Between 2004 and 2009 I visited Zimbabwe a number of times. The first visit exposed me to some of the realities and challenges of a beautiful country that Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF were turning into a nightmare. By my final visit inflation was around 10,000%, unemployment was sky high, and the bread basket of Africa had become a basket case.

I visited because the Diocese of Southwark (where I was the Bishop of Croydon) had longstanding partnership links with the Anglican dioceses in Zimbabwe. Croydon was linked with Central Zimbabwe, and I developed a friendship (based on huge admiration) with the Bishop, Ishmael Mukuwanda. I posted on this blog many times from and on Zimbabwe – simply put it in the search box and loads should come up.

So, watching the news now is heartening to an extent. At last, action has been taken to rid this country of its liberating tyrant and his Lady Macbeth wife whose name – Grace – is not matched by her character. It is no wonder that thousands of people are celebrating in the streets and that the Party is thought to be ready to dismiss Mugabe as party leader tomorrow. There can be no going back.

But, to what might the country be going forward? This is the hard question. It is easy to celebrate the end of Mugabe’s reign; but, what will now follow? Freedom from is not the hard bit; freedom to or for demands far more.

Ten years ago I was clear that the key to Zimbabwe’s future had to be the reestablishment of the rule of law – not just any law, but law as internationally recognised. Without the rule of law, nothing could be relied on. And, yet, now, we see the dethronement of Mugabe … but only by his own party. The same party will appoint a new leader, and this leader will continue the rule of ZANU PF. It will take someone brave or reckless to bring democracy back to Zimbabwe; in the meantime, Mugabe’s departure will not change much at all in terms of who is in charge, how they will run the country, and whose interests will be protected.

Clearly, today is for celebrating an ending. But, tomorrow will bring a beginning. And that beginning will probably be a continuing of what has gone before. It is too early to celebrate a new world for the wonderful people of this wonderful country. What we can be sure of, however, that the Anglican Church, with all its fallibilities and fragilities, will keep on plugging away imaginatively and creatively, serving communities and people in quiet, unsung ways, silently tilling the ground for a harvest they believe will one day come.

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It has been announced this morning by 10 Downing Street that the new suffragan [area) Bishop of Ripon in the Diocese of Leeds is the Rt Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley.

Bishop Dr Hartley who is 44, is at present Bishop of Waikato in New Zealand, an office she has held since 2014. At the time she was the first woman priest ordained in the Church of England to become a bishop. She succeeds Bishop James Bell who retired earlier this year.

I am delighted to welcome Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley. She brings expertise as a theologian, and episcopal experience from the wider Anglican Communion. She will add great strengths to the leadership and ministry of this diocese.

She will be welcomed and installed in the diocese at Ripon Cathedral on February 4, 2018.

Helen-Ann was born in Edinburgh in 1973 and grew up in north-east England. She is the fourth generation of her family to be ordained, and was priested in 2005 in the Diocese of Oxford.

She worked as one of a team ministering to 12 rural parishes in Oxfordshire before being appointed as the Director of Biblical Studies and a lecturer in the New Testament at Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford.

Helen-Ann, with her husband Myles who is a musician and church organist, went to New Zealand in 2010 to undertake research at St John’s College – and returned there in February 2011 to take up the position as Dean. In 2014 she became joint diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki, unique in the Anglican Communion with two equal bishops sharing jurisdiction across the whole of the diocese. The New Zealand diocese, like the Diocese of Leeds, is also unusual in having more than one cathedral.

Bishop Helen-Ann says she was surprised but excited to be invited to be the next Area Bishop of Ripon. “I am excited, delighted, surprised and deeply humbled by the call to take up the role of the Bishop of Ripon,” she says. “I look forward to getting my feet on the ground, listening and learning, and helping to root and grow the vision that Bishop Nick has for the Diocese of Leeds in the Ripon Episcopal Area. I rejoice in joining a dynamic episcopal team, and look forward immensely to working alongside my brother bishops.”

She added, “Both my husband Myles and I have firm roots in the north: Myles in Cumbria, and myself in the north-east. Returning to the north, and to the beautiful North Yorkshire Dales brings with it a deep sense of coming home, and I thank God for this call.”

Bishop Hartley also brings with her from New Zealand considerable experience of rural ministry in a Diocese that she says bears many similarities to the Ripon Episcopal Area. The Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki is large (18,000 square miles), and is sustained by the economies of farming, tertiary education, and tourism.

On the day of the announcement, November 9, Bishop Helen-Ann’s itinerary includes a visit to a farm near Skipton.

Bishop Helen-Ann said, “ I have witnessed the immense value of the role of churches in rural communities, and their often creative and innovative ways of responding to community needs, often in tough times when the dairy payout is poor or when drought or even too much rain cause great difficulties for farmers. With my feet on the ground, I have relished the opportunities to engage in God’s mission with all its joys and sorrows, amidst the praise and lament of life so eloquently expressed in the Psalms.”

With her background in theological education a particular focus for Bishop Helen-Ann has been encouraging and supporting of lay ministry and training. Looking for suitable discipleship courses for both urban and rural churches, she has developed a course of her own, Living Faith Today (known as LiFT).

Bishop Helen-Ann says another of her keen interests is Education. During her introduction to the Diocese on November 9 she also visits Richard Taylor Church of England Primary School in Harrogate meeting teachers and pupils. She said, “I have enjoyed supporting our Anglican schools, encouraging them in their work, and getting alongside the pupils and sharing in their lives (which has included activities like mountain biking and surfing [which I was not very good at!]). Sometimes all it takes is a mustard seed for the Kingdom of God to take hold.

“I hope that I have planted some seeds which in due course God will help flourish! It is wonderful that there will be a major Lay Conference in Harrogate in 2018, and I look forward to that important gathering.”

Bishop Helen-Ann added, “As I reflected on the call to this incredibly exciting role, some words of GK Chesterton came to mind: ‘There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.’ I can’t wait to get to know the people and communities of the Ripon Area. I hope that you will pray for me in this time of transition, as I will continue to hold the Diocese and particularly the Ripon area in my prayers as we begin this new season together.”

We offer a very warm welcome to Bishop Helen-Ann as she looks to begin her ministry in this diocese. Please pray for her.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Halloween. It’s not the spooky stuff or the violence done to a generation of turnips; its the Trick or Treat stuff that gets me. Isn’t the trick for me to not be at home that night … and the treat that the kids knocking on the door don’t have to meet me?

On the other hand, I love Halloween. I love the fact that it takes darkness seriously and compels us to face the reality of life and death.
OK, that’s not exactly what Halloween has become; but, it is what lies behind it all. All Souls night is when, traditionally, Christians remember those who have gone before them, face the power of bereavement and loss, and confront their own death. Here is where the rubber of faith hits the road of really tough human experience. As I know only too well – my dad died only a few weeks ago – the loss of people you love brings you face to face with your own mortality and the fragility of what it is to be human.

Well, that has the potential to plunge us into misery first thing on a Tuesday morning, doesn’t it? But, actually, All Souls (Halloween) can’t be separated from the day that follows it – by which I don’t just mean ‘Wednesday’, but All Saints Day. The darkness is followed by the light of celebration. For Christians this is all about our mortality – that death and fear don’t have the final word. At Christmas – now only seven or eight weeks away – we hear the great Gospel reading that defiantly whispers into the messiness of the world: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.” Carry on with the story and we eventually get to Easter and the darkness of crucifixion being transformed by the quiet eruption of resurrection.

To live as if all were darkness is to cave in to the joylessness of fatalism; to live as if all were happy-clappy light is to prefer fantasy over reality. The celebration of All Saints – ordinary people discovering that light and love are eternal – only makes sense once we have taken seriously the darkness of All Souls that is all too real.

Anyway, I am missing Trick or Treat this year because I am here in London and not in Leeds.

Well, that set the cat amongst the pigeons. Last night I posted a response to the dismissive and sneering comments by Today presenters on BBC Radio 4.

I am about to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 this morning (different medium, different language, different culture, different agenda), but wanted to have a second go at last night’s story.

Despite criticism of the underlying dismissiveness of Today presenters’ comments, I would defend them, the programme and the BBC to the end. Although each presenter has a differing degree of apparent disinterest in the slot, they are still courteous, professional and do the country a massive service by holding power to account. (Whichever political party is in power thinks the BBC is against them – which probably means they are doing the job we need them to do.)

It is easy to snipe from the sidelines, but, religious dismissiveness aside, they serve us well.

Tomorrow the Radio Times will publish an interview with presenters of the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in which they dismiss as “boring” the Thought for the Day contributions that are introduced around 7.45am each morning. The Telegraph has a piece, but it has already been leaked on Twitter and in the Guardian.

What is disturbing about the reported comments by the presenters is the staggering ignorance of what the slot is about. Set aside the arrogance that dismisses religious perspectives as irrelevant – rooted in assumptions that a five year old could drive an intellectual coach and horses through – and we are still left with questions.

I declare an interest. I do Thought for the Day from time to time. The script had to be written the day before and should be topical – which in today’s fast-moving media world is challenging. The script had to be complied before it can be delivered the following morning. Sometimes it had to be amended at the last minute; sometimes a script had to be scrapped and a new one written quickly because of ‘events’.

Thought for the Day is not about privileging religious nutcases in order to appease an irrelevant subculture in the face of a BBC public service remit. It is also not about presenting religious views or views about religion. It is all about looking at the world through a religious lens, opening up perspectives that subvert the unconscious (or conscious) prejudices about why the world is the way it is – shining a different light on world events that the unargued for and unarticulated secular humanist assumptions undergirding the rest of the programme miss.

Underlying the protests against Thought for the Day (so hackneyed they are in themselves boring to anyone with a brain) is what I call the ‘myth of neutrality’. I am embarrassed to have to say it again. This myth, so effortlessly held by so many, is that there is a neutral space held by secular humanists, leaving those who have a religious world view somewhere up the loony scale. According to this assumption, a religious world view is so odd that it is potentially dangerous and has no place in the public square it should be imprisoned in the sphere of the ‘private’.

But, why is the secular humanist world view to be privileged as ‘neutral’? It isn’t.

Thought for the Day is a bold resistance to this nonsense. If we are no good at it, fire us, ruthlessly. But, then get in people who can do a better job at revealing the world and its events through the lens of a religious world view that challenges the easy and lazy assumptions of those who think their lens is either self-evidently true or neutral.

Over 85% of the world’s population hold an individual or social/communal religious commitment. In order to understand the world, we need to look through their eyes. This isn’t about proselytism, it is about something far more important: understanding and mutual coexistence.

Last night we went out with friends to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see the Kneehigh Theatre Company’s production of Günter Grass’s epic The Tin Drum. It was surprising. It was certainly a powerful experience and an imaginative adaptation of the story. It was a bit like Marlene Dietrich meets Kraftwerk meets Gary Numan – in a good sense.

This was timely as I had just got back from holiday a couple of hours before and had just finished Stephen Green’s excellent book Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future. In it he traces not only the formative history of Europe’s most complex and powerful nation, but also explores the themes key to understanding Germany today, its tensions and corporate psyche. I have read a lot on this stuff, but this is by far the best and most accessible account of this remarkable country.

The three voices worth paying some attention to as Europe addresses challenge and change in the years ahead are: Stephen Green in this book and a couple of other small books he has written on Europe; Timothy Garton-Ash – anything he has written; Jeremy Cliffe who is now based in Berlin for the Economist and is the must-read on Twitter on all things German and Brexit. Not surprisingly, all three speak German.

I listened to the morning worship on BBC Radio 4 this morning through the filter of the theatre, the book and my thinking about Martin Luther. I presented the programme, produced by Rosie Dawson and recorded in Wittenberg a couple of weeks ago. Both Grass and Green wrestle with Luther’s legacy for German culture and political development.

Luther made a massive impact on the culture and political development of Europe. The story has not ended yet.

944136BD-7FC6-490E-8C9A-8A1AFEC2DF5COn 16 November I will be doing a gig at a pub in Pontefract with the acclaimed author of a new book on Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind fills in all the gaps around Dylan’s three-year three-album Gospel phase. It is detailed, but without ever losing the thread of what was going on for Dylan and those around him at the time.

What comes out of the book very strongly is the discrepancy between the quality of Dylan’s music and the blind prejudice of critics in the media to take it seriously. This prejudice had little or nothing to do with music and everything to do with religion.

What are we to make of music journalists who decline to take seriously the musical or lyrical integrity of their subject simply because they happen not to agree with the musician’s experience or worldview? I found this element of the book (with some faded memories of the time and the three albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) intriguing as well as shocking.

However, the phenomenon itself continues to have relevance. When university students decide to no-platform someone because they don’t agree with their stance on a particular matter, aren’t they simply prioritising their own prejudices over those of the person now barred from speaking? On what basis – intellectually or morally?

OK, the leap from Dylan in 1979-81 to free speech debates in 2017 is a bit of a big one. But, is it not surely incumbent on students and journalists to have an open (not empty) mind, to enjoy the adventure of provocative new thoughts/ideas, and to identify their own prejudices with the honesty they expect from everyone else?

And before anyone suggests that a Christian like me has no leg to stand on, let me just say this: (a) almost every act of Anglican worship begins with a collective “I seriously get stuff wrong” moment – no room for self-righteous arrogance here; (b) curiosity is the key to enjoying life, the universe and everything; and, (c) certainties should always be subject to challenge – as (I think) CS Lewis put it, “if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity”.

No fear there. (more…)