OK, the Church of England appoints a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope resigns. Coincidence? Of course! But that doesn't stop people speculating that the Pope's reasons for retiring must be anything other than those he has given. This is a conspiracy-theorist's dream.

Well, now the cacophony of advice aimed at the cardinals has already begun. What seems to be commonly agreed is that the Roman Catholic Church needs to change – although that's the easy bit: what that change looks like is the subject of bitter and contradictory disagreement. It was ever thus.

In a further coincidence I am en route to Hannover, Germany, to speak at an ecumenical conference on how the churches in Germany need to change to face a challenging new world. They – both Protestants and Roman Catholics – are keen to open up creativity in a culture that has assumed its place in German society for centuries, but now finds it harder. There are significant differences between the German churches and the English churches, but the Germans want to learn more from – and be inspired and encouraged by – initiatives such as Fresh Expressions, Liquid Church, and others. I am quite heavily involved in speaking and engaging in discussion at a pre-conference conference today, the main conference (with 1200 participants) tomorrow and Saturday, then preaching on Sunday morning before returning to Bradford.

(I am writing this at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, having had a dreadful journey! I was supposed to fly from Leeds-Bradford to Amsterdam and then on to Hannover last night. It took three hours to drive the eight miles from home to Leeds-Bradford; the flight was delayed by three hours; I was put in a hotel in Amsterdam – getting three hours sleep – and now am waiting to board the flight to Hannover. This morning's meetings have been mucked up accordingly…)

It is always interesting to look at how a different culture deals with change. I am a close observer of the German churches, but they start from a different point from those in England. There are now some really interesting ad creative initiatives emerging and the seriousness with which these are being addressed in Germany is impressive.

I bring the mixed experience of England. Some 'fresh expressions' have failed, sometimes the rhetoric outstrips the reality, and sometimes they are just a way of 'doing what we want without the hassle of the bits of church we don't want to other with'. But, all in all, they have sparked an explosion of adventurousness, creativity and imaginative courage. On the other side, look at attempts to change the Church of England more substantially – for example, the Dioceses Commission proposals to dissolve three dioceses in West Yorkshire and create a new single diocese with five episcopal areas – and it becomes clear how, in some quarters, resistance to change prevents any creative engagement with either reality (look at the numbers, both people and money) or potential (taking responsibility for creating something new).

Change is always difficult, but difficulty is never an excuse for not changing. While looking though the German lens in the next few days I will also be reflecting from a distance on how change is faced in my part of England. Or not.

This is the basic text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show. Search blog for 'Sudan' to read posts.

I guess most of us have at some time in our life entertained some romantic ideas about exotic places we dream of visiting one day. I remember reading Antony and Cleopatra – Shakespeare, not the Carry On version – when I was at school in Liverpool and imagining the River Nile. Plagued with queen-biting asps, obviously.

Well, a few weeks ago I actually went to the Nile. In fact, I went to both Niles: the Blue and the White. We were visiting Bradford's link diocese in Sudan and every day drove over the bridge in Khartoum where the two rivers converge before heading north to Egypt and so on. I'm not colour-blind, but I tell you: both the Blue and the White Niles look brown to me.

Life is tough for many of the people we were visiting there in Sudan. Outsiders and foreigners are being told to leave, and southerners are being sent… er… south. Now, the reasons for all this are complicated and the politics somewhat controversial; but, what we saw was the human cost of other people's privilege. Put simply, when life gets tough between different peoples, the easiest thing to do is separate… grow apart deliberately.

But, the solving of one problem doesn't bring peace – it simply creates more problems and causes lots of misery for the ordinary people who have to pay the price of powerful people's greed and vanity. But, we in Bradford are bound up with our friends in Sudan and, whatever happens, we will stick by them.

An hour after we left our guesthouse for the airport at one in the morning, the house was raided, guests taken in for questioning, and the place confiscated by the security services. It might be a world away from Bradford and the Yorkshire Dales, but, like the Blue and the White Niles, we have converged and cannot be separated as we travel into the future together.

Disappointingly, I saw no queen-biting asps.

 

Among all the work stuff I have to read (like the report issued yesterday – funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – on the 2012 Bradford West by-election) I have just read Professor Ben Quash's excellent new book Abiding. The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book, it addresses the urgent need of Christian people to commit to place and stay there.

With reference to film, art and literature, Quash writes beautifully about how to live generously and contentedly with life lived in community. Rooted in the Benedictine experience, he draws on Scripture to encourage openness, attentiveness, reflectiveness, looking reality in the eye and living an authentic life. In so doing, he eschews the escapism of fantasy – religious or otherwise – whilst encouraging a habit of 'abiding' in body, mind, relationships, exile, woundedness and peace.

Perhaps it isn't coincidental that today I visited a church in Bradford where a simple community has arisen around the making of bread. Bread Church draws people from the local community into what I want to call an 'abiding presence' – where people bake bread together, share time together, talk together, break loneliness together, eat together, pray together, care for one another. It can only happen where one or two people commit themselves to a particular place – to abiding and not running away. It is impressive and rooted in the soil of Christian love and mercy.

Bread Church embodies what Ben Quash describes.

This is a book for slow reading and one I will be commending strongly – and not only because Ben is soon to be installed as Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral.

 

Following on from my last post – which was sparked by a visit to Sudan and the reading of Walter Brueggemann (again) – it is important to move on from the phenomenon of how we face potential change to addressing the content of those changes. Objections to change often appear in two forms: (a) a natural, but false, comparison between the status quo (arrived at after years of development) and the potential birth of something new (which, by definition, can only be imagined or envisaged) arising from it; and (b) a natural and right caution that we should never engage in change for the mere sake of change itself.

Since coming to Bradford in May 2011 I have deliberately not instigated any great change. I might be wrong, but it seemed silly to initiate necessary change in some areas when a greater, more wholesale, change might be coming down the line with the Dioceses Commission proposals – if agreed in March 2013 – kicking in relatively soon. So, I have paid attention to structural clarity, missional encouragement and confidence building among clergy and lay people. I cannot be the judge of whether that policy has been effective or not. Nevertheless, the point is that I do not believe in wasting time changing things that do not need to be changed. I seriously resist that old recourse of fantasists or the fearful: to avoid the serious challenge by simply re-engineering or re-ordering the furniture. At the heart of any change worth doing lies the fundamental question of vision: what is the end that this means is intended to achieve?

So, objections to the scheme before us are not trivial and, indeed, are necessary if we are to effectively (but realistically) stress-test the proposals for an alternative way of being. That is to say, any proposals for change need to be poked, pulled, prodded and stretched in order to identify where they are sound, where they lack, or where they open up potential that cannot yet be measured. Yet, going back to the point of my last post on this, objection should always be on the basis of an imaginative engagement with the proposals and not simply a reactive resistance arising from pique or fear.

A number of objections to the Dioceses Scheme are obvious and I will look at some of them in turn here.

'Big is not always beautiful'

The objection is that a larger diocese must be remote, unwieldy and unfamiliar – a far cry from the 'family-like' nature of the existing three smaller dioceses. Well, yes, a large diocese does feel different and brings certain challenges (as well as opportunities) not faced by smaller ones. But, sometimes big is beautiful – in the sense that it provides a wider canvas on which to paint a bigger picture.

I think I am the only senior staff member of any of the three dioceses who has direct and long experience of such a large diocese working with an area system. I spent eleven years in the Diocese of Southwark, three as Archdeacon of Lambeth and eight as (area) Bishop of Croydon. I learned a huge amount about communication, coherence, 'brand identification', structural identity and effective use of resources. The particular model of an area system worked well, but was under constant review – as will any shape emerging, if approved, in West Yorkshire and the Dales.

The suggestion that the current scheme should put in place a structure that must work completely on day one and be guaranteed to remain successfully intact for the next ten years is a complete nonsense: any shape devised will need to be re-thought as time goes by and as change happens around us. What we have to focus on is the potential of a larger diocese, broken down into an area system, to enable a larger vision for the resourcing and encouragement of parish mission and ministry, better development potential for clergy, a more coherent engagement with the area covered by the new diocese (civic, political, social, economic, etc.), and clear profiling of the Church of England in its unique vocation (working with ecumenical partners, who, incidentally, support this scheme).

Ecclesiology and area bishops

The scheme proposes a diocesan bishop (who would also be the Area Bishop of Leeds – a mistake, in my view) and four other area bishops (Bradford, Ripon, Wakefield and Huddersfield). How would the diocesan bishop know and be known by the people in his parishes?

Well, that is an interesting one. Of course, it begs the question how well known are the diocesan bishops by the parishes in the existing dioceses – and the judges of this should not be the diocesan bishops themselves! If I have 165 churches in around 130 parishes and aim to be in at least one of them every week,… work it out. Yet, we speak of 'knowing' and 'being known'. We need a bit of realism here: the diocesan bishop needs to 'order' the diocese in such a way that (a) clergy are properly appointed and pastorally resourced – and let's not romanticise the limitations of that, (b) communicate effectively with all parts of the diocese, using all the resources available judiciously and adventurously, (c) be out and about in the parishes and institutions – listening, learning, questioning, encouraging, challenging, articulating the good news and inspiring (which comes down to more than just role, office and structure). This involves systematic and realistic prioritising – nothing new there, then.

Currently, the diocesan bishop cannot be everywhere and, so, exercises his episkope through colleagues such as suffragan bishops (except in Bradford where I don't have one), archdeacons, area deans, diocesan secretaries, and so on. Indeed, the parish system assumes that a 'vicar' is exercising in the particular parish the ministry that belongs essentially to the bishop. So, how would the area system proposed be any different in kind?

In a larger diocese the ordering of these matters is done through having smaller episcopal areas, each led by an area bishop (who is as much a bishop as the diocesan bishop!) working with a cathedral dean/minster vicar and an archdeacon. If the right people are appointed to these posts (and the same question applies if we retain three dioceses), this offers clergy and parishes a strategic and pastoral leadership team that is closer to the ground, oversees a smaller territory and number, can apply itself to the particularities of that (more homogeneous) area, offer more accessible pastoral care of clergy, and inspire mission at a more local level. In practice, this means that one episcopal area might drive initiatives that would not be as applicable or effective in others… but would bring that experience and drive to the wider diocese. Such cross-fertilisation is challenging and inspiring when you work in such a context.

Of course, this allows a larger diocese to deploy people in areas who bring to the diocese as a whole their particular expertise – thus allowing the whole diocese to benefit from the particular spread of gifts and experience deployed in the areas.

There are two other elements of an area system that are worth mentioning: (a) area bishops are not automatically on the General Synod, are not in the House of Bishops, do not find themselves committed to work beyond the diocese in the same way as diocesan bishops, and, can, therefore, be more present in their area and diocese. In other words, the clergy and parishes get a better deal; (b) the bishops work as an episcopal team, ensuring both stronger mutual support/challenge and imposing a check on wild ideas, plans or judgements.

So, parishes and civic areas get two bishops: one local and one 'regional' who gain an intimate and informed understanding of life on the ground. One can be a check on the other.

Of course, as I keep saying, no structure of itself achieves anything; it all depends on how the structure is populated, led and exploited… and that comes down to the nature and abilities of the people you appoint to do it. Which, of course, is no different from the challenge we have if we remain as three separate dioceses.

Practicalities

That said, a large diocese (and before thinking this proposal is dangerously radical and untested, we need to look at the dioceses of London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Lichfield, Oxford… to name a few) means further to travel for diocesan meetings, and so on. Well, potentially, yes, of course it might. But this is hardly unique and is an odd objection. People are different – some won't travel more than to the next-door parish for a deanery meeting and others will travel further because they believe in the importance of what they are doing. There seems to be an assumption around that all diocesan meetings would be held in Leeds – but it is unclear where that assumption comes from. In other dioceses with area systems, 'central' meetings move around – partly in order to acquaint the decision-makers, both clergy and lay, of the nature of the parts of the whole diocese.

This of all other practical objections is the one that seems to me to be clutching at 'resistance straws'. How these things will work out will depend simply on the breadth of vision, sense of adventure, creative imagination and visionary energy of those who lead the new diocese. And that can't be laid down in detail before the thing comes to be.

Enough now. Change is inevitable. If the scheme does not go through, it will not be 'business as usual' in any of the three dioceses. And the (in some people's minds)'reserve option' of Bradford and Ripon& Leeds going ahead together without Wakefield is a non-starter – it does not answer in any way the question addressed by the Dioceses Commission in bringing their proposals in the first place. Going forward the questions will not go away and the need for change will not evaporate in a cloud of safety, imagined certainty or wishful thinking.

As I have kept saying, we either see ourselves as victims of change (compelled by the decisions of other people) or we shape our future by choosing change. And that means having the sort of courage to recognise that choosing anything new will bring problems, challenges, unforeseen difficulties and the perpetual pain of those people who look for opportunities to say “I told you so”. But, courageous leadership arising from vision has to be big enough to handle all that, bracket the personal stuff, press on, take responsibility… and take the incalculable risk of inspiring both church and society that we can do what Jesus always invited people to do: leave something behind in order to walk in a different direction in order to go somewhere unpredicted… and to do it all with some sense of adventure as well s attention to detail.

More anon.

Being in a place of scarcity and threat compels us to look through different eyes at our own situation and life. Gaining a first-hand acquaintance with the church in Sudan last week (as I had previously done for eleven years with the church in Zimbabwe) shone a different light not only on who we are as an Anglican church in West Yorkshire, but also how we are in our attempt to fulfil our unique calling.

Add to that a reading of Walter Brueggemann's excellent book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination and the choice before the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield takes on a different (and more radical) complexion. On 2 March the three diocesan synods will vote on whether or not to choose dissolution and the creation of a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. During the last two years we have lived with uncertainty as, first, the initial proposals were debated; second, the amended draft scheme was debated; then, third, the final scheme was presented for acceptance or rejection.

So far, no problem. The whole world lives with uncertainty and sometimes the Church needs to grow up and get real when faced with challenges or bewilderments. Uncertainty is one of the facts of life and we, of all people, should learn to live confidently with it. However, how the process has been handled during the last two years raises some important questions that precede the detailed matters of the scheme's content: they have to do with identity, vocation and vision.

Identity

Who is the church? The church must take as its narrative the sweep of the biblical story, read in the light of its experience throughout history. What we learn is that the church's institutional shape must serve its vocation and not have its vocation shaped by its inherited institutional form(s). If the church aims “to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God” – and to do this by learning the (constantly changing, moving) 'languages' of a culture that never stands still, then it must constantly be willing to sacrifice its inheritance for the sake of its mission. Indeed, this was the motivation behind the creation by the Church of England of new dioceses in the twentieth century, aimed at re-shaping the church to serve new urban communities that hadn't really been there a century before.

The proposals for West Yorkshire do the same for the twenty first century, both responding to the changes in demography, culture and communications and anticipating further changes in the century to come. It would be interesting to see what arguments were used at the time when Wakefield and Bradford were established as separate dioceses by those who thought the change would be negative, retrograde, trendy, unnecessary, unmissional, and so on. I guess they would represent a re-run of some of the 'denial rhetoric' that is being articulated now.

However, these proposals invite the Church of England in West Yorkshire (and beyond – because this could still be put to the General Synod for acceptance even if one of our dioceses votes against it on 2 March), for the first time in several generations, to do what the Church of England used to do in re-shaping itself for the sake of its declared mission.

Vocation

Who is the church for? The church's vocation is a tough one: it essentially asks us to be 'prophetic', not only in word, but in action. By 'prophetic' I mean offering the world the possibility of a different way of seeing and being… even while the old world continues and appears dominant. This is the invitation of the Old Testament prophets: to see a new world whilst the current reality was exile under a powerful empire. Not only do the prophets speak truth about now, but they use language to fire a daring imagination about a different future… a future rooted in hope. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus poses the same challenge: you can't see how the pure God can come among you again while the unholy pagans (the Roman occupying forces) remain in your land, compromising your worship and blaspheming your faith; but, dare you 'repent' (literally, 'change your mind' – see through a re-ground lens) and begin to live now as if God were present, contaminating the unholy with grace rather than being afraid of being contaminated by the bad stuff? (This is what is going on in Mark's summary of Jesus's message, mission and ministry in Mark 1:14-15.)

Walter Brueggemann draws attention to this when he writes:

… prophetic preaching is the enactment of hope in contexts of loss and grief. It is the declaration that God can enact a novum in our very midst, even when we judge that to be impossible. (P.110)

More suggestively, perhaps, he goes on (p.130f) to expose the discrepancy between what we Christians say and sing, and how we then handle prophetic demands:

There is a tacit yearning in the church for the prophetic. And so the church sings about the prophetic with some vigor… The church sings that way with hope, all the while, in practice, mostly resisting anything prophetic and really wanting no more than a status quo pastorate or priesthood, mostly wanting apostolic faith that “tells” but does not summon too much.

In other words, we don't walk the talk. In relation to West Yorkshire all parties have agreed, articulated and rehearsed the view that change needs to happen and that we cannot just continue blindly into the future. Yet, when specific change is proposed – based on thorough consultation, research and testing alternatives – some of us resist even using our imagination to see how 'a different way' might potentially look, were we to have some courage as well as convictions. What lies before us is not simply a choice about specific proposals for a single diocese, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a challenge to the integrity of our vocation as a church. Given that so-called 'alternatives' have come too late in the process, been simple reactions to specific points that, once addressed and answered (see the 'threat' to funding three cathedrals, for example), are held onto regardless or quietly dismissed in the search for another objection.

Vision

I understand what lies behind the fear of change, loss and uncertainty. (After all, if this scheme goes through, I become the first diocesan bishop to be made redundant – a prospect I don't relish, but for which I am prepared.) But, this is what the church is called to model in every generation – for our rootedness is fundamentally not in our institutional shape (as if this were directly established by God in creation), but in our courageous and prophetic faithfulness to the mission God has entrusted to us.

I will come back again to some of the specifics involved in the proposals, but for now the big question has to do with something deeper, more integral to our identity and vocation, more theological and attitudinal. A new single diocese would bring huge challenges and opportunities. There will be errors, mismanagements and failures. Risk will be felt acutely. Structures – existing or potential – achieve nothing of themselves; all depends on how people lead, work them and creatively attend to their potential as media (parameters) for enabling the vocation to be fulfilled.

I think I am not alone in Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds in wanting our decision to be driven by courage, vision, creative commitment, vocational conviction and missional invitation. We must not fail the church and the wider world by being driven by denial, fear, resentment, protectionism or self-interest.

More anon.

If silence is golden, then this blog is wonderfully radiant. So much happening in church and world and simply no time or imagination to record it. What a bummer (for me, at least).

But, today the suitcases are packed, the anti-malarials started, the books-for-the-journey chosen. We leave early tomorrow morning for a nine-day visit to Sudan. The Diocese of Bradford has been linked with the dioceses in Sudan for the last thirty years and the relationships have become ever more important as the religious and ethnic situation in the country has changed. The challenges faced by Sudan in the run up to division a year or two ago are immense – we are simply going to go and see and learn and try to encourage the Christians among whom we will be staying.

I hope to post while out there, but no promises. If not, then silence can continue to radiate.

Yesterday an open letter from thirty church leaders in Yorkshire and Humberside was published. Addressed to the Prime Minister and copied to the Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, the letter aims to highlight concerns about the impact of welfare cuts in the part of England we serve. It was timed to preempt the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement due tomorrow.

The thing about church leaders is that we have people in every community, from every stratum of society, and of a huge diversity of origins and backgrounds. Perhaps we are unique in that respect. Our reach goes deep and wide – and the pictures we build are not fabricated according to ideology, prejudice or even theology.

The letter caught local headlines, but managed to omit reference to a crucial paragraph in which the potential for getting people off welfare and into work is applauded. However, we also have to maintain a concern for those who cannot work, cannot get work or who fall through all the nets. Churches (among others) are currently and quietly providing night shelters for homeless people, running food banks, caring for people (and families) whose life has been radically changed for the worse.

The letter adds the voice of thirty church leaders (on behalf of those who tell us their stories of grassroots experience) to others attempting to inform the Government how its proposals are impacting on people (in our case) who live outside London; welfare cuts are having an impact on people every day and the poorest are paying the highest. In Bradford we have 38,000 children living below the poverty line. We still see the poorest people getting poorer, while the richest people are getting richer – and that’s a scandal.

The letter, accompanying a study entitled Am I my Brother’s Keeper? A Christian Overview of Welfare Reform and Cuts in Public Spending (Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber), reads as follows:

As Church leaders in the North of England, we would like to express our concern over the way that cuts in public spending and reforms to the welfare system are beginning to play out in the communities we serve. We commend to you a policy paper written by the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber, Am I My Brother’s Keeper, which offers an informed overview of welfare reform and cuts in public spending in the context of the values that have driven welfare since the inception of the Welfare State.

We are concerned that the ideology behind many cuts and reforms serves to undermine fundamental principles of mutual care that are basic to our vision of a good society. We are similarly disturbed that the political rhetoric that is increasingly used of benefits claimants, “scrounger” and “feckless” to name but two, stigmatises welfare in such a way that those who are in genuine need become reluctant to make claims, to the detriment of themselves, their families and the communities in which they live.

We express support for those aspects of Universal Credit which make a genuine attempt to address longer term problems within the welfare system that can act as a deterrent to work. Indeed, we agree that work is the best route out of poverty for many people. However, we would also wish to draw your attention to the need to ensure that full-employment remains a policy aim for the Government in support of a system that sees welfare as transitional assistance for those that are capable of work.

We are especially troubled by welfare reforms that time-limit benefits at a time when structural unemployment makes it impossible for many to get the jobs they need for themselves and their families.

We would also urge care in applying means-testing in an aggressive way that further polarizes the debate about welfare into one in which the independent and self-sufficient think of themselves as being in permanent support of the dependent and “feckless”. Our view of the good society as interdependent and of people as fundamentally of equal worth, makes it impossible to support that polarization.

We wish to confirm our support for:

  • The Welfare State
    • As a mechanism for remedying the worst effects of laissez faire capitalism
    • As a way of addressing social inequality
    • As a safety net for those who are temporarily, or permanently, in need
  • A system of taxation that encourages responsibility among the wealthy to share their good fortune with other members of the society to which they belong
  • A work ethic which encourages all people towards employment and the duty to care for themselves and their own families in the first place, as they are able and when economic life permits
  • Full-employment as a policy goal that allows the Welfare State to function properly

Finally, our experience in the North underlines the need to achieve a better balance in the UK economy between the South – and especially the South-East – and the North. This would enable people in northern communities to deploy and benefit from their skills and abilities and thus contribute to enhancing the productivity of the country as a whole.

I have just got back from Erfurt, Germany, where I spent several days making connections with our (the Diocese of Bradford) link with the Kirchenkreis there. It wasmy first visit to a part of Germany I don’t know. I was recently in Eisenach, but Erfurt is further down the railway line.

It is beautiful – especially in the freezing sun of Saturday. Just google some pictures – it is packed full of great people, wonderful buildings and set in glorious countryside.

I arrived on Thursday evening. After meetings all Friday morning, I was taken on a walking tour of the town by my generous host. It was freezing cold, but, as the Germans say, hochinteressant. Among other things I learned was the fact that Schiller finished writing Maria Stuart at the place that later became Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Humanity and brutality on the same spot, separated only by time.

This is also the place where Martin Luther became a monk, and Napoleon fell for the location, too. It is a place where history is written in stone and that history is as conflicted as any other. ‘Sanierung’ is what was done to the buildings infrastructure once the drab DDR had passed away and colour re-entered the urban landscape. I guess you can clean up buildings in a way that you can’t history.

The last couple of days have seen me meeting key people, saying goodbye to a lovely visiting group from Bradford, enjoying a synod, contributing to a press conference, bringing a greeting to the congregation of the Predigerkirche (before starting the journey back home), going to the pub with some great company, getting a guided tour (by the generous and fascinating Dompropst) of the Roman Catholic Cathedral and Severikirche, discussing ways of growing our partnership link relationships, and having dinner with my hosts and their friends. I even fumbled my way though various conversations in German in which I learned again how much detail I have forgotten – such as vocabulary, genders, endings, etc. (after which there’s not much left…).

I have often remarked that the real benefit of being immersed in another culture is that it forces you to look at yourself though a different lens. the heated issues of the home church, for example, become culturally relativised when seen in the context of another culture that emerges from a different history with different ‘issues’ and in a different language. One particular conversation in the Landeskirchenamt on Friday morning did just this.

The Landeskirchen of this part of the world began around ten years ago to discuss coming together. This was for a host of reasons, and the process has now been concluded. Well, it has reached a certain point of conclusion, but such things are never finished and the end of the journey is never reached. They began by trying to be polite and ‘pastoral’, creating joint ways of working together as a first step on a journey towards unity. One powerful view of some of those involved in making it happen is that this was a mistake. You can put off the tough stuff of change as long as you like, but it won’t mitigate the pain of actually doing it. All it does is prolong uncertainty, foster illusions (that it might never happen), and create space for the sort of imaginative non-engagement that I rather rudely call ‘distraction therapy’.

My point of reflection? The dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield will vote next March on whether to dissolve in order to create a new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. Such a step might be new for the Church of England (what isn’t?), but we could learn from the experience of a church that has already been there and done it. It has not been easy and problems remain – inevitably, as people are involved; but, they have succeeded here in creating the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, creating compromises in order to make it work, and taking a long-term view of how it will develop (and recognise benefits) in the future.

Any change is painful – although often less painful than the pain of thinking about it beforehand – but refusing to face it does nothing to avoid pain… or reality. The key is to be ahead of the game and not always trying to catch up with a world that has already moved on.

The West Yorkshire proposals promise much and I see it as the creative way ahead for the Church of England in West Yorkshire and the Dales. The process is demanding, but also rewarding: it is certainly not boring. But, the lesson from this part of Germany suggests (to me, at least) that it is not ‘pastoral’ to spin things out for ever: after nearly three years (!) of consultation and debate, we need to decide, proceed and lead.

I am in Eisenach, Germany, for the annual meeting of the Meissen Commission. It is late and I am tired, but as the statement from the Dioceses Commission was issued earlier today, I just make the following comment.

The statement reads as follows:

At its meeting on 26 September the Commission was able to complete its consideration of all the submissions made to it on the draft Reorganisation Scheme for the dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield. It carefully considered the representations made to it, both at this stage and earlier, and has unanimously decided to proceed with a draft scheme bringing all three dioceses together.

The Commission firmly believes that the scheme represents a once-in-a generation opportunity for reinvigorating mission which should be grasped. It intends to issue a revised scheme embracing all three dioceses by the end of October, together with a fresh report which will both address concerns that have been put to the Commission, and set out the benefits to mission that it believes will come from a new single diocese.

The current diocesan map in the region owes more to history than the way these communities are now shaped. The Commission received overwhelming evidence that the Church's structures no longer reflect current social, economic and demographic realities on the ground, and that the Church needs a single diocese to engage effectively in mission with the people and communities of West Yorkshire and the Dales.

The Commission believes that the benefits to the Church's mission and ministry in West Yorkshire and the Dales will only be fully realised by a scheme embracing all three dioceses. They each have their own distinctive contribution to make, and have a part to play in creating something new, rather than recreating an older model.

Chair of the Commission, Professor Michael Clarke, said: “On behalf of the Commission I would like personally to thank everyone who has made representations to us. A revised scheme will be published next month, and all three dioceses will then have a chance to decide whether they share our vision, which has been drawn from our discussions in Yorkshire over the past two years, that the proposals will better enable them to advance their mission to the communities which they serve. The Commission is clear that this represents a remarkable and unique opportunity for the Church of England.”

Notes

1. The Dioceses Commission published a draft scheme to amalgamate the West Yorkshire dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield on 1 November 2010. This followed extensive consultation within the dioceses involved prior to that stage. The statutory six month consultation period on the draft scheme ended on 30 April 2012. Full details of the proposals can be found at http://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/structure/dioceses-commission/yorkshire.aspx

2. In June 2012 the Commission decided to proceed with a scheme on the basis that the details would be worked out over the summer.

3. Having decided that there would be a scheme, the Commission, under the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007, needed formally to decide whether or not to amend it in the light of the representations made. It plans to issue the details of its revised scheme – together with supporting documentation – by the end of October. It is the Commission's intention that its papers would be accompanied by an executive summary with a pastoral letter from its Chair to parishes. It will inevitably take a little while to finalise the documentation following the Commission's meeting on 26 September, hence the short delay before it can all be issued.

4. The Commission's scheme and its report on it will be submitted to members of the Diocesan Synods of the dioceses affected, so that the Synods can then decide whether or not to support the Commission's proposals. That decision needs to be made by the end of March next year, with the intention that the General Synod would be invited to debate the scheme in July. The earliest any of the proposals could be implemented would be in the autumn of 2013.

The diocesan bishops of the three diocese have made their own responses, mine being as follows:

“I welcome the decision by the Dioceses Commission to go ahead with their proposals for a new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. The publication of the revised scheme next month will provide greater detail which all three dioceses will consider before they vote on the scheme next March. I look forward to this further opportunity to explore how a new, bigger diocese could enhance the work of the church in this part of the country. As we explore the potential, and the pros and cons, it will test our creative vision, prophetic courage and commitment, and will ensure that our eventual decisions are fully informed and made for the right reasons.”

Opinions will differ as to the wisdom of the proposals. I make the following observations:

1. The church's talks radical, but never does it. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the church to take responsibility for being creative – making a diocese that is truly new, and not a merger of three, not an amalgamation of three, and not an aggregate of three. Taking a risk on creating something for the future means taking responsibility for it, even if it doesn't work. But, we expect this of parishes and clergy and we should not fear it when it comes to dioceses.

2. We must consider carefully the implications of the proposals – when we get them in detail – and make wise and informed decisions in March 2013. But we must not make decisions based on fear, risk-aversion, nostalgia, conservatism or self-interest. That is a denial of any hint of Christian vision, theology or mission.

3. Forget the fate of bishops. Two will retire. I took on Bradford knowing that acceptance of the proposals would mean me losing my post. That is fine. The church does not owe me a living and it is not about my security. That is irrelevant to any consideration of the merits of this scheme.

We now have until March to weigh up the details and make a decision about the proposals as a whole. There might be deal-breakers. But, until we see the detail, we won't know. So, for now, we need to ask serious questions about our motivation, vision and theological basis for our handling of what will inevitably be difficult proposals. I don't know what I will think until I see the final scheme. But, I can start working on my rationale.

When you have grown up with a particular framework for understanding the world and theology, it is not a simple task to listen through different ears to a different vocabulary. But, this is, in fact, what Jesus asked his friends and enemies to do – just read the gospels and this is the story: who dared to listen and look at God, the world and us through a different lens, and who could only try to shut out the heresy?

The Bradford Diocesan Clergy Conference began today at Swanwick in Derbyshire. I guess it's one of those things – like preaching – where you just have to be there to 'get it'. We began with an utterly human session with David Runcorn on 'keeping faith in a time of change'. Then we had a first session with Diarmuid O'Murchu on the developing cosmological context of human spirituality. It is in this context that we explored the implications of human belonging to the interconnected web of relationship with people, creation and the cosmos.

What struck me while listening to this was the clash of vocabulary for articulating theologically why the world is the way it is and how we are to understand it and God. If we are locked into a closed system in which theology encourages orientation towards 'other world' salvation, the talk of an open system of engagement with the created order 'now' seems odd. Or just wrong. If we have grown used to thinking in terms of particular doctrines, then all this cosmological stuff just sounds like New Age nonsense.

But the reason for having this on our programme is simply to challenge (or encourage?) us as clergy to think outside our conventional linguistic and theologically conceptual frameworks about the usual stuff: human meaning, life on the planet, spirituality that is engaged with reality and not just an escape from it, the moral claims of responsible living as beings in community in an interdependent cosmos.

It is far better to listen to stuff that challenges our preconceptions than simply to hear what confirms our assumed frameworks and makes us feel comfortable. After all, part of the role of clergy is to stir other people up into hearing the Gospel differently, listening through different ears, looking though different eyes, and catching glimpses of God's glory that would remain hidden if we only ever look through familiar lenses.

We are at the beginning. There is more to come. But, someone has to do the hard work of trying to find a vocabulary for relating the varying disciplines of science, social observation, anthropology, philosophy and theology to each other in a way that encourages intelligibility. We have to work at this; it is not easy. But, it is interesting to consider how much is to do with difference in 'content' (understanding of God and the world) as opposed to difference in 'language' for trying to express what is essentially always incomplete and mysterious.

As I discovered while working for the British Government thirty years ago (as a linguist at GCHQ), theology has to address and cope with the massive complexity of the real world – and that needs to be expanded to include the totality of the real cosmos.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,682 other followers