I know it sounds weird, but I always have this feeling as 31 December motors on towards midnight that we have climbed a long, high ladder… only to fall off and have to start again on the bottom rung. So, 2012 ends as 2013 appears over the horizon. The Sound of Music is on the telly, Harry Hill's Livin' the Dreem is on my lap, the world continues, but some things never change.
The Bradford Telegraph & Argus, our excellent local paper, consistently gets one thing wrong. The proposals that three dioceses in West Yorkshire should be dissolved and a single, new diocese created in 2013 presents a fantastic and creative opportunity to re-imagine and re-shape the Church of England's mission in this part of the country. Yet, despite numerous explanations and careful use of language, the T&A persists in stating that “Bradford will be subsumed into the Diocese of Leeds” and that the Bishop of Bradford will “lose his job”. This just feeds the local prejudices about Leeds and misrepresents what is proposed.
First, there is no 'Diocese of Leeds' into which the Diocese of Bradford can be 'subsumed'. Secondly, the proposal sees the dissolution of three dioceses: Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds – all three on the same terms. Thirdly, a completely new Diocese of Leeds – to be known as the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales – would then be created: a new entity and not a simple 'merger' or 'amalgamation' of three. Fourthly, I won't “lose my job”; rather, the post of (Diocesan) Bishop of Bradford would go, paving the way for a more focused (Area) Bishop of Bradford to be appointed. What happens to me is irrelevant to this; the Church is not to be held hostage to the role, 'career prospects' or security of bishops when re-shaping its organisation and ministry.
Right, got that out of my system. It isn't that hard to grasp, is it?
Anyway, 2013 remains as unknown and unpredictable as every other year, every other month, very other day in history. We live as if the past was ordered and coherent when, in fact, it never has been. We largely make it up as we go along. Assumptions that everything should continue as before should by now be seen to be a fantasy. The banking crisis caused the disappearance of pensions that people had paid into for decades; jobs with 'tenure' simply disappeared in a moment; business that looked permanent simply broke down. A contingent world inhabited by mortal human beings can change in an instant.
I am not being miserable or encouraging short-termism here. I am simply commending a reality check on our perspectives and expectations.
So, 2013 beckons. As poverty worsens and the government seems increasingly impervious to an understanding (I am avoiding the 'soft' word empathy) of how most people live, the gambling industry grows in ubiquity by the day. Might there just be the merest hint of a link between increasing poverty and the desperate illusion of instant unearned financial salvation… even against both all the odds and all experience? The new year holds no prospects of an Olympics or a Diamond Jubilee – although the prospect of Liverpool re-building under Brendan Rodgers keeps some of us going with some degree of optimism – and there doesn't seem to be a prospect of any repeat of the national celebration we saw in 2012.
What does lie ahead? Continuing inhumanity in Syria, endless suffering of Christian communities in places like Nigeria and Pakistan, relentless tribal conflict hiding behind identities labeled by race, religion or political creed. Economic austerity at home will bring challenges that can only be ignored by wilful blindness. The world will continue to face new challenges and opportunities – as it has done in every other generation. With a bit of humility, a developing sense of history (and what can be learned from it), some creative ambition and a renewed love of God and neighbour, we might just face some of these challenges with renewed ambition, creative imagination, generous humility and solidarity.
And what does the Christian gospel offer? I suggest the following:
1. Hope – rooted in a community of ordinary people who have been grasped by a refusal to consent to the assumption that death, violence and destruction have the final word in this world: God does, and it sounds something like 'resurrection'.
2. Commitment – followers of Jesus (however often we fail) cannot do other than get stuck in to the real world we inhabit: the good news is that God has, in Christ, opted into the contingent, contradictory and vulnerable messiness of the world… and refused to exempt himself from it. Christians inescapably commit themselves not only to worship and the building of the church, but to sacrificial service of their local community and the wider world.
3. Confidence – even when ridiculed or lazily dismissed by the effortlessly superior commentariat: the Christian church doesn't confuse repeated mantras of 'weakness' or 'irrelevance' with 'reality'. Whatever else happens, we won't either give up or go away. Confidence is not arrogance – it is grounded in reality coloured by hope.
So, having long ago rejected inventing soon-to-be-moved-on-from New Year Resolutions, I face the new year with the words of some largely anonymous Palestinians from two millennia ago. Mark 10 contrasts the blindness of those close to Jesus (James and John, in particular, who think godliness is all about personal status and security) with the vision of a blind man, Bartimaeus. The former see it as their job to keep Jesus from being disturbed or distracted – away from people like Bartimaeus; but, Jesus confounds their narrow little world and tells them to bring the blind man to him. So, they go to him… and these are the words that hang in my consciousness at a time of uncertainty:
Take heart, get up, he is calling you.
In other words: be encouraged and stop colluding with the fatalism and defeatism hanging in the air; don't be bound by the miserable prejudices of those who see themselves as the guardians of mercy. Now, get up, do something about it: faith is never merely notional, but has to be worked out and lived in choices and priorities and action. And don't think this is for others: he is inescapably calling me/us/you to commitment to this community of motivated people who dance to a different tune in this world – a tune that is an echo of another world.
Happy new year!
(And now back to the Sound of Music…)