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

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.

 

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the first Diocesan Synod of the Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire & the Dales) on Saturday 22 November 2014 in Harrogate. Of course, we have been getting down to the business of ministry and mission ever since the day the diocese began (at Easter 2014), but this is where we begin to establish the governance of the diocese and make provisional decisions that allow us to move on. These can then be revisited and refined or changed as time goes on.

Every now and then it is good for any institution to be compelled to ask what and whom it is for. A reality check is essential, if we are to live in the real world, establish realistic priorities, and not simply limp through life comforted by illusions of adequacy.

Well, I guess we are getting a bit fed up asking these questions by now! For nearly four years we have been walking through the Valley of Uncertainty towards the brave new world of West Yorkshire and the Dales, being compelled to ask fundamental questions about the shape, role and raison d'être of the Church of England in this part of the world. We bring our inherited stories and traditions, our experience and assumptions, and we have had to have the courage to choose change (rather than allow ourselves to be victims of it).

So, now we are here. The work of transition has been demanding and difficult, complex and challenging, but it has also opened up for us new possibilities and new opportunities for recovering and re-appropriating the core of our mission as a church of Jesus Christ. And this transitional work continues today.

At this first synod of the Diocese of Leeds it is important to recognise the journey we have been on. Although the Bishop's Councils of the three former dioceses have formed the transitional Bishop's Council in the last year, this is the first time the three former synods have come together as a single synod for a single diocese. Furthermore, we convene today knowing that we then only have one further meeting before being dissolved – an experience with which we are becoming very familiar – in summer 2015 ahead of the election of a new synod for a new triennium. We live in interesting times, and I will return to this scenario in a moment.

First, it will not have escaped your attention that we begin this morning without John Tuckett who has served as the Programme Manager and acting Diocesan Secretary since the inception of the new diocese. John came to us as Programme Manager without a programme to manage. He has stuck with us despite many challenges (not all of which have been seen in public). Despite many opportunities to move on, he has shown great loyalty and commitment to what we are trying to do. He has brought an outside eye and, both implicitly and explicitly, challenged the assumptions behind the church and diocese's way of doing things. He has done what we asked of him.

However, John informed me last week that he has been headhunted for another post and will be leaving us. As you can imagine, this came as a great shock to me – as it probably has to you. Given his drive and energy, his loss leaves us with a big change and a huge challenge – especially given the timing. I and the chairman of the DBF have agreed to release John with immediate effect, in accordance with the terms of his contract, and to reconfigure how we should proceed as a diocese from here. The news of his departure has not come at the most convenient time for us, but it also opens up a fresh opportunity to re-think and re-shape.

Before moving on to what happens next, I want to record my and our gratitude to John for the work he has done among us and the challenge he has brought to us. We wish him well in the next stage of his career.

When John came among us several years ago, we were three dioceses approaching change in different ways and with different levels of enthusiasm. No one – and certainly no one bishop – could lead the process. John was appointed to drive the process and try to hold it together, but with no certainty of any particular outcome. We then had to await the determining vote of the General Synod. We then had to wait another seven months for the announcement of who would be the first Diocesan Bishop of Leeds… who then had to be put in. During this time the common thread was John Tuckett working with Debbie Child and Ashley Ellis. Bishop Tom Butler agreed to emerge from retirement and serve as the chair of the transitional DBF as well as the acting Area Bishop of Bradford. We have relied on the generosity, maturity, vision and wisdom of some very remarkable people to whom we owe a great debt.

However, we are now in a different place. We are a single diocese and have our team of bishops identified and (almost) in place. Hard work has gone into researching and imagining new ways of being a diocese and doing our business within the constraints of legislation by which we are bound. We have bedded in new ways of working and have now identified the projects we need to work on in order to shape the diocese we want to be for the future.

Additionally, I am pleased to announce this morning that Dr Richard Noake has been appointed as the Diocesan Director of Education and will take up his new responsibilities soon. There is a lot of work to be done. Furthermore, I am now working on the appointment of a Diocesan Chancellor, and hope to have made progress before the end of the year.

As you can imagine, we have not had much time in which to come to terms with John Tuckett's news, and to re-think how to proceed from here. That being said, and recognising that this now inevitably and belatedly changes elements of the agenda that had already gone out, I have asked Debbie Child and Ashley Ellis, working together as joint acting Diocesan Secretaries, to lead our administration and to help structure the change programme we need to deliver more quickly. I am pleased to say that they have agreed. We know we can have complete confidence in them.

Today we face an agenda that appears to be inward-looking and institutional. It is. There is no option. It has taken a considerable amount of work to get to this first Synod at this time and we have no option but to attend to those decisions laid upon us. We cannot act as a synod without standing orders – even though we know the standing orders before us today (with some helpful amendments) simply get us going and give us the space to work on them properly during the coming year. We need a budget for 2015 – even though we know some of the figures might be proved inaccurate because of factors that might change our priorities and ability to do what we set out to do. We need to establish the foundation of our governance – even though we know we will then have to do a considerable amount of work in fleshing it out and making it work … whatever the 'it' might turn out to be once the Synod has decided.

This means that we are being invited today to agree on a way forward, not to make final and ultimate decisions. What we decide today will allow us the space to do more work in the next few months on how we want to shape our ways for the future. Therefore, I hope we can be mature about our processes, keep means and ends in perspective, and conduct ourselves with wisdom and generosity.

So, our agenda might be inward looking – we have no option here unless we want to stay overnight and fill tomorrow as well. But, this should not blind us to the context in which we meet. We should all be immensely proud that the last motion to go to the General Synod from the Diocese of Bradford and the first to be debated from the Diocese of Leeds was focused not on churchy matters, but justice for the people of our parishes. Those whose poverty is deepened by the so-called Bedroom Tax need the voice of those who see beyond the politics to the human need. Ian Fletcher drove the motion that went through on Tuesday without opposition. Today the joint Disability Forum launches here access guidelines 'Welcome, Inclusion and Respect'.

Furthermore, our domestic political agenda is shadowed by the massive crises faced by millions around the world. It is said that fifty million people have been displaced by recent conflicts and the scale of human suffering – to say nothing of the seeds sown for future violence and conflict – is almost too much to imagine. As we know, our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are being persecuted with horrific violence – and they need to know that they are not forgotten. We must continue to pray; we must continue to give – to aid agencies, to Christian agencies providing particular types of care and relief, and to act – lobbying our politicians, engaging with the media and shaping debate about our priorities and values. Are we content to live in a country that refuses to address the question of asylum for people who have lost everything and have nowhere to go back to? Or to choose to allow large numbers of people to drown in the Mediterranean Sea in order to discourage them from escaping their homelands?

Well, we might be content or we might be appalled. That is for each of us – individually and together – to work at as we enter 2015 and think through our politics in the light of our theology. In between, we celebrate at Christmas the God who comes among us, entering into the heart of the world's joys and sufferings, shining light into the darkness and exploding the misery with costly hope.

As we faithfully and humbly continue our work of shaping this diocese, we may do so with confidence: in God who has called us to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear; in each other as we bring our gifts and passions, our strengths and weaknesses to our discipleship and our common life and mission; in the church as it creates the space in which people can find that they have been found by God. In all we do and say today may we keep in mind our vocation to be a confident and vibrant church and diocese, equipping confident clergy to enable confident Christians to live and tell the good news of God in Christ across the parishes of this diocese and region.

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (with Michael Ball, Michelle Collins, Barbara Windsor, and a snatch of Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott rehearsing).

“Children in tweed? Why would they put their children in tweed?!”

That's what I heard in the train to London yesterday. It's a classic of mishearing, isn't it? A bit like when my youngest son asked me (on a long drive through Germany when he was a child): “Dad, on Star Trek why do they say, 'Beat me up, Scottie'?”

It's dead easy to mishear, and then run away with a misunderstanding that can sometimes have serious consequences. When Jesus told his friends to “Suffer the little children”, he didn't mean that we should make the children suffer. (He meant 'allow them to come.) But, look around at the extent of children's poverty and unhappiness in this country – measured by all sorts of organisations – and you could be forgiven for thinking that we had a mandate to put children in their place.

One of the things Jesus was doing when he spoke about children was to bring them in from the margins of his culture – economically unproductive, but a useful pension scheme for when age has stopped you working – and place them centre stage. “If you treat your children as the future only, and not as the present, you've missed the point, he says.

Yet, this isn't about growing little monsters who think from infancy that the world revolves around them and owes them a living. It is, however, about growing children who know that they are loved and valued and taken seriously enough to have to learn how to engage in a complicated world.

Did you know that 62 years ago today the NME published the first official singles chart in the UK. Among the twelve songs on the list – and bypassing the Max Bygraves epic 'Cowpunchers Cantata' – was Jo Stafford's 'You belong to me'. Well, interpret that how you like, but what it says to me on this Children in Need day is: You have an obligation to treat your children well, to give them a good childhood with the best opportunities in life. They don't belong as a possession to be exploited or a commodity to be traded, but as an obligation to be honoured and a gift to be loved.

 

 

This is the text of an article I published in the Yorkshire Post yesterday.

Every English teenager should be required to go with me to Berlin and take a 100 metre walk from the Brandenburg Gate up Unter den Linden. Within that short stretch we would walk the human history of great culture and dreadful tragedy, the heights of wisdom and the depths of corruption, the terror of captivity and the euphoria of liberation.

Of course, no one has offered to take me up on this proposal, but Berlin offers something unique in the world. And there could be no better – more poignant or instructive – day to do my walk than 9 November – a date that haunts Germans for different reasons. This year Remembrance Day falls on this day.

Berlin 1To remember means, literally, to re-member – that is, to put the memories back together in some order. So, make of this what you will: 9 November 1918 saw the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II; 9 November 1938 was Kristallnacht; 9 November 1989 saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within 70 years this date marked the end of the First World War which sowed the seeds of the Second which destroyed and then divided Europe and which then brought down the Soviet Empire.

It is hard to overstate the trauma suffered by Germans and made visible in the wall that tore apart a city and a world for 27 years. The German Democratic Republic proclaimed freedom from Nazi fascism, but then created a society riddled with secrecy, fantasy and suspicion – an estimated 25% of its population somehow corrupted or compromised by the secret police (the Stasi).

But, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of much more than political or social division. It became a metaphor for all sorts of ruptures between people and societies. It even became a metaphor for the spiritual imprisonments to which we allow ourselves to be subject: including to the consumerism that dominated on the western side of the Wall, but which did not ultimately satisfy the yearnings for freedom that those ‘liberated’ on 9 November 1989 imagined it would.

The fall of the Wall was, however, remarkable. I was working as a Russian linguist and Soviet specialist during the first half of the 1980s. Although the Soviet system was ultimately unsustainable – for lots of reasons – there was no sign that it would fall within a few short years. The idea that the Empire would collapse so quickly would have been thought ridiculous. History teaches us to be open to surprise.

When US President Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate and challenged the Soviet President to “tear down this wall”, it seemed a prophetic and bold act. Yet, now we learn (through German news sources) that Mikhail Gorbachev was already talking in 1987 about pulling it down as a fruit of glasnost. The popular ‘revolution’ in East Germany was already beginning in and through the churches. In Leipzig particularly it was the churches that provided the space for free debate and open expression of dissent.

Berlin 2Berlin is now a different place – my favourite city in Europe. The wastelands and minefields have been replaced by vast and expensive building sites. The city bursts with confidence and life. Yet, everywhere you look there is the haunting memory of sadness. Look left from the Brandenburg Gate and you see the Reichstag, the building that sat at the heart of violence, political corruption and nationalistic hubris; look to the right and you see the enormous and moving Holocaust Memorial. Look a little further and you will find the new Topography of Terror museum, sitting close to the site of the Gestapo HQ where so much dehumanising horror was generated. The Wall ran through this landscape, dividing east from west, capitalism from socialism, but never protecting from the realities of past decades.

So, in fact, the fall of the Wall in 1989 exposed past glories and horrors to renewed scrutiny. The euphoria of 9 November 1989 can never escape from the shadow of 9 November 1938. Re-membering, if it is to be remotely true, cannot wipe out what is inconvenient or uncomfortable. The eventual reunification of Germany simply meant that Germany had to shape yet another new role for itself in the world. How could it heal the lingering wounds of the past while vast material and economic inequalities existed between east and west? And how would German society handle the disillusionment of those from the east who would soon discover that capitalism does not mean a Mercedes or a mansion for everyone?

The fall of the Wall brought freedom and hope. But, it also brought into focus the harder question: what are we to be set free for?

Whenever I preach in the Berliner Dom (cathedral) I am struck by the inscription below the great dome: “Be reconciled to God”. It is as if this building, that has witnessed empire, fascism, communism and now capitalism, whispers into each generation the hint that reconciliation between people requires a bigger vision than the offer of mere consumerism.

This morning I read Alan Johnson's moving memoir This Boy and it nearly brought me to tears. Without a shred of self-pity, the former Labour minister simply gives an account of his childhood. Dreadful poverty, but powerful women.

This evening I read a book of sermons edited by the late John Hughes of Jesus College, Cambridge. Entitled The Unknown God, the sermons formed a series responding to the so-called New Atheists. It is funny as well as incisive, bringing together such minds as Terry Eagleton, David Bentley Hart, Tim Jenkins, Alister McGrath and John Cornwell.

The thing about sermons is that they are concise. They focus in a way that a ten or twelve minute time limit necessitates, but manage to be dialectical in nature as well as limited in reach. The only pity is that no New Atheist was invited to preach a response to these responses. (The charge that New Atheists don't preach is, of course, nonsense; assertion rather than engaged and informed argument is the nature of the approach.) but, it would have been interesting to hear someone respond within the constraints of a sermon preached.

The connection between Johnson's book and the sermons (in my reading of both books in a single day) is that Johnson's poor childhood took place as the consumerist post-war generation was growing with an assumption that religion was on the way out. David Bentley Hart observes:

Late modern industrial societies, whose economies are primarily consumerist, are already effectively atheist, insofar as the principal business of economic life in them has become the fabrication of an ever greater number of the traditional prohibitions upon the gratification of those desires. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest good is private choice… What once had to masquerade, even to itself, as a deep moral conviction and intense intellectual passion can now openly disport itself as the conventional and rather boring metaphysical rationality of a society shaped by the mechanisms and logic of the market. (p.89f)

It is the juxtaposition of a memoir that reflects on the mid-20th century development of the consumer society (finding a way out of poverty) with a questioning of the contemporary “radical” scientism that shapes or colludes with it that is interesting here. But, it is further interesting to pursue the accompanying category errors that lead to such confusions – such as that identified between 'faith' and 'belief' by Terry Eagleton.

You have to read the book to see what I mean.

 

Yesterday I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I grabbed it as we were leaving the house at 4am on Friday, an afterthought of nostalgia.

The copy I have still contained within it the notes I made in November 1976 when studying the text in my first term at university on a course called 'European Literature and Thought'. My handwriting has not improved.

Conrad's character sails into the heart of darkness – the Belgian Congo as it was only being discovered, but already being exploited – and encounters the darkness of the human heart. And, meeting Kurtz, he observes:

Everything belonged to him – but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. (p.70)

That's always the big question, isn't it? Not what I have grasped, but what has grasped me. Not what I think I have possessed, but what has possessed me.

And it doesn't only apply to the dark stuff. It is the same with grace and love and mercy and generosity. Is my grasp of them more or less important than their grasp of me? Or us?

It was this ultimate clarity that caused Kurtz to utter his final words: “The horror! The horror!” But, it doesn't have to end like that.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today I read John Williams's novel Stoner. Highly hyped, it is the sort of thing I would usually avoid. But, it is beautiful and sad and true. Here we encounter a life lived in relative obscurity, but it is a life ordinarily lived. And, again, it speaks of loss and love and a beautifully expressed account of an inability to articulate what matters when it really matters. Life disappoints, relationships imprison and illusions are maintained.

It doesn't have to be this way; but, it often is. And anyone who engages in pastoral ministry knows it all too well.

(I don't just read miserable books on holiday. Next up is Alan Johnson's This Boy. Please tell me it is cheerful…)

 

The great thing about getting away on holiday is the time to think, reflect and consider. Arriving on holiday to the mother of all thunder storms (started about four hours ago and still hammering), there isn't much to do other than think, reflect and consider.

Or read and think and consider.

At a business breakfast in Huddersfield last month I was given a book – strongly recommended as powerful and moving. That's usually enough to turn me off. After all, I have more books still to read than there is time to live. But, this one has proved its hype.

Nick Coleman is a man who lived music – then lost his hearing. But, his memoir isn't miserable or cloying; rather, the radical loss of music sent him deep into exploring. – sometimes explaining – how music works on the soul. Actually, it isn't just about music; it's about art and taste and love and growing up and mortality and loss. I don't want to quote it here, or give page references for a quick dip into its pages. It has to be read from the beginning. Don't miss his observations on Christmas carols or Soul music. And it is beautifully written.

The book is called The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss.

I read it against the backdrop of two recent albums: Leonard Cohen's Popular Problems and Robert Plant's Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. Both are differently preoccupied with mortality, joy and loss – both with an honest realism that puts regret and self-pity in their place.

Someone said recently that this is the album Cohen's (now 80 year old) voice was made for. I thought that of both Live in London and Old Ideas. Seeing him live at the Manchester Arena last year will live with me for ever – as will having to leave before he finished in order to get the last train back to Bradford, thus missing nearly forty minutes of encores.

They used to say that Cohen's earlier recordings were “music to slit your wrists to”. Of course, they never were. The humour was always there. But, age has brought it out as he has relaxed from the demands of … er … probably his libido. He sings:

There is no G-d in Heaven / And there is no Hell below / So says the great professor / Of all there is to know / But I've had the invitation / That a sinner can't refuse / And it's almost like salvation / It's almost like the blues

Robert Plant, on the other hand, responds to the break up of a long relationship in his new album Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar. Again, this is a working out of the experience of loss and renewal, but with the edge that only the artist can bring to us. No wonder, then, that the Old Testament prophets were the ones to scratch away at the memories and imaginations of the people, using words that – in the words of Walter Brueggemann – “linger and explode”.

Anyway, this all comes on the back of seeing Caro Emerald live at the Leeds Arena a couple of weeks ago. The support act, Kris Berry, was lovely-but-bland and couldn't manage to hold the audience – it felt like the audience was trying to help her feel OK. Then Caro Emerald hit the stage with her eight or nine piece band and occupied the space with sheer force of musical personality. You couldn't take your eyes off her. Every song, every arrangement, coursed through your veins, lighting up the imagination and firing the bits of you that want to get up and dance even if to do so would have been unseemly. In my case, that is.

So, that is the soundtrack running through my mind while I begin a holiday from the relentlessness of establishing a new diocese in West Yorkshire and the Dales (and Barnsley and a slice of Lancashire and a bit of County Durham and North Yorkshire…).

(The thunderstorm stopped at 9pm allowing wifi to work…)

 

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