The is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning:

I’m not sure if a confession this early in the morning is wise, but I have never watched Game of Thrones. I have no idea what the story is, who the characters are, or what the plot line is. So, I can’t comment on any aspect of it … except the response to its ending.

Social media seem to be full of people who are angry that they didn’t get the ending they wanted or hoped for. I have even seen passionate pleas with the producers to fire the screenwriters, pull the last series and re-write (and re-film) the thing so it ends properly. What on earth is this about?

I guess in a world of custom-made this and custom-oriented that, we too easily believe that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction – that somehow I should have a life of individual personal fulfilment that makes everything nice. And, of course, it’s obvious from experience that this is nonsense.

It’s not only nonsense, but I think it’s boring nonsense. I recently read a lot of books while on study leave and a couple of the novels I read left me hanging, wishing for a different denouement. But, the joy of story is the element of surprise – shock, even.

For a Christian like me, this shouldn’t be a novel idea – especially in the current Easter season. Follow the gospels through and we see a story developing that keeps twisting and surprising. Get to the end – Jesus dead and buried – and there’s no airbrushing the powerful human brutality of it all. It’s not exactly escapism, is it? But, while the bereft friends of Jesus are trying to make sense of what shouldn’t have happened, they are further surprised by their women coming home and saying that the dead man seems not to be finished after all.

But, this is no ‘happy-ever-after’ deus-ex-machina make-us-all-happy resolution. In fact, it causes more problems. These people have to keep wrestling with reality, experience and their whole understanding about God and the world, and try to make sense of it all. This isn’t the script they were following, but it is forcing them to choose between their expectations and their experienced reality.

That’s how endings work. Surprise, challenge, discomfort. And it’s the ending that makes you go back to the beginning and re-read the whole narrative in the light of the twist.

We can no more control the endings of our own stories than we can compel writers to change their books. We are supposed to be challenged, arrested, surprised and intrigued. That’s the point. The story goes on in our imagination. And if we simply say: “Oh, there you go then,” then the story hasn’t worked. As true for resurrection as it is for Game of Thrones. Whatever that is.

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

I’ve got two sons – both of them well grown up now (that’s what I tell them, anyway) – and they’re both seriously colour blind. It’s great to play snooker against them. The thing about colour blindness is that you can’t tell from looking at them that they’ve no idea which is the red, the green or the brown.

Well, I’ve just learned that tomorrow is Face Equality Day. Now, my first response was boredom that every day seems to be ‘something day’. But, because I didn’t understand the title, I looked it up. And it’s all about people whose face doesn’t conform to so-called normal expectations of beauty or normality. Perhaps because of medical or accident reasons, they suffer unwelcome attention or unkind responses from people in public.

I’m trying to get the words right here, because those people working for change in this area use the term ‘visible difference’ to refer to this phenomenon. It’s a way of challenging the assumption that some people who look different are worth less. The evidence is that when you find your own face has changed, people treat you differently.

Well, we all know how important our face is. According to Shakespeare, “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face” – in other words, look past the appearance and you might detect the mind or soul of the person. I think he got this from his familiarity with the Bible which is full of stuff about faces. Try: Proverbs 27:19, “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart.”

But, it’s too easy to avoid the point here by saying simply that it’s what’s inside you that counts, not what you look like. Well, most people who say that sort of thing are probably OK with their own appearance. Perhaps I should try putting myself inside the skin – or looking through the eyes – of someone who gets stared at or, worse, avoided.

How we appear to other people does matter – especially in a culture which constantly bombards us with images of normal beauty. But, how other people look at those who are visibly different matters enormously.

Let’s face it, we can light up someone else’s face by loving who they are and the uniqueness of how they look.

 

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

I was checking my diary for this week when the news came in of the death of Doris Day. Whether it’s significant or not that this happened in Eurovision week, I have no idea. But, as we Brits will be exercising our foreign language skills again – nul points – in preparation for the big night, we might recall that it was Doris who introduced many of us to Spanish.

My late dad was a fan when we were kids and one of the first vinyl records he bought was one of her’s. And that’s where I heard Que sera sera – pronounced like a true Brit ever since. Que sera sera – what will be will be.

As a child I thought this was deep philosophy. You can’t change the future; what will be will be. Resign yourself to whatever comes. We call it fatalism.

Well, I liked the tune and I liked her voice. But, as I grew up I began to realise the idea was wrong. It’s a human responsibility to shape the future and not simply be a victim of other people’s decisions and choices. In Christian terms – which I was also exploring decades ago – the kingdom of God is not about some airy-fairy spirituality for when you die; rather, it’s about transforming the world here and now … thus creating a future that is more just and peaceful and fruitful for our children and grandchildren. After all, Jesus is all about God opting into the real world of matter and politics and muck and bullets and not exempting himself from it. Try sticking that into a Christmas carol.

Of course, this involves real commitment to the stuff of life and society. Fatalism is a denial of responsibility. Commitment to playing my part in building what has been termed ‘the common good’ becomes an obligation that goes beyond simply claiming my rights. Belief, in Hebrew terms, means committing oneself – body, mind and spirit – to the vision of the world that I believe to be true.

I think this is why politics gets fierce. After a couple of generations of little mainstream political choice we now find ourselves full of noise and fury about things that matter. If the choices currently facing Europe weren’t serious, we wouldn’t be getting up in arms about them, would we? It’s because the choices matter, the consequences matter, how we enact our collective priorities and decisions matters. In one sense, it’s heartening.

So, Doris Day nearly made her century. She lived through a century of wars and much more besides, and was part of the generation that exploded with optimism about a glorious and peaceful future. But, apathy and complacency have proved to be the enemy of peace-building. Que sera sera is a great song, but a disastrous way to think about living together.

This is the text of a speech just given in the House of Lords. I dropped material covered already by others (I was the ninth speaker and there was a speech limit of six minutes). For the wider context, and to see why I focused as I did, see Hansard when published.

Lord Harris of Haringey to move that this House regrets the conduct, and toxicity, of debate in public life; of the divisions in society which result from that; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take steps to address such divisions.

My Lords, I am grateful to Lord Harris for securing this debate and for the clarity of his and other speeches. (Although I think, regarding Lord Patten’s suggestion, that some of the people who should be there in such a discussion wouldn’t come – or would seek to disrupt it!)

We still admire Benjamin Disraeli for telling parliament that half the cabinet were asses and, on being ordered to withdraw the comment, responding: “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses”. Political invective is not new and surely has its place in a free society. Yet words matter. Language is never neutral. And the ad hominem abuse we increasingly witness now simply encourages wider public expression of violent hatred. It is incrementally corrosive.

If the conduct of debate in public life has become toxic, then it can only be because it has been in the interests of some people to allow it to be so. I have already spoken in this House of “the corruption of the public discourse” and the consequences of normalising lying and misrepresentation. Reducing people to categories might reinforce tribal identity, but it demonises and dehumanises everyone else. As Viktor Klemperer recognised from 1930s Germany, a million repetitions of single words, idioms, and sentence structures or slanders become unconsciously assumed to be normal. Think of Rwanda and ‘cockroaches’.

Jo Cox MP was murdered ten miles from where I live. Her attacker shouted slogans about ‘Britain first’ while killing her. Do we think this is just unfortunate? Or do we admit the link between language, motivation and action? I doubt if there was much analysis of the meaninglessness of the phrase ‘Britain first’ and the assumptions that underlie it. But, there was clearly a dynamic between language, motivation and action – language free from social inhibition and language that legitimises violence in the minds of some people.

What on earth is going on here? Was the violent bile there already and the referendum simply opened a valve? Or has the lack of any legal or political restraint actually sanctioned or legitimised the sort of language we hear and read now? This isn’t about hand-wringing wimpishness about robust debate; rather, it now sees MPs fearing for their safety, Jess Phillips MP being openly spoken of in terms of when rape might be deemed OK, people voicing violence that would have been deemed unacceptable three or four years ago, but which now is normal. This poses a danger to our democracy and corrupts the nature of our common life. It is not neutral and it is not trivial.

Classic populist language – of Left or Right – uses simple slogans, divisive negativity and visceral emotional pull. The accuracy, factuality or truth of what is said is irrelevant. Such language is powerful and effective … and apparently accountable. What are Nigel Farage’s policies for the construction of a post-Brexit United Kingdom? Where is there even a hint of any responsibility for the future other than a rejection of the past. Just one simple message supported by a whole set of angry assumptions. The language is all of ‘betrayal’. The culprits – the enemies – are those who are not them.

This is viscerally emotional and not rational. Reality, truth and factuality are of no concern. Complex questions are reduced to simplistic binary choices. And it works.

What we are witnessing is a trading in the language of victimhood: [if I am a victim of other people’s power, then my bad behaviour is at least understandable, if not completely justifiable]. And everybody is now a victim. All sides of the Brexit shouting match claim to have been betrayed: hard-brexiters by soft-brexiters; remainers by leavers and leavers by remainers; ‘the people’ by the ‘elites’ and the establishment by the people. And everyone by the BBC. The ninth Commandment is there for a purpose: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

Surely only satire could see old-Etonian Oxbridge-educated senior multimillionaire politicians complaining about ‘establishment elites’ as if this term of abuse referred to someone else? But, no one laughs. And they get away with it. But, it is not a great leap from this to the sort of conspiracy theories that have brought anti-Semitism back into polite conversation.

When politicians speak of the PM “entering the killing zone” and “taking her own noose” to a meeting, we are in trouble.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because “moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect.” Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ which have the power to move people without enlightening them.

We might be entering a dark age in these matters. But, we can put our own house in order and lead by example – for instance, by promoting a greater sense of responsibility among institutional and political figures who influence the public discourse; by making people who use such speech publicly accountable; by offering counter-narratives that ensure that our children hear something good and witness a discourse that is respectful.

We need strategies for addressing this and we need to start here, with politicians, in Parliament.

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

When the news of the royal birth was announced yesterday part of the excitement focused on the couple’s decision to break with tradition and do things their own way. And why not?

Well, this welcome royal baby arrived in a very royal week.

After a three-day coronation ceremony, I imagine the new King of Thailand is taking it a bit easier today. And I imagine I am not alone in the world outside Thailand to have observed some of the rituals on television without really understanding what was going on and why. As an outsider it was fascinating to watch, but hard to follow.

What I found most curious was the powerful appeal to tradition – tradition that goes back a very long way and roots the present vocation in a collective national, ethnic and religious memory.

One of the misconceptions about the word ‘tradition’ is that those who value it simply want to live in the past – held captive by some nostalgic notion of a golden age of simplicity and clarity that promises security.

But, tradition has to do with the collective experience and wisdom of the past which then informs and shapes the future, giving roots to the values that underlie our common life – better seen as a fanning of the flame in the present rather than a holding on to the ashes of the past.

Tradition goes deep. Having regard to the experiences and wisdom of past generations – their successes and failures, strategies and accidents – instils the caution needed if history is not to repeat itself and change is to be properly, intelligently and soberly appraised.

For example, the central section of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures is addressed to a people in exile in Babylon, proclaiming the promise that freedom is coming, that exile is ending, that they will soon go home – which sounds great.

Yet, when we dig down into the reality of the exiles’ experience, the promise also becomes something of a threat. For example, what will this mean for those who were born in Babylon and for whom the place of exile is and always has been ‘home’? How will the returning exiles – immigrants – be received back in their ethnic homeland by those who never left and regard the land as theirs? How will they negotiate a common society when, having been exiled, their notions of ‘home’ might have become stuck in a nostalgic past?

In other words, the tradition might root the people in a memory, but they still have to shape today and tomorrow by facing questions none of them has had to face before.

None of this is alien to the politics of our time. Slogans that implicitly promise that we can return to a golden age of the past are, literally, fantastic. We can shape the present and future in the light of the past, but this always demands courage, corrective and competence.

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

I’ve just been away for three months on study leave. Apart from all the reading, writing, thinking, chatting and travelling, I also used the time to catch up on some long lost music. Crowded House, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen got a lot of space, but it was Bruce’s Dancing in the Dark, played loud during a massive thunder storm in Tennessee, that sticks in my memory.

I think part of the reason this one stuck was because a couple of months before I left the UK I had a bit of a stroke – in my brain, not of the cat. As many people know, when something like that happens and is beyond your control, you feel like you are in the dark a bit – even if dancing is the last thing you think of doing.

In my case, it wasn’t a huge deal. It was a minor blip, but it came with consequences. I had to cancel travel and engagements abroad. But, on the bright side, I now have documentary evidence that I do have a brain.

Springsteen might have been singing about a different experience, but I spent a couple of months sleeping a lot, reading a lot and reflecting on what it means to be alive. Because the truth is, we all live all the time in the dark – not in any miserable sense, but just that none of us knows what is going to happen next. Not everything is in my control. I can make plans and imagine a future, but I can’t guarantee it will happen. Tomorrow I will be speaking on the phone with the Bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka – a more dramatic illustration of my point.

Another Bruce – singer-songwriter Cockburn – once wrote: “Sometimes the best map will not guide you; sometimes the darkness is your friend.” And I know what he means. I didn’t worry when my brain blipped, simply because, as Easter whispers to a mortal world, my trust is not ultimately in me or my own security – it is in the God of resurrection.

Anyway, I am fine, back to work, back to Radio 2, and promising never to dance in the light. If you’ve seen me, you’d know why.

 

 

This is the basic text of my sermon at this morning’s Chrism Eucharist in Ripon Cathedral:

Never ever take your vocation – to lay or ordained discipleship and ministry – for granted. For when you do, it will have become a private possession, a personal commodity, an exercise in vanity. The call of God is and has always been very clear: it is not primarily for me/us; rather, it is to me/us, but for the sake of the world and the church through whom the world is to be reached.

A sharp and sober way to begin a sermon on Maundy Thursday. And it might worry you that I have just spent a couple of months on sabbatical being miserable. But, far from the truth. Going away, looking at my own ministry and the vocation of the church for the sake of the world through the lens of other cultures and churches, taking the time away from the detail, tension and relentlessness of the last five years (or 32 years) afforded me the opportunity to take a big step back and think afresh. But, I have come back this week with a renewed conviction that vocation must never become about me, my gifts and weaknesses, my ministry, my needs – unless these are held in the clear conviction (in practice as well as theological or ecclesiological theory or aspiration) that the church and her ministers are called to lay down their life for the sake of the world.

Now, this might sound strange. The Jesus who calls us to be his body, the Jesus who tells his disciples that they will have to carry a cross – and, by implication, get nailed to it – if they want to follow him is the very same Jesus who, in John’s Gospel, promises “life in all its fulness”. So, what might this mean for us who gather today – bishops, priests, deacons, lay ministers, Christians seeking to be faithful to the call of God in a tough old world? I think our readings both give us a clue.

Isaiah 61:1-11

Why does Isaiah see the need to say what he does? Remember: Isaiah 1-39 is addressed to people who have lost the plot in relation to their vocation as God’s people and who are being warned of the consequences of living – unjustly – for their own interests. Chapters 40-55 are addressed to those who now suffer the exile promised in those earlier chapters: what does hope look like to generations of people for whom ‘home’ is neither here (Babylon) nor there (Zion)? Then chapters 56-66 address the people who have now come home, but face new questions they have never had to face before. If, for the exiles, the challenge is to keep alive – for a number of generations – the language of ‘home’ while in exile (at the same time as seeing the place of exile as‘home’), how do they now make sense of being ‘home’ which is now strange to them? The primary challenge facing them is two-fold: how to re-integrate with those who were not exiled and who probably see the returnees as ‘immigrants’? And, secondly, whether they should now seek to build a new home in continuity with the patterns and structures of the pre-exilic past or now create a new society (and shape of worship, etc.) that takes seriously the experience and learnings of exile … which, clearly, means not simply clinging to the ways of the past?

This is a choice every generation faces as they seek to be faithful to God’s call. The challenges of post-exilic Israel could not have been contemplated before, as they had not happened before. So, the questions were new, the challenge was new, and there was not a past to which they could simply return that might have been comfortable or safe. The new questions had to be faced, if these people were to be faithful to the God who had led them out of Egypt, into and through Babylon, and now brought them back to a home that was no longer home. Of course, ‘home’ had grown around it all sorts of mythologies and romanticisms; but, God’s people are called to be courageous realists who look to be faithful in the present – a present that has been re-shaped by experience and has inevitably to be re-thought theologically, culturally and behaviourally by people who dare to bear the name of this God who calls us forward and not backwards.

So, Isaiah goes to the heart of the vocation that had always been that of God’s people: to be the proclaimers, the organisers and the radical demonstrators of the character of the God they claim to serve. Hence, good news to those oppressed by the ways of the world, those imprisoned, pitied, mocked or marginalised by worlds in which empires set the terms and urge us to believe that “this is it for ever”. As an American in Orlando put it to me a couple of weeks ago: “There are wealthy people and there are poor people – that’s just the way it is. Millions have no health insurance, but that’s just the way it is.” He wasn’t applauding injustice; rather, he was simply stating that this is how the world is and he couldn’t see it changing.

Well, I agree with him. This is the way the world is. And I disagree with him: we must hold out, proclaim, work for and model a world that can be different. “For I the Lord love justice.” But, as we know from experience, even justice is not enough and not everybody benefits from justice. (Remember the Magnificat?)

Luke 4:16-21

Why, then, does Jesus choose this passage to read in the synagogue at the outset of his public ministry (according to Luke)? Each Gospel writer chooses a different way to do it, but, in common with the usual pattern of Roman biography, they each have the ‘hero’ of their story set out his stall at the beginning of the narrative of his public ministry.

According to Luke, then, Jesus goes to the synagogue – not to tell them off, not to castigate them for missing the point, not to deliberately alienate powerful people, but, rather, to read the scripture and relate it to now.

Remember, Jesus has just been led by the Spiritinto the desert where he had to face his own demons (as it were). What sort of messiah are you really to be? Drop the fantasies of self-sacrificial generosity that might crumble under pressure! Forget the aspirations for grandeur or the priority of your personal security and well-being! Surely, God is wet; it’s all about love and mercy and sentiment, isn’t it? Shape a comfortable gospel and then model it, Jesus!

Yet, here, where the Spirit has led him, Jesus faces the temptations he will face again in the couple of years ahead – ultimately in Gethsemane and on the cross. And, right here, in this place of abandonment, where he has been brought by the Spirit, he stares into the face of the truth about himself as a human being, seeking to be faithful to the Father, and refusing to deny the attractive power of prioritising himself and his own security. And let’s be honest, he does not know what this will mean in the months and years to come – what new challenges these denials and affirmations will lead him into for which there is no precedent and no easy answer to which to revert to.

So it is that, having faced all this, he stands up in the synagogue and reads from Isaiah 61. And, having done so, he tells the people there that this scripture is fulfilled – embodied, incarnated – in their sight, right there and then. And it went down well. They loved the beginning of the sermon. But, when he then read their tradition in a different way – illustrating how God is also the God of the outsiders – their mood changed and they tried to get rid of him.

I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He had faced in the desert the temptation of shaping good news around his own need for affirmation, and here he decided to tell the truth. He re-tells the story of God and his people in a different way, and it goes down badly. We will see this again at the end of Luke’s Gospel when, walking alongside the couple from Emmaus, he asks them what they are talking about and they tell him how events have confounded their theological hopes. Only once they have told their story in their way (and shown how the end doesn’t compute) does Jesus ask them if he can now re-tell it differently – with the demise of the messiah being essential rather than anomalous to the story of God’s salvation.

And, remember, it is later, after bread and wine have been blessed in their home and Jesus has disappeared from them, that they realise that their hearts burned within them while they walked with him on the road.

There is much that we can take from this. The courage to face the unique challenges today that our forebears never had to address. The imagination to hold together faithfulness to God’s call through history with the responsibility in faith to take responsibility for shaping the present and future. The essential, burning and urgent need for preachers to take the whole of Scripture seriously, teaching our people both Old and New Testaments, not ducking the hard bits, but enabling people to learn for themselves the story of God and his people and to find their place – consciously – in it. Therefore, to take seriously the responsibility we have accepted to preach imaginatively and fearlessly with a confident humility, and to teach the faith: deliberate and serious catechesis, serious preparation of baptism and confirmation candidates – doing what Paul, in Romans 12:1-2 describes as “being transformed by the renewing of our minds”.

But, all without fear and with imagination. As Rowan Williams puts it in his book on Dostoyevsky: “The credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow.” (p.10)

I believe this is urgent. Christian faith must not be reduced to merely a private security system – a sort of safe spirituality that tries to keep me going and fulfilled while the world around me can go to hell. We live in times when the need to challenge corrupt-but-dominant world views has never been greater in our lifetime. I know a German pastor who has exercised his ministry in East Berlin since before the Wall fell down. He is passionate –  a word I hate being trivialised into “quite interested or amused by” – about shaping the mindset of a generation of young people being drawn from disillusionment by the intellectual and practical attractions and certainties of neo-fascism, power, dignity and self-assurance. It is little surprise that Steve Bannon should point to the Pope as the enemy of his brand of utilitarian nationalism. Gerhard von Rad, Professor of Old Testament at the University in Jena during the Nazi years, was one of those who refused to bow the knee to fascism. He was one of those against whom more than four thousand Nazis demonstrated in the market square – theology being taken seriously.

Brothers and sisters, I am powerfully reminded this morning of our seriousness as a church, despite a million failures and inconsistencies, to be faithfully captured by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I find this service every year to be deeply moving – personally – as we together affirm again our vocation and our determination to be faithful to it. I have come back to the diocese with renewed admiration for you and a renewed love for our common task. Thank you for your ministry and discipleship.

As we move on through the betrayal of Thursday; the abandonment and denial, and death of all our fantasies about God, the world and ourselves on Friday; the emptiness of Saturday; the glorious irruption into the here and now of God’s promised future on Sunday; may we begin on Monday – following a long sleep – purposefully to proclaim, teach, reach out, live, commend, talk about, argue about, renew our own focus on the Gospel of the Jesus who took Isaiah seriously and shone light into darkness and trusted it would never be extinguished.

As John Bell put it in a song:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.