May 31, 2012
The wifi was poor in Kazkahstan this week, so I was unable to post anything about the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. A packed programme and some substantial public and private conversations didn’t leave much time or mental space for writing anyway. But, what I intended to be the first post is this:
Sitting in the Pyramid at the heart of Astana, the astonishing capital city of Kazakhstan, it is hard to concentrate. There are fifty of us around the table, discussing a pile of issues related to faith and politics. Ironic, then, that although one of the panel sessions tomorrow is to address the role of women, only one woman sits at the top table. (We will also be addressing questions of ‘youth’ – without any young people! Extraordinary.)
Two things grabbed my attention: (a) male religious leaders spoke passionately about protecting the dignity and ‘family’ role of women without once letting a woman speak for herself, and (b) given the range and variety of headgear, we could have been at a hat competition. It is certainly colourful. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions brings together leaders and representatives of most of the world faiths: Christian (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran), Muslim (Iran, Saudi, India, Turkey, etc.), Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and so on. There are also a number of politicians from various parts of the world. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s also a colourful and somewhat random bag.
It is easy to sneer or take for granted a conference such as this. Where does all the talk get cashed out? What difference does it actually make on the ground? Who takes notice of religious leaders anyway – especially when they are elderly and fairly conservative? How do you get a common statement without it being a lowest common denominator expression of motherhood and apple pie?
Yet, a meeting of these people would never have happened twenty or thirty years ago. We take it for granted that religious leaders meet and speak together honestly. But, we easily forget that such conversations are relatively recent phenomena. To see the President of Kazakhstan sitting flanked by the Patriarch of Russia and the top man of the Muslim World League – who are flanked in turn by a Chief Rabbi from Israel and a Roman Catholic cardinal (I was a couple of places away…) – is still remarkable.
But, the questions still apply. It is well known that Kazakhstan’s international reputation for religious tolerance is currently threatened by the new Religious Law due to come into effect in October 2012. This new law is partly provoked by fears of extremism or terrorism, but is the wrong answer to the right question. It insists on a form of registration that would make it impossible for an Anglican Chaplaincy to be opened, for example. It also provides for any published materials to be vetted before distribution. It gets a bit more complicated than this, but you get theidea.
Look at the geography to understand the fear; but, extremists are not going to register under any restrictive law and this law will have two potential negative effects: (a) it won’t do what it is set up to do – control extremism – but will restrict the freedom of minority or small religious groups (especially Protestant groups such as Baptists and Lutherans), and (b) will compromise Kazakhstan’s hard-earned reputation for religious tolerance in a remarkably complex country.
Anyway, I am writing this during a Panel session on ‘multiculturalism’ while a Chinese speaker is passionately saying something very important, but without translation into English. There are other Panel sessions on ‘the role of women’ – which could get lively -, ‘youth’, and ‘sustainable development’ today and tomorrow. I did a plenary speech this morning (which I will post later) and will contribute to the session on ‘youth’ tomorrow. Before then I have to plant a tree (don’t ask) and have a big meal.
This conference can be frustrating – especially when speaker after speaker limits their speech to the blandly obvious (“it is good to talk…”) – but there are also some passionate, informed, challenging and controversial contributions. It isn’t boring.
However, as with most conferences, the real benefit comes from the networking and conversations in the margins. After all, it always comes down to relationships.
(Wifi is not available everywhere here and I can’t get pictures up yet. So, not much posting this week…)
May 27, 2012
One of the best bits in the film Lost in Translation is when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson end up doing karaoke in a Tokyo bar. Bill Murray belts out Elvis Costello’s What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? I love the film and I love that scene.
But it’s the song that’s running around the inside of my head just now. Driving to Manchester Airport en route to Kazakhstan for the fourth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, I had Elvis (Costello) on CD and played that song four times so I could belt it out with him.
The Congress is also the fourth I will have attended – the first one being back in 2003 in Astana. We came back from that one with all sorts of questions and misgivings – particularly regarding some socio-political phenomena in Kazakhstan itself. I have continued to press those questions ever since, but on the basis that engagement is better than shouting from the sidelines. So, we have persisted in working with other religious leaders and their representatives from all over the world and been able to discuss all sorts of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be discussed through ordinary diplomacy.
This time we (I am leading a delegation of five from the Church of England) will address themes such as multiculturalism, the role of women, sustainable development and young people. In among these themes there will also be space to address other issues of import and concern. The important thing is to articulate such concerns in ways that will enable them to be heard. There is no value – other than the smug feeling it gives you – in saying things that don’t get heard… however ‘prophetic’ or true.
There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding; but they’re dead hard to work on unless we are satisfied with platitudes and sentimentalism.
Perhaps it isn’t entirely inappropriate that today is Pentecost in the Christian calendar. Before leaving for Manchester I confirmed some adults in a Keighley parish this morning and addressed a vast collection of Christians, passers-by and curious onlookers at a Pentecost celebration in Lister Park, near where we live in Bradford. It was loud, colourful and celebratory. But, it reminded me that Pentecost is not about creating a uniform church or a monochrome culture; rather, the key point about Pentecost (at least, as it was experienced by the ‘outsiders’) was that people from all over the place where enabled to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways they could both hear and understand.
The job of the church is to work hard at speaking different ‘languages’ to different people in order that the good news might be heard and understood by a vast diversity of people who don’t start from the same place. This is what makes communication interesting and challenging. But, if it seems to be God’s priority at Pentecost, maybe it should be ours, too.
It might even help create a little more peace, love and understanding if we start from where people actually are and speak a language they understand.
Which, I realise, is a statement of the bleeding obvious (as someone once said).
May 24, 2012
Conversations with journalists often involves challenging the suggestion that the Church of England spends all its time in conflict over sex and women. If 5% of what we talk about forms 95% of media coverage about us and this shapes 100% of popular perception about the church’s preoccupation, no wonder we have a problem.
Well, despite my protestations that the bulk of our preoccupations have nothing to do with sex or conflict, the House of Bishops spent 95% of its meeting this week doing sex and women (bishops). One colleague at the two-day meeting in York, having wondered after months of bad weather what the big yellow thing in the sky was, asked why we couldn’t leave the stuffy room and meet outside – or as he put it, “Can’t we do sex outside?” Er…
Anyway, dispute now rages about women bishops, marriage and associated matters. More anon. Although my meetings this week about the media and the conflict in Sudan won’t hit the headlines…
What has made me laugh today, though, is the prospect of Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. The human rights questions there raise enough questions, but surely the biggest challenge this year is how to lose the contest while appearing to try to win it. The country that wins the contest has to stage the event next year. And who wants to do that in the middle of a massive financial crisis?
It will be interesting to see how Greece, Spain and Portugal perform. A win might cheer them up during hard times – music can do that sort of thing – but a noble defeat will prove cheaper. And Ireland has chosen Jedward again…
(I met Engelbert Humperdinck in a BBC Radio 2 studio a couple of weeks ago. I only heard his song yesterday. Apparently they have chosen him because he is very popular in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Nice song, though…)
May 24, 2012
This evening saw the 2012 Sandford St Martin Trust awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace. It was a good gig, but air conditioning might have helped cool the place down. Yet, there is something really powerful about all the great portraits of dead Archbishops of Canterbury staring down unamused by the hi-tech stuff going on in the Guard Room. Why powerful? Because it gives a sense of perspective to the immediate when the continuity of the past keeps looking at you.
Anyway, these annual awards, attended by programme makers, independent production companies and broadcast executives from around the UK, highlight the cream of mainstream religious broadcasting in the UK over the preceding 12 months. They attract entries from all the major broadcast channels as well as BBC and commercial local stations, and – more recently – new media productions. Prizes are awarded in radio and television categories.
This year’s top prizes went to a BBC TWO production – “The Life of Muhammad” made by the independent company “Crescent Films” – and a BBC Radio Scotland production “Resurrection Stories” presented by Anna Magnusson, reflecting on her experience of loss and hope after the death of her brother, Sigi.
The editor of the Radio Times, Ben Preston, announced the winner of the Radio Times Readers’ Award taken from a poll to choose the readers’ favourite religious production of the year. Their award went to Songs of Praise 50th Anniversary - a trilogy of programmes, culminating in a spectacular show from Alexandra Palace featuring singers Catherine Jenkins, Beverley Knight and Leanne Rimes.
Announcing the TV winner, the Journalist and Catholic commentator Paul Donovan praised the way “The Life of Muhammad” had tackled a very difficult subject with great sensitivity.
The Radio Prize winner – Anna Magnusson (daughter of the late Magnus, and sister to Sally Magnusson) based much of her winning programme on reflections around the death of her brother Sigi when she was just 13. Now 38 years on, faced with questions raised by the description of Jesus’ resurrection – she explored how contemporary Christians could respond to the Gospel account.
In awarding the prize to Anna and her BBC Scotland producer Mo McCullogh, the chair of the radio judges Priscilla Chadwick – said “This was a most impressive programme…a very reflective, highly personal and deeply theological exploration of the issues which allowed space for ‘questioning hopefully’ that one day Anna would be reunited with her much loved brother.
As Chairman of the Sandford St Martin Trust, I chaired the event and presented the awards. I was able to praise the imaginative programming that had been entered for the awards. I also noted that religion is no longer a niche commission, even appearing on entertainment channels such as Sky Atlantic who’ve just ordered a 6 part series featuring a gang of Jewish bikers from North London who will be talking about their beliefs and how faith affects them.
My comment was simple: “Religion is not primarily about mere ideas; it is about people, communities and the stuff of human existence. It is rich, ripe and fertile soil for stories that expand and enrich our understanding of life and its biggest questions.”
2012 Television winners
The Life of Muhammad: Ep 1 – The Seeker
(Crescent Films for BBC2)
The King James Bible: The Book that Changed the World
(BBC Religion for BBC2)
Merit Award 1:
Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good
(Wingspan productions for BBC2)
Merit Award 2:
Wonderland: A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride
(BBC Factual for BBC2)
2012 Radio Winners
BBC Radio Scotland
Faith and 9/11
TBI media for BBC Radio2
Merit Award 1:
Something Understood: Abraham
Unique: the Production Company for BBC Radio 4
Merit Award 2:
Good Friday Reflection
May 19, 2012
This morning I preached at the Civic Service in Bradford Cathedral to mark the end on the Lord Mayor’s year in office. This enabled the Lord Mayor, Naveeda Ikram – the first Muslim woman Lord Mayor in the country – to reflect publicly on her year. It was a long service…
I wanted to take the opportunity to thank those who take up public office in any way and recognise the human cost of doing so (for some, at least). Here are the main bits, based on Matthew 5 and minus the jibes at Chelsea and questions arising from David Beckham’s haircut…):
The so-called Sermon on the Mount is often misheard and misinterpreted. It looks and sounds so simple, but is fraught with challenge and demand. In Matthew’s Gospel – which was not written in a moment of boredom as a twee way of telling stories about nice Jesus – this ‘sermon’ comes at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and serves as a summary of his teaching. In one sense, the rest of the Gospel puts flesh and blood onto what he says here. And it is gripping stuff that allows the comfort-seeker only one recourse: that is, to ignore it and walk away.
In this passage Jesus is not offering lots of self-help advice for people who want to live a fulfilled life. He is not suggesting ways of improving your happiness quota. He is saying very clearly that if you want to take God seriously – which means taking other people, wider society and the world seriously… and taking responsibility in and for them – there will be a cost. A cost to your prejudices (the meek will inherit the earth, not the powermongers after all), to your values (the hungry will be filled) and your expectations of comfort or satisfaction (people may revile and persecute you).
But, this passage does give us windows on the nature of public service which lies at the heart of this service and today’s celebrations. Let’s look at a few of them before we return to the point.
‘When Jesus saw the crowds’ he went away from them. He didn’t run after popularity or populism. There are dangers in seeking approval all the time. Yet, those who wish – for whatever reason – to serve on local councils must seek a popular mandate and canvas the votes of those who have the power to entrust it to you. In reality, whatever the benefits of public engagement, you get a pile of public exposure in which your personality, motives, dress sense, values, priorities and appearance will all be subject to popular critique – which is a nice way of saying that you open yourself up to being taken apart by people who carry no responsibility other than to pillory people who do. So, you can understand why Jesus didn’t run towards the crowds, but went up a mountain to do some serious thinking about what really matters when you come down again and can’t avoid the crowds or their demands.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’: yet many people can go though life avoiding contact with the poor, the humble and the publicly insignificant. One of the things that mayors – Lords or otherwise – often remark on is that until they began their demanding schedule of visits, they had no idea just how much amazing and self-sacrificial work and service was going on in their area. Naveeda has been to places she probably never knew existed and met people who, without any hope of reward, serve those in a variety of places of need. That is to be ‘poor in spirit’ – often unnoticed and unrewarded – serving those who are poor in spirit and just about every other way, too. Public service exposes you to things you might otherwise not see or encounter. (Which is why Anglican clergy live on the job – part of the community they serve and never being able to worship God without that worship being rooted in the realities of the community life around them.)
‘Blessed are those who hunger and search for righteousness’: Righteousness is not a pious notion… something to do with being a goody-goody. Righteousness has to do with being passionate about social justice, about recognising the inherent dignity and humanity of every person (made in the image of God, as Genesis puts it), and about committing oneself in body, mind and spirit to furthering the goals of that passion. At whatever personal cost.
And the personal cost can be great. Ask the family of those who serve voluntarily or in public service as councillors. ‘Blessed are the merciful’, says Jesus, but mercy is not something you will always find at the hands of a media seeking the sensational or the conflictual. Mercy is for the feeble and the sentimental in a society that speaks all the time of ‘fighting’ for causes. But, as Jesus says and we find so hard to believe or work out, ‘it is the merciful who will find mercy.
Can you imagine what it might look like to give our public servants the space to be merciful and to receive mercy for those they seek to serve?
(As an aside, I was listening to the Archbishop of York preaching at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Service here in this cathedral last Sunday afternoon and thinking about how we take for granted the culture and polity we enjoy in this country. For sixty years – whatever your particular views on monarchy itself as a feature of the polity – the Queen has presided over remarkable stability… and, as she reminded us in a speech last month, over a country whose democracy developed over a thousand years, rooted in a Christian theology and world view that is all-too-frequently disregarded or derided today. Our judicial system was not invented from thin air. The freedoms we take for granted did not just happen. These and other features of our assumed common life arose from an understanding of who we are as human beings, what matters in human living, why morality matters and where moral values derive from, how society should be shaped and on what moral and spiritual foundations it should be built. We take it all for granted as if ‘common goodness’ were a given in any human society. And we are in danger of giving some of this away without a moment’s thought about why we think what we think matters in human living and dying.)
Yet, as Her Majesty pointed out, we need to recall that our society has been shaped by a theology that enjoins self-giving, service, humility, justice exercised with mercy, a passion for ‘righteousness’. These things are written into the fabric of English life and law and into our assumptions about public service.
For this reason, then, I want, on your behalf, to thank those who serve our Metropolitan District of Bradford: those who stand for election and are rejected by the voters; those who, once elected, have to do the hard work of shaping the common good with the limited resources available to them – setting priorities that will always be deemed to be wrong by someone -, and giving their time to serve our wider community; those who are paid to make the whole thing work – the Chief Executive and all those who work at City Hall, carrying public responsibility and often seeing themselves kicked around in the public discourse.
In this context I think it right to note the service of the former Leader of Bradford Council, Ian Greenwood, who served this place for seventeen years and lost his seat at the last election. Many may disagree with his politics, but we would do well to recognise his service along with that of others who have been rejected by the electorate.
As we thank Naveeda and look to pray for the incoming Lord Mayor, Councillor Dale Smith, we conclude by remembering those demanding words of Jesus to his friends on the mountain when he went away from the crowds. Here he pulls us back to check the integrity of our own motivations and the focus of our own priorities and behaviours. Who, we might ask ourselves and each other, will be blessed by our particular form of public service? Who will find earth to inherit, who will be comforted, who will receive mercy, who will be filled, who will discover the freedom of the kingdom of God, who will ‘see God’ in and through us? And, the hardest question of all: when judgement is reached by future generations on our stewardship of our community, will we be seen to have been a blessing or a curse?
May God bless all those who serve in public office, in building civic society, and for the common good.
This service was followed two hours later by a Service of Thanksgiving for the Church Urban Fund. in the last 25 years the CUF has invested about £2 million through 159 grants to projects in the Diocese of Bradford. From January 2007 to December 2011 CUF provided 51 grants totalling £305,554.11 ( and that 11p matters!). The CUF-sponsored Near Neighbours scheme has provided 50 grants totalling £166,887.95 to the Bradford district – £243,390.85 in 71 grants across West Yorkshire. Churches in the metropolitan district run more than 125 community projects, supported by around 3,000 volunteers. According to the figures, the churches now support more youth workers than the statutory services do. Projects include work with some of the most vulnerable people and communities: asylum seekers, refugees, street workers, people who are homeless, single parents, elderly, disabled, unemployed, youth and children, parents and toddlers, parenting classes, education, sport and community relations, environmental and English language (ESOL) learning.
Impressive or what?
May 16, 2012
1. Having led a company that assumed for itself the authority to hound other people and call for heads to roll, Rebekah Brooks now expresses indignation that lawyers dare to question her integrity. I felt a bit sorry for her when she was charged and appeared to say how angry she was – she clearly doesn’t do irony. But, in the spirit of her former newspapers, let power be held to account and let justice be seen to be done. If she is innocent, the legal process will vindicate her. If not,…
2. In the same vein Rupert Murdoch complained about being harassed by paparazzi when in London for the Leveson Inquiry. Er…
3. Kenny Dalglish‘s second coming has come to an end. I’d make a terrible prophet: I thought he’d stay on until the first couple of months of next season and see if there was an improvement on this season’s inconsistencies… and then get pushed out if he didn’t deliver. I was wrong. A sad day for the legend and the club, but the owners don’t do ‘sentimental’. That’s leadership.
4. General Ratko Mladic is on trial for genocide in the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Just goes to show what history always tells us: the truth will out – even if it takes twenty years. Things go around and come around.
5. The Greek tragedy continues to unfold in boggling fashion. But, when David Cameron suggested the Euro-branch might break he was accused of actually contributing to it happening. You just can’t win. If you don’t state the obvious, you must be either lying or stupid. If you state the obvious, you are stupid because you are influencing the market. I realise this is a bit of a silly circle (with not so silly consequences, of course), but I guess it proves that what public figures do or do not say does shape the public agenda one way or another. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
And, just to indulge in a little selfish trivia: this blog has now surpassed the million views mark (just now it is 1,001,457 for 737 posts in three years). Boggling, really. Thank you.
May 13, 2012
Posted by nickbaines under Football
| Tags: Liverpool FC
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So, Manchester City have won the Premiership in injury time. Fine. Manchester United have been pipped at the post in a last-gasp City win.
But, the worst element of this is that they both finished something like 37 points ahead of Liverpool. And Liverpool finished four points behind Everton.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. How embarrassing.
May 11, 2012
I’ve just been doing Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2′s Chris Evans Show. I had a tip-off that Engelbert Humperdinck would be the special guest on the show. Bereft of any other inspiration, I recalled some of his song titles and ended up with this (with six titles embedded):
Did you know that 200 years ago today Spencer Perceval was assassinated by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons? How could you possibly have forgotten that? He was the Prime Minister! He must be turning in his grave, wondering ‘am I that easy to forget?’
Amazing, isn’t it? Tell them in the pub that Spencer Perceval is dead and they’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.
You know, I think one of the things we fear most is being forgotten. It really matters to us that our place in the world is marked – or, at least, noticed. So, we fear being forgotten, lost to the memory of those whom we love and who we hope love us.
And maybe that’s the key. However anonymous we might be to the vast majority of humanity, it matters that someone loves us and will remember us when we slip from sight or shuffle off our mortal coil. ‘A man without love’ is a terrible fate – even if it is a great Engelbert song.
We all need love, don’t we, but it comes with an inescapable logic: if you’ve received love, then give love. You can’t say you love God while not giving flesh-and-blood expression to that love by loving your neighbour. That’s the deal. And Jesus unashamedly commended the freedom and relief that comes from letting go of our selfish narcissism and finding that, as someone sang recently, ‘Love will set you free…’
So, this morning my plea is dead simple: please release me from the fears and doubts that crave love and affection, and set us free to open up to the loving of those who love us simply for who we are. It’s a great starting point. And when it comes to the last waltz in this world, at least we will know that we will never be forgotten.
Or, if all else fails, we can always hear the last words of God: I can’t stop loving you…
May 8, 2012
Every Church of England parish has churchwardens. They are the bishop’s officers in the parish (which sounds worse than it is). They are elected each year at the Annual Parochial Church Meetings and then have to be ‘admitted’ at a Visitation by the Archdeacon and the Registrar. However, the bishop can do it instead of the archdeacon and this year I did – in order to give me a chance to address and meet all the churchwardens in the diocese. So, we had a good gig in Skipton last week and the second in Bradford tonight (while Liverpool were exacting belated revenge on Chelsea…). My address is called a ‘charge’ and, for your interest or amusement, (and if you can’t control your excitement) here is the text (based on the wonderfully funny story in the Old Testament book of Numbers chapter 11):
The history of God’s people is a history of complaint. And that’s OK. Read the Bible and you read the story of a people for whom the grass was always greener somewhere else. I think it is in our human DNA to complain – perhaps in order to give active expression to our frustrations whilst at the same time thereby exonerating us from doing anything about them.
And, as I said, there is nothing either new or particularly disturbing about this. It is what we do. And when it comes to talking about the Church, we clearly don’t adopt a different approach.
But, I want to bring a different perspective to this phenomenon as we contemplate re-committing ourselves to serving God in and through the Church in the year – and years – ahead. We face much change and some challenge and there will be plenty of triggers for complaint, lament and moaning as there will be for optimism, hope and enjoyment. And that’s OK.
Beginning with the Old Testament reading from Numbers 11, I guess we might be put off a bit of complaint. “Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed them on the outskirts of the camp.” Oh dear. God seems to be a bit tetchy and to respond with a bit of overkill – literally. God, it would appear, has a thing about moaners.
Go on down the text a little way and we find the cause of the moaning becoming a little more explicable. First, they forget that the food that keeps them alive is food for which they have done no work, nor paid a shekel. Without it they would all be dead and it is pure gift: all they have to do is pick the manna from the earth and then make something edible out of it. But, they are fed up with being fed up with such a boring diet and, forgetting where it – and they – came from, start to complain. And, if that isn’t enough, they then start to romanticise the past – something every human being and every human society has done since the beginning of time itself. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. (What a great meal that sounds like…) But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna.”
Just as well, then, that there is at least one person who ‘gets it’, keeps everything in perspective and stands firm while everyone else is wobbling in the wind of discontent. “Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents.” And how did he get a grip on the matter? Read on: “He asked the LORD, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?… If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me – if I have found favour in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.”
Just how melodramatic is that, then?
Moses, the great leader, takes his own eye of the ball and resorts to self-pity. It’s all about ‘me’. (Having said that, I do sympathise with Moses and I do have times when I wonder whether I might do something else in life.)
Well, we could leave it there and have a laugh at these miserable, shortsighted, amnesiac primitives and thank God that we are not like them. But, I guess, if we are honest, that we might be getting a bit of a niggle that all of us can get a hint of a suspicion that there might be some slight reflection of our own reflexes in this story of real people in the real world.
However, what is interesting here is that God, despite his frustration with his people, does get the point, listens to the complaint behind the complaint, and comes up with a very practical solution: get some of the moaners to take some responsibility and together we’ll move things forward. Nothing airy-fairy or pious. No further castigation or resentment. Just a practical solution from which everyone might benefit.
Now, you might think this is a bit of an odd reading for this evening and for the Bishop’s first Charge to churchwardens and their colleagues in our parishes. If so, you would be mistaken. And you might be mistaken for assuming that the connection here is with moaning churches or complaining church officers or clergy. Not a bit of it. As I noted earlier, moaning is what we do and it can serve a very useful purpose – especially if we direct it at God and end up with practical solutions that bring people on board and get some mutual responsibility going, for the benefit of all. Critique of what we do, why we do it and how we do it, is essential to our conversation.
No, the pertinence of this reading is to be found in what it suggests to us about our common task as God’s people – at any time and in any context. I put to you the following points in this respect:
- We never start from where we would like to be, but from where we are. We can romanticise all we like, but it won’t change anything and it won’t lead us forward.
- There will always be people who can only see the dangers and threats and never spot the opportunities and creative openings. Such people are vital because they offer a check on the reflexes of the optimists. But, danger-spotting should not develop into opportunity-blocking.
- Self-pity might be understandable, but it is never attractive and it puts the focus on the wrong place.
- God is clearly not surprised by any of this and is interested in the practical detail of how we move on through it.
- When we recognise the problem, we can only ever find solutions that involve people taking responsibility, sharing the load and thereby discovering the realities behind the easy rhetoric of criticism. (I heard a new diocesan bishop say recently that he now understands why all the things he used to criticise bishops for are the way they are…)
Now, I think this is where we can make the connection with where we are in the Diocese of Bradford in May 2012 (as opposed to a middle-eastern desert nearly three thousand years ago).
The Diocese of Bradford faces significant change in the next few years. Patterns that have become familiar might have to change and some comforts might have to be sacrificed. Why? In order to satisfy a balance sheet or to provide the latest bishop’s – or the bishop’s latest – panacaea for church growth or survival? Or, to cope with the (and I quote a newspaper) ‘inexorable decline’ of the church in England? No. Neither.
The Dioceses Commission has presented proposals for creating a single diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. Having listened to responses to the original proposals, the Commission then brought a draft Scheme in order to test out more firmly what such a diocese might look like. The consultation period for this ended on 30 April. The Commission will now decide whether to bring a final Scheme in the autumn, and, if so, what it should look like. A final Scheme cannot be amended, but will have to be accepted or rejected by the dioceses and, subsequently and if appropriate, by the General Synod in July 2013.
What I can promise you in all of this is that no one will be fully satisfied by the final outcome. Life is never like that. I can further promise you that I also will not be fully satisfied by the final shape of things. After all, in real life compromises have to be made in order to get the best possible shape out of competing priorities and differing perspectives. For example, I can see the real attraction of creating smaller dioceses with bishops closer to the ground and more collegiality at local level. However, that has to be squared with matters such as (a) paying for it, (b) duplication or limitation of provision, (c) reduced ground in which to create attractive roles and provide effective development of people, and (d) limited focus on particular socio-economic environments. The area system proposed by the Dioceses Commission attempts to capitalise on the scale of a regional diocese while creating as much subsidiarity as possible along with the local collegiality we wish to preserve.
I have attended to the particular challenges and opportunities of the proposals elsewhere and don’t intend to address them point by point here tonight. But, my purpose in picking up on the Dioceses Commission process is simply because I think we face a challenge not unlike that of the early Israelites in their particular desert excursion.
Fear of change cannot and must not have the final word when we look at the challenges we face. Five or ten years down the line and our current diocesan arrangements will no longer be fit for purpose. Look at (a) the increasing burden of buildings and associated costs, (b) the projected number of clergy available across the country, (c) the age profile of those carrying responsibility in our parishes and churches and where they might be in ten years’ time, and (d) the changing profile of Christian association in England.
Now, the Church of England has a unique vocation and one that will not be fulfilled by any other church if we do not fulfil it ourselves. We operate on territory and we accept an obligation to serve and reach out with the love of God in Christ to those who happen to live in our parochial territories. However, an increasing focus on our internal challenges – a bit like getting fed up with collecting the manna in the desert every morning – quickly distracts us from the very core raison d’etre for the church’s existence in the first place. And, when we lose our focus on for what and for whom we are here, we begin to shape ourselves toward protecting what we have rather than creating what we might become.
So, without going into further detailed discussion of what might lie ahead in the next few years – and there will be no exemption from challenge, whichever way we ultimately go in relation to the Dioceses Commission proposals – let me try briefly and concisely to focus our attention on one or two practical realities:
- Whatever might change in diocesan ‘badging’ and the way the polity of a diocese is shaped, the churches, the parishes, the clergy, the ministers and officers, the congregations, the schools, and so on, all remain. And their vocation will not change one iota… even if the support, leadership and resourcing of them does. And the unique vocation of our churches and parishes is to ‘create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God’.
- We can romanticise the past and wish we were starting from somewhere else… or we can show the world how Christians can face change and challenge by taking responsibility for how we shape our future for the sake of the world for which the church itself exists (and not vice versa).
- We can recognise that no outcome will be perfect and that there will always be significant challenges to overcome as we go forward into God’s future. But, we can lift our eyes and focus on God’s fundamental call as we then try to work through it all with mutual love, respect, prayer and service.
- We can take our responsibility in shouldering the weight of it all – even if we don’t always find it conducive. After all, it isn’t about our preferences; it is about being God’s generous people for the sake of God’s world.
- And, finally, we can learn and grow through an experience we might not have chosen, but which will test the reality of our convictions. This is where the rubber will hit the road – and we have the opportunity to do something never done before in the Church of England, setting a pattern for how such change can be handled effectively in the future.
Churchwardens will be crucial to this process. Where questions and obstacles are detected or encountered on the grounds of any parish, these need to be identified, articulated and represented in order that we constantly deal with reality and not just our assumptions. Making the church work whilst being open to changes is vital and valuable service. Vision always has to be worked out in terms of money and buildings and stuff and real people. But, the challenge is to not lose sight of the purpose and point of it all.
God is calling us to face the future with courage and vision and hope and faith. No doubt we will moan our way through it, too – constantly wishing we were somewhere else or starting from a different point or back in a romanticised past or with a different group of people. But, God calls us to be faithful where we are now and to shape our future – not to be a victim of change, but a creator of a future rooted in a vision of God’s kingdom.
Thank you for all you do. In serving your local parish and church you are setting the framework in and through which the people of our parishes can be encountered by the God who loves them. Sometimes it might seem to be tough or even inconsequential. But, the God who asked Moses to find people to share the burden of responsibility is the same God who calls us now and invites us to join together in his service with one another for the sake of his people in his world.
May 7, 2012
Struggling through a streaming cold and muzzy head to write a lecture for this coming Wednesday (on Being Confident in an Uncertain World), I was easily distracted by the glories of Twitter. I caught a link which, in the context of all the political upheavals going on around us, stood out. Die Zeit has the headline: Merkel öffnet für Hollande die Arme, nicht die Taschen (Merkel opens her arms to Hollande, but not her pockets).
It’s a weird world.
- Greece votes against parties that think austerity is unavoidable, but offers no ideas for how the stringencies of economics can be aligned with desired social wellbeing.
- It looks possible that Greece won’t be able to find a coherent coalition government at all.
- Russia, against all protests, swears in a president who seems to assume power and the right to power. Ominously, he promises Russians some hard years ahead.
- France elects a new Socialist president who might not be able to implement (economically or politically) what he has promised.
- Germany welcomes the new French president to office, but won’t offer him the means to do what he has promised to do for France. (And Merkel has just had a bad election in Schleswig-Holstein, so all is not beautiful in her own garden either).
What is interesting about all these ructions in Europe (and bring into the mix all the other trouble spots across the planet) is the assumption on the part of whole populations that we have rights to certain ways of living or levels of affluence or provision – but rarely does anyone ask where those rights have come from. They are merely assumed. But, as ethicists know, you can’t get an ought from an is – that is to say, you cannot derive a moral imperative from the mere fact that something exists. So, what gives us the right to demand ‘rights’ in the first place?
Anyway, we’ll watch this space as everything changes in Europe and beyond. Putin is not the universally revered man he thinks he once was. Merkel stands firm, but the floor might potentially wobble beneath her feet. Hollande might find ‘reality’ harder to manipulate than he has suggested. And Greece? Er…
At least all is stable and fine at home in the UK, our glorious leaders steering us into a land of plenty. One day. Eventually. Maybe soon. Er…
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