March 30, 2012
The work never ceases and the diary never slims. But, in the margins of all this there are some brilliant things going on.
Bradford might be at the heart of today’s news because of George Galloway’s (not exactly surprising) victory in yesterday’s by-election (and the inquiry by Labour should dig somewhat deeper than some of the analysis we heard today – if this was a protest vote, what was really being protested against?), but a couple of other remarkable events have also just taken place. They have brought exciting new life to the heart of a city that has some great good news stories to tell.
Yesterday saw the opening of the world’s first museum gallery dedicated to telling the story and exploring the cultural, social and technological impact of the Internet and the Web on the way we live. Life Online is the superb new addition to the already excellent National Media Museum in the centre of Bradford. It is the brainchild of the also excellent Director, Colin Philpott, who is soon to move out of his job and into pastures new.
This great event – marked by video greetings from people such as Sir Richard Branson – followed the opening of the amazing City Park in the centre of Bradford and close to the National Media Museum. Just look at this:
How can anyone not visit?
Anyway, back to the work…
March 27, 2012
In his book Schöne Aussichten, Prof Fulbert Steffensky writes a meditation called (literally) On the Freedom of a Guilty Plea (Von der Freiheit eines Schuldbekenntnisses). Based on the Old Testament prophet Micah 4:3, he explores the need to ‘read ourselves in’ not only to the promises of God, but also to the judgements of God. Several times he remarks that to pray – as Jesus invited us to do – “Your kingdom come” is to repent of the kingdom (‘das Reich’) we currently tolerate and perpetuate… one that does not measure up to the nature of God’s kingdom. He then says something that made me look twice in order to make sure I had read it right:
Kingdoms that do not match God’s kingdom become the Third Reich. (Die Reiche, die nicht am Reich Gottes gemessen werden, werden zum Dritten Reich.)
At first sight this seems like an extraordinary thing to say. But, then he writes: “We have experienced it!”
German theology is still heavily coloured by the experience of totalitarianism and war. Guilt still pervades the memory from which lessons are drawn, forming the backdrop to thinking about God, humanity, morality and the earth. Even where not articulated, it haunts the texts in ways that an English mind finds strange. Theology is, as Steffensky repeatedly states, shaped by experience – both individual and collective.
Whatever we might think about the particular claim regarding an easy descent into the Third Reich, the interesting point is how memory is a powerful motivator and shaper of theological perception.
I remember Denis Healey writing in his autobiography The Time of my Life (1989) about his fears for a generation of politicians that has not experienced the reality of war. Noting that he was of the remnant of that generation that fought on the beaches of Europe in the early 1940s, he suggests that politicians who have not lived with the reality of conflict will be more ready to commit (other) people to conflict. When, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once put it, “memory becomes history”, we become distanced from unromanticised reality.
It seems to me that it is all too easy to dismiss the fears of one culture on the grounds that their memory is not ours. But, perhaps those of us who cannot forget tyranny – because we have never suffered under it – need to pay attention to the expression of those who have. By looking through their eyes we might be enabled to think differently about our own values and priorities.
Conspiracy theories abound. We are told every day that the world is getting worse and tyranny is just around the corner. And although it can get irritating to constantly have to listen to such shrill warnings, it is still worth measuring the ‘kingdoms we tolerate’ against the kingdom of God (that is, as seen though the eyes of the prophets who cry out in the name of God for justice… and as seen in the person and priorities of Jesus of Nazareth). Only then can we be honest, reading ourselves into the judgement of God and not simply appropriating the promises that make us feel justified, satisfied or content.
March 26, 2012
I cannot read the haunting lament of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas without hearing his voice from an old recording:
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
A gorgeous, warm, bright spring day brought out the tourists in droves yesterday – baring substantial amounts of unsunned flesh. Driving through the Dales, it looked and felt like summer was on its way (so, it’ll probably snow next week). The beauty and the nascent new life bursting from trees, flowers and hedgerows seemed incongruous, however, with what I was going on to do later in the afternoon.
The excellent and wonderful Marie Curie Cancer Care trust has moved its annual bereavement service in Bradford from October to March. At least this aligns the appearance of real daffodils with the symbol of the Marie Curie charity. Everyone in the congregation of a couple of hundred had two things in common: (a) they were bereaved in the last eighteen months and (b) they are mortal. The service creates space and a vocabulary for loss and grieving and thinking about our mortality – in a place that gently reminds us of it anyway. For over 700 years people have worshipped, lived and died in this place. On the way in to begin the service I noticed a memorial plaque on the cathedral wall which poignantly recorded the deaths of the three infant children of a bereft couple in the early nineteenth century. This cathedral has witnessed the living, suffering, celebrating and dying of generations of people like us.
Cutting through the potential verbiage to the heart of the matter, I tried to account for Christian hope in a way anyone could understand it. Based on Revelation 21 three things seemed pertinent:
1. Christian hope is rooted in the God who comes to us. We talk about us ‘going to heaven’, but it is the other way round. In the Genesis 3 narrative it is God who goes walking in the garden in the cool of the day asking ‘Adam, where are you?’ – the same searching question that confronts every human being. Adam and Eve do not seek him out; he seeks them out. God makes the first move. In the Incarnation it is the same – God comes among us. And the imagery of Revelation 21 tells the same story: the heavenly city comes down from heaven to earth, not vice versa.
2. The resurrection is key to Christian hope. Jesus did not spontaneously come back to life in some great act of resuscitation: as Paul notes, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. And this points to…
3. … Christian hope is not located in a scenario or a formula or schedule of what happens when the body closes down. Christian hope is rooted in the person of God. That’s all. I turst and hope in God, not heaven or some expectation of what happens after death. I trust in the God who raised Christ from the dead – and the rest is detail that doesn’t need to bother us very much.
The old Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, put it like this:
God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.
The great German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, put it like this:
God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.
Which, of course, is the beginning of a conversation and not the final word.
March 22, 2012
Globalisation is the word we keep hearing. Indeed, the world has shrunk and contact with people of different cultures and contexts can be immediate. News is instant and judgements are quick (even if ludicrously limited or wild). But, despite HSBC’s claim to be ‘the world’s local bank’, it is the ‘uniquely local’ that always matters most. Here in Bradford one question that nags away at me (as a relative newcomer) is: how does this city become uniquely Bradford and not simply a competitor with somewhere else (like Leeds)?
One of the privileges of being a bishop is that you get out and about a lot – visiting real people in real local places, hearing local stories, learning about the uniquely local realities, and seeing one ‘locality’ through the lens of another. For example, whenever we grapple with inner-urban issues (both challenges and opportunities) we do so partly by looking at them through the lens of the rural and suburban. And, of course, vice versa. This means that there is always another perspective – a different light to shine on one reality/context – that inevitably questions our assumptions, checks our excuses and compels us to look more broadly.
This doesn’t just apply to geography and demography. In my travels around the diocese I also try to help people to read the Bible in this way: seeing the particular reading in the light of the whole narrative and allowing assumptions or prejudices to be challenged by looking at the text from a different perspective. It is like looking at a cropped fragment of a painting or photograph, working out what is is about, then drawing back to the wider canvas and – on seeing the true, fuller picture – revising our prior judgement in the light of what we now see.
Yesterday’s budget by the Chancellor in London is no doubt causing a lot of sound and fury around the country. I haven’t had time to look at it as all day every day seems to be filled with people and work at the moment – all good stuff and the stuff of the real world. But, as well as asking what impact the budget will have on people locally – especially poor, sick and vulnerable people – yesterday saw the bodies of the six (five from Yorkshire) soldiers killed recently in Afghanistan repatriated to England. I was asked recently on the telly how the people of Bradford were coping with the news of their tragic deaths – as if I should know how everyone is thinking or feeling! Yet, the question is valid in the sense that a soldier from Bradford has a connection (at lots of levels: identity, locality, commonality of environment and experience) that a soldier from Brighton does not and cannot have.
Identity and association work at different levels. When I am abroad I am fiercely English/British; in England I am Scouse; in Yorkshire I am Bradfordian; in Bradford I am… er… trying to learn what ‘Bradford’ is and what ‘Bradfordian’ means. Which I love.
Being positive about locality is not about being blind to its challenges. But, it does mean (in Christian terms) taking ‘presence and engagement’ seriously. Christianity is inherently incarnational: we see God in the person of Jesus who then sees us as his body, called with a single mandate, therefore, to reflect the Jesus we read about in the gospels. And this means paying attention to the local, the small, the parochial, the relatively insignificant, the everyday realities that shape the lives (for good or ill) of people in every community. Which is what the Church of England tries to do, using its clergy, people, buildings, ‘purchasing power’, and down-to-earth commitment to transform both the way we live and the way we see – from the inside out and from the outside in.
Today I am meeting nine curates, one after the other, for interviews about their future ministerial deployment. Conversation about their ministry has with it huge consequences for spouses, children, families, schooling, employment, etc. It is easy to take this commitment for granted, but it is frequently remarkable and humbling. And it always takes place in the context of trying to hold the individual in the light of the common and the local in the light of the wider church and world.
It is never boring.
March 16, 2012
Anyone would think the Archbishop of Canterbury had resigned. OK, he has, but (as a colleague delicately put it) he still has a full pregnancy to go through before finishing.
I have been too busy doing real work all day and am now about to go out again. So, here’s my response to the news and the silliness that has now started:
Rowan Williams has been a remarkable Archbishop of Canterbury. He has steered the Anglican Communion through some particularly challenging times with enormous integrity, intelligence and prayerfulness, and I know he will continue to do so over the next nine and a half months.
While speculation as to his successor is inevitable and a great game for the media, it’s no more than that – a game. In the meantime we’ll all get on with the real work.
March 14, 2012
Given the awful news in the last week of deaths in Afghanistan (6 British soldiers and then 16 Afghan civilians), I wasn’t sure what to write for Pause for Thought on this morning’s Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. How do we address something like this in a couple of minutes in the context of a lively, fun show?
I immediately thought of the blues – I was downloading an Eric Clapton CD to my iPad at the time. Whihc is why I began my script as follows:
You know what it’s like when you listen to an album time and time again, but you never really take any notice of the song titles – and then you have a look at the back of the CD box… and you wonder what you’ve been listening to? Well, I was getting an Eric Clapton album onto my computer (Me and Mr Johnson, if you must know) and, apart from the epic They’re Red Hot (er… let’s not go there), the one that caught my eye was the intriguing Milkcow’s Calf Blues. I still don’t know if this refers to the baby cow born to the milkcow, or the lower rear leg muscle of the cow itself…
The blues often have odd titles. When I was a teenager I played trumpet in a jazz group and one of my favourite tunes was St James Infirmary Blues – a Louis Armstrong classic. I have no idea which St James Infirmary it referred to, but I guess it wasn’t the one in Leeds.
The thing about the blues is that they always dig deep into human experience and the everyday stuff of our lives. Like the Psalms of the Old Testament, they lend a vocabulary to the profoundest – and often most painful experiences of loss and love and longing. They give a voice to those bits of life we find it hardest to express – especially if such expression makes us sound weak or miserable or, worst of all, a failure.
I have written about the blues elsewhere. The power of the blues is in the raw honesty, the lack of fear of exposure or ridicule. They often strip away the veneers of human self-sufficiency. They go deep. Try listening to Clapton’s River of Tears (on Pilgrim) and you hear the music weeping.
Anyway, how should we apply this briefly to events of the last week – especially as the news came in this morning of an appalling tragedy in Switzerland in which 28 Belgian people were killed in a coach crash, 22 of them children?
In a week in which six soldiers were killed in Afghanistan – five of them from West Yorkshire – and a rogue American soldier systematically killed 16 innocent people in Kandahar, and the dreadful news from Switzerland this morning, perhaps we need the blues to give us a voice. Otherwise, how do we say something useful about such horrors and the agony of sudden loss?
There is a time for simply voicing the pain – not trying to make some sense out of it. The psalmists cry out at the injustice of this world – the same now as it was three thousand years ago – and tell us that God invites us to be honest, not correct.
It doesn’t exactly nail theodicy. But it is a rather feeble example of how to try to say something useful when rationalising is inappropriate, but something needs to be said that shines some light on our reaction to events that tear at our heart. The context shapes the content.
March 12, 2012
Oh dear. Sometimes you get the feeling that a big row is unnecessary, that everyone wishes they could wind the clock back or just get out of it. The wearing of crosses in England is one of those matters. For some it is a non-issue, for others it is a matter of simple common sense, for others still it is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.
Media reporting doesn’t help. Just as a nuanced comment about gay relationships (aspiring to the ‘virtues of marriage’ – got that?) leads to headlines proclaiming that the new Dean of St Paul’s ‘backs campaign for gay marriage’, so another game is set up to create/prove/illustrate (delete as appropriate) division between archbishops. What if there is no contradiction between their positions and this is just ‘story creation’?
The Archbishop of York rightly says that the wearing of jewellery is not a matter for government judgement. If the government wants to get involved in questions of what people wear, then I await with interest their rulings on the abolition of the burqa and the prohibition for Sikhs wearing their kirpan. This argument about someone wearing a small cross has got completely out of proportion: if jewellery is to be banned on a BA uniform, then all jewellery (including BA badges, presumably) should be banned – the ruling being based on the potential dangers in an emergency of loose or sharp jewellery. However, if it is the nature of the jewellery – in this case a cross – then that is a different matter and the argument should be one of principle about religious symbols. That this current argument has gone as far as European courts is ridiculous as it appears to most people to be a matter of simple common sense.
According to the Daily Telegraph the Archbishop of Canterbury said in Rome that ”the cross had been stripped of its meaning as part of a tendency to manufacture religion. Taking as his text the account of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem, he said the temple had become a ‘religion factory’ rather than a place of worship”:
I believe that during Lent one of the things we all have to face is to look at ourselves and ask how far we are involved in the religion factory… And the cross itself has become a religious decoration.
Er… isn’t that true? Is anyone seriously going to argue that the cross has become for vast numbers of people simply a piece of jewellery – a decoration devoid of any religious significance – or a sort of religious totem (or lucky charm) that substitutes for substantive faith or commitment?
The point is that both archbishops are telling the truth about the wearing of crosses. They are simply not engaged in the same argument. (It’s a bit like me saying the sky is blue, my mate saying it is covered in a layer of ozone, and the commentator saying we are bitterly divided.) Any contradiction – and they are both grown-ups, so they can differ if they wish to – is, in this instance spurious. The fact that some people are ‘angered’ by the archbishop’s comments is irrelevant: someone is always angered by whatever an archbishop says and we have all been told by journalists that we are ‘furious’, ‘angry’, ‘upset’ when all we have done is differed from a view. You’d think that all archbishops do is spend their day working out how to upset people by making outrageously sensible statements.
However, I still think it ridiculous that any government – especially a religiously illiterate one – should try to decide on questions about the wearing of a cross on clothing. This simply feeds suspicions of conspiracies against Christians. So far BA has never asked me to remove my pectoral cross when flying – and my pectoral cross is a good deal bigger than any little piece of jewellery.
March 9, 2012
This is the text of my Spital Sermon at the Church of St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London yesterday. A Spital Sermon is preached before the Lord Mayor of London and the Aldermen of the City in Lent each year. This year’s Lord Mayor grew up in Bradford and is doing some excellent work on behalf of the city during his year of office. I was preaching at his invitation.
The Spread of truth (Isaiah 5:1-10)
Truth is an odd thing to speak about in a culture that finds comfort in fantasy. Which is probably an odd way to begin a sermon in a context such as this. So, I will digress a little before coming back to this theme.
Last year I returned as bishop to the city where I studied modern languages at university. Bradford’s pioneering language courses – training proficient interpreters and translators for professional roles as linguists – are now defunct. They have died the death prescribed by a culture in England that apparently sees language learning as an optional extra for people who are incapable of doing something useful. For most of us, being able to order a beer in a tapas bar is a source of self-congratulation. That this should happen in a city where a large proportion of children happily move between two or three languages is tragic. And this is not a criticism of the excellent university; the demand has simply disappeared as the priority has diminished in a school system that values league tables above education of the whole person.
Now, the reason I speak of this in such stark terms is not in order to bore you with a tirade against cultural philistinism, but in order to enable me to introduce you to a simple insight offered by the former German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt (now aged 92 and still working in Hamburg). In his marvellous book Ausser Dienst (Out of Office) Schmidt advises anyone thinking of seeking political office in Germany not to do so unless they are proficient in at least two foreign languages. Why? Because, he writes, we can only understand our own culture if we see it through the lens of another culture… and in order to do that we have to know something of the language of that culture. (While in a television studio a couple of years ago a leading English politician asked me what I was reading and I told him of this particular piece of advice. He laughed and said, “Well, we wouldn’t have any MPs in Parliament if we took that seriously!” I observed that this isn’t exactly funny.)
But, I think Schmidt is right. We need to step outside the framework we take for granted – away from the assumptions we intuitively make about why the world is the way it is – and look at ourselves from the outside. Only in this way are we able to check our vision, gauge our perspective and work out where we are going – and according to which values. The alternative is simply to stay locked within the narrow confines of our limited experience and to fortify our world view against any alternative threat.
This is precisely the situation that faced the people of Isaiah’s day two and a half thousand years ago. Their primary vocation had always been – right back to their ancestor Abraham – to give their lives in order that the world should be blessed. In other words, their singularity imposed not privilege and power, but obligation and costliness. Losing the plot – understood in terms of forgetting their foundational story… the narrative that vindicated their identity, explained their history and identified the shape of their conditionally promised future… as well as being exiled from the actual land of promise – was the consequence of cultural and spiritual amnesia.
Isaiah is one of the prophets who sees through the thin veneers of national security, religious complacency and political expediency, and tries to get his people to face reality, to see the truth about God, the world and themselves, to see what they look like when seen through the eyes of the outsider – even through the eyes of God who accuses them of pushing him outside, too.
Isaiah’s prophetic complaint is, in one sense, quite simple. He called his people to be like him, but they were seduced by other fantasies. Love was replaced by oppression, mercy became hostility, justice just got trampled upon in the pursuit of comfort, stability and self-protection.
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes… he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”
We are judged not by our fine words, but by the fruit of our actions – by the real flesh-and-blood evidence of our social priorities. Hence the bewildered question: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”
Of course, the question is for the people themselves to answer; but, they don’t see the problem and they no longer have the breadth of vision to perceive what they and their choices look like from the outside. And when things have got so far beyond repair, when the situation seems irredeemable, the only inevitable consequence is ruin – the loss of all those symbols of identity such as land and social cohesion and self-determination. More a description than an intention, when such injustice is allowed to characterise a society, the self-destruct button has already been pressed. They sleep-walk through their fantasies into desolation.
Now, I realise that I probably haven’t cheered you up with all this misery. This is probably the moment for a good joke or a Johnsonian witticism. But, all I can think of is the man who, feeling ill, went to the hospital for tests. Afterwards the doctor came in and said: “I’m sorry Mr Jones, but there’s nothing we can do for you. You’ve had it.” “You mean there’s no hope?” said Mr Jones. “Exactly,” said the doctor, “there’s no hope.” “I want a second opinion!” said Mr Jones. “OK,” said the doctor, “there’s no hope and you’re ugly.”
Oh dear. That actually takes us straight back to Helmut Schmidt and the prophet Isaiah, doesn’t it? How we are seen from the outside… Something about our ability or willingness to face reality and see ourselves as we are seen – or as we truly are.
When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, he declined to answer his powerful judge’s question – which might or might not have been rhetorical: “What is truth?” Rather than get bogged down in competing or conflicting truth claims, the unanswered question invites us to face reality: reality about a God who sees through the political, economic, social and religious fantasies we construct for ourselves – the reality of our human condition and the fragility of our contingent existence. Truth is true because it is true, not because it is convenient.
One of the odd things about our contemporary culture is the rather weird notion that if something is true for me, it can differ from a contradictory ‘truth for you’… and that’s alright. Truth becomes reduced to private opinion or subjective preference. It loses touch with the real world in which if something is red, it can’t simultaneously be yellow. Or as (I think) CS Lewis put it in relation to Christianity: “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity.” In other words, truth does not change simply because we prefer it to look or sound different.
Now, where does this lead us (in the brief time we have to think about such things)? In the light of recent controversies in London it might turn our minds to St Paul’s Cathedral which this week stole the excellent Dean of Bradford from under my nose, leaving Bradford bereft and London with a smug smile of satisfaction. We might reflect on the events of the last few months during which some very awkward people shone a light onto our society and our preferences, priorities and practices, and invited us to look differently – from a different perspective, from a different angle, through a different lens – at who we think we are, why we think we are here, where we think we are going, where we think we should be going.
What we have learned, if we didn’t know it before, is that our economic and political direction is not inevitable, but is chosen according to the values we adopt and the priorities we set. It is shaped by the sort of thinking that has to be done reflectively and not always in the heat of the moment. And it compels us to consider, under the haunting gaze of prophets like Isaiah from so long ago, whether or not we might shape our world differently.
The problem for Isaiah’s people was that their own self-sufficiency and need for self-protection led them to build around themselves walls they thought would keep reality out. I haven’t time to explain the international politics of the Middle East in the eighth century BC, but, as with most things in life, they were not terribly original. As we fearfully know, history has a habit of repeating itself. But, they expanded their wealth not for the benefit of all – or for what we might usefully call ‘the common good’ – but for their own protection. As Isaiah puts it: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”
Human experience demonstrates time and again the truth that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake simply results in isolating the wealthy. And who wants to live in such a way as to occupy all the space at the expense of everyone else?
Actually, Isaiah is here pointing back to a story from Genesis chapter 4 in which Cain, having murdered his brother Abel, is exiled from the place of comfort and security, and finds himself in ‘the land of Nod’. Here, we read, he builds a city and calls it Enoch. Why? Well, a French jurist and theologian called Jacques Ellul asked himself the same question and in 1962 wrote a book called ‘The Meaning of the City’. He suggests that this is a metaphor for what we human beings do when we dismiss the perspective from outside – from God – and find ourselves in a wilderness of undifferentiated emptiness. The first thing we do is build defensive walls – keep the threat out and create a space that enables us to measure our sense of meaning and belonging. And that is fine – living with horizons that extend only as far as the contours of the walls – until the walls get breached by loss, collapse or crisis, that is.
The opening up of the walls actually provokes a crisis. Do we look out, see a bigger world – however unknown and threatening it might appear to be – and venture out to explore it… thus discovering that the reality within which we had previously lived was, in fact, a little limited? Or do we re-build the walls – even thicker this time – in order to make sure they don’t get breached again? The choice does matter.
It seems to me that we have an opportunity at a time of crisis or challenge – which appears to be where we have been for the last four or five years – to seek a different view, an outside perspective. Or, to go back to Helmut Schmidt’s observation, to look at ourselves through the lens (or the eyes) of the outsider – to listen through the ears of someone who speaks a different language – in order to discover whether or not we are really living in the real world. Fantasies are always entertaining, but, as Isaiah’s people found out, they always end in tears. Truth, if it is truly to be spread, needs to be identified as truth: the truth about God (who loves justice and mercy), the truth about the world (always trying to protect itself at the expense of others), the truth about ourselves (always in need of encouragement as well as challenge), if we are to dare to look differently at what we simply think of as ‘the way the world is’.
In this sense, crisis can be seen as a gift – albeit an unwelcome one. Jesus famously observed: “The truth will set you free.” Yes, this freedom might be costly and painful – demanding honesty and courage -, but it opens up the future – unlike the fantasy that it will somehow all be OK in the end anyway. This truth, I suggest, needs to be spread with some urgency. Or, as Leo Tolstoy put it: “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.”
March 6, 2012
It was announced early this morning that the Dean of Bradford, Dr David Ison, is to be the next Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Great for London, but a real loss for Bradford and the glorious north of England.
David is brilliant and has been a superb colleague in the year since I began the move up north from Croydon. He will bring immense gifts to St Paul’s at a crucial time in its life. He has led a transformation of Bradford Cathedral and demonstrated great skill, wisdom and determination in reconnecting the cathedral and diocese with the city. (The cathedral was made bankrupt at the beginning of the decade.) The announcement reads as follows:
Dr David Ison (57) been Dean of Bradford since 2005, where he has enabled the Cathedral to play a significant role in the life of the city and the diocese of Bradford.
The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines says, “I am delighted that St Paul’s Cathedral is to have as its new Dean a man of such warmth, ability and stature as David Ison. I am sad that Bradford will be losing a Dean who has done extraordinary work in the last six and a half years for the good of the Diocese, the city and its diverse people. David leaves a strong legacy for the next Dean of Bradford and moves to London with my deep personal gratitude for his friendship, advice and support in the short time I have been the Bishop of Bradford. London’s gain is Bradford’s loss, but it is good to know that a deep affection for and knowledge of Bradford will now be resident at the heart of the City of London. David and Hilary go with my love, my prayers and the gratitude of all in this diocese.”
David is married to Hilary, who is also an ordained priest and works in London for the Church of England’s Ministry Division, in the selection of prospective ordinands. They have two married daughters and two sons, and became grandparents two years ago. His interests include history and current affairs, interfaith relations, DIY and scuba diving; and he drives a kit-car he made himself.
About his appointment, David Ison says:
“My appointment as Dean of St Paul’s has been as unexpected for me as the vacancy itself was unanticipated. The upheavals of the last few months at St Paul’s, and the underlying spiritual, social, economic and political issues which they highlight for our country, are very much on the agenda for the Cathedral in London; but they are also issues for people, churches and cathedrals across the country. Even Bradford has had an Occupy camp, although it was in front of City Hall rather than at the Cathedral.
“Bradford is a special place, with a rich diversity of people, faiths and experiences. There is a huge amount of commitment to the future of the city, and a humour and realism which makes it a very rewarding place to be. The people of Bradford Cathedral are marked by their warmth, faithfulness and prayerfulness; and this is reflected in the city as a whole. It has been a welcoming place to come to, and it is a hard place to say goodbye to.
“I have always been clear that I would only leave Bradford for a post which was equally challenging and fulfilling. Having been strongly requested to explore the Church’s call to London, I can see how it will make use of my skills and the experience and learning I have had in Bradford and before: the call of the Church fits with my sense of God’s call to me. I will go south holding Bradford in my heart: and I will take the perspectives of working in what are considered more marginal areas, in London and the Midlands as well as Yorkshire, into the heart of the capital. It is an exciting and daunting prospect.
“I am glad to begin my work at St Paul’s while a Bradfordian, David Wootton, is Lord Mayor of the City of London; and I look forward to working together with colleagues in the Diocese of London, at Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral, in other Christian churches and in different faith traditions, and with partners in civic and business life, in private, public and voluntary sectors, with rich and poor, alternative and establishment, organised and marginalised. I particularly look forward to getting to know the staff and community of St Paul’s Cathedral, and exploring with them and with all the Cathedral’s stakeholders the particular ways in which the Cathedral can serve the whole city of London and the wider nation in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
About his time in Bradford, David Ison says:
“When I came to Bradford Cathedral, I had no great blueprints or strategies in place: but I came to listen, to pray and to love, and to see what God would do. I will go to St Paul’s knowing that I have much to learn, and much listening to do. I want to build on the good work done in cathedral, city and diocese by my predecessors, and in particular by Dean Graeme Knowles and his colleagues. And I also have confidence in God, who calls us together to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him.
“When I came to Bradford in 2005 people asked me why. The reasons I gave then have stayed the same since. Yes, it’s a place of challenges and there are some difficult issues to deal with, and the Cathedral too has had its share of sorrows and failures in the past. But there are great people here, and a city which has some simply wonderful buildings – I take visitors to look at the ceiling of the Santander bank and they’re gobsmacked! I love the cultural diversity, and the potential for people of different cultures to learn from and work with each other. There’s so much good will and friendliness when people really meet together. Bradford’s a small enough city to be able to get to know people well, and large enough to offer all kinds of possibilities, and I think its future is looking more hopeful than for some time. Being here has been testing and stretching and fulfilling in all kinds of ways, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to work here.
“What will I regret about moving? Of course I’ll miss the curries, and all the other good food around here too. I’ll miss the great countryside, and the buzz that comes when one of the Bradford sporting teams is doing well. But above all I’ll miss the people here: the friends we’ve made from many different communities, the basic honesty and down to earth nature of life, the way in which talking about God and faith is natural rather than an embarrassment, and the determination that, come what may, Bradford will get through it. It’s a world-leading place in its own way, and it’s been a real privilege to be part of it.
“And why am I moving in 2012? Going to St Paul’s Cathedral in London isn’t something I’d have thought of. But I’ve been asked to go, and I can see how what I’ve done and learned here is relevant to the situation in which St Paul’s now finds itself. I don’t see it as leaving Bradford behind, but as taking the spirit of Bradford with me to our capital city. I look forward to finding out more about London and its cathedral, and seeing how God is at work there as well as here. If you pray, then I’d be grateful for your prayers – and I’ll be praying for you and the city and diocese of Bradford as it goes forward into the future.”
David Ison was born and brought up in Brentwood, Essex. After taking a Combined Studies degree at the University of Leicester he trained for ordination at St John’s College, Nottingham. He served his curacy at St Nicholas and St Luke Deptford in the Diocese of Southwark (1979-1985), while also writing a PhD in church history at King’s College, London to develop skills to work in training people for ministry. From 1985 to 1988 he was Lecturer at the Church Army Training College in Blackheath. In 1988 he became Vicar at Potters Green in the diocese of Coventry, where he worked to physically and spiritually rebuild the church. In 1993 he moved to Exeter as Diocesan Continuing Ministerial Education Officer to take on a variety of roles in training and supporting clergy in their ministry, and in 1995 he also became a Residentiary Canon at Exeter Cathedral. Since 2005 he has been Dean of Bradford, where he has enabled the Cathedral to play a significant role in the life of the city and the diocese of Bradford.
March 5, 2012
Here is the text of the Lent Lecture I was asked to do on BBC Radio 4. It was broadcast on Wednesday 29 February and repeated on Sunday 4 March (twice).
Nearly three thousand years ago a wise man put into words what should be blindingly obvious: “Without a vision the people perish.” Of course, he didn’t know that this would be quoted for the next few millennia in worlds and contexts he couldn’t possibly have imagined. “Without a vision the people perish.” It encapsulates what many commentators and ordinary people have been trying to articulate in a world that has changed radically in the last three or four years.
First of all, the financial crisis in the capitalist world has led to radical questioning of what really matters to human society – and on what values such a society should be built. And while much anger and blame have been heaped onto the heads of bankers, their gambling acumen and their extravagant bonuses, the cost is increasingly being borne by the poor and the vulnerable. Ask anyone involved on the ground with homeless people, people being made homeless or those who live in fear of losing the little they have. It is a colder world today.
Whatever the causes of the crisis, however, many commentators think it has exposed the lack of a thought-through and commonly-owned consensus about what we want our society to look like. Questions of justice, equity and value have been raised and, as the Occupy movement has made inescapably clear, there is now a cohort of people who refuse to let business continue as normal without challenge and debate. People and institutions that would have ignored such challenges only a couple of years ago are now openly accepting the need for a recalibration of the relationship between labour and reward. So, the world has changed… for the time-being, at least.
So, who and what are we for? That’s the question that keeps raising its head behind all the practical debates. It’s not a new question, but it has often been submerged under an acceptance of the status quo when all seems to be going well and we don’t want to upset what is weirdly called ‘normality’. However, ‘normality’ was further disrupted during the summer of 2011.
At the beginning of August my wife and I flew out of London for a holiday with friends in the United States. Not long after we arrived there I got a phone call to say that there were riots in Croydon – the place where I had lived and been bishop until recently – and that our youngest son was holed up in his flat while the violence went on outside. Inevitably, then, we followed the news as, for many people in London, law broke down and the commentariat offered instant analyses of the causes.
Interpretation and judgement were instant – particularly in the media and from the mouths of those who can’t resist the seduction of a microphone. One of the characteristics of the ensuing analysis was the charge that English society has lost any sense of a collective narrative. And what does that mean? Quite simply, that we no longer know who we are, why we are here or what we are trying to become.
Now, that might sound a little philosophical and vague, but it actually poses a serious challenge to the way we live – and the way we understand our common life. “Without a vision the people perish” – or, as we might rephrase it, if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know where we are going.
Go back to the Old Testament and we find there a good illustration of this contemporary predicament. The Israelites had been liberated from oppressive exile in Egypt. They then wandered through the desert for forty years while a generation of nostalgia-merchants and moaners died off. Then, just before they entered into the land they believed they had been promised, they were given some stark and uncompromising warnings: when you settle and things begin to go well for you, you will forget that once you were slaves… and when you forget your story – your ‘narrative’ – you will begin to assume that all your wealth is down to your own efforts… and you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you lose the plot – literally – you will lose all that speaks to you of your identity. Life is not a game and people are not to be treated as pawns in the hands of those who assume the right to a personally comfortable life at the expense of others.
In fact, in order to ensure that the people didn’t lose touch with their founding narrative, they were to instigate annual festivals – rituals designed to remind them (in body, mind and spirit) of the story that was to drive them as they shaped their society. Some of these rituals involved, for example, leaving the crops at the edges of your field so that asylum-seekers and the dispossessed could have something to eat. Or, bringing the first (and best) 10% of your crop to the priest to whom you would then address a creed – not a simple statement of doctrine, but a story that roots you and your community. This creed would begin with the statement: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, the starting point of the story that defines us – that tells us who we are – is that we are transient, that we belong together, that we journey together with responsibility for one another. Or, to answer a different biblical question: yes, I am my brother’s keeper… and he is mine.
Now, what shocked many observers about the summer rioters’ 24 hour holiday from civilisation was the sense of disconnection from society – a rejection of any identification with what we might call ‘the rest of us’. No investment in belonging to or shaping or taking responsibility for the community in which they live. No sense of obligation towards anyone else – and no concept of belonging to a community of accountability.
Now, what would we say was the narrative that unconsciously drove these people? Every man for himself? The survival of the fittest? ‘Me first’ individualism? Or have they drunk too deeply of the wells of Hollywood in which the so-called ‘myth of redemptive violence’ is portrayed as self-evidently true and the only effective way of making sure no one gets one over on you?
I guess this brings us back to that question of narratives and vision. Just what sort of a society do we think we are creating? What sort of a community do we wish to become? What does our vision look like – or don’t we have a common vision towards which we are working?
Well, that’s where the debate begins for us. After all, we have to take responsibility for how we collectively and individually shape our vision and begin to earth it in the structures and stuff of social priorities. But, the need to question and challenge our world view is unavoidable if we take the biblical narrative with any degree of seriousness. God, we learn, is rather concerned about justice and whether or not the poor are fed.
Which is where Lent comes in. Lent offers the space for reflection on what really motivates and drives us – what are the values and core beliefs that shape how we see and how we live with ourselves and one another… how we love and hate… who we love and hate. In other words, we are invited to take the trouble to work out which (or whose) narrative we locate ourselves within.
One of the problems for many of us is our assumed familiarity with the gospels. But, rather than being comforted by them, if we read them properly, we find ourselves deeply challenged – especially by the habit of God’s people to lose the plot… forgetting their vocation to live and give their life in order that the world should see who God is and what he is about.
At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus returning from his baptism and testing in the desert and “proclaiming the good news of God” in the hill country of the north where he was from originally. This is summed up in four phrases: ” The time is now; God is present among you again; change the way you look at God, the world and us; now live differently in that world.” OK, that’s a paraphrase, but it illustrates the dynamic of what Jesus was trying to do and say. We could put it like this: “You have been praying for generations that God would be among you again – which you think he can’t be while the ‘unclean’ Roman occupying forces remain in your land. But, dare to think differently: what if the holy God broke his own rules and came into the contaminated space and contaminated it with hope and generosity and goodness? Just imagine. Can you dare to look differently at God, the world and us – even to seeing God being present in surprising, healing – even shocking ways? Or can you only spot God’s presence when everything is going well for you and all your problems have been resolved?
In fact, in the gospels we see this time and again. Before he launches out on his fatal mission of challenge, Jesus goes into the desert for forty days and nights to face hard questions: are you really willing to do this God’s way – even if it ends on a cross? Are you going to be driven by the desire for quick glory – or can you really defy the god of self-preservation and lay down your life for the sake of the world?
This was real, hard, deep soul-searching – drilling down to what really motivated Jesus… to what was the fertile soil from which the rest of his behaviour would grow.
Go to the end of Luke’s Gospel and we find the risen Jesus walking alongside a couple of bewildered and frightened disciples who couldn’t make any sense of Jesus having died – the Messiah wasn’t supposed to do that. Having told their version of the story – that didn’t add up – Jesus then re-tells it… enabling them to see God, the world and themselves differently – through a re-shaped lens, as it were.
And that’s the challenge for anyone or any community that thinks it takes God and his invitation seriously. Not only am I as an individual required to reflect the Christ whose name I bear, but also to help shape my community or society accordingly. The rest of the gospel narratives simply identify those who could or could not dare to change the way they looked at, saw, thought about and lived in God’s world.
So, the gospels drop on us the challenge faced by the first disciples of Jesus: to be changed and challenged as we walk with him from the shores of Galilee to a cross planted in the rubbish tip outside the city, through a grave and into a surprising future.
I guess Lent offers us the opportunity to question again the vision that fires us and to measure it against one that we think we know – that of Jesus. This is the vision that captivated me as a teenager in Liverpool and has never let me go. As a young man I saw it in purely individual terms – a personal discipleship aimed at spiritual growth and personal holiness. The problem was that I then read the rest of the Bible and couldn’t escape the insistent call to anyone who agrees to reflect the character of the God revealed there – that is, the call to give up one’s life for the sake of others.
The irony, of course, is that this was always the call of God’s people… but the temptation is always to get distracted by more comfortable – or less demanding narratives – and to lose the plot.
The great Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote a beautiful song way back in 1976 called Lord of the Starfields in which he sets the ‘now’ against the larger backdrop of the whole created order of the universe. The refrain comes as a simple prayer, encapsulating a vision for the here and now that is derived from a perception of eternity that shapes how we can be into the future: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”
It’s not a bad prayer for Lent, recalling us to a vision of generosity, self-giving and confident humility. Maybe even a vision that calls a broken society back from its immediate practical questions and poses a more fundamental challenge: for whom and for what are we here? And, if our society seems too complicated to begin to think about such a conversion, then I recall, that Jesus, in three short years, spent time with twelve people who never quite got it, and yet through them changed the world.
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