast to the rugged mountains of the Carlit and the  Canigou with their villages hidden away in remote valleys. Collioures is an ancient harbour now mainly associated with Impressionist  painters such as Matisse, Fauvist and modernists such a s Picasso who frequented it in the early twentieth century.

It is dominated, however by a massive castle beneath which the narrow streets of the town shelter. The castle was part of the defences built by the French after the Treaty of 1659 which finally settled its frontier with Spain. The castle is still occupied by the training school for the French commando units whose main base is back up in the Western Pyrenees at Mont Louis, the fortified town constructed by Vauban again after the Treaty of 1659.

The castle in Collioures has a much older history, however, and was part of the defences needed by towns around the northern shores of the Mediterranean against pirates, slave traders and warfare generally from the Islamic empire of the southern Mediterranean shore from the eighth century onwards, through the times of the crusades and on to the years of the Reconquista

A recently published history of the Mediterranean , ‘The Great Sea – a human history of the Mediterranean’ by David Abulafia, gives a wonderful account, both detailed and scoping of the Mediterranean from the earliest times.

Below the fortress of Collioures is an extraordinary memorial to the last 39 Jewish families who were forced to leave Roussillon in 1493 from the town aboard the Santa Maria and Sant Cristofol (what cruel irony in the names!). The Jewish Encyclopedia records that they left first for Naples and then for Istanbul – only recently of course conquered by the Islamic Ottoman armies of Mehmet II. I recall myself being warmly entertained at the Synagogue in Istanbul by the Jewish Community there in the summer of 2009.

The inscription reads: ” Commemoration de l’expulsion du peuple juif de Catalan. En novembre 1493, partirent de Collioures les 39 derniers juifs non convertis de Roussillon, chassees par l’inquisition et les rois asservis (familles GN Mosse, Fuentes, Asday, Stelina, Bendit,Nissim, Saloman, de Larat, Petrossa, de Piera, N Mosse, Jacob, La Lobela et un enfant), embarques sur la Santa Maria et Sant Cristofol”. There are contemporary paintings of the expulsion in the local chateau.

Such a story to be ashamed of and so reminiscent not simply of the Spanish Ferdinand and Isabella, but of so many European countries, with our own expulsion of Jews for 400 years down to the mid 17th Century.

An article in the Jewish Encyclopedia gives  a detailed account of the experiences of the Jews of Perpignan, including those who were forced to leave from Collioures – experiences which were overwhelmingly negative with occasional glimpses of more positive voices

David Abulafia also provides a vignette in his account (page 223) of  the treatment of Jews a thousand years earlier in Minorca  with the arrival there of the relics of St Stephen in 416 AD which caused an upsurge of Christian fervour with consequences directed against the Jewish community. The local bishop, Severus admitted that: ” the riot against the Jews was begun by a thieving Christian, ‘drawn not by love of Christ, but by love of plunder’”.  Abulafia comments at the end of the section: ” it is impossible to escape the conclusion that Jews and Christians had not just been on good terms until St Stephen arrived, but that the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity had been very permeable, which was exactly what the bishops disliked”. Perhaps the ‘Parting of the ways’ was later and less conclusive than is sometimes assumed

Open and closed

Wandering around villages in the Western Pyrenees on both French and Spanish sides of the border is an interesting and enjoyable experience – not that there is a border to take notice of, whether on a mountain sentier or between the twin towns of Bourg Madame and Puigcerda. That, amongst many other things, is a living benefit of the European Union, made all the more real by the previous history of the region where the fortified town of Mont Louis testifies to the previous conflicts, actual and expected, between the two nations. There’s an interesting further memory, now very largely hidden, of the ‘Saracen’ raids and  invasions expressed rather forcefully in the first line of the Andorran national anthem: “The great Charlemagne, my Father, liberated me from the Saracens”

All the villages and hamlets have both their Mairie and their church, but the former are in much better shape than the latter. For the most part the churches are closed and locked and although in theory there may be a key at the Mairie or elsewhere, this fact and the location is hardly ever evident. It was also distressing to find little or no information about times and locations of Masses in the groups and clusters of churches.

What was noteworthy, and rather surprising in the light of the constitutional separation of church and state in France, was the extensive public funding available for the repair and maintenance of the churches. Almost without exception the exteriors of the churches were in excellent condition with a notice attributing the funding to local and regional authorities and in one small village also to the European Union

Inside, when it was possible to gain entry, the experience was not a happy one. In church after church, the interior condition was poor; there was little or no information about the church let alone about Christianity; and the impact of the 17th and 18th centuries on the simple Romanesque buildings was as all transforming as that brought about by our own dear Victorians.

Of course many churches in England remain closed and locked, although in the towns and villages especially, this is thankfully becoming less often the case. English churches are overwhelmingly well maintained and clean and frequently have extensive information about the history of the building and the times of the services. What is noticeable as very often missing, are any materials about the Christian faith – no leaflets, often no gospels or bibles, nor other evangelistic material such as produce by the Christian Enquiry Agency. Given the high levels of visitors to churches – 80% of the population have visited a church for one reason or another in the past year