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

Next week sees the tenth anniversary of the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. To my shame – so I am told – I can’t remember much about the athletics, but, like millions of people, I found the opening ceremony unforgettable. We were presented with a vision of Britain that, in one sense, we wanted to see – of civilisation and development, of community resilience and a generous collective altruism.

Inevitably, it represented a particular take on our island histories. But, few came away from it unmoved – if not for the history depicted, then at least by the scale of the drama.

Looking back on how the opening ceremony was conceived, one of the key participants said: “If you didn’t know what Danny Boyle looked like, you wouldn’t know who was leading the meeting … He didn’t lead by dominance or by being extrovert; he led by listening. We all felt heard. I think this work turned out the way it did because Danny was a great listener.”

Interesting, isn’t it? Leadership by listening.

I think there are several strands to this phenomenon.

First, good leadership starts with learning the language of the led. We can’t know how to speak if we haven’t taken the time to learn what might actually be heard.

Secondly, it’s in the telling of stories that we begin to piece together a narrative that connects with the audience and makes sense of their experience of the world. Only having listened to people telling their story can I begin to shape what I might call The Story.

Now, none of this is new. As a Christian I can’t escape the constant reminder that in the Gospels Jesus puts time into gathering or walking with his friends and taking them and their questions – even their fantasies and misconceptions – seriously. He never derides them. But, in re-framing stories, he treats them like adults – making their own mind up and taking responsibility for what they do about it.

In Luke’s Gospel, for example, during dinner at the house of a religious leader a woman bursts in and pays embarrassing  attention to Jesus, the guest. The host sneerily questions Jesus’s moral rectitude in not rejecting the woman. But, rather than point out the host’s hypocrisy, he asks if he can tell a story. The host agrees … and thereby opens himself up to making a judgment on his own arrogance.

So, as we celebrate the anniversary next week, it’s worth reflecting on how stories shape our memories, but also shape our view of what we want to become.

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

Listening to the news about Sri Lanka this last couple of weeks, three symbols haunt my memory and imagination: tears, ammunition and a flower.

Although it was the name of a late 1970s band, The Teardrop Explodes evokes current events on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka – which, with a population of around 22 million, is shaped like a teardrop in the Indian Ocean.

In May 2009 a thirty-year civil war finally came to a brutal and bloody end, and hopes were strong that peace and ethnic reconciliation might – in time – ensue. For me this is personal as the Anglican Diocese of Leeds has a long-standing and strong link with the church there, and I have visited the island, met people from all sides of the divides, and witnessed the aftermath of extreme violence.

When I was there in autumn 2015 the second symbol – ammunition – spoke powerfully into this space. There is a monument near Jaffna in the north and close to where the final battles of the civil war were fought. Erected by the triumphant Singhalese military, it represents a shell or bullet penetrating a very large wall. The warning to the defeated Tamils was clear: we won, you lost – and you are vulnerable. As a gesture of future reconciliation it wasn’t helpful; indeed, it is solely and intentionally a reminder of past grievance and humiliation.

However, for me, the third symbol – that of a flower – hangs over this. The Bishop of Colombo gave me a pectoral cross – which reflects Christ’s suffering at Calvary. But, rather than standing alone, this cross is set into a lotus flower. And, for our link church in Sri Lanka, the lotus is a powerful symbol of the reality of violence, but rooted in the promise of resurrection – that out of suffering can come new life. In other words, death, violence and destruction do not have the final word. There is always more to be said. Resurrection isn’t just a fantasy – wishful thinking or vague hope – but new life that demands response, commitment and sacrifice if beauty and flourishing are to have half a chance.

It would be too easy artificially to resolve the tensions inherent in these three symbols: the teardrop exploding again today in frustration with corruption and the abuse of power; the penetrated wall; and the cross set in a lotus flower. But, all three speak of realism in the face of despair. A realism that takes hope seriously and commits itself to making it real. A reminder not just of historic pain, but a call to future life.

This is the text of my introductory speech on Friday 8 July 2022 to a debate on Ukraine. The text of the motion follows the script. This should be read in the context also of (a) a debate I moderated at the Bradford Literature Festival with two academics on Sunday 3 July on the theme: Russia: Expansionist or Opportunist? and (b) my lecture to CCADD on Wednesday 6 July at Westminster Abbey here.

I am grateful to the Business Committee for making time for this topical debate which opens up a number of challenging questions and calls the Church to prayer, listening and action.

It is important for the Synod to debate this as (a) the conflict is impacting the whole world (energy resources, economics, migrations and humanitarian catastrophes, food security, and so on), and (b) there is an unavoidable church element to the conflict (the Moscow Patriarchate’s uncritical support of Putin’s ideological vision and nationalist dogma, noting also the impact on chaplaincies in the Diocese in Europe and our partner churches in the region). It is also inevitably about politics. Politics, however, is about people, the right ordering of society and the distribution of power – all issues that go to the heart of the Judeo-Christian scriptures and tradition.

There might be disagreement as to the specificity of particular policy recommendations, but that should not discourage us from a necessary engagement with matters of people and place that sit at the heart of any incarnational obligation. The Church exists for the sake of the world, not the other way round.

For the sake of this debate, our understanding of neighbour is both local – those affected in our own congregations by the effects of this war (immigration of Ukrainian refugees, high energy bills, food shortages, for example) – and global, including those fighting on the front line in the Donbas or seeking safety in a makeshift air raid centre in Kyiv or Russians seeking respite from and truthful understanding of President Putin’s authoritarian regime.

We have a responsibility to provide generous refuge to those displaced by this conflict – and I hope we hear more about this remarkable work in the debate that follows. But, we must also engage with the causes of their displacement – both the immediate, Russian aggression, and the more long term, including wider missteps in the West’s relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War.  

We also have a responsibility to think through how this war affects those in other parts of the world. Tens of millions of people are now at risk of famine in parts of Africa and Asia, even though they are not party to the conflict. Against this background, the decision to cut Britain’s overseas development budget continues to look short sighted. The cutting of numbers in our Army raises other questions, too.

Beyond the humanitarian fall out, we are all conscious that the risks of strategic miscalculation are very real – threatening not only human life on a scale unimaginable a few months ago, but also the very integrity of God’s creation.

This war requires us to rethink what it means to be peacemakers in an age of global disorder. The conceptual frameworks of the 70 year post-war global settlement have fallen apart in a very short time and the world is now a different place. It requires us to use all the resources at our disposal, and that includes our relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, to try to navigate a way through this crisis. 

In an age when many politicians appear to have lost their moral compass, it is important that we do not doubt the reason why issues like this matter and why we get involved in the way we do.  

Our starting point, our obedience to God, is very different from that of governments and others. It leads us to take a much wider and a theologically searching moral view.

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that we sometimes find ourselves at odds with government.

To do otherwise, to take a different starting point, is to run the risk of Archbishops and Bishops becoming the ‘altar boys’ to this and future governments – a charge that others have made of the Russian Orthodox Church’s relations with the Russian Government.

Synod, the briefing paper that accompanies this debate attempts to help us think through the war in Ukraine in a serious and integrated way from Christian foundations. 

Contrary to what you might have read in the Press recently, this paper, produced by the newly formed Faith and Public Life Division, does not articulate a fixed position. What it does do is raise from first principles questions that need to be grappled with and the consequences that need to be considered. In doing so, it recognises that it is the politician, not the bishop, who has to make decisions and to bear responsibility for the consequences. 

Loosely put, the questions mirror those that arise from the set of criteria known as the Just War principles. 

To avoid confusion or uncertainty, let me be crystal clear. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes an act of evil that cannot go unchallenged.  Ukraine has a legitimate right to self-defence and a right to seek assistance from others in doing so. 

The Government and the wider international community must stand with Ukraine and provide financial, humanitarian, military and diplomatic support as part of its broader efforts to uphold international law and the norms underpinning the international community.

Yet, as the MOD suggested last week, such support cannot realistically be unlimited and this war cannot be waged without restraint.

The focus of our efforts must be bringing this conflict to an end in a way that respects Ukraine’s independent sovereign status. 

This objective risks being thwarted by the lack of clarity amongst states as to whether the aim of Western actions is the upholding of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, weakening Russia, or regime change in Moscow.  Such ambiguity invites mission creep and increases the risks of strategic miscalculation.

It is these broader objectives that risk Britain becoming embroiled in a protracted and proxy war in the Ukraine. It is for Ukraine to decide if, how and when the war might be ended … and on what terms. It would be morally problematic to oppose a conclusion to the war that would save Ukraine from further devastation in the hope that we might secure wider geo-strategic advantage, if Ukraine so decides. 

Military force has utility; but, it does not follow that military force alone will be sufficient to reverse the territorial gains that Russia has secured since February 2022 or even 2014 when Putin’s money was flowing through the sewers of London. 

The risks of this conflict spreading beyond its current borders are real. It is therefore reassuring that the armaments that the UK has provided are of a defensive rather than offensive nature.  Britain’s support must remain proportionate to the ends we are seeking and those owned by Ukraine itself. 

We know that atrocities have been committed in this conflict – the full horrors of which will probably only be known well after this war ends. It is incumbent on all parties to the conflict to uphold the principles of discrimination and non-combatant immunity.

Where atrocities have been committed, these should be documented and those responsible held accountable, even if that is at a much, much later date. It should not be forgotten that earlier this year, the International Criminal Court opened its trial against those considered responsible for war crimes committed in Darfur over two decades ago.

The principles of discrimination and non-combatant immunity do, whether we like it or not, invite questions as to the efficacy of the sanctions regime assembled against Russia. It is clear that Russians have limited access to truthful media and are subject to authoritarian propaganda. Which is why many politicians and commentators have been clear to distinguish between ‘Russia” and ‘Putin’s government’.

We should not be so naïve as to think that sanctions, as a form of political intervention, do not cause serious human damage, and therefore do not also raise pressing ethical questions. If we conclude that they are morally justifiable (whether effective in securing appropriate ends or not), then we must also be open-eyed about their costs and consequences.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has descended into a brutal war of attrition, with outstanding questions over how long Ukraine’s forces can continue to resist Russian advances. The geopolitical and security implications of the conflict for Europe have already been profound, from German militarisation to accelerated NATO expansion: these will continue. Global ramifications will only become known over the long term. 

Synod, in a world which looks more dangerous and unstable, we need to look again at what it means to work for the reconciliation of humanity to God. We do so with prayer and humility. I suspect that this will not be the last time that we reflect on this conflict and the issues arising from it.

I look forward to the debate.

WAR IN UKRAINE (GS 2259)

Bishop of Leeds to move:

  1.  ‘That this Synod, committed in Christ to support peacemakers and to work for the reconciliation of humanity to God in a world marked by division and conflict:
    1. (a)  lament Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the suffering and terror experienced by Ukrainians and the repercussions and anxiety felt globally for our common future;
    2. (b)  urge all Christians and people of faith to pray that the war in Ukraine be ended justly, that the risk of strategic miscalculation between conflicting parties be avoided and that the Russian people find respite from an authoritarian government;
    3. (c)  call on each diocese and each parish to work towards providing long term refuge and hospitality to refugees from Ukraine and other conflicts and forms of danger, and to contribute to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Appeal or the appeal organised by USPG and the Diocese in Europe;
    4. (d)  call on Her Majesty’s Government to work to secure a just peace that provides for the flourishing of relations in Ukraine and between nations in Europe and to provide a generous response to those seeking refuge from the conflict.’

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the morning after the Boris Johnson signalled his intention to resign as leader of the Conservative Party (following the unprecedented resignation of 59 government ministers).

The current convulsions in Westminster offer, if nothing else, a compelling drama. I guess politics are, by definition, always dramatic. After all, they involve people, the ordering of society, uncontrollable events, convictions, emotions and other contingencies.

But, dramas involve characters, contexts, narratives, and so on. And a clear question that needs to be asked when the dramas are playing out around us is, simply: what is driving the characters? The audience needs to be able to understand what is going on not only on the stage, as it were, but also in the minds of the players.

To illustrate this we could look to Shakespeare – after all, a new Shakespeare theatre opens next week in Prescot, Liverpool, and there are few dramatists who explore the complexities of human character as well as the Bard of Stratford.

Shakespeare’s imagination was fuelled by a close relationship with the Bible. And he recognised that the Bible is not a handbook of doctrines, but records the narrative of a people wrestling with human nature and how to order a just and merciful society. This narrative is brutally frank about reality and how real people behave, what drives them, which values are to be seen as virtues.

And this is where the current political dramas come in. Character and virtue are both essential to leadership and the common life of a society. So are the vision and values that drive the ordering of our society. But, it is not just the actors on stage who shape the story, so does the audience by its engagement.

The episode that shapes my own mind on this comes from the Old Testament. Before the liberated people of Israel could enter a Land of Promise – after unlearning ‘Egypt’ in a desert for forty years – they had to work out what the new world might look like once they settled. Rituals were established in order that they should never forget that once they had been slaves, refugees, homeless and rootless. They were to enshrine justice and mercy in the laws and institutions of their community for the future. Compassion for the powerless was integral. And all this was to help them shape a just and virtuous society. It didn’t fully succeed.

But, when things go awry or a society faces some re-shaping, it is vital that these fundamental questions are addressed: which values will drive us? Who and what are we for? Does virtue matter in public and institutional life?

But, in these dramas no one is a mere spectator. All are responsible actors, accountable for playing their part.

This is the text of the 2022 annual lecture for the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament (CCADD) of which I am a Vice-president. It was delivered on Wednesday 6 July 2022 at Westminster Abbey. The lecture was intended to feed into a discussion which, in the event, turned out to be very rich and challenging; it raised further and wider questions which are too long to go into here and now. I understand it was recorded, so a link might follow for the CCADD website.

I have only been to Sweden once. Following a big celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the Diocese of Skara, we returned to the hotel for a dinner with royalty and the great and the good. After dinner I was told (for the first time) that I was to give a speech and would follow the Bishop of Bavaria. Fair enough. The Bishop of Bavaria then disappointed me by concluding his speech in Swedish. All I could think to say at the beginning of mine – having allowed a significant silence – was that the only Swedish I know (excluding IKEA, of course) is: “Mamma mia”, “Gimme gimme gimme”, “Money money money” and “Dancing Queen”. They laughed – helpfully.

You will remember that ‘Mamma Mia’ is followed by the words: “Here we go again”. And this is the line – and the song – that spins around my head when I look at elements of the world we currently inhabit. If I turned it into a question, it would be: “Do we ever learn?”

You will remember George Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This builds from Karl Marx’s assertion that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” I will leave it to the historians to debate whether either is demonstrably true, but I am suspicious of both. History – by definition – cannot repeat itself, but we can learn from it, if we choose to do so. Learning can clearly go in different ways – for example, it isn’t a given that we learn only positively from the mistakes or experiences of the past; we might learn how to do terrible things more efficiently in future – but learning should at the very least imply a serious and considered attempt not to recreate the negative conditions of the past which open the door to ‘bad stuff’ (as Donald Trump might put it).

This is why some observers are now pointing (with hindsight, it should be said) to the complacency of the West since the Second World War and, later, the collapse of the Soviet Union: that “never again” will we tolerate war on Europe’s soil and “never again” can there be genocide on our continent. Well, the Balkans disposed of the latter and Ukraine casts doubts on the former. Only three months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, dismissed the informed observations of his fellow MP Tobias Ellwood at the Liaison Committee meeting in Parliament on 17 November 2021: “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over, and there are other, better things we should be investing in, in FCAS, in the future combat air system, in cyber, this is how warfare in the future is going to be.” Well, that didn’t age well.

A similar problem can be found in the Integrated Review of 2021. Remember its subtitle: “Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, describes the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.” The assumptions on which this review was built became exposed to reality only months after it was published. Barely a reference to our European neighbours in the European Union, but all eyes on China and the Pacific. And now, in 2022, we find ourselves in a changed world once again, probably with a need for a revised integrated review which checks some of the assumptions in the original. And we are nowhere near 2025.

(While writing this an argument is raging about cuts from 80,000 to 72,000 in army numbers at the same time as NATO is boosting the numbers of troops being mobilised on the eastern borders and we are being reminded of the threat from an aggressive Russia. The Cold War bipolar world gave way to a supposedly unipolar order … which is now giving way to a tripolar or even multipolar world, if we consider Russia, China, India, the European Union, USA to be increasingly singular agents. This must have an impact on any decisions made in and by the UK, dependent on a realistic appreciation of capacity.)

Is it possible, then, to learn from history when it comes to geopolitics and military defence? I do wonder when we see the Russian military using in Ukraine the same tactics (with the same rationale) as they did in World War Two and, in my personal experience, in their aborted Afghan campaign in the 1980s. This was a campaign running while I was a Russian linguist at GCHQ. What is even more curious for me personally is that the rhetoric the West aimed at the Soviet Union in the 1980s (“you can’t win a war in Afghanistan, and you’ll all go home in coffins”) was exactly the same rhetoric used by the Russians against the West when we moved into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The differing rationales behind the two invasions/occupations do not dispel the pragmatic problems of conducting such operations in such a place – something history tells us are fairly insurmountable.

But, the abrupt departure of the Western Allies from Afghanistan last year, the questionable ways in which this operation was conducted, and the way in which some of our moral obligations towards those left behind were neglected … all raise questions about the politics of forward planning in the light of past experience and the context of current exigencies. Could this withdrawal have been conducted differently? It is not for me, an observer, to say; but, many commentators who understand politics, diplomacy, military and humanitarian factors better than I do clearly think so.

What ,then, might be the preconditions for wise learning from history? I am no expert and am not a historian, but my possibly shallow thinking leads me to these for starters:

First, politicians need around them historians who can identify and articulate past phenomena that might educate us when making short-term decisions that will, inevitably, have long-term consequences. This is partly the classic ‘how do we get out of what we are about to get into?’ question. A good and fairly recent example of this is how German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her cabinet read Christopher Clark’s remarkable and readable 2013 book Sleepwalkers – on the origins of the First World War – and then set aside a day to engage on it with the author-historian. Not everybody likes Clark’s book, but the Germans are serious and intelligent enough to deal with argument and ideas and the importance of learning. Of course, historians will offer differing perspectives: that’s the point.

Secondly, we have to remember the nature of contingency. For every decision made, there is a context … which includes a complex set of human beings with limited vision and a propensity to seek immediate solutions to today’s threat or problem without preparing for the possible various consequences that might arise from them. At this point I will introduce a question that bothers me more generally and which we might want to discuss later: centralised authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are far better equipped to think strategically in the longer term than are western democracies where the political eye is always on the ball of the electoral cycle – therefore, the inability to guarantee that any longer-term strategy can be seen through to a conclusion … and hence the short-term tactical (rather than strategic) thinking that might win votes.

(I might add here, though we will come back to it later, that Russia is a single entity with a single government dominated by a single man, but he is dealing with an opposing coalition of interests, the cracks between whom can easily be opened and exploited, especially over the longer term when popular patience or tolerance wear thin. We have seen this with Putin’s twenty or thirty-year strategy to ‘reclaim and reunite’ Russia, centralising power, changing laws in order to reinforce his power, re-building and modernising his armed forces and their military hardware, interfering in Western democracies and their elections (using cyber and human agencies), assassinating on Western soil and getting minimal response, testing the West (Donbas, Lukhansk, Crimea) and getting little effective opposition. He is probably surprised by the unity and re-engagement of the west following the Ukraine invasion in February 2022, but he also knows that Western memories and passions are eminently exploitable.)

Thirdly, all decisions are made uniquely, despite past experience. The world keeps changing and so do the factors that shape how we see and think about it. This is why history cannot repeat itself any more than the water in a river can re-visit where it has just swept on from. Therefore, it is the principles that can be derived from history that have to be appropriated and considered when decisions of strategy are being made. Sorry if that sounds like a statement of the blindingly obvious.

We might, then, look at the current war in Ukraine to help us think this through. I want to preface this with two comments: first, that the Daily Telegraph’s report on 23/24 June (and lifted by the Times and Daily Mail), allegedly based on a background paper for a General Synod debate on 8 July, was erroneous and misleading (deliberately, I think … and described to me by a conservative acquaintance as “at best disingenuous, at worst deliberately mendacious” – I prefer “illiterate”); secondly, the debate at the General Synod is intended to do what it says on the tin: open thoughtful debate about how we think about Ukraine and how we as a church should respond to the various elements of the conflict – defending Ukraine, holding Putin’s government to account for its evils, and responding to humanitarian need. Issuing platitudinous slogans of support and condemnation respectively might make us feel better, but it won’t necessarily achieve very much effectively in either defending Ukraine or holding Russia to account for its intentions and crimes.

Let me absolutely clear: I want Ukraine to win its war, recover its territory and restore its independence and democratic institutions. I would like to see Putin in a War Crimes Tribunal and held accountable for the death and destruction he has ordered in a sovereign and independent neighbouring country. I would like to see this conflict end as soon as possible and with the least possible further bloodshed of military and civilian people. I will wave a flag, if that helps. But, none of what I have just said absolves any of us from doing the hard work of thinking through potential outcomes that might not accord with my desire, all of which will bring with them wider consequences for both short- and longer term political and economic settlements. So, just to avoid any misunderstanding – deliberate or otherwise – let me repeat: debating options is not the same thing as siding with one or betraying another. I hope that is clear as well as obvious.

What also needs to be clear is that questioning previous actions by the West does not equate to a justification of Putin’s aggression. Even where assumptions of American exceptionalism clash with notions of Russian exceptionalism, playing games of moral equivalence is dangerous territory. We must resist this increasingly polarised and binary thinking that sees every statement as a taking of sides rather than an attempt to face reality and navigate complexity in which moral or political intent is often compromised.

The challenges are many. For example, what happens if, in the end, Russia occupies half of Ukraine and fights to a stalemate? What then will be the grounds for negotiating a peace? Because unless one side utterly defeats the other, there will have to be some diplomatically negotiated settlement. That isn’t an opinion – it is a statement of the obvious. Future relationships still have to be developed, whatever the outcome of the bloody conflict. But, let’s think further: if Ukraine defeats Russia, what happens next … and in the following thirty years? The end of the war, however it happens, will not resolve for ever the problem of history, identity and territory. So, how will Ukraine and the West deal with a defeated Russia? This is where the options become complex (and distasteful), but if a future is to be imagined, it has to involve the building of a defeated country along lines which don’t embed deep nationalistic grievances which then nurture the claims and violences of the following century. Remember Versailles and Yalta?

Let’s remind ourselves of the key background issues in the current conflict. We might begin this with a question that bugs many such debates and conflicts: when did history begin? Vladimir Putin has been angling for years not for the restoration of the USSR, but for the renewal of the Holy Rus and the concept of Russkiy Mir. Every time he leaves the Kremlin he passes a statue of Vladimir the Great, the man who united Kiev, Moscow and Minsk – Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia – over a thousand years ago.

Now, historical ‘memory’ can be romanticised and shaped teleologically to justify current ideological preferences, but there is always a starting point from which any people charts the ‘living’ story of their people or nation or empire. In the case of Ukraine, is it the Holy Rus which the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists date as the founding date? That is Putin’s (rather contorted) understanding of what he is trying to restore (in terms of ‘Russkiy Mir’), and he has corralled the Moscow Patriarchate into sacrificing both people and theology on this particular altar.

But, now read the most accessible history of Ukraine, Anna Reid’s excellent Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. She illustrates clearly the challenge any modern Ukraine faces, viz. that it was not seen by its neighbours as a separate country until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990-91. It was not a sovereign country until then and its democratic institutions and culture have been developed remarkably in only the thirty or so years since then. Reid puts the question bluntly: are Ukrainians  Central Europeans or a species of Russian? To Russians Ukraine was always part of Russia; but, to Poles it was part of Poland. Look at the shift of borders following two world wars in the twentieth century (which was not the beginning) and you will see the problem of working out which narrative (and from which people’s perspective) is to be the defining one.

Ukraine, of course, is not unique in this. Look at Israel-Palestine. Look at the former Soviet Union and the territories – if not nations and ethno-linguistic groups – it held together which, when the glue was dissolved, immediately drew apart and sought their unique identity. Look at the former Yugoslavia and its artificial uniting of ethnic nations which fell into violence once the authoritarian grip was loosened.

My point is simply (and painfully obviously, I fear) that solving one crisis or problem does not resolve any conflict for ever. I grew up in the post-war world reading maps that looked settled for the future. Yet, they have kept changing ever since the previous settlements were established ‘for ever’. So, I return to the challenging and unwelcome question: however and whenever this current conflict ends, there will have to be a way of securing peace and co-existence that takes seriously the costs and consequences of whatever settlement is arrived at. And, at this point in time, no one has any idea what that situation will look like or how any future settlement might be shaped. En route, the parties involved have to navigate the potential for tactical (if not strategic) miscalculation and escalation.

What we can say, however, is that passionate demands for Ukrainian total victory and total defeat for Putin and Russia will by definition create new problems and challenges. The end of one phase will bear the seeds of future conflicts, claims and demands. And these have to be prepared for now in order that the real costs of potential settlements, short-term solutions and longer-term determinations can be properly, transparently and intelligently assessed and engaged.

It worries me that the rhetoric of Western leaders seems to see a single desirable outcome (which I would also like to see) and eschew any discussion of actual and potential scenarios. For example, Boris Johnson said last week that he would resign if the UK could no longer supply Ukraine with what it needs in terms of financial or military support. If that scenario emerges – and remember that the MOD mentioned that the UK does not have sufficient ammunition to support a long-term war – what will the UK then do? Pool all resources with NATO? Or with the EU (which would be anathema for this government, regardless of wider realities)? Simply back off and leave Ukraine to its own fight? These questions have to be addressed now and not reacted to when events turn to a conclusion for which no one is prepared.

In other words, where is the scenario planning that takes post-conflict options and realities seriously? We can only hope that, despite the rhetoric of politicians, the diplomats and military are doing some serious thinking and planning. This is precisely where we need to learn from history: from Versailles and Yalta, from the Sudetenland and the Balkans, from Ireland and Africa, from the trenches of Flanders’ Fields to the trenches of Donbas and Odessa. What are the non-negotiables from any peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia (if such a thing is either desirable or possible): a Ukraine without Donbas? A Ukraine without Lukhansk? What about Crimea? (Crimea was gifted to Ukraine by Khruschev in 1954, before which it was an integral part of Russia in the Soviet Union.) And if, from a UK or Western perspective, all these territories are non-negotiable and are integral elements of Ukrainian territory for the future, why did we do nothing effective to deter Putin when he moved into these territories before and after 2014 and strategically mobilised ethnic Russians to gradually take control over a number of years before the military invasion in February 2022? We can’t say we didn’t know it was happening – even as we lauded oligarchs and sucked up their dirty money.

I want to open up a further relevant question at this point before concluding, and it derives from this notion of deterrence. We could say much more about the errors of the past and red lines that proved as definitive as the stripes on a covid test, but this might emerge during our discussion.

If you believe in the credibility and importance of nuclear deterrence, the Ukraine situation raises some uncomfortable questions. NATO made it clear – rightly – that nuclear weapons would not be used by their forces in this conflict. Russia kept the option open and continues to threaten their use – not only tactical battlefield engagement, but the obliteration of cities and countries (see his remarks about destroying the islands of the United Kingdom and London in particular – like swatting a fly). Now, regardless of the rhetoric and the possibly overblown and hubristic game-playing here, it might appear to some that the West has been deterred by Russia’s weapons and weaponisers, but Russia has not been at all deterred by the West’s. OK, we don’t know the end of the story and we don’t know what is going on behind the scenes; but, this at least raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of deterrence itself, if it doesn’t de facto deter. I throw that in as a discussion starter rather than as a conclusion.

I have said nothing so far about theology. There will be different theological insights into how we should see and conduct ourselves during conflicts such as this one. Any reading of the Scriptures would make it clear that an essential element of discussing any international dispute – however serious and complex or trivial and incidental – must be a commitment to both telling and hearing the truth. We need say nothing about Putin’s control of media and selective propaganda. But, it is vital that his opponents – especially in the ‘free press’ and media of the West – take care to report and comment carefully and truthfully. If Ukraine and Ukrainians matter, then we all have an obligation to the ninth Commandment: that we do not bear false witness against our neighbour, however passionate we feel about mustering our evidence and arguments for a particular end.

Secondly, peace making is harder than peace keeping. But, Christians cannot avoid the obligation to do the hard thinking and hard working of making peace amid the pragmatic complexities of unresolved conflict. Peace making is costly. It is not for Western Christians to decide what cost Ukrainian people should pay for this current war, but, like it or not, we are bound inextricably to Christians on other sides of the conflict and cannot avoid the strictures and demands imposed by this relationship. The challenge is not primarily about a peaceful conclusion to the war, but about how a peaceful post-conflict settlement, rooted in concepts of justice, accountability and sacrifice, can be achieved.

In his book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Rowan Williams makes the point very clearly that the last word has never been spoken in this world. Once we say there is nothing further to say or hear, that conversation is now closed, that every argument has been either settled or concluded, then we have died and the world has ended. There is always more to be said and heard. This theme runs through Dostoyevsky’s fiction and we need to hold to it, too. Christian theology tells us clearly that death, violence and destruction do not have the last word: God does, and it is ‘resurrection’. However, the hard and costly task for Christians (and, I would suggest, for all people) is to work out what that might look like in terms of people and land and ‘stuff’.

At the outset of the conflict there was a quietly expressed fear that the limited conflict might spread, that there was a risk of strategic miscalculation inherent in its developing course of (Russian) action and (Western) reaction. Well, look at the energy crisis and the growing global food crisis that will add to the migration crisis that is rooted in the climate crisis. Any thinking about the future of Ukraine and Russia cannot avoid setting this in the context of global demands and relationships. Once again, as I argued earlier, it is not simply about kicking Russia out; whatever follows next will lead to a fresh set of questions, crises and conflicts.

I think we need to acknowledge that ultimately everyone will lose in this conflict, whoever eventually is deemed to have won. It seems that neither side is ready now for negotiations (although these will be going on through back-channels). But, the time will come, and all parties will need to be ready for the costs as well as the gains. We need to think about what a good peace will actually look like in reality.

I pray for the end of suffering and the establishment of a just peace. But, I have no illusions about what this might entail or what are the risks of getting it wrong. It will be evident from what I have said that the questions are easier to articulate than the answers. We might begin now, with humility and courage, to discuss this together.

Thank you for your attention.

This is the text of my presidential address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning.

There’s really not a lot to talk about at the moment, is there? The world is at peace, all is well with the UK economy, politics are predictable and boring, challenges are few, and, apart from England losing the footie and winning the cricket, nothing much changes.

Well, I know many people who wish it were so (apart from the football, that is). But, you’d have to live each day with your head deep in the sand, if you think that all is well. I only have to mention Ukraine and Russia, Afghanistan, the energy crisis, food banks, poverty, hungry children and families, the rising cost of living, questionable public ethics, and we know all is not well with the world. To add to the burden, the island of Ireland is worried about renewed tensions fuelled by political division and the unilateral breaking of international law; parliamentary sovereignty is being replaced by increasing moves toward executive sovereignty (decision by ministerial fiat); we export refugees to Rwanda, denying them human rights under the rule of law at a very basic level.

And the Church – bishops in particular – comes under the cosh of certain political and media interests for daring to have something to say.

I have thought a lot about this. Partly because I get communications that tell me to keep out of politics (despite sitting in Parliament and, therefore, holding particular – and sometimes uncomfortable – responsibilities). It’s also partly because I often think I might be wrong. It’s mainly because I would actually like a quiet life away from the constant storm of criticism, fire and fury, nastiness and debate.

But, there are two fundamental complicating problems here: the Bible and Christian vocation.

I keep having to explain to critics that politics is about people and the right ordering of society. This raises questions, then, about how we judge what a good society should look like … and why. It is not enough merely to assume this without questioning the moral basis of any particular political order and social arrangement. Politics involves creating spaces in which competing judgements about the values and ethics underlying social order and political commitment can be articulated and debated, with passion and seriousness. It can never simply be a power game; it involves and affects people’s lives and communities.

And this is where the Bible comes in. Some of the foundational texts from which our western democracies have derived their legitimacy and development – especially the particular settlement in the United Kingdom – are rooted in certain judgments and commitments. Notions of human rights and the rule of law did not drop from heaven and are not self-evidently right. If we claim that human beings matter and have value, or that truth and justice matter, we have to ask on what basis we make that claim. For Christians it is that every human being is made in the image of God. The creation narratives of the Old Testament lead into explorations of what it then means for human beings to live together. Notions of justice come into place, but the idea of justice itself is not self-evident or merely arbitrary.

The Old Testament tells a developing story of how particular communities took their vocation under God seriously and struggled to create social orders that enshrined justice and equity and generosity and mercy and love. I haven’t time to flesh this out here, but would be happy to do so elsewhere.

The point, therefore, is that to claim a separation between faith and politics is to do violence to what it means to be human in the first place. The moral basis of any political claims must be subject to scrutiny; otherwise, they must be suspect – assertions of power that are potentially so weak they cannot be challenged in the cold light of day. (Charges that the bishops who publicly oppose the exporting of refugees to Rwanda have no alternatives to propose – the windbag theory – are downright lazy and inaccurate. I invite those politicians and journalists to read the many contributions by Lords Spiritual to House of Lords debates on, for example, the Nationality & Borders Bill. Specious mantras don’t help further serious debate of important matters.)

It is not just bishops, though. No Christian can avoid the political implications of biblical ethics. And some of us cannot avoid – except for reasons of cowardice – articulating in the public square the political implications of ethical judgments derived from a serious reading of our foundational texts, the Bible. Compartmentalising faith and real life (including our responsibility for the right ordering of society according to justifiable ethical values) is not an option. Were it so, then we would not have a statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the west front of Westminster Abbey and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be an historically irrelevant nuisance.

This, then, is the context for the work we do today as a synod – literally, bringing together people – in our case, Anglican Christians – with differing perspectives and commitments and experiences in order that together we scrabble our way towards discerning the mind of God for the part of the world we live in. Our particular question, then, is: how do we, as the Diocese of Leeds, so shape our vocation and resources in such a way as to be consistent with our unique vocation? But, the dynamic has to be clear: we help shape the church and diocese in order that church and diocese help shape the world around us. The church is not the end; the end is the kingdom of God and, at every level, its claims on the world in which we live.

So, today we have an opportunity to consider the diocese’s annual report and accounts. These tell a story (or stories). Not everyone gets excited by words and numbers, but the important thing is to ask what these tell us about our common life, our priorities, our values and our real Christian convictions. Reports cannot always tell the vivid stories of how our organisation – the Diocese of Leeds – fulfils the vocation of the Church of England in this part of Yorkshire, but they summarise our commitments and pose the higher-level question of how faithful we are being in responding to that vocation.

Today we will spend time looking at what we are calling ‘Church Support and Deployment’. This represents a process that began before the pandemic, but which the pandemic and its fallout has expedited: what resources can we expect to deploy (money, people, buildings, etc.) in the future that enable us to fulfil our particular vocation as the Church of England in our part of the country? Like political commitments, this necessarily involves competing choices. Where we invest our limited resources is not always obvious; so, we need to understand the options available to us as we shape the future. But, what must be clear is this: if we do not shape the future, we will simply become victims of other factors, events or decisions … and that is not a healthy way to live.

As you know, the Archbishop of York recently led a process aimed at identifying and articulating a renewed vision for the Church of England. Those involved came up with a framing around three words: simpler, humbler, bolder. (I prefer Loving Living Learning, but you can’t win them all!) These words compel us to face up to who and how we are – for what and for whom we exist in the first place. So, as we continue to emerge from the irruption of a pandemic over the last couple of years, we try to simplify our mission, humbly address our challenges, and boldly embrace our opportunities for the sake of the Gospel.

This always hits me with particular force when each year I come to ordain new deacons and priests. They must make the Declaration of Assent and swear oaths. At the heart of the Declaration lies this claim and charge: “The Church … professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called to proclaim afresh in each generation.” Easy to say, but harder to reimagine in the heat of the day. But, the task of doing so much pushes us back into ‘keeping the main thing the main thing’. And at the heart of the main vocation of the Church is worship – principally the Eucharist.

Which, of course, gets rooted in another of our agenda items today: Communion and the Common Cup. Whatever our churchmanship or liturgical preferences, it still remains the case that the only ‘service’ Jesus commanded us to celebrate is the Eucharist. This is where we strip everything back and remind ourselves – re-tell the story, if you like – of who God is, what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ, that we come with empty hands to receive the gifts of God’s grace afresh … together, as one body, broken-but-healed, unashamed of the wound marks that accompany resurrection, conscious anew of our need and God’s abundance. Here – in spoken word and simple sacramental action – we recover our story and renew our commitment to take out the life of Christ, in our very bodies that have been fortified by bread and wine, to those among whom we live.

Whatever else we discuss around the mechanics of this, we must not lose sight of its purpose and essence.

So, we pray that God will bless our deliberations together today. Pray also for the bishops of the Anglican Communion as we prepare to meet in Canterbury next month for the Lambeth Conference. Thank God for our own Bradford being named City of Culture for 2025, recognising that culture is about people, collective vision and practice, ritual and celebration, the arts that explore and colour our common life. Book tickets for the array of events at the Bradford Literature Festival at the end of this month. Pray for those being ordained deacon and priest in the next few weeks, and for the parishes they will serve.

Above all, as we face the challenges and opportunities for proclaiming the Gospel afresh in this generation, let us strive – joyfully and generously – to be faithful to God’s call to us at this time and in this place.

This is the basic text of the various sermons preached in Ripon, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield at civic services for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee over the last weekend.

Did you notice the words in the reading from Proverbs 8: wisdom; understanding; prudence; intelligence; noble things; right; truth; righteous; and so on?

Virtue matters. Still. Knowing our need of grace and wisdom is a mark of strength, not of weakness.*

Legendary guitarist and musician Jimi Hendrix famously said “knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”. Hermann Hesse, in his Siddharta, observed that wisdom cannot be imparted; he wrote: “Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Wisdom, then, has to with virtue and character, honed through experience and offered to those who listen and watch and learn and grow.

Today we celebrate how a young woman, surprised by events, face to face with mortality, accepted the role thrust upon her by circumstance and history. She is also the woman who, because of her awareness of her need to learn wisdom, grew in it over seven decades of commitment. Wisdom grows out of facing whatever the world throws at us – navigating the torments as well as enjoying the blessings of plane sailing.

The monarch whose platinum jubilee we mark today is the Princess Elizabeth who, on her twenty first birthday in 1947, made a speech in which she said this: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”

Yet, she could have no more idea than anyone else what might lie ahead for her.

It is a remarkable statement of personal commitment. But, it is more than a mere noble sentiment.

Having emerged from the Second World War and the devastation it wrought across the world – over 50 million people dead – the divisions between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies were already evident. Peace was not a given and there was little certainty about what the future might hold for an exhausted people. So, Princess Elizabeth’s commitment was made in ignorance of any political or economic developments that might occur.

In other words, she was ready to face whatever the world threw up, and to do so with one single aim: to serve not herself or her own interests, but, rather, her people and their best interests. This was not naïve; it was rooted in a clear understanding of virtue.

Of course, the years that followed saw considerable change and challenge. Just think of the creation of the Welfare State and the National Health Service – rooted in a radical vision of mutuality (for rebuilding a nation and state) which should never cease to draw admiration and never be taken for granted. Yet, this was also the beginning of the end of the British Empire (which she refers to in her statement); the intensification of the Cold War; the development of the nuclear threat (remember Mutual Assured Destruction – a nightmare with which many of us grew up as children or young people?); the swinging sixties, pop culture, drugs, American cultural hegemony; the eventual end of the Cold War, the growth of the European Union, and the hubris attached to the ‘monopolar world’ – the so-called New World Order; the optimism of the new millennium, and the rise of neoliberalism, followed swiftly by 9/11 and its response: invasions, war, the decline in public trust of institutions, regime change, terrorism, and so on; the digital revolution and its impact on communications, economics and politics; and then Brexit, the rise of the Far Right in Europe, a global pandemic, and challenges to the norms of public life and discourse. Afghanistan, Ukraine and the mass migration of humanity across the globe.

And I bet none of that was in the mind of the young princess when she made her personal commitment to service.

So, her accession to the throne in 1952, ahead of her coronation in June 1953, was not a predictable outworking of a series of convenient events that culminated in some fairytale “happy ever after” dream. Personal trauma, the shock of a different life irrupting into the stability of an emerging world. What matters is that, although not in control of events, her commitment to service proved through time and circumstance to be the leitmotif, the strong guiding hand that steered her and steeled her, come what may.

It seems to me that this is pertinent to us in our own lives as we navigate ever-changing circumstances and pressures. Through the Covid pandemic we have learned – rather rudely in some cases – that we are not in control of everything; that life can change in an instant; that “anything can happen”; that we are mortal and we all shall die; that we need to sort out what holds, roots and steers us through whatever the particular circumstances of our crazy world and our lives.

The Queen has been explicit about what this means for her – never fearing mortality or contingency. This is what she said in a broadcast following her coronation on 2 June 1953:

“When I spoke to you last, at Christmas, I asked you all, whatever your religion, to pray for me on the day of my Coronation – to pray that God would give me wisdom and strength to carry out the promises that I should then be making. Throughout this memorable day I have been uplifted and sustained by the knowledge that your thoughts and prayers were with me. I have been aware all the time that my peoples, spread far and wide throughout every continent and ocean in the world, were united to support me in the task to which I have now been dedicated with such solemnity.”

Note the passive tense there and what it suggests about dedication being mutual.

There is a slight irony with this. Until the then Bishop of Bradford set off the abdication crisis on 1 December 1936 with a narky dig at the uncrowned King’s lack of awareness of spiritual need, Elizabeth was set for a very different life as the niece of the monarch. Edward VIII’s abdication changed everything. And Elizabeth knew from the beginning God’s wisdom and strength and the support of disparate peoples. Humility is strength.

And it is this faith that has sustained her during the seven decades that she has reigned in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

Again, in 1992 in the wake of her children’s marital breakdowns and various scandals, she spoke openly of her ‘Annus Horribilis’, commenting that it was “not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” But, she thanked those who had prayed for her and her family, referring to those “whose prayers – fervent, I hope, but not too frequent – have sustained me through all these years.”

At Christmas 2014 she boldly stated that “For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”

In her Christmas address of 2016 she was even more explicit about her personal faith: “Billions of people now follow Christ’s teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me to see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”

At the covid-restricted inauguration of the General Synod in November 2021, the Queen was represented by Prince Edward who read her address. Commenting on the more than fifty years since she and her husband had attended the very first General Synod, she said this: “None of us can slow the passage of time; and while we often focus on all that has changed in the intervening years, much remains unchanged, including the Gospel of Christ and his teachings. The list of tasks facing that first General Synod may sound familiar to many of you — Christian education, Christian unity, the better distribution of the ordained ministry. … But one stands out supreme: ‘To bring the people of this country to the knowledge and the love of God.’“

Which brings us back to the point. From before her accession to the throne she knew her need of God, God’s grace and wisdom; of the support of those in her domain, especially by their prayers; of the need for humility in leadership; for love in the exercise of power. As the world has changed around her – for the better in the end of colonialism and Empire, for the worse in increasing conflict following the war that was supposed to end all wars – she has not moved from the central convictions and rooted humility that has sustained her for more than seventy years.

So, as we celebrate this remarkable and unprecedented – and probably never to be repeated milestone, we can rightly give thanks for her faith and witness, for her commitment to democracy and the rule of law, for her discipline and selfless service, for her resilience and humour, for her courage and constancy, for her character, virtue and dignity, for her love of God and world.

Joshua set out into the unknown territory of Canaan, confident only in the promise that he would never be forsaken. His people grew a culture of wisdom, hewn out of the rocks of change and adversity, of suffering and hope – learning through centuries that wisdom matters and that service must always be rooted in humility and faith.

Here in Yorkshire, whatever life throws at us or in our way – personally, socially, politically, economically, and so on – we, too, can be grasped in our imagination by an example of character and service that shines a light on how a good life can be lived.

May God bless and save the Queen.

Amen.

* In several of the five occasions I added observations about (a) Paddington Bear being about how an outsider/immigrant teaches Brits how to be better examples of civility and generosity, but is upstaged this time by the Queen; and (b) how in the House of Lords, when the Queen does her Speech, she sits before the three legs of parliamentary democracy (the Executive, the Legislation and the Judiciary) who do their work in the name of Her Majesty … and she does her work ”in the name of God”. While doing this, she looks up to see the statues of the barons of Magna Carta … and there you have the UK constitutional arrangement in a single chamber. However, the conventions that hold that arrangement are fragile and depend on trust, integrity, consistency and wisdom.

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

Saturday was a bit of a nerve stretch, wasn’t it? Well, it was for me! Liverpool eventually winning the FA Cup Final after penalties and then Eurovision – which, whatever you think of the songs – is strangely compulsive viewing! I was a bit shredded by bedtime. Congratulations to Sam Ryder.

But, I must confess: I’m more of a blues man, myself – the sort of stuff that’s fifty years old this week: The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. It’s the sort of album that grows on you.

But, the blues are wonderful because they take us beneath the veneer of happy superficiality and open up the depths of our experience. Not just the words, but the tunes slow us down and expose the pain of life, the torments that can’t be tidied up or easily resolved. The blues recognise, as one track on the album puts it, that we are Torn and Frayed.

This is why so many blues songs took their lead from the haunting poetry of the Hebrew Psalms – unafraid to ask hard questions, to complain about stuff that happens, to stop pretending. Never without hope, but always with great, yearning emotion, unafraid of emptiness and silence.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the idea of exile finds its way into the album title. Because what the blues give voice to is the sense we all get at some point that we are not at home, that we are in exile – speaking the language of a different country, longing for the home where we feel we belong. OK, this can be merely romantic – a sort of nostalgia for when the world seemed simpler or kinder or less complicated.

But, I think it’s what an old saint – Augustine – meant when he said of God: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Not a rest that exempts us from reality, but one that takes it seriously – that even in exile we can sing the songs of home and know that we belong. That circumstances might change, but we are never abandoned by the God whose love cannot be extinguished.

Or, to twist another lyric by the Stones on their Sticky Fingers album: “Wild horses couldn’t drag [him] away”.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (at the new earlier time of 07.15.

Do you know what it’s like to live on the edge?

Well, that question can be taken in more than one way – especially so early on a Monday morning.

I got back late last night from Switzerland. I went out last week to do some work in Germany, then grabbed a short break with my wife and friends in Basel. We also managed a couple of nights in their holiday house by a lake in Italy. In the course of a few days we were exposed to English, Italian, German and a bit of French in a market.

Crossing borders and operating in different languages is an everyday part of life on the European mainland, but, whenever I am there I realise how unusual it is for me. In one sense, this is living on the edge. Walk fifty metres and the language, architecture and mood changes. You constantly have to navigate strangeness and respect difference.

But, I guess that when most of us talk of “living on the edge”, we mean something else. It’s to live dangerously or with a bit of risk. It’s about the excitement of not quite being in control of events or people. It seems to me that even people who like an orderly or predictable routine also like the odd instance of edginess.

Yet, for many people today, living on the edge is not merely a bit of entertainment. Not knowing if you can put food on the table, pay the rent or heat the house for you and your children is not the sort of edginess anyone would welcome. So, what do we do?

I unashamedly follow a Jesus who constantly crossed borders to be where people actually stood. And he never seduced anyone to go with him – rather, he told them that if they walked with him – edgily – things might get rough and they might lose everything. But, he also made it clear that “loving my neighbour as myself” means living on the edge of my comfort in order actively to love those whose own edge is too sharp.

So, today that’s my challenge: living and loving on the edge of other people’s lives.

This is the basic text of a sermon I preached this morning in the Georgenkirche in Eisenach, Germany. This is the church where Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised and where Martin Luther preached. This service concluded a series of sermons over the last year or more – 67 in total. The service also saw the premiere of a Cantata by Uri Caine, commissioned as part of the Thüringer Bachwochen.

Ganz zu Beginn dieser Predigt lass mich euch mit einer kurzen Geschichte ermutigen!

Drei Männer wanderten in den Bergen. Sie kämpften sich ihren Weg durch die Bäume und versuchten, ihre Hütte vor dem Einbruch der Nacht zu erreichen. Plötzlich stießen sie auf einen reißenden Fluss. Das Wasser lief den Berg hinunter und die Männer hatten keine Ahnung, wie sie den Fluß überqueren sollten. Aber es gab keine Alternative – sie mussten unbedingt diesen Fluss überqueren, aber sie wussten nicht wie.

Der erste Mann betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker. Dann warf er sich in den Fluss hinein und schwamm auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer. Ein paar Mal ist er untergegangen und wäre fast ertrunken. Aber, endlich, ist es ihm gelungen, das Ufer zu erreichen, und er schleppte sich total erschöpft an Land.

Der zweite Mann beobachtete den ersten Mann und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft und die Mittel, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich wurden seine Arme größer; seine Brust erweiterte sich und seine Beine wurden stärker; und ein Kanu tauchte vor ihm auf. Er paddelte eine lange Stunde durch das Wasser und schließlich, total erschöpft und nachdem er zweimal gekentert war, schleppte er sich aus dem Wasser und auf das gegenüberliegende Ufer.

Der dritte Mann hatte die zwei Freunde beobachtet und er betete: „Gott, gib mir bitte die Kraft, die Mittel… und die Intelligenz, um diesen Fluss zu überqueren.“ Pouff! Plötzlich verwandelte ihn Gott in eine Frau! Er schaute in seine Handtasche, holte eine Karte heraus, ging hundert Meter das Ufer entlang, und überquerte die Brücke.

Gebet kann uns überraschen. Im Gebet beschäftigen wir uns nicht nur mit Gott, der unser Vater im Himmel ist, sondern wir setzen uns – unsere Weltanschauung, unsere Art zu sehen, zu denken und zu handeln – dem prüfenden Licht von Gottes Wesen und Willen aus. Wenn wir durch das Beten nicht verändert werden, dann, wahrscheinlich, beten wir nicht.

Vor dieser Herausforderung stehe ich, wenn wir jeden Tag im House of Lords mit Gebet anfangen. Den Geschäften der Regierung und der nationalen Gesetzgeber gehen mehrere Gebete voraus, beginnend mit dem Vaterunser – keine leere Wiederholung vertrauter Worte, sondern eine bewusste Öffnung für Gottes Art, die Welt und die Agenda vor uns zu sehen. Es ist mir immer sehr unangenehm. Es sollte uns allen unangenehm sein, wenn wir unsere Debatten an Gottes Gedanken messen. Wessen Reich sollte kommen? Wessen Wille soll auf Erden geschehen … und nach wessen Kriterien? Im Bezug auf die Lieferung von Waffen nach Ukraine, zum Beispiel? Oder Maßnahmen, die die demokratischen Freiheiten der britischen Bevölkerung einschränken?

Beten ist zu keiner Zeit einfach – tatsächlich genauso komplex wie eine menschliche Beziehung. Wenn ich wissen möchte, was meine Frau denkt, kann ich das nicht einfach tun, indem ich ihr gelegentlich sage, was ich von ihr will. Gemeinsam müssen wir ein Gespräch pflegen, das sich im Laufe der Zeit ändert, wenn wir in Liebe und Hingabe wachsen. Im Laufe der Jahre verändert sich unser Gespräch. Wenn ich jetzt mit meiner Frau dasselbe Gespräch führe wie vor 45 Jahren, ist etwas schief gelaufen. Und so ist es mit dem Gebet. Die Beziehung wächst und die Sprache ändert sich.

Das Gebet schafft hinter den Augen eine Linse, durch die wir den Geist – den Sinn – Gottes allmählich klarer wahrnehmen können. Und dazu lädt Jesus seine Freunde ein, wenn sie ihn um Anleitung zum Beten bitten. Was Jesus in Lukas 11 und seiner längeren Form in Matthäus 6 anbietet, ist ein Manifest für sein Reich – das heißt, wie wir Gott, die Welt und einander im Licht von Gottes Blick sehen sollten. Deshalb muss uns das Gebet herausfordern, um uns zu transformieren. Und es gibt keine Abkürzungen zur Transformation.

Der Schlüssel liegt in den einleitenden Worten: „Vater! Dein Name wurde geheiligt“.

“Vater.” Die erste Erwähnung Gottes als Vater in den Heiligen Schriften erfolgt im Exodus, als der Pharao gebeten wird, die Israeliten zu befreien. Jesus verbindet Gott also bewusst mit Befreiung. Aber Befreiung erfordert die aktive Zustimmung derjenigen, die befreit werden sollen. Schließlich hätten sich die Israeliten dafür entscheiden können, in der Vertrautheit Ägyptens zu bleiben, anstatt es zu verlassen und das Risiko einzugehen, das Rote Meer zu überqueren.

Das Wort Vater ist aus dem aramäischen Abba übersetzt, was dieser Beziehung, die im Gebet wächst, ein Gefühl der Intimität verleiht. Aber darauf folgt sofort: „Dein Name werde geheiligt.“ Heilig. Getrennt. Intimität gefolgt von Ehrfurcht. Die Heiligkeit wird so angerufen, dass sie implizit meinen Mangel an Heiligkeit anerkennt … und daher die Notwendigkeit für den Rest des Gebets.

Ich habe mich oft gefragt, ob die Sprache der Anbetung und der Lieder der Kirche uns entweder Intimität oder Distanz bietet, aber nicht ein Gleichgewicht zwischen beidem. In England betont der Aufstieg charismatischer Anbetungslieder die Intimität und verliert manchmal das Element der Ehrfurcht, das unseren Mund verschließt und uns, wie Jesaja, in Schweigen lässt. (Bestimmt hat Johann Sebastian Bach das verstanden – genauso wie bei der Kantate heute, wenn die Musik und die Worte uns zum Schweigen bringen.) Dennoch sprechen viele traditionelle Hymnen von Wahrheiten über Gott und bieten wenig Raum für Emotionen. Jesus bringt beides in seinem Gebet zusammen: Gott ist unser Vater, aber er ist auch der Schöpfer des Universums und nicht nur mein bester Freund.

Das ist für mich in einem wunderbaren Lied des kanadischen Musikers Bruce Cockburn zusammengefasst. Die Worte sind in meinen bischöflichen Ring eingraviert – ein Zeichen meiner pastoralen Verantwortungen als Bischof: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.” („Liebe, die die Sonne entzündet, hält mich am Brennen.“) Da haben wir es wieder: das Kosmische und das Intime in Liebe zusammengehalten.

Und hier kommen wir wieder auf die Herausforderung des Willens Gottes zurück. In meiner Diözese versuche ich immer wieder, Pfarrer/innen dazu zu bewegen, ihren Gemeinden beizubringen, die Worte des Vaterunsers richtig auszusprechen. Das heißt: Wenn ich durch Gottes Augen auf Gott, die Welt und mich/uns blicken soll, was könnte ich erwarten, in Bezug auf die Realität unserer gegenwärtigen Erfahrung zu sehen? Oder anders gefragt: Wenn Gottes Königreich kommen soll, wessen Königreich muss vertrieben werden? Denn die Betonung sollte auf dem Pronomen liegen: nicht „Dein Reich komme“, sondern „Dein Reich komme!“ – nicht die Herrschaft von Cäsar oder Putin oder die globalen Finanzsysteme oder die Märkte.

Und wenn Gottes Königreich hier und jetzt zu sehen wäre, wie würde es aussehen? Menschen würden satt, Sünden würden vergeben und Menschen würden nicht in Versuchung geführt. Hier würden wir die menschliche Gesellschaft sehen, die von gegenseitiger Liebe und Verantwortlichkeit geprägt ist. Tatsächlich bin ich der Hüter meines Bruders. Und ich kann von Gott das nicht erwarten, was ich denen, unter denen ich lebe, nicht anzubieten bereit bin.

Nun, dies befasst sich eindeutig nicht mit der Komplexität der menschlichen Ethik in einer komplexen Welt. Dieses Gebet beantwortet nicht jede Frage nach Werten und Gemeinschaftsverhalten. Es sagt uns nicht direkt, wie wir den Krieg in der Ukraine, den Krieg im Jemen, oder die Herausforderung der Einwanderung in Europa angehen sollen – noch nicht einmal die Folgen des Brexit. Aber es eröffnet uns die Möglichkeit, dass meine Vorurteile in Frage gestellt werden müssen. Metanoia – Buße – Veränderung.

Der Schlüssel steht wiederum am Anfang des Gebets: „Dein Name werde geheiligt.“ Für uns im Westen ist unser Name wie ein Etikett, ein Identifikator. Meine afrikanischen Freunde finden das lustig. Als wir in London lebten, hatte mein jüngster Sohn einen Freund, der Nigerianer war. Ich habe einmal den Fehler gemacht, ihn nach seinem vollen Namen zu fragen – wir kannten ihn nur als Temi. Er hatte ungefähr fünfzehn Namen, die ihm alle von Mitgliedern seiner Familie und der örtlichen Gemeinde gegeben wurden, als er noch ein Baby war. Und jeder Name sprach von dem, was sie in ihm sahen oder auf ihn hofften. Namen hatten eine Bedeutung, und die Person sollte dem Namen, der ihnen gegeben wurde, gerecht werden oder darin leben.

So ist es für das Volk Gottes in der Bibel. Wenn wir von Gottes Namen sprechen, erschließen wir seine Natur, seinen Charakter, wer Gott ist. Und das wirft natürlich die Frage auf: Was ist eigentlich Gottes Charakter? Die Antwort lautet: Lies die Heilige Schrift und schaue schließlich auf Jesus. Wir lesen also die Evangelien und sehen, wie Gott ist, wie sein Reich aussehen wird (Heilungen, Provokation der Verlierer, auf den Kopf gestellte Werte usw.). Und die Logik ist ganz einfach: Wenn Christen „in Christus“ sind, müssen sie wie Jesus aussehen … was uns den Charakter – den Namen – Gottes zeigt.

Wenn wir dieses Gebet beten, streben wir daher danach, verändert zu werden und zu Akteuren bei der Veränderung der Welt zu werden. In diesem Sinne sollten wir das Gebet Jesu wie folgt lesen:

Vater!

Geheiligt werde DEIN Name.

DEIN Reich komme.

Gib uns UNSER täglich Brot Tag für Tag

Und vergib UNS UNSERE Sünden;

denn auch WIR vergeben JEDEM, der an UNS schuldig wird.

Und so weiter.

Dieses Gebet vereint Christen auf der ganzen Welt und zu allen Zeiten – auch wenn uns so viele andere Dinge trennen. Dieses Gebet ist nicht unser Besitz – es gehört Jesu – auf Englisch: the Lord’s Prayer. Aber wir sind eingeladen, mitzumachen – mit Zuversicht und Demut, in Anbetung und Hingabe.

Aber wie die Männer, die zu Beginn dieser Predigt in den Bergen wandern, müssen wir offen sein für die Kraft, die Werkzeuge und die überraschende Weisheit Gottes, wenn wir gemeinsam durch eine komplizierte Welt navigieren wollen.