This is the text of this morning’s Presidential Address to the twenty fourth Diocesan Synod of the Diocese of Leeds.

When Jesus instructed his friends to “love one another as I have loved you” – more than once – did he mean it? Faced by the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him, and aware of the tensions between them as they walked along the way with him, was he being a little bit romantic or idealistic? Or did he intend there to be exceptions in particular circumstances for particular members of the group? Did he define closely enough just who was to be loved – within the group of disciples – and who might be excused?

These are not idle questions – especially as we examine ourselves in Lent. They are deeply biblical. For when we read the gospels we are supposed to be struck by the uncomfortable fact that it is always the ‘wrong’ people who find themselves healed, restored, forgiven by Jesus … whilst the ‘right’ people consistently either miss the point – the Word made flesh standing in front of them – or, eventually, nail him for breaking the theological rules. If you don’t believe me, read about him healing a woman – it’s usually a woman – on the wrong day, the sabbath; or preventing a woman from being stoned to death, as the Law prescribed.

It is a while since I focused on Mark’s Gospel and my contention that the key to the narrative lies in chapter one and verses 14-15. So, I’ll re-visit it now.

Jesus returns to Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God.” If you were listening to him in Galilee – the hill country of the north where all the difficult people come from – what would you hear as the “good news of God”? What might be the content that, when you hear it, would sound like good news for you and your people? Well, I think this is an easy one, largely because of what follows in verse 15: the sign of good news is that the Romans are leaving. When the Romans go, we know we have got our land back; we no longer have to carry in our pockets or do our everyday trade in currency that blasphemously bears an engraved head of the pagan emperor surrounded by the words ‘Emperor and Son of God’. When the impure heathen have left our land, then we will know that the pure God can be among us again without fear of contamination.

So, ‘good news’ for the Galilaeans will be signified by the removal of the occupying forces of heathen blasphemy, idolatry and sacralised violence.

Mark then summarises the ‘good news of God’ in four phrases: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Which means what exactly? And remember we are trying to listen through first century Palestinian ears, not twenty first century Christian ears. I want to suggest this reading of the text:

To a people longing for liberation, an end to their latest exile, the evidence of God’s return will be the removal of contamination, impurity. Yet, Jesus says that they need wait no longer – the time is now here … the Kairos of God. And the people will look to see that the Romans are on their way out. Which they are not. So, are these hollow words? A fantasy by the latest aspiring liberator who will also fail to deliver more than words and violence? How can this be the time if the ‘unclean’ is still hanging around, keeping God at bay?

Well, Jesus rubs home the point: “the kingdom of God has come near.” How? How can the presence of God – what John in his gospel calls “the glory of God” – be near while nothing has changed? This is a theological as well as a political nonsense, surely? A good Jew would be wondering if this was a wind up by the returning carpenter. Is he just playing with our hopes and longings?

But, then comes the clarifying bit: “repent!” Not just admit your own failings and sin – the sort of thing meant when people with placards get in the way of shoppers on a Saturday in town. Repentance, from the Greek ‘metanoiein’, means literally ‘change your mind’. And I venture to suggest that in this context Jesus is telling the people that if they want to spot the presence of God in the here and now, they are going to have to change the way they look and see and think and live. Put bluntly, the challenge is: dare you see the presence of the holy God right here and now while the Romans remain and everything is compromised? Yes, even while the heathen blasphemers rule? Yes, even while we all feel contaminated by the offence of pagan presence?

In other words, dare we challenge our inherited and assumed theology – which has shaped and coloured our understanding of God, the world and us – and look differently for evidence of the presence of God while life and the world are a mess? Can we, who challenge others to ‘repent’, start by repenting ourselves?

“Believe in the good news” does not mean “give your intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God”, but, rather, “now commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to this new way of looking and seeing and thinking and living in the world as it is”. The rest of the gospel narrative offers a series of illustrations of those who could repent and those who could not. Read the whole gospel when you get home and you will find yourself laughing at the end because the wrong people get it and the right people don’t. This is echoed in John’s Gospel by Jesus’s words to the religious leaders of his day: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

In other words, you read your Bibles, but miss what is standing in front of you right now.

Can you imagine how enormous was the challenge this presented the first disciples? It isn’t trivial or obvious. Jesus was asking for a complete change of sight and mindset and lifestyle. Easy for us to read; murderously difficult to do. Do we fear being contaminated by mess while God chooses to contaminate mess with love and mercy and justice and forgiveness? And, of course, Jesus was asking for trust – fundamental to this notion of ‘belief’ – in a future that they couldn’t yet see: trust in him, but also trust in those who also walked with him, despite their real differences.

Now, you have come to a synod, not to a sermon. But, I have used half my time to set this out because it offers a biblical context for the sorts of issues we are dealing with today and in our Church. Living in Love and Faith(LLF) was not a bright idea dreamed up by bishops determined to undermine the Church of England and follow some pagan agenda. It involved serious work over nearly seven years. Like Jesus in the gospels, it was a response to the challenge of what and who are standing in front of us and raising challenging questions about people’s lives and response to the call of Jesus Christ. It is the most serious and in-depth exploration not only of sexuality, but also of anthropology, history, science, psychology, theology, and so on, that any church has ever done. And the aim was to bring Christians together in order that we all might recognize the person behind the issue. It wasn’t about changing people’s minds (unless they chose so to do); it was about getting out of trenches and meeting co-disciples of Jesus who look and see and think and live differently. Many, if not most, of those who engaged openly with LLF found it enlightening at the very least.

As you know, the bishops eventually brought a proposal to the General Synod last month and the proposals were accepted by the synod. I won’t rehearse here the mechanics of the debate or some of the nonsense that went on. Suffice it to say that nobody likes bishops unless the bishops say exactly what different people want to hear the bishops say. That’s life, I guess.

But, that was not the end of the process. The LLF Next Steps Group was required to take it away, in the light of the debate, and return in July with a further proposal (which, obviously, the Synod could accept or reject). However, between now and then the College of Bishops will meet again next week to look at what further work has been done. And all of us can take the time to revisit the theology addressed in LLF resources. (I won’t be at the College as I will be at my final meeting of the Governing Board of the Conference of European Churches in Brussels before the General Assembly in Tallin in June.)

I am grateful to those who have written to me with their reflections and concerns, some of which are premature or driven by fear. I get it and understand why people, particularly on the conservative end, are worried. But, given that those who are content with what is proposed don’t write to me, I can also reveal that nobody seems to be happy: the church has gone too far or not far enough; the church (and remember that the General Synod is comprised of bishops, clergy and laity) is denying scripture or is driven by a secular agenda. It is the case, however, that the church – that is Christian disciples of different experience, culture, conviction, repentance, and so on – is in this place precisely because it is taking seriously a challenge that won’t go away if we just ignore it or pray hard enough against what we don’t approve (for whatever reason).

So, the process has not finished. And none of us can abdicate responsibility for how we obey Jesus’s command – not suggestion – that we love one another as he has loved us. Whatever the cost. We get no opt-outs or vetoes. And Mark’s challenge to repent is not just aimed at those whom we think are mistaken.

Along with CS Lewis’s Screwtape, I have felt for decades that all the Evil One has to do to neuter the church is to distract them with a bit of sex. But, there are other issues which demand our attention and common commitment. Our economies are fragile, our political discourse has been corrupted, injustice is seen everywhere, conflict and violence are fired up all over the globe, and people long for words, vision and actions of hope. Not despair by looking at what is, but daring to believe that God, in Christ, is here now, among us and with us and for us, calling us to see beyond the immediate challenges whilst committing ourselves in the world as it is. I once tweeted that “Easter means being drawn by hope, not driven by fear”. And I believe our vocation is to embody and articulate that hope.

Today we will look at adding the former Bishop of Kirkstall to our cohort of Honorary Assistant Bishops in the diocese. We will consider the last meeting of the General Synod (which addressed far more than LLF and sex). We will receive an update on the case of a former registrar who stole millions of pounds from the historic Diocese of Wakefield and some of which money we are trying to win back from insurers. Bradford will be UK City of Culture in 2025 – something that offers this diocese great opportunities to infect our local culture with gospel celebration in the midst of our contemporary West Yorkshire cultures. 

And, finally, we will consider Barnabas. Not the character in the Acts of the Apostles, but our programme to support our parishes – all of them – in ways that might make a difference, starting from where they are. Yet, Barnabas is worth ending on in the light of where this address began. For he and the Apostle Paul found they couldn’t work together because of differences and tensions over priorities and personality. Yet, they did not deny their belonging to one church, being shaped like Jesus Christ, yet having to confront and adapt to new situations and challenges in different contexts. They belonged together – even when distanced – and that was part of the witness of Scripture.

I will listen with interest to all that is said or asked today. I will ask myself where I might need to repent and look differently. But, I will not cease to see this church as Christ’s and all disciples as equally called by God to a new way of living. Together.

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

18 March 2023

This is the text of a commissioned article published today in the Yorkshire Post on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (I write as a former Soviet specialist at GCHQ in Cheltenham and current lead bishop for international affairs in the House of Lords.)

Yorkshire Post: One Year On: Ukraine (23 February 2023

Hubris. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on 23 February 2022 he was convinced that his ‘Special Military Operation’ would be over and done within a month. At least, he had convinced himself that this would be the case. He had excluded the possibility of defeat or failure. He fatefully combined destiny with opportunity. And it is worth reflecting on why he was able to do this.

Putin is not just a politician who wields power without really knowing what he wants to do with it. It has been said of certain prime ministers that they wanted to be PM, but didn’t know what for. This has never been the case for the ex-KGB officer who described the end of the Soviet Union as a ‘catastrophe’. There are two powerful drivers of his political ambitions: religious myth (rooted in a perceived historical integrity) and grievance. In the West the former has been grievously misunderstood in the last three decades since the latter radically motivated his decision-making.

Every time he leaves his bubble in the Kremlin Putin passes the statue of Vladimir the Great who, according to one reading of history, established ‘Holy Russia’ in 988AD, uniting what we now know as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The patriarchate – religion and politics were inseparable – was begun in Kyiv and only much later transferred to Moscow. Putin sees himself as the latest and greatest Vladimir who is destined to bring back together the three elements of Holy Russia which have been disintegrated by a Ukraine that had no right under God in declaring any sort of independence.

This is why Putin is supported uncritically by the Patriarch of Moscow in his war on Ukraine. There is a bigger prize to play for: not just an expedient political settlement for the here and now, but, rather, the fulfilment of a divine destiny for which he is the primary agent of delivery. To think about this conflict simply in terms of secular politics or events of the last century is to miss the deeper reality.

The reason Putin grieves the collapse of the USSR between 1989-1991 is not merely down to some offended nostalgia. While the Soviet Empire survived, the elements of Holy Russia were essentially held together in a single entity. To use a biblical image from the gospels, when it fell apart and left a vacuum, the demons came pouring in and occupied the space. Hence, it is not wrong to describe Putin’s motivation for prosecuting the current war as righting a wrong in the name of God.

However, understanding this does not lead automatically to a solution that guarantees a safer and more peaceful future. For Russia the rupture between the elements of Holy Russia will for ever be an igniter of collective psychic grievance and actual violence. A short-term resolution of the current conflict will not decide for ever the question of Ukraine’s identity – as a people, a nation or a race. That is why these current horrors will not answer the ultimate question.

The West has responded resolutely, confounding Putin’s assumption (based on our failure to do anything of significance when Russia ruined Chechnya, invaded Georgia, annexed the Donbas and claimed Crimea) that we don’t believe anything enough to pay a price. However, the original rationale behind the West’s response was purely to enable Ukraine to defend itself against military aggression. That is now beginning to creep into enabling Russia to be defeated. These are different goals – even if you think that Russia’s defeat is essential. How the move from ‘enabling defence’ to ‘defeating the enemy’ is handled will be vital as the uncertainties of other factors proceed.

For example, while the West steps up the nature and quantity of weapons and ammunition donated to Ukraine, powers such as China and Iran clearly contemplate arming Russia for a longer-term war. India and Brazil just want it all to stop; but, if it doesn’t, they, too, might get drawn into taking sides. The permutations then become less certain and more problematic. The future certainly looks potentially very dangerous.

It is hard to believe now that only one year ago the West thought it highly unlikely that Putin would launch an invasion – even while he was amassing troops and armour on the border of Ukraine. Since that fateful day in February 2022 millions of refugees have fled the country as Russia’s military devastated Ukraine’s infrastructure, flattened its buildings, butchered its people, internally censored all media, stamped on any dissent, and wantonly committed what can only be described as crimes against humanity. Any respect for the rule of law is dead – which it is why it remains so important for even suggestions of breaching international law by our own governments to be opposed at source.

This war will not be over soon. Refugees might decide to stay in the countries where they have settled, and that will change local communities. The cost militarily and economically will continue to grow (as demands expand), as will the cost in human lives and critical infrastructure – the cost of rebuilding Ukraine one day will be enormous.

But, for today, we must continue to hear and tell the truth, be realistic about the potential for peace, continue to work and pray for those impacted most severely, and look further back and further forward than we in the West are sometimes wont to do.

This is Hansard’s record of my speech in yesterday’s Committee stage debate in the House of Lords as we began line-by-line scrutiny of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. All amendments, having been debated and responded to by the relevant Minister, are by convention then withdrawn so that the government can take back the content of the debate and decide whether the text of the Bill might be amended before bringing a (hopefully) revised text at Report Stage.

My Lords, at Second Reading, I remember applauding, broadly speaking, the ambitions of the White Paper. However, I share the concerns of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, who of course brings to this much more experience than I do.

I am pleased that, already, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has alluded to the interconnectivity of all these different missions; they cannot be seen in silos or in isolation. For example, if you have children who are turning up at school unfed or living in poor housing, you can try teaching them what you will but it may not be very successful, and that has an impact not only on individuals but on communities and their flourishing.

I will speak to Amendment 15, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, and briefly to Amendments 7, 30 and 31.

Health disparities require discrete attention in the Bill. It is not an optional extra. The Bill as it stands states the missions but does not provide mechanisms for action or accountability. How will we be able to measure whether they are effective or not? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London has said that, although assurances by the Minister are very welcome, they are not enough; they have to be backed up in the Bill with measurable implementation gauges.

Good health is key both to human—that is, individual—and social flourishing. As I said, we cannot separate out such things as housing, education, health, transport and so on as if we can solve one without having an impact on the other. However, there are inequalities between the regions in many of these areas. I speak from a context in the north: the whole of west Yorkshire, most of north Yorkshire—but do not tell the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of York that—a chunk of Lancashire, one slice of County Durham and a bit of south Yorkshire. The inequalities are serious. The economic squeeze, in the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, is an incubator for inequalities, and we know the impact that inequality has across the board.

The White Paper rightly recognises the centrality of health to levelling up, but the actions by which this will be achieved could be argued to be lacking—and we certainly need long-term solutions and not quick fixes or slogans that sound good but do not lead to content. Can the Minister therefore offer assurances of the Government’s commitment to health within the levelling-up agenda in ways that can be measured and accountability upheld?

I support Amendment 30, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. The Government must give formal consideration to the inclusion of social prescribing. Why? Because social prescribing recognises the social determinants of health and the importance of community in improving health at every level. There are good examples already of where this is being explored, such as the National Academy for Social Prescribing, and I endorse the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, at Second Reading in this regard. There are examples of services run by faith and community groups in London and beyond, and the pilot by the DHSC in Wolverhampton is promising. The key to all of this is the relational dynamic in the well-being of both individuals and communities. This leads me to ask how social prescribing might be used to tackle inequalities in health and well-being. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that.

I turn briefly to Amendments 7 and 31. The text of the missions might be important but we need evaluative measures in the Bill so that they can be measured. Otherwise, they are merely aspirational and all we can do is trust the word, however well-meaning, that is applied to it. Moreover, how can the Government be held to account on delivery? Commitment to the missions can be measured only by some process of assessment on implementation, and this needs to be in the Bill.

I conclude with the obvious statement that healthy life expectancy is surely a key measurement of our effectiveness in tackling health inequalities.

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

When I was just twenty years old I worked in France for six months. This allowed me to become the only bishop I know who’s been arrested for busking on the Paris Metro. I don’t think it was the singing or guitar playing that was bad; it was just that I didn’t know you had to have a licence. To cut a long story short, I talked my way out of it … and even got to keep the money.

At the point the police stopped me I was doing a John Lennon song from the  ‘Imagine’ album. When my father heard this he responded not to my predicament, but merely observed of John Lennon that you can’t get good fruit from a bad tree. I even took him seriously at the time.

But, of course, this is nonsense. Yesterday I listened to Mozart – evidently a bit of a moral nightmare, but who wrote some of the most sublimely Christian music. Nick Cave, in his marvellous book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, written with Sean O’Hagan, emerges from the shattering death of his young son to wrestle hauntingly with mortality, God and meaning.

What holds these two musicians together is the recognition that human beings are complicated, that mortality is fundamental, and that everyone is messy.

Which comes as a relief for many of us. One of the things Jesus does in the gospels is gently explode assumptions of self-sufficency, self-righteousness and self-purity – especially sacrificing other people on the altar of my cleanliness. It is the unlikely people – who know their own weaknesses and failure and don’t need to have their wounds salted – who find liberation and new life, not those who want to hold other people to standards they can’t keep themselves.

It seems to me that it is experience of the rough side of life that strips us of illusions, but also relieves us of the need to pretend to be right all the time. And I worry about the people who get put on pedestals – sometimes involuntarily – but whose feet of clay will one day be revealed … leaving them rubbished and others disappointed.

There is a massive danger in creating or sustaining a culture in which we set certain people up as heroes, only to wait for the time we can knock them down as failures. This might make me feel better – or morally superior even – but humility is surely the key to compassion: the recognition that, in biblical language, “we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.

Yet, rather than piling on some neurosis, and like confronting mortality, this can actually be the beginning of freedom.

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

President Zelenskiy’s address to Parliament yesterday was another step in maintaining solidarity with Ukraine.

I simply can’t imagine what it will be like to live in Ukraine right now – waiting for the military onslaught that threatens to accompany the first anniversary of the Russian invasion. I can’t imagine such fear of the imminent unknown, having no control over what is to come.

As Anna Reid illustrates in her excellent book Borderlands, Ukrainians live on an edge, a border between Europe and Asia.

But, living on an edge – the word for it is ‘liminality’ – changes perspective as well as behaviour. I have good friends who live in Basel which borders Germany, France and Switzerland. Wherever you go there you have to pay attention to a different language, variations of culture and history, architecture and mood. You drive down a road and find you’ve been in two or three countries. And this means navigating strangeness, respecting difference.

Now, nothing should ever trivialise the predicament in which Ukraine currently find itself. Although for many of us, borders do not represent a threat, simply dividing, but also open us up to new people and experiences, this is not the case with Ukraine: their border is characterised by extreme violence, fear and blood.

Yet, there is a parallel in the ways people think and relate in any context. Living on an edge compels us to face difference and respect narratives that are not mine. Having been a professional linguist many years ago, I understand what it is like to look, think and listen through the lens of a different culture – a people whose story is different from mine.

But, the bigger influence on me is the Judeo-Christian tradition which tracks the formative story of people for whom home is always contested, estranged or constantly moving. In fact, the earliest credal statement in the Hebrew Scriptures begins with a striking statement: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…” Exile is one of the major biblical themes – and this is a reality we are now seeing every day as millions of Ukrainians flee. In the biblical story people are exiled without their consent, often at the sharp end of an empire’s weaponry. Jesus himself constantly crossed borders to be where people actually stood – never seducing anyone with false promises, but being realistic about the brutality of the world. He, too, paid with his life. For him the injunction to “love my neighbour as myself” was never some romantic idea – it is costly, especially for those who live on a sharp edge.

I look at Ukraine from a place of security; but, I can also look through the lens of their experience to better understand my own, too.

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

When I visit schools – usually primary schools – I always get asked what is the best thing about being a bishop. I usually say: it’s this! Visiting schools. And I mean it. I genuinely think that teachers do one of the most important jobs in any society and we should value them accordingly.

The main thing about teaching is that, obviously, it is really about learning. We give our children into the hands of other adults for hours every day and expect them to be nurtured – body, mind and spirit. Because teaching is not about force-feeding information into soon-to-be economically-active receptacles, but, rather, about curating character, shaping a world view, forming a mind, opening up the world, stimulating curiosity. And this can only happen if children learn to learn.

At a time of uncertainty on just about every front, I think it is wise to stop and think about what education is and what it is for. Questions about teachers’ pay and conditions are not to be confused with the deeper questions of what they are actually doing and what the rest of us expect of them. As I hinted earlier, a society that sees the economy as an end (rather than a means to an end – human flourishing) will never value the intangible work of shaping personality, character and community.

I come from a tradition that sees children as more than potential workers. Jesus warned against offering a stone to a child who asks for bread. Three thousand years ago the Hebrews placed priority on teaching your children from a very early age – but as part of a community that shared a view of love and justice and mercy that was rooted in a memory of humility.

It’s easy to say, isn’t it? But, any child who listens to the news can be forgiven for being fearful of a secure future. A Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, came up with a striking description of this fragility when he wrote of “the solidarity of the shaken”. Teachers are also part of this solidarity, and bring to their task all the same uncertainties everyone else feels. But, the children we entrust to them can only find security if the wider society sees them as vital human beings and not just potential commodities – shapers of human futures rather than cogs in a merely economic wheel.

And that’s why I am gripped by the value placed on children in the scriptures I read. It’s also why I think teachers do important work on behalf of the rest of us.

This is the text of my speech in the debate in the House of Lords on Levelling Up (Second Reading) on Tuesday 17 January 2023. I was the fifth speaker out of 69, so the text needs to be contextualised. There was a five minute speech limit.

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble and right reverend Lord, who has already stolen some of what I was going to say—great minds and all of that, maybe.

When I first heard the phrase “levelling up”, I thought, “Here we go again— another slogan in search of substance”. Yet what we have heard today so far is that there is a great deal of potential substance to this Bill. I applaud the motivation and ambition behind it, and the attempt in the 12 missions to have a holistic approach rather than simply to pick off bits of our society.

But I do think we need to take seriously, after the honest analysis that we had from the Minister, the argument that it gives the lie to the opening assertion of the White Paper that the UK is an unparalleled success story. If it was, we would not need the detail that we have before us. This sort of language of hubris can very easily militate against us taking seriously the scale of the task.

The parallel with Germany has already been mentioned. What is key to Germany—and I spent yesterday evening with 40 German soldiers and academics at a symposium in Leeds, in a curry house, but I will leave that bit out—is that what we learn from post-1989 Germany is not only that it has put in trillions of euros to level up between east and west but that the key to German success in many areas has been its federalism and its devolution of real power. Power is not centred in one geographical location. That means that investment and opportunity are able to take a long-term view, precisely because all of these things are rooted in local voices and real local power structures, not least in devolution to the Länder.

This approach to devolution has an impact on two of the missions that I want to focus on briefly. (I realise the screen has gone blank, so I do not know how long I have got, but I will keep going. Oh, good—I have another five minutes. Marvellous.)

The east-west communications in this country are appalling, and they have economic, tourism, business and heritage weaknesses built into them. If you want

I will be very brief. One of them is transport. One of the things that has constantly surprised me since I have been in this House is that investments in the north and south—in rail, for example—just do not bear comparison. If we look at the investment in Crossrail and then look at what was proposed several years ago for the entire north of England, it is ridiculous. There has to be serious investment, perhaps a rebalancing of investment, from the south-east and south to the entire north. HS2 might get you from London to Leeds 20 minutes quicker, but there is no point getting there if you cannot get anywhere else once you get off the train at Leeds. Having spent 90 minutes delayed on a train this morning, I feel that viscerally.

to go east to west, you have to drive along the M62. What does that do to you when you live in the north-east? So that is transport—and do not get me on to the TransPennine Express, which is a great misnomer.
The second area I want to focus on is education. The disparities between north and south are shocking. Partly it is not simply because of poverty. Poverty is a phenomenon in itself, but it has to be related to housing, education and some of the other missions that are set out in the Bill. Some 1.2 million people are waiting for social housing. I think it was Shelter that pointed out that since 1993 we have lost 21,000 social houses every year—and we wonder why we have a problem. Some 120,000 children are living in temporary accommodation, yet we expect them to perform at school. We have schools as well as churches and other institutions having to feed children when they come to school because they are not able to be fed at home.
Look at the free school meals stats and discrepancies, and at the number of food banks. What will we offer through this Bill to articulate hope and create a vision for a generation of young people who have not really had it thus far? It needs more than technocratic solutions; it needs an articulation, a vision, that is more than economic. What about the social capital? Are food banks now priced in? We are now seeing in parts of the north, where I live, people who gave to food banks queuing up to receive from them. That social capital cannot be taken for granted—and I would extrapolate from that to the wider charitable sector.
I want to applaud a more holistic, long-term, hopeful proposal whereby the missions are not, in the end, in competition with each other. Reporting will be crucial.
Before I sit down, I want to signal that my right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham is in discussion with the DfE and, through it, the Department for Levelling Up, about tabling an amendment, which was lost with the withdrawal of the Schools Bill, on land clauses affecting church schools in relation to local authority provision of sites for academies. So, this has been a general run around the issues, with a specific one at the end.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show with Gary Davies.

I always get nervous as the end of the year approaches. I’m sure you know why. It’s people asking what resolutions I’m going to make when I know that I am not going to make any at all. Like every year.

I guess I never quite got over the story of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia who wrote in his diary on New Year’s Day 1917: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” It wasn’t! Google it.

So, no resolutions I am bound to get wrong or fail to fulfil.

But, that isn’t the end of the matter. On New Year’s Eve I will join hundreds of other people in Ripon Cathedral for a short Watchnight Service before we process up to the city’s square and see in 2023 with the bishop’s blessing, lots of fun in the rain, and fireworks. It’s wonderful, and, apart from getting soaked, it’s a great start to the new year with all that it might hold for us.

The best bit for me is in the cathedral when we all stop, and reflect on what happened since we last did this. None of us knew what 2022 would hold when we began it. All of us will have had great celebrations and, almost certainly – in one way or another – suffered losses. The realities of life and death will have piled in on us as time went by, and we now start again, not knowing what lies ahead.

So, it seems to me that what matters more than me dreaming up unachievable resolutions – join a gym, win the Mercury Prize, etc. – is to address a more basic question: who will I trust? I need to keep it simple: I resolve to trust the God who has made us all in his image and who loves us to death and beyond. I will follow the way of Jesus, whatever life throws at us, messing it up along the way. And we’ll see what happens.

So, along with hundreds of others, I will stop, watch, wait … and hope.

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

In the last week I had one big miss and one big hit.

Jools Holland was in Leeds and I couldn’t go because we were hosting a Christmas party. That was the miss. The hit was attending the absolutely brilliant Huddersfield Choral Society’s performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah’. They have done this every year without fail since 1864. That’s a lot of singing.

What the hit and the miss have in common is that they involve people bringing their talents together to make wonderful music that moves the heart as well as shakes the feet. I want to dance to boogie woogie, but I want to weep at the beauty of Handel’s oratorio. In both cases the audience is an essential part of the event – not just listening or being entertained, but responding in body, mind and spirit to what is being performed.

This might sound odd, but I think every person in the country should experience Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at least once in their life. It’s really hard to explain, but the intricacy of the orchestra and voices combining creates a sound that is greater than the bits that make it up. And key to this is that playing in a band or an orchestra, and singing in a choir, offers a unique experience of listening to others around you, moderating your own voice or instrument in order to fit in to the whole, creating together something that transcends any individual contribution.

I take two things from this. First, that every child should have an opportunity to sing or play in a band or choir. Nothing compares to it. But, secondly, the content of what is sung or played matters.

There’s a lot of darkness and understandable anxiety around at the moment: strikes, energy and food costs, inflation, war in Europe, and so on. Handel looks the darkness in the eye and, quoting the prophets of 3000 years ago, boldly affirms: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light…”

Christmas calls us to come together, to face the challenges, but to light a defiant candle as we hear: “the light has come, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” 

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

I was struck in the last few days by the coincidence of two events. First, the remarkable news from Germany about the rumbling of a far right plot to oust the German government and return to a pre-war state. The second was hearing that the last of the Dambusters has died and listening to his firsthand account of the bombing raid in May 1943.

Both of these reports provoke a challenging question: how does our telling of history shape our perceptions about who we are?

In one sense, it is surprising that we are surprised by the organised plot in Germany involving the Reichsbürger movement. The far right have not exactly been asleep, and political movements building on conspiracy theories are not a phenomenon confined to only one country. But, when choosing which ‘state’ in their romantic history to go back to, how and why did they choose the Reich? I guess the answer lurks somewhere in the mists of trying to recreate a lost world which they think justifies their values and grievances about today’s world.

Reporting on the Dambusters raid rightly praised the courage and ingenuity of the bombers, but made little mention of the human consequences. It is hard to look through the eyes of those on the receiving end and listen to the story that they might tell of the same event.

We all do this to some extent or other. As a Christian I read scriptures that tell a particular story from particular perspectives and I have to do the hard work – easily avoided – of wrestling with how to handle it as “the Word of the Lord”. This, of course, involves struggling with it – not just forcing it through the prism of my prejudices today in order to make me feel justified or godly or even right.

For example, I see myself reflected in the story of the exodus where a people, liberated from four hundred years of captivity and slavery in a strange land, start complaining – within weeks – about the menu and mutter that maybe Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. Anyway, fantasies of an idealised golden future, fossilised in a past myth, always hit against reality. Later readers are also invited to wrestle with how this story was experienced by those who were on the receiving end of the new world.

In other words, both individuals and communities – entire countries and continents – look for the narrative that makes sense of now, or, at least, of what they would prefer ‘now’ to be. 

The stories we choose to tell about ourselves must be open to scrutiny and challenge. Partial truths have consequences and damage everyone.