This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning. (Disclaimer: I wrote it last night at Berlin Tegel and Amsterdam Schipol airports on my way home from an academic conference in Wittenberg, Germany.)

I returned late last night from Wittenberg in Germany. I was there to present a paper at a conference on Faith, Theology and the Church (from Tuesday to Thursday) and then record a programme for BBC Radio 4 on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having launched the Reformation jubilee last October, preaching in the Augustinerklosterkirche in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, it was a privilege to end the year in Wittenberg where it all kicked off. As everyone knows, 31 October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day when Luther is alleged to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche, thus challenging the Pope and the Church to address some serious concerns about both theology and the practices of the church.

Many of the stories of Luther’s words and deeds are now of dubious provenance. There is no record of him having told the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “here I stand; I can do no other”. (Which hasn’t deterred sock manufacturers from producing huge numbers of their products with the phrase added. I might bear the weight of one’s foot, but it doesn’t seem to bear the weight of history. In fact, there is no evidence that he did actually nail his 95 Theses to the church door – something impossible now because the doors are made of bronze.

Martin Luther’s tomb

But, why let facts get in the way of a good story. Whatever the details of who did what and when, we do know for certain that Luther took his life in his hands when he dared to suggest that the grace of God is there for everyone and cannot be bought – even in the good cause of building St Peter’s in Rome. Fear of the consequences of death were trounced by the mercy of God.

Sitting in the Schloßkirche yesterday morning, looking at Luther’s tomb, I was very conscious that we can’t always control the consequences of the decisions we make. The monk of Erfurt changed the world in ways he could never have imagined when he found Paul’s letter to the Romans opening his heart and mind to the riches of God’s unmerited love. Not only a revolution in the church, but political ructions, too, that too often led to bloodshed on a huge scale. I wonder what he would have made of it today, if he had known what he was about to unleash.

This is not insignificant for us here in the Diocese of Leeds. After giving my paper at the conference on Thursday, I took part in a panel discussion with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the head of the Protestant Church in Germany (the EKD),where both the divisions and affinities of ecumenical relationships were visible. As the church faces big challenges in British and wider European cultures, the need for Christians to prioritise their common baptismal discipleship over their denominational commitments becomes more urgent.

On of the watchwords of the Reformation traditions is ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ – the Church needing constantly to be being renewed and reformed. Nothing stands still in this world. And the church can be no exception. Change is here to stay.

It would be ludicrously absurd to compare the changes our diocese has gone through in the last three and a half years with the enormity of the Reformation, but we need no telling that change brings pain as well as opening up new opportunities for those who are unafraid to explore them. And not every outcome can be predicted. As Luther found out – and it caused him a whole new set of griefs and concerns – there is the small matter of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Our diocese continues to change as we move on from the initial phase of our creation from 2014 to 2016. We are now functioning as a single diocese with a single administration, and we are now clear about where we are in terms of shaping support for clergy and parishes as they ‘do’ our mission and ministry locally. But, this has all taken place at a time when the church across the country is facing a hefty drop in the number of stipendiary ordained people during the next fifteen years. This inevitably means that we will need to re-shape not only where we deploy our clergy, but the nature of the role, too. A priest cannot do in six parishes what he or she did in one. And we cannot put clergy into jobs that are not do-able.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. We do so in the face of financial challenges, too, but our primary focus has to be on what sort of ministry and mission we can provide within the constraints over which we do not have complete (or any) control. Now, is this a cause for fear or concern? Well, yes and no. We need to be concerned enough to tackle the challenges head on and pay attention to the detail – understanding the cost of growth as well as the benefits. But, we need not fear. We are engaged in God’s mission, and must never lose track of the bigger picture of God’s transforming grace, his call to keep moving – with him – and to be faithful to him and each other.

Clearly, if our models of ministry are to change, then they will involve re-focusing the attention of clergy and reimagining the role of lay people. Now, let’s get away from some of the moany stuff we keep hearing. Clergy exist for the sake of the laity, not the other way around. That will not change, but, the way we do ministry and mission will look different in the future. This is not about power or rights or means of self-fulfilment; rather, it is about identifying the gifts and vocation of all baptised people, developing and deploying those gifts for the sake of the church … which exists for the sake of the world.

But, the primary calling of lay people is not to do stuff in and for the church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ out there in the world. One of the recognised challenges of the church in more recent years has been that lay vocation has too often focused on lay ministries in the church – largely liturgical or pastoral. This is something we need to tackle as we move into the future. Discipleship first.

To this end we are holding a Lay Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 9 June 2018. More details will be forthcoming soon, but planning is well underway under the guidance of Andrew Norman and Hayley Matthews. This is intended to help us re-frame our strategy for lay discipleship and ministry into the future – although this will be a matter of process rather than event.

Nothing of what we do can be done in isolation. On today’s agenda this Synod will address several matters that, together, help us discipline our development and mission. Asking the General Synod to change the name of the See of Richmond to Kirkstall is not a whim or a bit of ecclesiastical fancy; no, it is to enable those outside the church in the Leeds Episcopal Area (particularly) to identify with the area bishop and our church structure. People assume Richmond is up north and can’t see why the Bishop of Richmond is bothered with the city of Leeds. For the sake of our ongoing mission we need to change this. More later, but I want at this point simply to locate this agenda item in our wider missional context.

A communications strategy for the diocese is not incidental. If we can’t communicate effectively in the world in which we now live, then we might as well just tend a long decline. We cannot address the lack of children and young people in our churches without engaging with social media and a way of relating/communicating that is a million miles away from what I grew up with. Do we have the courage to grasp this nettle and learn a new language of evangelism and pastoral care? That is the question – along with: are we willing to put resources into making effective communications and changing the rumour about God and the church?

Rules about synod elections and sizes of synods might not be the stuff of romance, but they matter. It is vital that our synods – at every level – should drive and enhance our mission … and for that we need people – in the right numbers and variety – who are caught up by a vision of the kingdom of God that grabs popular attention, awakens curiosity, draws people in from being met outside on their territory and in their terms. Are we up for this? It isn’t easy, and it will mean sacrifice; but, we need younger energy and vision to challenge us and drag us into new ways of being a renewed and reformed church in this part of Yorkshire.

Again, this is not for the sake of the church’s organisation or own well-being. Yorkshire faces massive challenges in the wake of Brexit (however that might ultimately look…), but also in terms of its own political organisation. Westminster seems to have a view of how Yorkshire might be governed in the future (under its devolution proposals), but how do we want to help drive this for the sake of the common good of the people of Yorkshire? Do we want to be stuck in the past, with old enmities and thinking within old white lines, or can we be bold about developing a vision of and strategy for a Yorkshire that makes the most of the Northern Powerhouse – whatever that means?

What I am driving at here is that we should not be a church that merely responds to the initiatives of others, but be creative ourselves at fostering debate and proposition that, rooted in our traditions, offers a refreshed view of future potential.

Of course, this is all stuff and nonsense if we would prefer to just keep turning the handle. In the diocese we have proved that, even where we might have differing degrees of affection for the diocese we have shaped, we can commit ourselves to it as mature adults who follow Jesus Christ.

At this point I want to pay special thanks to the Dean of Wakefield, Jonathan Greener, who will leave the diocese in November and be installed as Dean of Exeter. Jonathan vigorously opposed the creation of the new diocese, but, since its creation, has been an excellent friend and colleague, a creative and imaginative shaper of new things (three cathedrals and three deans in a single diocese), and a brave contributor to all we have done. We owe him a huge debt. Personally, I will miss him, his wisdom and advice, even his humour. But, we wish him God’s richest blessing and the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts as he and Pamela move into a not-unchallenging situation in Exeter. They go with our love, gratitude and prayers.

So, let me conclude where we began – with Martin Luther. While sitting with three young Germans in the very room in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, around the table where he and his friends argued about theology, politics, beer and bodily functions (I kid you not), having our own feisty debate about the meaning of Luther’s theology now, we felt close to the heart of passion: the passion that is courageous, contagious, irritating, maybe even hopeful – maybe even the passion for Jesus Christ, his grace and mercy, his call to us and his friends to love one another as he loves us.

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Why on earth do religious events that happened abroad five hundred years ago have any significance for today’s world? Or for the church? Remember, France and Italy worked hard to omit any reference to the Christian history of Europe from the preamble to the Lisbon Treaty – purely for ideological reasons. How stupid can intelligent people get? You don’t have to sympathise with that history, but to write it out looks suspiciously like blanking Trotsky from the photos.

Well, I am in Wittenberg for an academic conference that goes with the exciting title of Faith and Theology: Basic Insights of the Reformation in Ecumenical Debate. Theologians from around the world have come together to explore from different perspectives how the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation speaks into the situation faced by the church today. In fact, after two introductory lectures – which demonstrated immediately the different cultural approaches to theological method in Germany and the USA – we broke into groups to consider the necessary contextualisation of faith and theology. My group heard from a Brazilian and an Indian who teaches in Australia.

One of the concerns that runs though the conference is a worrying tendency to relegate rigorous academic theological thinking and research into the realms of private interest and out of the world of public truth. In short, faith needs the critical distance and hard thinking of theology, whilst theology has no point if it is not rooted in commitment to what that theology addresses.

Tomorrow morning we will pray together in the Schlosskirche, onto whose doors Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517. Later we shall explore questions of faith, theology and exegesis, followed later with consideration of faith, theology and human action. We then continue into Thursday when the conference will end with papers on the ecumenical challenges presented by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin, the Ratsvorsitzende of the EKD, and me.

If it doesn’t sound very exciting, all I can say is: you have to be here. It is intellectually stimulating, theologically challenging, and the people are really nice to know.

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

It’s harvest time again, and all over the land churches are desperately trying to find something new to say about creation, cultivation and deprivation. A bit like the vegetables and flowers on display, it’s a big challenge to keep it all fresh.

Yet, telling the story afresh assumes that everybody already knows what harvest is about. And I wonder if this assumption might be false.

I grew up in a city where the answer to the question “Where does milk come from?” was likely to get the answer “the supermarket”. Then we would get some entertaining, but muddled, account of how we might not actually plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”, but someone did. And we would be grateful – particularly because we didn’t have to do the dirty work.

But, harvest goes deeper than this. If all too often our connection with the land has been broken, then we need more than stories to reconnect us to where our food comes from. What most religions offer is ritual – celebrations that remind us of relationships.

Nearly three thousand years ago the recently liberated Jewish people were about to enter the land they believed had been promised to them. Yet, along with words of encouragement and comfort went words of warning like this: When you get established in this land you will soon prosper. You will build your houses, cultivate your fields and grow your wealth. Then you will begin to forget that you once had nothing and could not save yourselves. It won’t be long before you start exploiting other people. So, the cycle of each year is going to be shaped by rituals that will compel you to re-member, re-tell and re-enact the story of your dependence … on God, the earth and each other.

Not very exciting, you might think. But, take just one of these annual rituals – the one that sees you bringing the first ten percent of your harvest to the priest and reciting a creed that begins with the words: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, you once were a nomad, dependent on the land and other people. You remember that you inherited creation, not as a commodity to be consumed or traded, but a gift to be cultivated and shared. You don’t own it; you are to be responsible for stewarding it for the good of the earth and its people.

And, to rub it in, you must leave the ten percent of crops around the edge of the field so that the travellers, the homeless and the hungry can help themselves to food.

Harvest, then, confronts us with our obligations to the earth and each other. It challenges our ethics and our economic priorities. And it reconnects us with the simple fact of our mortality and mutuality.

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

When I heard yesterday that North Korea had tested another nuclear weapon, it was the language that caught my attention. What was detected in Japan and South Korea was described as “an artificial earthquake”.

I know what is meant by this – that it wasn’t a case of the earth moving of its own accord, but caused by a deliberate explosion. Yet, it is still an earthquake and there is little artificial about its effects. These go well beyond the realms of the physical world – they shock our imagination.

Interestingly, the language of apocalypse is beginning to find its way back into common currency, coloured no doubt by biblical images conjured up over centuries to depict the fiery end of the world. And there is nothing artificial about the fear that such associations engender – even if we don’t lie directly in the line of potential fire – or our sense of helplessness as we watch events unfold.

We have been here before – President Kennedy brought the world to the brink when in 1961 he challenged the Soviet Union and its plans to put missiles on Cuba. The world held its collective breath.

In similar circumstances now, it might be worth recalling what Apocalypse is really all about. The biblical Book of the Apocalypse – usually known as Revelation – contains vivid imagery of conflicts and choices set in a context of lurid cosmic battles.

Yet, contrary to much popular belief, it wasn’t intended to be a prediction of the end of the world. Rather, it was written from exile to a Christian community that was suffering terrible persecution at the hands of a Roman Emperor who, if nuclear weapons had been available to him, might well have behaved like Kim Jong-Un. This form of apocalyptic writing used image and metaphor to encourage the persecuted not to compromise and not to give up hope. Why? Because the present needs to be seen in the context of the cosmic and the eternal. Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word – even in this world. Judgement means ultimate justice. And Christians are called to be drawn by hope, not driven by fear. However weird that looks to anyone else, that is the deal.

Now, you can’t easily accuse the tortured recipients of this letter of escapism or other-worldly fantasy. Rather, they were compelled – as are many Christians in some parts of the world even today – to choose whom they will serve. This is about digging to the foundations of what we believe we are about and for whom we exist… now in this world.

We don’t know how the latest threat and challenge will turn out. But, we can ask fundamental questions about why we think the world and human life are worth preserving in the first place. And that might guide our thinking away from potential ultimate destruction towards committed life-building here and now.

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

Loving your neighbour as yourself is harder than it sounds. But, I would argue, it is also much more interesting than it seems. For example, it assumes that we might need to get to know our neighbour, and, at least, try to look through their eyes.

If travel does broaden the mind, then holidays such as this weekend when many Brits are enjoying a break abroad, surely open up the opportunity to look, listen and learn differently. And this is where we hit the problem: language.

Almost all Brits abroad will expect the natives to understand and speak English. And, to our embarrassment, they probably will. And they will pride themselves on their polyglottal skills.

Language learning in Britain continues to decline. According to statistics reported in newspapers last week, the numbers studying languages at school and university are falling fast. Some voices claim that this really doesn’t matter – that we can pick up a bit of German or Spanish later in life … if and when we need it.

Except that a language is not a commodity that can be simply picked off the shelf when convenient or expedient. To learn a language is more than to wield a tool; rather, it is to inhabit the world that language shapes.

At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.

Not so here. It seems to me that political language in the UK has been coloured by the assumption that anything has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end. Accordingly, we too easily regard language learning as a waste of time unless it leads to high-earning job in the future. But, I remember a German businessman in a hotel explaining to a monoglot British counterpart that although their negotiations were done in English the English couldn’t understand what was being said behind their backs – and that this put the Brits at a disadvantage. No response.

And this is why it is vital that children and young people learn other languages – at least in order to open their minds to different ways of seeing, thinking and interpreting the world. If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders.

And let it be said at times of international insecurity, stress and fear: there is never a more important time to listen through the ears and look through the eyes of my neighbour – if only to see ourselves as we are seen.

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

The first time I went into the Foreign Office in London I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of murals depicting renowned military victories of the British Empire – scenes that now provoke embarrassment or shame even though they belong to their time and to a particular colonial narrative of national identity.

How do we deal honestly with conflicted histories?

Well, this is a question that is dividing America as pressure grows to remove statues of Confederate leaders who 150 years ago fought a civil war over the rights to enslave other human beings. And the problem is this: how are we to remember the past with honesty and courage, not celebrating, but remembering and learning?

This is not a new problem. Walk around some German cities and you find yourself treading on small brass plates set in the pavement, recording the names and dates of Jews who had lived there before being deported and exterminated. More powerful than some huge memorial covered in names, these so-called ‘stumbling blocks’ (Stolpersteine) have a massive impact as you realise that they are everywhere.

In fact, Germany has form here. Look up beneath the roof outside the east end of the Stadtkirche in Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and you see a mediaeval engraving of a Jew being baited in a pig sty. Exposed during restoration after German reunification, rather than put it in a museum or cover it up, they shone a light from a memorial placed beneath it to the fallen Jews of Wittenberg during the Holocaust.
Somehow this faces the horrors of the past in a way that draws a line to the present and educates those whose memory doesn’t stretch that far back.

The German approach is partly informed by its Christian culture which itself is shaped by Jewish notions of memory. To re-member means, literally, to put back together the elements of a story in a way that is healthy and true. The people of Israel, having been liberated from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt and 40 years in a desert (allowing the romanticises of history to die off), prepare to enter the land of promise. And they are warned: as time goes by you will quickly forget that once you were slaves. Then you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you forget this, you will one day lose everything.

So, they shaped the year around rituals and festivals that even today re-tell that story and militate against cultural or religious amnesia.

Maybe this offers a clue not only to Americans wondering what to do with statues of Confederates, but also to the rest of us who have to wrestle with ambiguous or shameful histories. Face it, but with the humility that remembers rightly. Not “forgive and forget”, but “remember and forgive”.

Words are marvellous, aren’t they? Even Humpty Dumpty recognised that those who make words mean whatever they want them to mean have power.

We witness the President of the United States using language in a very particular way. His hypocrisy is boundary-free. It is not proving hard to find tweets from his past that condemn him in the present – for example, his criticism of Obama for playing golf and taking holidays have not stopped him from exceeding Obama in both. Yet, it is as if whatever was said in the past can now be magically forgotten or ignored. And the only reason this corruption of language and political discourse is possible is because we allow it to be so.

That is why protest is so important.

Right wing or left wing models of social or economic policy broadly offer people different approaches to a similar end: the common good and the prospering of a people.But, what we are seeing now is of a different order. The corruption of language and meaning, the dismissal of truth, the casual yet deliberate assertion of fantasy as fact, all these contribute to a dangerous normalisation of lying, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

What’s new, you ask? Hasn’t it always been thus? Well, yes. But, it has also been protested against, found unacceptable, and held to be shameful. The fact of past general corruption does not legitimise contemporary specific corruption, nor should it excuse us from naming what is wrong now.

As an Englishman it is uncomfortable enough watching the disgraceful Trumpian drama unfolding across the Atlantic. But, I am also reading Shashi Tharoor‘s polemic against the crimes and sins of the British in his recently published Inglorious Empire. Polemical it may be, but it shines a light on Britain and its not-so-distant past that contributes to British self-identity as it gets re-shaped for a post-Brexit world. In other words, offering a critique of Trump and the USA must come with a huge accompanying dose of humility and realism about our own history. And that realism should compel us to demand better from our present in order to ameliorate what might lie in the future.

So, going back to questions of language and our descriptions of truth, today David Davis MP described the British approach to negotiating a customs relationship with the European Union as one of “constructive ambiguity”. Which means what? Constructive from whose perspective? Constructive in terms of building what – clear understanding? Ambiguity in terms of keeping options open? Or an inability or unwillingness to commit?

These are questions, not statements. The point is that language is used in such a way as to imply cleverness when, in reality, it might suggest ignorance or incompetence. (It might be useful just once if the British could entertain the imaginative exercise of looking through EU eyes at ourselves, and listening through ears shaped by other languages to the language we use of them and ourselves. I won’t hold my breath.)

The common factor in all this is the popular acceptance of a corrupt public and political discourse. The fact that alternative power-mongers (Hillary Clinton, for example) might be equally or more corrupt does nothing to address our responsibility for demanding truthfulness, honesty and realism from those who actually have accountable power. Valuing democracy means more than ticking a box every few years.