I led a clergy study day in Leeds this week on the theme 'Theology of Hope'. I wanted to help us think about our ministry in terms opened up by the theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Walter Brueggemann. Inevitably, I dropped in my concise summary of Christian motivation – that we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

Driving over to an event in Ben Rhydding (Ilkley) this afternoon, I heard a political commentator on BBC Radio 4 say that the current UK general election campaign is not about hope, but about fear. Which, incidentally, is what the bishops were drawing attention to (and warning about) in the pastoral letter we put out ahead of the campaign.

I didn't catch who the commentator was, but she is right. The rhetoric – amid the daily eclectic throwing out of new and disparate 'offers' in what sounds like a playground competition – represents not a proclamation of vision or an awakening of (prophetic) imagination, but a play on fear. It basically comes down to: vote for X and terrible things will happen to you; vote for me and you will be 'safe'. The politicians clearly think that we will vote out of self-interest to avoid negative terrors, rather than vote for a positive vision.

The trouble is: they are probably right. Sadly.

 

Today the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales (Leeds) is one year old. The three historic dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield were dissolved on 20 April 2014 – Easter Day – and life has been interesting since then.

wpid-Photo-20140709193123.jpgWe could celebrate a pile of appointments and a load of work that has gone on to devise new structures. Or we could describe the challenges of creating a single diocese (culture and identity) out of three, but now in five episcopal areas and still having to work in some respects along the lines of the original three. Or we could complain that we didn’t start from where we should have started from.

However, I think we should simply celebrate the remarkable maturity, commitment, vision, patience and generosity of so many people – clergy and lay – who have got on with the job and kept our ministry, witness and outreach going in the 656 churches and 249 schools for which we are responsible. We have some remarkable people here – not least those who have worked the administration, sometimes against the odds.

One of the first appointments I made on becoming the first Bishop of Leeds in June 2014 was of an Adviser for Church Growth. Rooted in the north of England, this person, Robin Gamble, began very quickly to devise ways of helping parishes face reality and rise to the challenge. And what does this mean? With all its faults and limitations, we want to be a vibrant diocese with confident clergy and confident lay people living and telling the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales. Authentic worship rooted in the realities of the diverse communities in which we are set; a recovery of confidence in the Bible and the story it tells; developing a rootedness in prayer; enabling effective evangelism; resourcing intentional nurture of new Christians; allowing disciples of Jesus Christ to exercise ministry in a million different ways.

The north of England is a different country. And we love bringing Christ to people and people to Christ. Right here in West Yorkshire, the Dales, parts of North Yorkshire, Barnsley (South Yorkshire) and a few other bits. It isn’t always easy – but it is never boring. There is a long way to go – but we are up for the journey.

A couple of days ago Katie Hopkins wrote a piece in the Sun newspaper in which she called migrants on the Mediterranean “cockroaches”. The Sun saw fit to publish this. She would prefer to send gunships to desperate migrants rather than rescue ships.

Today it is reported that up to 700 migrants might have drowned in the latest tragedy on the sea many of us think of as somewhere to swim on holiday.

Twitter was alive with criticism of Hopkins, in some cases inviting readers to go back to the 1940s and replace “migrants” with “Jews”. You don't have to go back that far: Rwanda's more recent genocide grew out of a demonisation of the rival tribe that dehumanised them as “cockroaches”.

Which editor at the Sun thought this would be acceptable in a newspaper? Is there no editorial control over language and sentiments that dehumanise – even during an election campaign when questions of immigration demand an intelligent debate and not this sort of inhumane diatribe?

What is going on in the mind and soul of Katie Hopkins to generate this sort of stuff?

And what responsibility does the Sun take? Or does it endorse such writing?

The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda. Not in order to bolster the institution, but in order to get us back (amid a million claims on attention) to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities. Not simply growing churches for the sake of having big churches, but growing churches in all our communities – even and especially where it is tough.

I am working with lay and ordained Anglican disciples to shape a diocese that places worship, evangelism, nurture and service at the heart of our life. This will shape our priorities, how we raise and allocate our resources (of people, money and ‘stuff’), and how we shape and work our structures. We are attending seriously to growth, and to tackling the challenges of buildings, decline and discouragement. And I lead a team of bishops and other ministers – lay and ordained – who are determined, confident (in God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church – and especially the Church of England -, and the contexts in which we live and serve), and sacrificial in their exercise of this ministry.

And we are only one of 42 dioceses in the Church of England that are doing this.

You would never believe any of this from the communique issued following the meeting in England this week of the primates of what is known as Gafcon. According to this group – which, despite statements to the contrary and consistent with behaviour that is inexplicable – the Church of England has abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ and is “unfaithful”. It is probably worth noting that the key words in the rhetoric of this conservative evangelical constituency are “gospel” and “faithful”. What is actually meant is that if you do not fit their narrow description of what the “gospel” is and who might be described as “faithful”, then you are fair game for being dismissed. (Assumptions about the meaning of key words matters here.)

For a long time I have wondered if the Church of England ought not to be a little more robust in countering the misrepresentation and manipulation (of reality) that emanates from Gafcon. I am not alone. But, I have bowed to the wisdom of those who (rightly) assert that we shouldn’t counter bad behaviour with bad behaviour, and that we should trust that one day the truth will out. I am no longer so sure about the efficacy of such an eirenic response. I think we owe it to Anglicans in England and around the Communion to fight the corner and challenge the misrepresentation that is fed to other parts of the Anglican Communion. (I was once asked in Central Africa why one has to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. I was asked in another country why the Church of England no longer reads the Bible and denies Jesus Christ. I could go on. When asked where this stuff has come from, the answer is that this is what a bishop has told them.)

The Gafcon primates say:

We are uniting faithful Anglicans, growing in momentum, structured for the future, and committed to the Anglican Communion.

Which means what – especially when they claim ‘gospel values’ and speak and behave in ways that do not reflect values of honesty, integrity and humility? And on what basis is the bulk of the Church of England reported (within Gafcon circles) as being unfaithful? And who writes the stuff they put out? Who is directing whom – who is pulling whose strings? And what would be the response if I wrote off as “unfaithful” entire provinces of the Anglican Communion where there was evidence of corruption, love of power, financial unfaithfulness or other sins? Does the ninth Commandment still apply today, or only where convenient? Is sex the only ethical matter that matters, or does breaking the ninth Commandment get a look in?

The Gafcon primates get their information (and money) from somewhere. The ‘take’ on the Church of England reflects simply the perceptions of a few. I bet the wider picture is not represented. They insinuate that some clergy and churches (decidedly congregations and not parishes – and thereby lies another issue) feel marginalised or fearful – treated like ‘pariahs’ according to Gafcon – so cannot be identified. Really? How pathetic.

I was once at a meeting of evangelical bishops in England when three English Gafcon men came to meet us. They had stated that this was the case and that bishops were giving their clergy a hard time. We asked for evidence so we could consider it before we met. Bishop Tom Wright and I were just two who were outraged at the misinformation, misrepresentation and selective re-writing of history presented to us. When we began to challenge this, we were told that we shouldn’t get bogged down in the detail and could we move on. And they got away with it. I am not making this up.

The truth is that while all this nonsense goes on, the rest of the Church of England will continue to focus on being faithful to its gospel vocation and mission. We are doing it every day. We will not be distracted by people who selectively report, regularly misrepresent, manipulate truth and plough their own furrow. God bless them in their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ; and God bless the rest of us in our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We continue to support our fellow Anglicans all over the world, many of whom tell us that they have no time for Gafcon. Some face dreadful challenges and we stand with them. Some face real persecution and we stand with them. The great power of the Anglican Communion lies in these relationships of mutual prayer, learning, fellowship, mission and support – and they cannot be bought to promote the power games of a few.

Today I confirmed a number of new Christians in an ordinary and faithful West Yorkshire parish.

 

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show with Sara Cox. Guests included UB40 and there are four of their song titles embedded in the text.

Well, if it’s all busy busy busy in the studio this Good Friday morning – and it sounds like it is – then you’ll already understand something of what was going on during the first Good Friday.

Far from being a deeply meditative religious experience way back in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, everyone was actually going wild. There was a massive political ferment, and loads of the people hoped they were on the brink of being liberated from Roman occupation. The city was full of parties and lots of red, red wine was flowing down the throats of people crying for freedom.

It all sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the man of the moment – and the cause of the trouble on this particular Friday – was being built up as the great saviour of the people by some, and the great enemy of the people by others. It’s a terrible position to be in, isn’t it – especially when you’ve just spent the last few years telling everyone to love each other to death. But, Jesus of Nazareth has a final meal with his hopeless mates, gets arrested while praying in a garden, then gets tried before an embarrassed judge, and, finally, gets nailed.

What a waste.

Well, the reason we call this Friday ‘good’ is not because it’s a good story; it’s because the death of this Jesus changed the world. It also changed the personal world of people who were part of it.

Jesus’s friends had just bigged themselves up: “Jesus, if they’re going to get you, they’re going to have to go through me first.” Then the big men caved in under challenge, and most of them ran away when it all got too hard. Betrayed, denied and deserted: that was how Jesus experienced Good Friday.

But, the good bit is that this wasn’t the end of the story. The misery of Friday’s crucifixion was followed by the unbearable emptiness of Saturday, but opened the way to a surprising Sunday. ‘Where did I go wrong’ becomes ‘light my fire’ when people disillusioned by their own failure discover that this isn’t the end of the story.

Good Friday? It’s a labour of love.

It is an interesting week for words. Try these:

1. CLEAR: When will politicians realise that repeatedly using the word ‘clear’ does not actually make their view or policy clear? It is very odd to keep hearing it – in almost every statement. Saying something is clear doesn’t make it clear any more than saying something is good actually makes it good.

2. PLAN: Miliband and Cameron have a ‘plan’. We know this because they keep telling us. We get glimpses of what these and might look like, but we don’t get any idea of what the vision is that will shape their respective plans. On the other hand, it would be a bit weird if they didn’t have a plan, wouldn’t it? But, why do they need to keep telling us they have one?

3. AMORAL: In his Easter message, David Cameron pleads with those who disagree with his policies not to dismiss him as ‘amoral’. Fair enough. But, who has dismissed him as amoral? Disagreement with policies also surely cannot be dismissed as merely dismissive, rather than principled. Bishops seem to be a target, but our recent Pastoral Letter was also theologically and morally driven – and should not be dismissed by politicians who find that moral and theological basis inconvenient or objectionable.

4. EASTER: According to the Prime Minister, “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.” Oh. I thought it was about the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I applaud David Cameron’s defence of the place of faith in the public square, but he can’t escape the cultural and political dynamic that reduces (legitimate) subversive religious vision to some bland appeal for community cohesion.

5. SYMPATHY: This is what I feel for all politicians, especially party leaders. They are partly trapped in a culture that the rest of us either foster or accept – one that expects them to have a view on everything and an ability to perform an act before an audience. Driven by the media we pay for, we don’t allow leaders to change their mind, learn to learn, or develop their thinking-based-on-experience. We are the poorer for it.

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

Yesterday I went to a church near Huddersfield to dedicate a new font. Not, I hasten to add, a fancy new printing typeface, but the place where Christians are baptised in water into the life of the church.

The point about a font – in this case a stone bowl resting on wood and glass – is that it has to contain water. This one had only had a dry run, and when we put water into it, it dripped straight through the bottom onto the floor. The plug didn’t fit, apparently.

But, it did offer a vivid image of the people who will be baptised in it. If the font leaks, then so do we. Something we can’t hide from this week – Holy Week – as Christians walk with Jesus and his friends from Jerusalem towards a place of execution called Calvary.

This journey has not been comfortable for anyone. The friends of Jesus protest undying allegiance one minute, then run away the next. They want some of what they think will be the glory, only to melt when the heat is turned up. In other words, they turn out not to be as big or strong as they had thought themselves to be. Peter, the man who would deny even knowing Jesus when confronted by a young girl in the garden, takes his name from Petros – the rock – yet he turns out to be more porous limestone than impenetrable granite.

Now, for Christians this is no big deal. Almost every service in an Anglican Church begins with us all putting our hands up and admitting – publicly and corporately – that we have messed up. Yet, this isn’t some group therapy session – nor is it any sort of bah humbug nonsense. Rather, it’s a recognition of what every human being knows: we fail and we fall. And there’s no point pretending otherwise. It isn’t about being maudlin; it’s about facing the truth about ourselves as people, then moving on with resolve, but without illusion.

The point of this is simple. It sometimes seems as if we have created a culture of perfection in which any sort of failure is to be instantly damned. Even worse, it lays us all open to charges of hypocrisy – easier to spot in other people than to admit in ourselves, of course. Or, as Jesus famously asked: “Who, without sin, is going to throw the first stone?”

Hypocrisy is not attractive. But, it is the sort of charge that should only be levelled by those who have first faced up to it themselves. Motes and beams come especially to mind here.

All of this seems particularly apposite and poignant when we witness the frailty and hubris of people in the news – particularly as we learn more about the hidden life of a German airline pilot. Perfection is the art of the arrogant; the rest of us are left, like the font, leaking unsurprised humility.

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