December 2010

It was too good to last. Christmas joy, lots of family and celebration, and England win the Ashes in a game I never watch. Then this: Liverpool 0-1 Wolves.

I wouldn’t so much mind Liverpool losing, if they at least played like a team that was interested in being on the pitch in the first place. It’s the lack of passion. I have no idea if it is Roy Hodgson’s fault or if the rot goes deeper. But, we Liverpool fans are not used to being in 12th position at the turn of the year – only three points above the relegation zone. Desperate. And embarrassing when half your mates are Chelsea, Spurs or Man Utd fans.

I’m beginning to wonder if it’s my support that is sporting death to any team that claims my affections. Croydon’s own Crystal Palace drew last night and remain stuck in the Championship relegation zone – Bradford City lost 4:0 to Cheltenham Town. With an effect like this, I might just start supporting Man Utd…

It’s just as well I am rooted in a theology of hope. Hope does not depend on particular circumstances, but in being constant whatever the particular circumstances of life might be. Put bluntly, Christian hope is not in God keeping me alive and happy or healthy and fulfilled; rather, it is in the God who has the final word (‘resurrection’) in a world that thinks violence and death have ultimate power. In other words, the circumstances might change – and get better or worse – but I won’t blow in the wind.

I’m even hopeful about Liverpool. I’ll stick with them, come what may. But, I feel like the Hebrew people in exile, hanging on to words that promise a better future. One day.

(I can still be miserable, though!)

Christmas Day has moved on into memory. The Boxing Day sales couldn’t be thwarted even by the latest Tube strike. Liverpool’s revenge on Blackpool has been delayed because of a frozen football pitch. The government seems to have decided that helping children to read might be a good idea after all. And I wonder if the first Easter eggs have already started to appear in the shops…

The end of December always feels like getting to the top of a very high ladder – we’ve been heading up it all year. Then the parties of New Year’s Eve give way to the feeling of being at the very bottom of the ladder again, faced with the prospect of doing the whole thing again. It’s a funny psychology, but you can see why some people love the last week of December, but dread the first week of January – especially when the credit card bills come in in the cold light of day.

Nothing ever stands still. I have just re-read the Preface to Dr Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in which he recognises that languages can never remain fixed (despite his own desire to resist corruptions of English by referring only to its use by pre-Restoration writers), but thinks that dialects will die out as written dictionaries fix meanings.

Yet, this is one of the ironies of life. Every time we predict that we have ‘arrived’, something else pops up to thwart our sense of security. Whenever we think technology will homogenise human experience or communication, real life confounds the prophets. Just when we think that globalisation will turn the whole world into plastic, the peculiarities of uncontrollable local cultures arise and assert their place in defiance of ‘inevitabilities’.

Last week it was reported that the Chinese government is to limit non-Chinese words in their media and, thereby, to preserve the purity of the language (and, therefore, cultural identity). They should learn from Johnson, the French Academie Francaise and the failed attempts by Germans to fix their tongue in some state of  ideologically pure suspension. A living language cannot be nailed for ever – especially by controlling governments – and the attempt is futile. (Which is not the same as saying, therefore, that Humpty Dumpty was right all along and words can be made to mean whatever we want them to mean – etymology isn’t redundant and language never develops randomly.)

Yesterday we celebrated that God did not remain an idea ‘logos’, but came among us as one of us in a way any human being can recognise. The ultimate in communication. We can play games with words, but human living and dying is common experience to everyone who has ever breathed.

However, Christmas is the beginning of the story, not the end. The baby grew up – presumably, through childhood (and all the ways children grow and learn), through adolescence (and all the ways young people grow into adulthood and the challenges this brings… not least to parents) and into responsible adulthood. The ‘idea’ did not remain a generality, but became ‘particular’: someone, somehow, somewhere.

The challenge for the churches is how to encourage – creatively, consistently and imaginatively – people who get stuck with the baby in a manger to stay with the story right the way through to Calvary and beyond. Jesus didn’t stand still. The ‘Word’ became flesh and grew, changed and developed.

What that means and what that looks like is the task for the next few months. (After we’ve partied our way through the next week, that is.)

So what is Christmas all about? Without giving a lecture or sermon.

Christmas is God opting into the messiness of the world and not exempting himself from it. (Me)

The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, put it like this:

God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope.

And the unsurpassed poet-songwriter-musician Bruce Cockburn writes:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

Nuff said.

Vince Cable might be out of a job soon – despite the decision to keep him on as Business Secretary for now. His injudicious remarks to posing-as-constituents undercover journalists from the Telegraph might well be enough to get him the push eventually. You can’t afford to tell the truth in politics, after all – even if you think you have the power to bring a government down and win a ‘war on Murdoch’.

Clearly, the revelation of Cable’s ‘war on Murdoch’ makes it difficult for him to claim impartiality in making the ultimate judgement on News Corp’s take-over of BSkyB. So, it is right that this judgement has been removed from him. But, it should not be inferred from this that Murdoch’s bid is somehow validated – or that it should now get an easier ride – despite the cries of righteous indignation that will (inevitably and justifiably) emanate from the Empire. The bid is questionable on a number of grounds and needs to be examined on impartial grounds if the eventual judgement is to have the credibility that really matters in the fast-changing media environment.

But, the ethics of journalists pretending to be constituents and secretly recording Cable are also questionable (at the very least). The same people who complain about dissembling politicians seem not to be able to understand why public figures feel compelled to dissemble in the first place. We create a vicious and unedifying circle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thinking aloud for a moment, what are the alternatives? Would we applaud a government in which every individual Minister said publicly what they really think about every issue? Or would we deride such a government for being ill-disciplined, ego-driven and hopelessly inept? We (the media and the public who love the drama of scandal and the schadenfreude of seeig th mighty fall) seem to want it both ways.

Cable got it badly wrong. But, he wasn’t the only one who should be questioning his ethics.

Postscript 22 December: If Vince Cable is compromised in being the adjudicator of the Murdoch bid by the partisan comments he has made, why is Jeremy Hunt not compromised by the same?

It’s a bit weird being announced as the new bishop of a place. You get a day of full-on introductions to people and places, then come home and it’s as if nothing happened. As it will do for the next couple of months at least, life carries on – apart from answering hundreds of mostly positive emails, tweets and text messages, that is). And I’m still not sure if I’ll get out to Norbury this morning – the snow and ice are packed where I live in Croydon.

It’s a good parallel to the approach to Christmas itself. We read the Christmas stories as a great irruption into the life of the world – which in one sense it was; but, when you read the Gospels it is obvious that God came among us in Jesus in such a way that most of the world just didn’t notice. Life carried on: shepherds shepherding, kings plotting, babies being born and people running businesses. God comes into the ordinary where life just carries on. And it’s in the ordinary that God has a habit of sneaking up on us and surprising us – just when we thought it was safe to go out.

Another reason for musing on this is that some people clearly didn’t understand why we announced the new Bishop of Bradford at the National Media Museum rather than in a church or cathedral. I gather one or two of the photographers who covered the event were particularly bemused. Well, here’s why.

Context: Christmas is one week away. Christmas is about God coming into the heart of the world in all its messy complexity and contradiction. It is about God surprising his people by subverting their expectation: Messiah was supposed to come in clouds of glory to expel the oppressive Roman occupiers and restore his people’s freedom. instead, he comes as a baby and grows up to be one who challenges the expectation of a God whose sole job it is to solve human problems and make life OK for us. Read Mark 1 and Jesus himself asks people to dare to believe that God is present even while the problems persist (i.e. the blasphemous Roman occupation). This is God opting into the world’s messiness and not exempting himself from it.

Content: Christmas is the ultimate in communication. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’; the Word did not remain a good idea locked up beautifully in a place of worship. This is why the Church exists for the sake of the world and not vice versa. We see in Jesus who God is, what he is like and how he is. The photographers might prefer to visually reinforce the image (prejudice or stereotype?) of the bishop ‘doing church’, but we wanted to visually demonstrate that the church is placed right at the heart of the ‘world’ – the city or community – and is here to communicate something of who and how God is. We can’t be kept confined in our churches, however wonderful and important they might be.

The National Media Museum was ideal. First, it adjoins the tower block (Wardley House) where I spent several years studying modern languages at university in Bradford. Second, it overlooks the city and its townscape. Third, it focuses on communication – something that lies at the core of God’s activity and the Church’s vocation. Fourth, they were wonderfully welcoming and accommodating – as befits a place with great imagination and openness. Fifth, ordination didn’t enable me to bilocate; like Jesus, we have to be particular in being somewhere – which means we can’t be somewhere else. Later on, of course, we went to Skipton and had a welcome event in the church there (on a hill, overlooking the town and market, reminding us again that we always come out of church to face the reality and ordinariness of the world in which we are set.

Bradford Cathedral is clearly a much valued and respected place. The Dean is superb and I look forward very much to working with him and other excellent colleagues in building our worship life, creating communities of Christians who are open to the world, encouraging Christians to be confident about their Gospel being transformative, enabling churches to be places and communities of welcome and generosity, challenging where we become complacent and encouraging where we become downhearted. The Church needs to be built up – but as a means to a greater end and not simply as an end in itself.

I look forward with geat enthusiasm to getting to know at first hand the churches, parishes and people of the Diocese of Bradford. I also look forward to building good relations with the local media as we have a common vocation to tell stories and build a community. And I really look forward to spending time at the wonderful National Media Museum, reflecting on what we are here for and thinking about good communication of Good News.

I probably will have to find a better image than the one below (which provided the backdrop to the welcome event). I can feel a caption competition coming on…

It has been announced by 10 Downing Street this morning (15 minutes earlier than planned!) that I am to be the next Bishop of Bradford. We’re heading back north. Given the way these things work, it isn’t possible to say when we will move or when I’ll start officially, but my feet will be under the table by spring or early summer. I think.

The Diocese of Bradford faces an uncertain few years following the report by the Dioceses Commission last week which proposed radical reform of the dioceses in West and North West Yorkshire. So, why leave Southwark/Croydon now?

Simple. It is a privilege to be asked to serve and lead this diocese at this time in its history. We need to keep our eyes on the purpose for which the Church exists and help shape the structures which will best enable us to fulfil it. I look forward to working with clergy and parishes in confidently living the Good News of Jesus Christ and working for the common good – that is, the flourishing of the whole society at a time of enormous economic and social challenge. There is loads to do in both urban and rural areas.

The next few years will bring great challenges: economically, politically and culturally. I hope to encourage confidence in the Christian Church, the unique and particular role of the Church of England and the development of sensitive ministry and outreach in a multifaith context. The task of communicating and living the Good News is great – but so are the opportunities.

Urban and rural communities face different challenges and I look forward to getting to know the whole diocese as quickly as possible. The unique interfaith relationships in this part of Yorkshire are vital to a flourishing society and I will engage fully in developing them for the ‘Common Good’. I am committed to focusing on the Church as the servant of the Kingdom of God – a church with the vision and courage to shape its future in this wonderful part of the world.

I was at university in Bradford from 1976-1980 studying German and French. I did a six-week placement here while at theological college – just after the Bradford football stadium fire. I remember the impact on the people affected and the amazing work done by the Burns Unit at a local hospital. But, this is an area and a diocese I now need to rediscover.

I will bring to this new role my experience of the secular world and ministry in rural, urban, suburban and small town contexts. I hope my background in communications, outreach and engagement with wider society will be of use to the diocese. My weaknesses and failings will also come with me – and I hope people will be patient as I learn.

Enough for now – there are people to meet and things to be done. For now suffice it to say that I will be sorry to leave the wonderful clergy, people, parishes and communities of the Croydon Episcopal Area. But, I look forward with hope, trust and gratitude to moving back up north and discovering where the light of Christ is shining in the messiness and glory of this part of the world.

More anon…

I don’t often get to watch live football on the telly, so Liverpool vs Utrecht tonight should be a rare treat. It is tedious beyond words. So, I glanced at my desk and found Dr Samuel Johnson‘s Preface to the Dictionary staring at me invitingly.

Before you think I’m being clever here, I have to admit that it was passed on to me by the Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral who did her doctorate on Johnson and did an intriguing address about him (and ‘translation’) recently.

In paragraph 3 Johnson says (miserably):

When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules; wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.

Good grief, I thought. He could have been writing about the blogosphere. It’s a jungle of ideas out there and people express themselves on a myriad of themes in a myriad of ways. There are few rules and loads of unprincipled adulterations.

Iain Dale has decided to call it a day for now. I’m not sure he just didn’t get bored with it – the relentless need to write and keep it up to the minute. I understand the feeling. But, I think the blogosphere offers fantastic scope for expression, debate, learning, trying ideas, listening to people we don’t usually get to meet, and so on.

Anyway, to stop doing it simply abandons the space to the screamers and shouters. I have a funny sense that Dr Johnson would have blogged – if only to bring some order to the huge explosion of words in use. Maybe ‘copious without order’ needs to grow into ‘concise with order’. Maybe.

I warned you.

The excellent blues/reggae musician Tim Hain got nowhere with X Factor – probably because he is a musician.

In a funny attempt to divert attention (and sales?) from the nice young man who won the 2010 competition tonight, Tim and his mates have posted the video of Sorry It’s a No. You can buy the download here.

Happy subverting!

It’s been a busy week and there hasn’t been much time for hitting the keys.

I even managed to miss the 30th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon. Not that I forgot,  but just didn’t have time to say anything about it or reflect on the ongoing significance of Lennon’s life and music. I was going to ask Chris Evans about it when I stood in at the last minute to do Pause for Thought on his Radio 2 breakfast show yesterday morning (Friday) – he once expressed to me the irony of John Lennon writing ‘Imagine no possessions’ at a massively expensive piano in a massively expensive house on a massively expensive estate. But, he had Rick Astley (who neither gave us up nor let us down) and the very funny Peter Kay in the studio and there wasn’t time.

On the way to the BBC studios I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the streets around Oxford Circus because of the violence of the previous night’s riots and destruction over education cuts and increased university fees. But, the roads were clear and all evidence of trouble had been cleared away. Anyway, I got there, did the broadcast and then carried on in a cafe with a meeting about interfaith work in Kazakhstan. Weird, I know.

The script I did on Friday was about Advent: Putting the waiting back into wanting. I nicked the phrase from a major credit card advert from some years ago which promised to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’ (while failing to point out that the ensuing unnecessary debt might eventually be bad for you). Advent beckons us to slow down and not rush the story: don’t get to Christmas before you’ve worked through the story that makes sense of it. After all, you can’t get to summer without going through spring.

These are not actually random thoughts about the last week. Each event is connected by at least one idea: imagination.

  • John Lennon, for all his absurdities, hypocrisies and contradictions (for which he is not exactly unique…) at least imagined a world that was different from the one he lived in. Yes, some of this was more fantasy than hope, but his restlessness with how things actually are compelled him to imagine a different world.
  • It looks like the genuine anger and frustration of students is being hijacked by the usual ‘let’s-spark-a-riot’ suspects. But, it also seems that underneath all this protesting lies a genuine frustration with the way things are and the apparent impotence of ordinary people to do anything about it. Put bluntly, I wonder if the (unarticulated?) root of this anger is that the generation that created – and benefitted from – the disastrous greed culture of the last couple of decades is now compelling the succeeding generations to pay the price for this massive miscalculation. A case of ‘the sins of the fathers (and grandfathers) being visited on succeeding generations of the innocent? Dissatisfaction with the way things are provokes a casting around for what might be.

This longing for a different future seems to be fundamental to human existence. It’s almost as if we are made that way. Augustine recognised it when he said that ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [God]’. Maybe it is the same impulse that makes us pursue the scientific, philosophical or anthropological project – the restless search for understanding why the world is the way it is and why it came to be this way.

And this is where Advent comes in. Christmas is meaningless if it is just the pointless (if touching) story of a baby being born out of wedlock. Advent offers four weeks in which we can rehearse the story  – of people’s experience of God, the world and each other – which then make the Christmas events comprehensible and explicable. Four weeks in which we get to put the waiting (for God coming among us as one of us) back into wanting (the light we keep hoping, working and longing for).

We anticipate Christmas. But we won’t rush it. Because we need the time and space to allow our imagination to be re-shaped – beginning to see the way the world could be, the person I could become.

Imagination isn’t fantasy. Imagination is what some of us think God applied when he said, “Let it be” and smiled with pleasure at what emerged.

Why are some people fearful of engaging with the media?

Well, you only have to know anyone who’s fallen foul of them to know why keeping your distance might be a wise tactic. So, given that I know plenty of people who would include themselves in that category, why do some of us keep getting stuck in?

Last Sunday I was asked to address a hundred or so theological students (St Milletus College) on the theme ‘Old message, new media’ – a theme that got me asking questions about language, content and confidence. Having commended engaging with old media and new social networking media (in a disciplined way, of course), I emphasised three points:

  • we need to be confident about the message we hope to communicate via various media
  • attention needs to be paid to learning the languages that people speak/hear in order that we can ensure good communication
  • new media offer great new possibilities for (a) giving people access to people (like me – a bishop) whose life and preoccupations might otherwise belong to a remote and mysterious hidden world, (b) engaging outside  and beyond the safe and comfortable territory of those who ‘belong’ to the communities in which we live and work, (c) being present in a space where a different sort of conversation can be had, and (d) allowing connectivity between people, groups and ideas that in a previous generation might not have been possible, even if desirable.

Then, today I went to Cambridge for the first day of an Apologetics Conference at Westcott House. The theme was ‘How Does Today’s Church Engage with Today’s World?’. The first speaker up was Professor Alister McGrath who seems to write a new book every week. He stressed the need for clergy to help their congregations to grapple honestly with tough questions and grow in confidence in the competence of a Christian world view to account for the way the world is (and could become). Critiquing the New Atheists, he made the point that simply making assertions is not the same as rationally arguing a point (something Christians need to note also).

I followed Alister with a ramble through my apologetic method and illustrated what it looks like in my own experience. Key to this approach are the following:

  • objections to religious belief must be taken with the utmost seriousness
  • interlocutors are people with histories, contexts and contingent lives: they are not projects upon whom we work our philosophical or theological games
  • the way Christians speak to and about each other is sometimes so scandalous that many observers get nowhere near hearing the ‘good news’ behind the sheer bad news of how some Christians behave (parodied as ‘They’ll know we are Christians by the intensity of our mutual loathing…’)
  • Christians need to model the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ and change the rumour about God and the church
  • we must start on other people’s territory and learn their languages – primarily in order to listen and understand before questioning coherence or consistency.

Underlying all this, however, is the conviction that unless Christians are prepared to open themselves to the possibility of changing their mind, they have no right to expect anyone else to do so. Conversation must be respectful and genuinely dialectical.

This was followed by Dr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, who looked briefly at such matters as creation, God, christology, eschatology and pneumatology in their apologetic connection. And he was followed by Ruth Gledhill, Times Religion Correspondent who reflected on journalism, journalists, the Church and media.

Two points need further thinking through on my part.

First is Ruth’s statement that the erection of the Times paywall has (a) vastly reduced the number of screaming nasties on her blog, (b) improved the quality and courtesy of the discourse between those who do engage with her and each other, and (c) led to a recovery of clearer (less distracted) journalism.

Now, I am opposed to the paywall, but I know other news agencies are keen for it to work. A new and effective business (financial) model for journalism is needed if quality journalism is not only to survive, but thrive in the complex new media age. Despite my prejudices about the effects of the paywall model on universal access to news, I hadn’t thought about the potential for the paywall to change/improve the quality of the discourse between those who do engage behind it.

Second was a question posed to me about mad or dangerous Christians – a question to which I did not respond adequately. Having asserted that Christians need to stop bitching about each other and work out their inherent unity as disciples of the Jesus who calls them, how should we then deal with the crazies and horrible nasties who claim the Christian label? Or, put more simply, when is it legitimate to disown and firmly distance ourselves from the loonies?

On initial reflection I think we can say that (a) Christians who, for example, espouse violence should be disowned and distanced, and (b) this should be done in language that still bears the hallmarks of grace and generosity, not arrogance and self-righteousness. More reflection needed on this one.

So, the last few days have exposed me to a wide range of people who are taking really seriously the need for Christians to engage with the wider world on the wider world’s terms, bringing a confident and gracious critique to the world’s presenting agenda, and offering an apologetic for Christian faith that is rationally coherent, emotionally powerful, existentially consistent and makes sense of human experience (which is more than purely rational).

In last Sunday’s Observer Victoria Coren invited theists to own up confidently to their faith:

Come on; let’s make this a fair fight, at least. Identify yourselves, thinking believers! Don’t be cowed into silence by the idea that faith is the weakness of a halfwit, like buying your goldfish Christmas presents or watching ITV2. It isn’t. I’ll start: I believe in God and I’m perfectly intelligent and rational.

Time to stand up. And new media make this possible in new ways. (The Apologetics Conference continues tomorrow, but I won’t be there…)

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