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…