This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show. Guests in the studio were Tom Odell, Len Goodman, Alex Jones, Paul Hollywood and Bear Grylls… and the Sally Army Band.

Call me immature, but ever since I became a vicar I had a competition with myself at Christmas. It was to get a Bruce Cockburn quote into every Christmas sermon. I have now managed to quote the Canadian songwriter for twenty seven years.

Why? Well, sometimes the poetry of someone else shines new light into what has become familiar – like … er … Christmas. So, instead of banging on in prose, I drop in this bit of lyric: “Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.”

Brilliant, isn't it? In a world dominated by power, bigness, violence and competitiveness, it is the cry of a tiny babe that penetrates the fog and defies the misery. Or, as someone once put it, there's no point just shouting at the darkness; light a candle! A small light can dispel a lot of murkiness.

I think this is how love works – real love. Not some superficial romance, but the committed love that gets stuck into the world as it is and doesn't just wait for it to be as we would like it to be. Real love pours itself out and, as I have put it elsewhere, is drawn by hope, not driven by fear.

It seems to me that this is what Christmas is about, really. That God doesn't wait until we have sorted ourselves out, but comes into the world as one of us – in a way that we can recognise. This, I think, is what real love is about: God committing himself to all the vulnerabilities of human living in a complicated place.

This isn't just the icing on the top of the Christmas cake; it's the sherry-soaked fruit in the heart of it. It's not the peripheral dad-dancing I do to embarrass my kids; it's the strictly committed tango that real dancers do. It isn't some namby-pamby camping 'experience', but the full-blooded live-off-your-wits survival stuff in the jungle.

Christmas is God getting down and dirty – where we are. Isn't that brilliant? Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

Happy Christmas!

 

 

The current rhetoric around immigration, asylum and 'foreigners' is not one might call constructive. Statistics are bandied around, particularly by politicians determined to cut numbers. However, behind the numbers are people.

Last week I visited PAFRAS, a centre dedicated to care for and serve asylum-seekers and refugees, based in a church hall in Leeds. PAFRAS stands for 'Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers'. It is a charity, runs mainly on volunteers, and is interested purely in the human faces behind the bald statistics. They feed them, offer community and human society, screen them for medical needs and offer advice in a range of matters. They also run classes for teaching English. Food is also provided and served by a group of young Muslim men who asked to be involved.

What is remarkable is how all this goes on without remark. It isn't done for kudos or gain, but in order to help some very vulnerable people. Yet, what you notice in visiting and speaking with people there is that behind the factual vulnerability of their circumstances, there are some very impressive people who have the determination to withstand poverty in order to make a better life. Many are here because they would have had (literally) no life in their country of origin.

People who bandy statistics should be compelled to visit such places, meet such people, listen to their stories, look them in the eyes, then return to the narrative lent credence by the use of statistics.

Interestingly, this visit followed a visit earlier in the week to the National Coal Mining Museum for England. Apart from finding myself in a deep pit – OK, only 140 metres down – I had to think through the way in which (in some cases) centuries of mining had shaped the sociopsychology of whole communities … and how the abrupt ending (for economic reasons) of this industry deeply scarred these communities, probably for decades to come.

Again, behind the headlines and the economic/political debates there are people with faces and histories – relationships forged and torn apart by the strikes of the 1980s. Yet, while some have engaged in forgiveness and reconciliation, others remain isolated by their former allegiances.

It is not for me to cast judgement on this. But, as with the asylum-seekers and refugees at PAFRAS, human beings bring stories and memories, cultures and relationships, commitments and costs. Sometimes it is important to step back from rhetoric and judgement, and to look and listen – and to see the complicating human person behind it all.

This evening I am going out to the Saturday Gathering, a young church community in Halifax where all-comers – including some of the most vulnerable people in the town – have found love, grace, unreserved care and genuine fellowship. I will be baptising a family of four. Tomorrow I will be at Wakefield Cathedral to preach at two 'hospice' services in the afternoon for people who have been bereaved – we expect around 1,100 people to take part. Behind all these encounters echoes the haunting melody of the Gospel reading read always at Christmas: John 1:1-14. “The Word (the logos, the idea) took flesh and lived among us”… the 'incarnation' changes everything. God comes to us – not vice versa – and we find that we have already been found by him.

That is what underlies the commitment of many who give themselves through the church to the most vulnerable people in our society: love has to take flesh, and the most surprising people can open their eyes and know that they matter.

(And when I go to the meeting of the House of Bishops in London on Monday, these are the people and places that shape the lens through which we do the business.)

 

Apart from posting scripts and personal stuff, I haven't had time to get back to the sort of blogging that provokes or responds or interprets.

The latest personal news is today's receipt of an Honorary Fellowship awarded by Bradford College. Following on from an Honorary Doctorate from the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena last Tuesday (and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Bradford last December), this is a great honour, and the ceremony was very generous. I love seeing students getting their academic awards – the fruit of their labours emanating in pride and celebration. This college is doing excellent work in an excellent city, and it's new main building has to be seen – an icon of confidence.

But, here are three points about what is going on in the wider world:

1. Ukraine remains on the brink and the rouble is plummeting. But, Russia is made of people who are not afraid of sacrifice – indeed they see their history almost entirely in terms of suffering and sacrifice. I am not convinced they will cave in to material deprivation driven from the West.

2. Gordon Brown is standing down as an MP next May. Watching him has been like watching a Shakespeare drama: the prophetic moral courage of a brave man compromised by the sort of “vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself” (Macbeth). To hear him speak about poverty and international injustice was like listening to an Amos or Jeremiah: articulate passion, acute judgement. Parliament will be poorer without him.

3. When the media's attention moves on, the money also seems to dry up. 1.7 million Syrians face hunger because the UN funds are drying up. When the next photogenic massacres or horror stories hit the screens, no doubt we will all wake up again. (At least the base and dehumanising consumerism that was 'Black Friday' demonstrates that horribleness runs close to the surface of most human beings – wherever they are…)

OK, that's enough. Having just read Do No Harm (brilliant account of brain surgery) and Stasiland (brilliant account of life in and under the Stasi in the GDR), I am now reading Rochus Misch's account of his life as Hitler's telephonist, courier and body guard: Der letzte Zeuge (The Last Witness). And Neil MacGregor's Germany. And a million papers for work.

Goodnight.

 

I have just returned from Jena in Germany where I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität on Tuesday evening. This was awarded for my contribution to ecumenical work between the Church of England and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland and for work in practical theology.

As I said on the night, I find this remarkable and bewildering at the same time. I am too embarrassed to explain what the thinking behind the award was, but I am deeply grateful for the kindness, generosity and hospitality we received.

This university has been around for well over four hundred years and had on its teaching staff luminaries such as Hegel, Schelling and Fichte. It was here that Goethe met Schiller. And it is here that I delivered a lecture last year, prior to preaching in the Stadtkirche immediately after. Most importantly, it is a university that does what universities should do: it allows for a proper interchange between the disciplines, breaking out of the silos we sometimes see in Britain.

The former Rektor of the university, Dr Klaus Dicke gave a lecture on 'Theology and Humour'. Now, most non-Germans will automatically see this as a joke in itself – there is a prejudice that the Germans don't do humour. Of course, as with many prejudices, this is nonsense. Yes, the lecture was academic; but, it was also funny, clever and seriously informed. I felt a bit lightweight (I always do) when I responded by making two points: (a) theology is always practical – as John puts it in his gospel, “the Word became flesh and lived among us”, and the job of theology is partly to put the flesh back into word in order that others might discover the Word made flesh … and so the dynamic continues; and (b) there is no theology without humour – when Abram and Sarai hear the ridiculous news that they are to have a baby in their old age (Genesis), they laugh at God … and God doesn't resist or reject their laughter. In fact, their baby, Isaac, is given a name that means 'laughter'.

The event in Jena brought friends from Stuttgart, Schwäbisch Hall, Erfurt, Berlin, Hannover and elsewhere. Seeing them was wonderful. The opportunity to spend time with them on Tuesday evening and again Wednesday morning was wonderful, and I am inordinately grateful.

I find things like this puzzling. I do what I do (books, blog, preaching, lecturing, writing, journalism, etc.) because I like it and think the church needs to enjoy itself a bit more in the public square. We need communicators who enjoy the challenge of learning the languages of the world around us and speaking in a way that can be understood – even if, sometimes, we make a complete mess of it.

I might not be the sharpest theological knife in the drawer, but I am deeply grateful for the honour given to me by this prestigious and heavyweight German university.

 

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.

 

 

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