Abba is best known as the Swedish poppers who at least gave us singalongamammamia. But, it is also the way Christians pray – abba being the intimate term of address Jesus told his friends to use when praying to God who is their father.

Not such an off-the-wall thought while the world burns tonight. I am in the diocese of Skara in Sweden to celebrate tomorrow the 1000th anniversary of its existence. Skara was linked with the historic diocese of Wakefield which is now part of the new diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales, and this is my fist visit – although technically I am here to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The abba bit has crept up because not long after I arrived this evening I was invited to a closed-door conversation about the Middle East with bishops and others. The conversation was led by the Lutheran Bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land and an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox bishop. It was frank and robust.

I don’t intend to breach the implicit confidentiality of the discussion. Some conversations are only possible because confidentiality can be trusted. However, I am at liberty to make one or two observations on the back of it. Next week – particularly if I still have had no response from my letter to the Prime Minister about comprehensive strategy – I will come back to the questions I raised three weeks ago.

  • Churches outside the Middle East need to be working with and through the churches in the Middle East, and not simply channeling their support through NGOs. Christian leaders and communities on the ground know the reality and have the channels that work. (This applied also to places like Zimbabwe when I was involved some years ago.)
  • Churches outside the Middle East need to convey in multiple and varied ways the message and the reality that our brothers and sisters are not alone in their dire struggle. Relationship has to be demonstrated in multiple expressions that together build a picture.
  • Churches in the Middle East have enough statements made – they need a strategy for long-term survival. It is widely recognised that the loss of Christians from (for example) the Holy Land leaves the space to polarised conflict between two enemies. The presence of Christians brings a different set of relationships and allows ‘enemies’ to be held in the same space. Christians need to be in their lands for the benefit of others.
  • The West needs to let go of its paralysing guilt and develop a strategy that will hold in the long-term.
  • In the midst of the massive propaganda war over Gaza and Iraq/Syria – mediated by selective representation – it is murderously difficult to identify ‘truth’. But, how we address these questions has implications not only for people in conflict areas, but also for communities closer to home. See the rise in anti-semitism in England and wider afield in Europe – but also hear the voice of the Muslims who ask my how they can protect their Jewish neighbours and the synagogues in West Yorkshire.
  • The 1000 year history of the diocese of Skara in Sweden covers periods of success, disaster, war, oppression, fear, jubilation, and every other phenomenon that goes to make up life in the real world. Nothing romantic about it. But, it reinforces the commitment of Christian churches to place and territory – not to lord it over others, but to stay when others go, to serve when the world seems to be falling apart around us. In it for the duration.

Which, of course, is the hard question facing us in the Middle East: how do we enable Christians to stay in their lands and thrive into the longer-term future.

I am not saying this is the last word. Rather, I am simply ruminating on a difficult discussion this evening.

It's a bit like the London buses: you wait for long enough and two come along at once.

Downing Street has today announced the appointment of two Area Bishops for the newly created Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales of which I am the Diocesan Bishop.

The Revd Dr Toby Howarth, currently Secretary for Inter Religious Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury and National Inter Religious Affairs Adviser for the Church of England will be the Bishop of Bradford.

The Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs, currently Rector of Heswall in the Diocese of Chester, will be the first ever Bishop of Huddersfield. This is a new bishopric covering the local authority areas of Calderdale and Kirklees and is one of five areas in the diocese, which each have their own bishop.

We launched the new bishops on a footbridge at Leeds station before they went their ways to their new episcopal areas for meetings with key people from church and society. Which, on reflection, is a great metaphor for what the church is about: stuck in the middle of a public space where people pass by, some paying attention and others not, and glancing off people – whoever they are and wherever they come from.

I am delighted with these appointments which complete our team of bishops. They bring wide experience, great expertise and substantial gifts to our leadership and ministry as we build the new diocese. Both will bring important outside perspectives to this complex task and help bring bishops closer to the ground in parishes and local communities.

Toby Howarth brings expertise in teaching, pastoral care, leadership and interfaith relations at parish, national and international level. This is an important appointment for the Church of England and for Bradford where he will serve as Area Bishop.

Jonathan Gibbs brings to this new office wide experience at parish, diocesan, national and international level. He has been a committed parish priest and has served in a variety of contexts. His appointment is hugely welcome as he establishes the new episcopal area of Huddersfield.

Toby Howarth and Jonathan Gibbs will both be consecrated as bishops in a service at York Minster on Friday 17th October at 11am, conducted by the Archbishop of York.

Here are the brief biographical statements from the diocesan press notice:

The Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs (aged 53), has been Rector of Heswall in the Diocese of Chester for the last 16 years. Before that he was Chaplain at Basle with Freiburg-im-Breisgau, in the Diocese of Europe from 1992-98.

Jonathan says: “I am delighted to be coming to Yorkshire and to be joining the new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales at this exciting time. Toni and I are thrilled to be moving to such a great part of the world, with a wealth of culture in its towns and cities as well as beautiful villages and countryside. I am looking forward to working with the other members of the Diocesan team to build up the life of our churches both numerically and spiritually and to contributing to the life of the rich and diverse community in West Yorkshire. I am also very partial to a pint of Timothy Taylor’s “Landlord” and am looking forward to getting to know some more of the local brews!”

Jonathan takes an active role in the Church of England on diocesan, national and international levels: he has been Chair of the House of Clergy in the Diocese of Chester since 2006 and Chair of the Diocesan Clergy Chairs Forum since 2011. He is a member of General Synod, of the Meissen Commission (which links the C of E with the Evangelical Church in Germany), and of the Clergy Discipline Commission. He has also represented the General Synod on the Council of British Funeral Services and the Churches’ Funerals Group, focusing on the importance of clergy working flexibly and creatively to support grieving families.

After gaining an MA in Philosophy and Politics from Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to train for the ministry at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, where he also completed a PhD in Theology at Jesus College. He served his curacy in the Diocese of Chester at Stalybridge Holy Trinity and Christ Church (1989-92).

Jonathan is married to Toni who with others set up the Besom charity on the Wirral, which provides a bridge between those who want to give time, money, things or skills and those who are in need, working with over 40 agencies in the statutory and voluntary sectors. They have three children, Harriet (24) who is married to Matthew Curry, Edward (21) and Thomas (18).

Jonathan’s interests include walking, usually accompanied by their Cocker Spaniel, and rummaging in second-hand bookshops. He is fluent in German, Swiss-German and French and he and Toni have a love of France (where they first met). Jonathan is also a member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), and is committed to supporting village and community life. As members of the National Trust and English Heritage, they are looking forward to visiting many of Yorkshire’s historic properties.

The Revd Dr Toby Howarth (aged 52), has served as a parish priest, taught and studied in several areas with a variety of different faiths and cultures before working with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England nationally in inter faith relations.

Toby says, “It is a great joy to have been appointed as the new Area Bishop of Bradford. The role has no shortage of opportunities and challenges. I am very much looking forward to working with clergy, congregations and ecumenical partners in the diversity of the city itself, the surrounding towns and rural areas. I am also looking forward to engaging with the communities of which our churches are a part, and building relationships with those involved in the range of civic, statutory and community organisations which make up this vibrant metropolitan district. The Church of England has been bold in creating the new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, and it will be exciting to work with Bishop Nick Baines and the diocesan leadership team in developing structures that will better enable local churches to flourish and to serve their communities. I want to pray, to look and listen for what God is doing here so that I can join in and take my part.”

After graduating from Yale University in the US, Toby returned to the UK to work as a research assistant and postman before training for ordination in Birmingham, Oxford and Uganda. He was ordained in 1992 and served his curacy in Derby before moving to India with Henriette, his wife, who is from the Netherlands. There they joined the Henry Martyn Institute for Reconciliation and Inter Faith Relations in Hyderabad where he researched for a PhD in Islamic preaching from the Free University of Amsterdam while Henriette taught at a local theological college. In 2000 they moved with their two Indian-born daughters to the Netherlands, where Toby worked as an Evangelist at the Netherlands Reformed ‘Pilgrim Fathers Church’ in Rotterdam. Two years and another daughter later, they moved again, to Birmingham, where Toby became Tutor and then Vice Principal at Crowther Hall, the CMS Training College at Selly Oak, and Henriette was ordained in the Diocese. From 2004 to 2011 Toby was Priest-in-Charge at Springfield, a multi-cultural parish in the South East of the city. From 2005 he served also as Inter Faith Advisor to the Bishop of Birmingham before moving to London to take up his role with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2011.

As well as helping to develop the church’s relationships and formal dialogue with other religious leaders on issues from global trafficking to religious freedom, Toby has also had responsibility for the Church of England’s ‘Presence and Engagement’ programme (www.presenceandengagement.org) that seeks to encourage dioceses and churches to reach out to and work with people and communities of different faiths. This is led by a national Task Group chaired by the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, now Bishop of Wakefield, and includes several people from West Yorkshire. Toby’s believes strongly that wherever the Church is, Jesus calls it to become a community that lives out his love and compassion.

Toby and Henriette have three daughters: Franciska (17), Lucy (15) and Tamar (12). They enjoy London and being a part of their local community of Peckham, and as a family they are actively involved in their local church. Whenever they can, they like travelling together, particularly linking up with friends across Britain, Europe and further away. On a day off or holiday, Toby enjoys visiting a museum or gallery, reading a novel, playing music, camping or going for a bird-watching walk or cycle ride.

Onward and upward!

 

The timing is terrible. The furore over my letter to the Prime Minister has exploded on the day I begin a family holiday in a place with no mobile signal and intermittent wifi. Sky sent a satellite truck to the middle of nowhere and, so, got their interview (although I struggled to hear the questions in my earpiece and, therefore, probably sounded incoherent). Otherwise, it is almost impossible to do interviews.

I think one or two comments of explanation are due:

  • My letter is neither “bitter” not an “attack” on the Prime Minister. That was journalese. My letter simply tries to ask questions many people are asking, but to which we are not getting answers. I wrote reasonably and respectfully.
  • The Prime Minister is in a difficult position and I bet even Ed Miliband is grateful not to have to attempt to bring some order out of the chaos of crises around the globe this month. Prioritising cannot be simple, given the complexity of the issues to hand.
  • Asking questions of “coherence” should not imply that there is none (even if there isn't); it does ask for any coherence to be articulated. We are all implicated in our Government's decisions and should, therefore, be able to understand the big picture into which the reactive details fit.
  • There is no implied hierarchy of suffering in my letter. Asking questions about the lack of attention to the Chritsians in Iraq cannot imply a rejection of the focus on the suffering of others. It is a specific question about silence.
  • It has become clear that many people have written to their MPs (including ministers) about their concerns, and often not even had a reply. Perhaps giving these questions a higher profile might help.
  • I do not expect the Prime Minister or his colleagues to reply immediately to my questions. Indeed, I would prefer to wait and receive a considered response that indicates how these concerns are being addressed holistically than to get a reactive response that doesn't take us further.
  • The central point (backed up by some quoted military leaders) is that there must be some overarching vision about what we want to see happen in the Middle East – the “we” being not just individual governments in isolation from each other. The strategy is the 'plumbing' that gets us there. If a strategy is to be at all coherent, then it must serve the 'end' to which that strategy is the means. It is this that needs to be seriously debated and agreed – as we will then have to accept the price we are prepared to pay in order to make it happen. (For example, if it meant us staying in Iraq for thirty years, rather than ten, will we do it?)
  • I doubt if the Prime Minister will have me on his Christmas card list after this. But, the letter was not an attack on him; it was a questioning of policy and practice. There needs to be a distinction between the letter and the reporting around it.

This is the text of a letter I have sent to the Prime Minister and which will be referenced in national media tomorrow.

Recognising the complexities of such matters and the difficult role of the Prime Minister in them, I wrote the letter as a constructive stimulus to discussion of the wider questions provoked by what is happening in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Attempting to fix the immediate will prove costly in every respect, if we don't have a long-term, overarching and holistic vision for what we – along with other governments, agencies and partners (such as the churches) – need to achieve. The lack of clarity about such a comprehensive and coherent vision is being commonly remarked upon, and my letter seeks concisely and respectfully to elicit some response to these serious questions.

 

Dear Prime Minister,

Iraq and IS

I am conscious of the speed at which events are moving in Iraq and Syria, and write recognising the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges faced by the international community in responding to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

However, in common with many bishops and other correspondents here in the UK, I remain very concerned about the Government’s response to several issues. I write with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to put these questions to you.

1. It appears that, in common with the United States and other partners, the UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach. Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government’s response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq? Behind this question is the serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon, and it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect. The Church internationally must be a primary partner in addressing this complexity.

2. The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?

3. As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse. The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK Government. Therefore, I ask for a response to the question of whether there is any intention to offer asylum to Iraqi migrants (as part of a holistic strategy to addressing the challenges of Iraq)?

4. Following on from this, I note that the Bishop of Coventry tabled a series of questions to HM Government in the House of Lords on Monday 28 July. All but two were answered on Monday 11 August. The outstanding questions included the following: “The Lord Bishop of Coventry to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to resettling here in the UK a fair proportion of those displaced from ISIS controlled areas of Northern Iraq.” I would be grateful to know why this question has not so far been answered – something that causes me and colleagues some concern.

5. Underlying these concerns is the need for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the Government, given the departure of ministers who championed this. Will the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Panel continue under the new Foreign Secretary? Is this not the time to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom – which would demonstrate the Government’s serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy (backed by expertise) against Islamist extremism and violence?.

I look forward to your considered response to these pressing questions.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines (The Bishop of Leeds)

 

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It's perhaps indicative of the original trauma itself that yesterday I got the shivers when I heard the A Level results were being published. I remember well – when I went with my dad to my old comprehensive school in Liverpool to get my results nearly forty years ago – the feeling of dread … the sense that the whole of the rest of my life depended on what would be revealed in the next ten minutes. Melodramatic? Maybe. But, I've never forgotten the experience.

Looking back, I think I saw education in rather narrow terms. Qualifications were a means of advancement – allowing me to move on to the next thing I wanted to do in life, which was to go to university. There was something functional about the whole thing: get qualifications in order to get the place in order to get the degree in order to get the job, and so on. And there are plenty of commentators today who would observe that this functionalism has become the be all and end all of education. Perhaps we should recover the German distinction between 'education' and 'training'.

Well, the whole process surely must be more than creating incarnated CVs. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two thousand years ago he stressed that we need to be transformed “by the renewing of our minds” – that is, to allow our world view, our assumptions about who we are and why we are here, about what matters and why, to be re-shaped over time. But, Paul refused to accept that this can be done apart from consideration of how we use our bodies and spirits – what we choose to worship and how we do our ethics.

Funnily enough, this is the understanding that gave rise to universities in the first place. Education was seen as the development of the character of a person in community, and not just a means of getting jobs to earn money. Not surprisingly, it was primarily about expanding the world of a student into a freedom to live universally – an opening up and not a closing down of perception and experience. And, contrary to some of today's dominant cultural worship of 'success', this approach assumes we have something to learn. It is rooted in the humility that knows how little we know, and how hard it is to change our minds.

Essentially, then, this suggests that we need to recover – at the heart of our assumptions about education – that education is a means to an end and not an end in itself: the end is the formation of character, and qualifications simply help us to measure how far that character is being shaped.

There are many homes in England today that burst with celebration or are quiet with uncertainty. It can only be hoped that all students will see their value going beyond results that only measure a little of what matters … and possibly say nothing about who they are as persons.

 

One of the burdens of having written a blog for some years is that when you stop for a while people read into it something that isn't there. Apparently, silence about urgent world events – or, in my case, developments in the church – means I am a coward or unwilling to commit (despite regular media engagement on these issues). It is always interesting to me that the first (rather than the last) assumption is my obvious lack of integrity.

The real reason, of course, is more prosaic: I have not had the time or head space to hit the keys. Starting a new role in less-than-ideal circumstances, then moving house and settling into a new one (most of which is office or 'public' space), shifts the immediate priorities.

So, here is a bullet point observation on some of the things that have gone on recently, or are going on now:

  • The Gaza crisis will not be solved without Hamas ceasing its indiscriminate rocketing of Israel. Israel's response has been appallingly disproportionate, but responsibility is shared. In the end, a negotiated settlement will be needed, but by then the next couple of generations of mutual enmities and grievances will have been firmly established. In the end, this sort of violence resolves nothing.
  • The UK government should open our doors to those Christians and other minorities seeking asylum from persecution in Iraq and Syria. Numbers won't be great, but we have a moral obligation to rescue those whose situation has been generated by our interventions. Germany and France have led the way – there has so far been silence on this matter from home.
  • Rescuing Iraqis will not address the religiocide in Iraq and Syria. It is staggering that we would invade to oust Saddam, but hold back from stopping the shockingly brutal violence deliberately being inflicted on large communities of vulnerable people.
  • Jon Henley in the Guardian reports a massive rise in antisemitism in Europe and observes: “Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, and very ugly, demons.” Interesting use of language. Jesus once exposed the idiocy of cleaning out one demon, leaving a vacuum, then being surprised when the gap is filled by loads of demons – most of them far worse than the one they got rid of in the first place.
  • The rise of antisemitism itself demonstrates that the supposedly rational European societies are neither as rational nor discriminating as they would claim to be. When opposition to Israeli policy is turned into intimidation of Jews in England, Germany or France, there has clearly been a breach in the synapses somewhere. Or, perhaps, it just reinforces the fact that even people who claim to be rational actually react from deeper emotions rooted in unarticulated prejudices.
  • Clear out one demon, leave a power vacuum, and all you have done is clear the way for power-hungry demons to occupy the space. I am taken back to the historian (I think it was Niall Ferguson) who suggested that if you are an empire, you must behave like one and not pretend to be 'nicer'. In relation to Iraq, this means you can't just pop in, proclaim “Mission Accomplished” and satisfy domestic political concern by leaving quickly. He suggests that you have to be prepared to bed down for thirty years, change the infrastructure, let a generation go through, embed systems that work and allow the space for indigenous power to develop. Imperial? Yes. Patronising? Probably. But, the point is: don't do an 'Iraq' unless you are prepared to see it through … however uncomfortable this might make you at home.

And, in all of these cases, the ground will have shifted again by tomorrow.

 

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. I wanted, within the constraints of length, to shine a different light on some of what is going on in the world.

I really don't feel old enough for this, but my grandson is about to start school in September. But, the prospect fills me with a mixture of pleasure and dread. At some point in the next ten years we will have to sit though a school production of 'Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat'. Apparently, there's no escape.

Believe it or not, this is a deeply subversive musical … but not because of its biblical origins or its frequent replaying: it is because one song in particular is very dangerous.

To put it bluntly: it is just not true that “any dream will do”. Look around at the world outside and this becomes blindingly obvious. The 'dream' that drives ISIS (Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq is one most of us would claim will not do. It gives the lie to that other oft-repeated mantra: “It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” That sort of thinking would cheer the heart of a Pol Pot or his newly-jailed henchmen.

The problem here is that in our liberal culture we have divided the dream (or, what we think and believe about the world and why people matter) from consequent behaviour. In other words, we have allowed a disconnect between idea and action – one that is being reconnected by all sorts of ideologically driven groups around the world, often with bad results. Our problem, however, is that we don't understand any longer the legitimacy of action or commitment following idea or belief.

In fact, it is worse than this. We often speak as if any world view will do as long as it is liberal-western (and, therefore deemed to be neutral), but then insist that any religious world view – regardless of its integrity – is to be kept private in case it might make a difference. Which, I always thought, was the whole point.

At the root of all this is the uncomfortable fact that human beings act out of deeply-rooted assumptions about why the world is the way it is. The task, then, is to question the dream that drives the action and see if it is a dream that really will do.

This is what drives the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The prophets of the Old Testament constantly hold up a vision of what human society ought to look like and hold the people to it. As Amos says, don't dare to worship a God of mercy, but then go out and trample on the heads of the poor. Don't praise a God of justice, but then institutionalise corruption in the legal systems that allow the rich and powerful to buy advantage. In the Gospels Jesus uses story and image to plant ear worms in the imagination of his friends and enemies – words that scratch away at mind and conscience, making us restless for the fulfilment of a different vision.

I think Joseph's technicolour dream is worth revisiting. It replaced vengeance and injustice with mercy and love. It allowed those who had betrayed him to be free to live again.

 

 

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