When Paul Simon put out the epic Graceland, one of the most evocative lyrics on the album referred to “under an African sky”. I didn't really understand why an African sky should be any different from any other sky. (There speaks a British city man.)

On my first trip to Africa – to Zimbabwe for a diocesan partnership link visit – I was overwhelmed by the sky at night. Under total darkness – no light pollution out in the bush – the sky appeared to be in 3D: billions of stars filled the night sky, shooting stars appearing and expiring in seconds. It was breathtaking. On one subsequent visit a group of us lay outside on the grass just staring at the sky for ages, silent contemplation squeezing out the distractions of talk and 'stuff'.

Africa is gorgeous. It can also be infuriating. On a diocesan link visit to Tanzania wifi has been mostly non-existent. So, for those of us intending to communicate the experience more widely, we have had to leave the iPad unopened while we immersed ourselves in the experiences and conversations of the moment. In its own way it is very therapeutic.

We have come with a group of thirteen. The historic Diocese of Wakefield had a longstanding and very well developed link with the Diocese of Mara in northern Tanzania. Mara then divided in 2010 and two new dioceses were formed: Rorya and Tarime. We are visiting all three. Now, as part of the Diocese of Leeds (known as West Yorkshire and the Dales – not easy for all Tanzanians to pronounce), Tanzania is one link among several: Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (formed with the historic Diocese of Bradford) and Sri Lanka (with the historic Diocese of Ripon & Leeds). There are also smaller, more specific links with Skara in Sweden and the Kirchenkreis Erfurt in Germany.

Here in Tanzania we have visited people, projects, churches and schools. There are some inspiring people here, and they are doing some remarkable things. From the building of schools to the creation of vocational training centres to help girls avoid FGM and early marriage, the church serves its wider community with commitment, sacrifice and courage. One or two places we have visited are like the Wild West – frontier places that do not look immediately promising for the church.

The church here is growing. Yet, I find myself increasingly annoyed by much of what I have heard over the years that contrasts the church in the UK with the church in Africa (as if 'Africa' was a single entity anyway). For example, here in Tanzania the church is planting churches and congregations where none has ever existed before. They might start a congregation under a tree, but they soon move towards building a church building. In fact, one dynamic bishop went as far as to say that the church grows once there is a building. At the same time as in England there seems to be a rush to get rid of buildings on the basis that they put people off…

Now, this sounds like England over a hundred years ago. The Victorians planted churches and erected buildings where none had existed before and the church grew in many dimensions. But, the church in England – especially one that organises by territorial missional obligation … such as the Church of England – now finds itself in a different culture that holds a different memory about the church and which sees the now redundant buildings as a sign of decline. Yet, many of our buildings are worn out, in the wrong place for today's world or capable only of static worship and use.

In other words, as a bishop said to me yesterday, the African church will probably one day (in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years) face the same situation the English church attends to today. Which means that we English should stop romanticising the African church and recognise that we have to find English ways of growing the church (taking a longer-term view) and not make the simplistic assumption that if we only copied the African church all would be well. There is no simple equation. Technique will never trump inspiration by the Spirit of God.

I always come away from churches in Africa – in Zimbabwe, Sudan and now Tanzania – inspired and energised. But, I never come away thinking there is some simple equation that can be applied in Leeds just because it works in Musoma or Tarime. What gets fired up is the imagination to look afresh at the context in Leeds and, having stepped back, to reimagine how the priorities in Leeds might now be addressed.

Now for the market – after a week of intensive engagement and travel, today is the closest we will get to a day off. Tomorrow I preach in Musoma Cathedral.That said, however, respite from the cold, wet and miserable English winter doesn't half help that imagination get stimulated.

 

I don't have much time these days for doing the blog. All I manage to put up is scripts or journalism. I recently did a paper at a theological conference, but 5,000 words is too many for this medium.

Tomorrow I head off to Tanzania to visit one of our Anglican partnership links: three dioceses in the north. So, here's a quick blast on a theme.

Most Church of England dioceses have links with dioceses around the world (or the Anglican Communion for these purposes). My diocese comprises three historic English dioceses and each had long-established links: Bradford with Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (USA), Wakefield with Tanzania and Skara (Sweden), Ripon & Leeds with Sri Lanka.

All the richness and complexity of the Anglican Communion is there. In Sudan the church faces dreadful pressure because African Christians (as opposed to Arabic Muslims) are being persecuted and squeezed. The reasons are complicated, but the separation of South Sudan from Sudan (and consequent vindictiveness) has led to a ratcheting up of the pressure. Look back to the posts I wrote when visiting Sudan in January 2013.)

Tanzania faces political and economic difficulties, and bears the marks of many of the problems of Africa. It is also beautiful. The church is divided in one of the dioceses we shall be visiting.

I visited Sri Lanka (see posts here) in October 2014, learning a huge amount about the politics and tribal tensions that lay beneath the decades-long civil war. I also witnessed the unique contribution being made by the Anglican Church in promoting and working for reconciliation between scarred peoples. Rebuilding broken communities lies at the heart of the church's witness.

Southwestern Virginia is a beautiful part of America where the church gets stuck into witnessing within its particular culture. The relationship with South Sudan is about to be brought to a conclusion. The diocese is currently enjoying its annual Council. I have visited twice – the second time for the consecration of the new bishop Mark Bourlakas. (I sat next to Michael Curry, now the Presiding Bishop, during the service. When the choir sang Parry's 'I was glad' I pointed out that it had been written for a coronation in England – and thought the Americans had fought hard to get away from this stuff. Michael turned to me and said: “We won the War of Independence, but you won the culture wars.” Excellent.)

I visited Skara briefly in 2014 to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury and my diocese at the 1000th anniversary of the diocese. I also managed to do a speech made up of a considerable number of Abba lyrics. They laughed.

In my diocese we cover major cities, post-industrial towns, deeply rural communities. All of life is here.

In other words, bring this lot together and all the complexities of the modern world are there. Christians struggling with persecution and pressure, those at the heart of a beautiful country that has moved from colonialism to civil war and beyond. Scandinavia, the United States and England represent a spread of modern western liberal democracies where the church takes a number of different forms and is having to face challenges different from those in, for example, Africa.

What often surprises me is how surprised others are when they hear about the reality of being a Christian in England and the west. They see the Church of England and English society as it was seventy years ago.

Last week I had Skype conversations with the Bishop of Colombo (Sri Lanka), the Archbishop of Khartoum and the Bishop of Southwestern Virginia. In the next couple of days I will meet the Tanzanians. I have had email correspondence with the Bishop of Skara. Why? Because these links are more than simply institutional connections; we are friends and brothers, able to be honest and open with each other.

So, why write this now? Well, mainly because I am planning to bring the bishops together in 2017 to live, pray, talk and learn together.

This is what the Anglican Communion is all about. And it is never boring.

So, to Tanzania…

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It doesn't seem that long since we were doing this last year: looking back at the old and wondering what the new year will hold. Many people in my part of the world will be hoping for better weather and, if that fails, at least better flood defences. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was surely right when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Well, looking forwards tells me that in Europe 2016 won’t be boring. Among other things, we’ll commemorate the centenary of the Somme – where a whole generation of young men (vast numbers from northern towns and cities) was sacrificed on the altar of violence. Then there’s the likely referendum on membership of the European Union which should remind us of where the drive for union began a century ago. And let's not forget the European football Championships in the summer – where we can only hope the goals go in the right direction.

Tomorrow is always an unknown country. This month the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in London and make decisions about how to belong together in the future. The divisions are no secret. The outcome is, obviously, unknown. What is certain, however, is that the future might not look exactly like the past.

Now, that’s a bit of a truism. But, every human community has to comprehend difference of opinion and competing priorities. Yes, we can walk away from the discomfort of conflict; or, we can face reality and harness it for honest conversation. Difference matters.

Later this month I will be visiting Anglicans in Tanzania where our diocesan partnership links are strong. We have equally strong links with Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the United States. What these relationships do is compel Christians in very different contexts and with vastly different histories and cultures to look through the eyes of the other and feel through the skin of the other. What we take for granted when we talk about God, the world and us gets challenged by looking through the eyes of a very different people. This also means exposing our own prejudices and discovering just how much of our theology turns out actually to be cultural assumption.

So, difference is integral to all human life. We either face it hopefully … or we simply wish it away. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking; hope refuses to let go in the face of even fierce discomfort.

Writing about the prophets, one Old Testament theologian titled a book 'Texts that linger, words that explode'. Well, maybe relationships sometimes explode, but words have a habit of hanging around – the conversation always has further to go. The texts that linger form a conversation that can’t be silenced.

A hopeful 2016 is one that faces reality and keeps talking.

This is the text of the sermon preached on BBC Radio 4 at Ripon Cathedral in the Christmas Day service at 9am:

It was only very recently that I heard about the tradition at Ripon Cathedral of giving out apples at the end of the Christmas service. I bet the kids can't wait for Easter when they'll get chocolate instead.

I'm now wondering what hidden traditions the other two cathedrals in this diocese have stored up for today. But, given all the traditions that accompany Christmas, at least Ripon still has the power to surprise. Apples on Christmas Day. Really.

Yet, this is what Christmas is supposed to do to us: surprise us … with the presence of God – what John in our gospel reading calls “his glory” – where we least expect it. After all, the people we read about in the original nativity stories had been longing for this – to know that they had not been abandoned, and that God would be among them again. Decades of military occupation by the Roman imperial forces had driven deep the stain of humiliation – the Creator of the Universe apparently defeated by the pagan gods of power and caprice. Where was God to be found when all the evidence of experience and our eyes tells us that he is not here … where we are?

Well, there is a theme running through the biblical story, and it isn't particularly comfortable. For people who think that God is only present where everything is sorted, every problem resolved, every indicator positive, Christmas becomes the epitome of embarrassment. For here, in the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, we are dared to look differently … and see God among us while everything in life remains a mess. The Romans are still here, still fleecing the people, still crucifying the protestors. Life is cheap. And pagan victory is rubbed in the faces of the poor, deluded people who keep hope alive in the face of 'reality'.

But, the people among whom God comes in Jesus of Nazareth are invited to re-think reality – not to be optimists, just hoping everything will somehow get better for them, but hopers who see through the transience of today's powers to the haunting shadow of God's smile: I am for you – Emmanuel, I am with you. Not to make everything nice and tidy. Not to take you out of the world's mess. But, to come to you and stay with you – right where you are, whatever happens, however long history takes.

And this is what goes to the heart of Christmas. God appears not to invade the present in a display of power and glory, but to be born as each of us has been born, and to slip into a tired, complicated, threatening and unsuspecting world at a particular time and in a particular place. No God of generalities or airy-fairy spirituality here – just one who gets stuck in, is down to earth, and who opts in to all that the real world is, and does not exempt himself from it. For those whose world has changed at Kellingley Colliery last week and the Redcar steel industry in recent months, this is particularly relevant where practical hope has to be encouraged and nurtured in the months and years ahead.

Let's just pause for a moment and think about who it was who got invited to the first viewing of the scrap of humanity lying in the feeding trough in that obscure town in that obscure part of the ancient empire. Shepherds are workers, doing their stuff out on the hills, minding their own business, expecting nothing. Yet, they, the religious outsiders, are first to get a Christmas surprise. Later – probably several years later – it is pagan astrologers who come in from the cold in search of something they probably expected to find somewhere more interesting or significant. Again, outsiders to the religious establishment of the time.

It's as if we are being surprised by a God who somehow climbs around the secure walls of our expectations and slips through our prejudices – especially the prejudices about God favouring either our pet religious projects or our self-condemning hesitations about our own worthiness. No, here we hear God whispering about a new way, meeting us where we are, but opening our eyes to a glimpse of living in a new world right in the heart of this world – opening our ears to the haunting echo of a different melody, a rhythm that invites a different dance.

That's what was happening in Bethlehem that night. And that is what we are celebrating this morning. Not just the warm familiarity of a myth that makes us feel better, or the reminder of a fantasy that temporarily anaesthetises us from the horrors and uncertainties of our complicated lives. But, the invasion in the present – as it is – of a new and surprisingly realistic hope.

In fact, the invitation of Christmas might be summed up as this: we need no longer be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope.

Why? Well, simply because the hope we will glimpse in Jesus as he grows from the baby of Bethlehem to the man of Calvary is one that is shaped not by some formula for self-improvement, nor some political or military project for sorting out the “wrong sorts of people”; rather, it is rooted in the person of God whose face we will see in Jesus and in whose person we will be dared to trust.

Drawn by hope, not driven by fear. In this world, but not of it. Down to earth, but not bound by earth. Invited not to escape from the real world, but, trusting in the faithfulness of God, to plunge ourselves into the depths of the real world as it is now.

So, today we should be tempted – not by apples, perhaps; that one didn't end so well, after all, did it? – to be surprised by the smile of God in the midst of experience. To see in this baby the seed of an inconceivable fruitfulness – that even in and through us, where we are , how we are, as we are, God might give birth to a tiny glimpse of that light that no darkness can extinguish.

A happy Christmas, indeed.

This is the text of an article (about the persecution of Christians) commissioned by the Times today:

Religious special pleading is rarely convincing or attractive. Overblown complaints about being picked on run the danger of diminishing or trivialising genuine suffering.

So, it is remarkable that when Christians are specifically targeted for the most appalling persecution, either politicians or media commentators find it difficult to name it for what is. To identify the persecution of Christians is not to diminish the targeted suffering of others.

It is reckoned that Christians represent the most persecuted people on earth in the twenty first century. And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or, of course, being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will.

Everyone knows about ISIS/Daesh – how they systematically brutalise those they deem unholy. Yet pressure on Christians is being applied with renewed vigour and imagination in some surprising places. Just last week the Sultan of Brunei banned the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that this could damage people's commitment to Islam. And those who defy the ban face heavy fines or imprisonment. Who will defend Christians in Brunei?

It was timely, then, that 60 UK parliamentarians published a letter this week asking for government pressure to persuade the United Nations to designate ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

The specific nature of anti-Christian persecution in many parts of the world make it difficult to identify a single solution. What happens in Nigeria clearly has a different local manifestation from in Pakistan or Syria (or Brunei); but the complexity or ubiquity of the phenomenon should not lead to embarrassed silence on the part of the largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia.

The first demand of such a phenomenon is to name it for what it is. Where Christians are being persecuted, then the word should be used without embarrassment. When my Christian brothers and sisters suffer in Sudan (and they do), they rely on the rest of us to tell their story and to use what powers we have to bring political pressure for an end to such suffering. The Anglican Communion and the links forged between dioceses across the world are essential in fulfilling this demand and vocation.

 

This is the text of an article written for the Yorkshire Post about the meaning of Christmas:

When we say that someone is 'down to earth', we usually mean that they are straightforward, unpretentious, with no airs and graces. Their feet are planted on terra firma, and they cannot be accused of being above themselves (or anybody else, for that matter). Being 'down to earth', therefore, is a good thing – something we recognise by its absence in some people's language, behaviour or demeanour.

So, it should come as no surprise that Christmas is about as 'down to earth' as you can get. Christmas might be about many things, but it is above all about God not exempting himself from the realities of the world, but opting in to all the world can throw at him (and us). Christmas is fundamentally a celebration of God being down to earth.

Now, this will sound uncomfortable to some and inconvenient to others. After all, isn't God there to be worshipped and feared? Haven't we already got God taped – if not only in order to dismiss what we don't like about religion?

Well, Christmas is supposed to surprise us – something our familiarity with various popular presentations of the Nativity militates against. But, it is meant to break across our fixed views of the world and the way it is, opening our imagination to a new way of seeing God, the world and us. It is meant to subvert our expectations of how the world inevitably has to be, inviting us to look differently, see differently and live differently in the world as it is.

Go back to the original story. God doesn't explode on an unsuspecting planet at the place of most political significance and compel everybody to turn their eyes to the great event. Most people in Palestine have no idea what is going on. That is part of the irony – the surprising and subverting. And, when it comes to it, it is outsiders – the 'great unwashed' shepherds and pagan foreigners – who are first to have their eyes opened to the mystery born in obscurity in a remote and troublesome corner of the Roman Empire.

In other words, the first Christmas draws the 'wrong people' to Jesus. Not the pious, the prepared, the priests or the pretentious, but those who don't 'belong' and those who least expect to be included. Or, as I once put it (and got into huge trouble with the media for daring to do so), the first Christmas should have led to the singing of “O come, all ye faithless…”.

Now, our familiarisation with Christmas, the sentimentalising of our consumer culture and our commercialisation of the celebration, have removed the Jesus of Bethlehem from the real world to somewhere more containable (where we don't have to worry about him growing up into a politically troublesome adult). In doing so, we allow the story itself to become rootless in the real world. And this is problematic.

So, consider this. The baby of Bethlehem was born into a world in which life was very cheap and expectations very limited. This world was dominated by a military power that ordered every part of life and society and dealt brutally with those who challenged its hegemony. The land into which the baby was born was occupied and its people humiliated. Under threat of persecution and death, the baby and his family fled to another country, becoming refugees and asylum seekers in a land whose very name (Egypt) represented slavery, misery and hopelessness. Terrorist groups emerged from the hill country of the north from time to time, bringing death and destruction to those places where the Roman forces exercised their power.

It sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? A world of insecurity and threat. Not a million miles from a world of ISIS, terrorism, fear and uncertainty.

Well, this baby would grow into the man who defied all power and denied all fear by inviting people to think again (or 'repentance' as it is sometimes known). What if there was to be a people who were not driven by fear, but drawn by hope? What if we could be down to earth, but not bound by earth? What if, while remaining rooted in and committed (body, mind and soul) to this world, we could be free to sit lightly to our status and dignity, our security and self-fulfilment, loving our neighbour as ourself and putting their interests before our own? What might this world look like? What would a society like this lead to?

This is basically what Christmas is all about. God doesn't wait for us to get our act together and sort out our integrity before coming to him with a plan. Rather, God takes the initiative, coming among us as one of us and, ultimately, opening his arms to us in an embrace that absorbs all that the world can throw at him, but without throwing it back.

And this is the point of getting to a church for a carol service. I love the aesthetics of candle light and familiar carols. But, what the church is actually doing – well or badly, but always fallibly – is to create a space, for an hour or two, during which we can be confronted afresh by the mystery of God's surprise – that even God is down to earth, right where we are.

A friend pointed me to this today and I thought it was quite funny:

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,160 other followers