March 2017


This is the script of an article written in London within hours of being released from Westminster Abbey in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament yesterday. It was published in the Yorkshire Post this morning.

When I got to the Bishops’ Room in the House of Lords on Wednesday morning the screen above me said ‘Threat Level Severe’. It usually says that. And I usually ignore it. I park my coat, grab the papers for the day’s sitting, then head for the library or the tea room.

That particular day I had some meetings before preparing to lead Prayers in the chamber at 3pm. I was already in there when a colleague told me that something had happened outside. Within minutes we were locked down and told to remain in the chamber. The rest is, as they say, history.

Having been moved by heavily armed and camouflaged police to a courtyard at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, we could look through the archway to the scene where the policeman Keith Palmer had been killed by a terrorist. The story of the mayhem outside was beginning to drip through. School children on a visit to Parliament were kept with us while we awaited further instruction. Having been moved into Westminster Hall, scene of many triumphs and tragedies throughout history, we were eventually taken over to Westminster Abbey where we remained until released around 9pm.

From a Palace of democracy to an Abbey of prayer.

The police were magnificent throughout. The emergency services were massively impressive. Parliamentary staff were utterly professional. Westminster Abbey swung into action and showed not only pastoral care (and prayer), but also the hospitality that characterises such places. Parliamentarians, visitors and officials – more than 1,000 of us – used the time to talk and wait and conduct the sort of human relationships that defy the chaos that some would wish to reap. People around Westminster showed courage and compassion, helping the injured and dying on the bridge, holding those whose life had been horribly changed for ever.

Here we saw the worst and the best of humanity. And here we saw the brutal reality of human mortality in a world that shares both fragile beauty and appalling violence.

I am writing this only two hours after getting out of Westminster, so my thoughts are immediate rather than considered. But, my thoughts are irrelevant to those of the families torn apart by this particular violence. So, why offer them now?

Well, it is human to wish to bring order out of chaos, to make some shape from the destructive formlessness of mayhem. In the coming days millions of words will be written and spoken about how this criminal tragedy happened. Many will provide analysis, others judgment. Assumptions will be made about the motives or mental state of the perpetrator. And, no doubt, his religious affiliation – should there have been one – will be held up for inspection and condemnation. And why not?

The problem with religion is that it involves people. Violence is not a religious problem, it is primarily a human one. It all too often has a religious root or complexion, but violence is not the sole preserve of religious individuals or communities. If you don’t believe me, then look at the mass murders that characterised the 20th century. But, that does not exonerate or excuse violence when it does have a religious root.

Human beings seem to find violence and destructiveness quite easy to slip into. Yet, at the heart of Christian faith is a man who was crucified by religious and pagan imperial powers that couldn’t cope with love or mercy or forgiveness or generosity. Jesus wasn’t a mere do-gooder who annoyed people by telling them to be endlessly nice to each other. Rather, he got nailed because he lived and embodied and taught a faith that was so radical that it placed a huge question mark above the natural impulses of human beings to love power.

And yet even those who follow him find it easy to miss the point and turn protection of the faith into a commodity of power or preservation.

And Christians are not alone in this. Religious people are always prone to lose the heart of their faith to a divine construct designed to justify their own narrow interests. This is why the Old Testament prophets cry out at the tragic irony of a people who worship a merciful God whilst displaying anything but mercy to those around them. It is a scandal. But, it is also deeply human.

So, what is there to say about the carnage in Westminster? Well, it happened. It is impossible to have total security. The Palace of Westminster is about as intimidating as you can get: armed police everywhere, security checks at every entrance and exit, concrete blocks and solid railings surround the buildings. But, there is no such thing as total security. Determined people, lone-wolves set on murder and mayhem, will not be stopped by barricades. It is the responsibility of everyone to be alert to danger.

And now life must carry on. Parliament resumes and I shall lead Prayers at 11am on Thursday. We will express our grief, shock and sadness – especially for those killed, injured, bereaved or traumatised by the events of Wednesday. But, then we shall carry on and do our business in the two Houses of Parliament. Democracy will not be damned by this violence.

The murderer would have been disappointed to find that he didn’t stop the world – he just got off while we carry on.

The beginning of wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, is fear of God. This means simply that when we acknowledge our own human fragility, weakness and accountability to more than ourselves, we begin to live with humility, generosity and carefulness. It might sound a bit deep, but it is this wisdom that emerges from Westminster today: that we might reflect the mercy of God in how we serve one another – especially where innocent blood is shed.

 

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (written late last night after getting out of Parliament):

I entered the chamber of the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, ready to lead prayers. A colleague came in and said there had been an incident outside involving gunshots. Very quickly the whole of the Palace of Westminster was locked down. Over the next five hours we were moved from place to place, ending up for several hours in Westminster Abbey.

The normality of the day had been ripped apart in acts of wanton violence that beggar imagination. The ordinariness of life – tourists posing for photos with policemen at the gates of Parliament, people walking to and from work – collapsed in tragedy and misery. Words cannot comprehend the depths of shock as news filtered through of what had happened. Someone said to me: “the world feels less safe today.”

The world of words is not short of explanations or interrogations. Even before we know the facts, judgments are made. This is inevitable in a world of instant communication. But, words are also needed as we attempt to grasp what has happened.

I turn to the Psalms. This Hebrew poetry collection is not for the squeamish or those who like to keep their religion tidy. One minute these poets are laughing at the absurdities of human beings, the next they are raging at God because of the injustices and cruelties of this world. And they were certainly no strangers to violence or horror. They knew what it was to be hunted; but they also knew the power of mercy and love and hope.

And that reflects what many of us in Parliament witnessed yesterday. While we were being kept secure by a remarkable police force, they were outside dealing with the unknowns of terror and the loss of a colleague. The parliamentary staff were professional and, as always courteous. Visitors, including parties of school children, were looked after by MPs who managed to keep everything calm and human. The emergency services did their stuff with discretion, skill and humanity. Westminster Abbey took in over one thousand people and made the experience as good as they could.

Yesterday we saw the worst of human depravity – that empty, soulless vacuum from which joy has been sucked – but the Abbey was filled with conversation as we saw the best of human society and compassion. And maybe the Abbey was the best place for us to be – a place not only of refuge and mercy, but a locus of hope… a place whose very stones bear witness to the mess and muck as well as to the glory of human beings who struggle to make sense of it all. Here God is worshipped and here people laugh and weep and think and speak. Here is a space that refuses to stick God in a box where he can remain unsullied by the realities of a complex life.

Parliament will resume today and life will carry on. But, my prayers are for those whose lives are now for ever changed.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show with Michael Ball:

If you are anything like me, there are times in the day when you just need to switch your mind and give your ‘serious head’ a bit of a break. That’s what the internet is for – social media in particular.

One I turn to simply posts clips from local newspapers or photos of newspaper billboards. I can’t tell you the title because it’s a bit rude – but it always makes me laugh. Try these genuine headlines:

“Dog ate pair of giant knickers”

“Delight as man grows banana in garden” (That’s Surrey for you.)

“Chaos as badgers snub their new home”

Chaos?! Life must be quiet in Macclesfield.

The best of the recent ones – actually from the Somerset Gazette – has to be: “Village People upset at YMCA plans”.

It’s not exactly at the level of North Korea and the threat of nuclear conflict, is it? Or even how many full-time jobs a man can have?

But, for most people the local is as important as the national or the global. What happens in the neighbourhood has an impact on your day in a way that Russian espionage against Hillary Clinton does not. ‘Nude man’s rampage at tea rooms’ might be a bigger story in Cambridge than Harrogate in the same way that windy weather in London is irrelevant to the hardy northerner.

Why does this matter? Well, principally because it reminds us of what a songwriter once called “the greatness of the small”. For Christians this is bread and butter to the way we see our faith and the world: God comes among us, as one of us, at a particular time and in a particular place – in Jesus of Nazareth.

The small matters – just as the local matters. In a world that trumpets greatness, power, wealth and image (if not always truth), I believe we can make a powerful difference to one person by paying attention to what lies before our very eyes. As the proverb goes: change the world for one person and you change the world. Which is the spirit in which to understand Comic Relief this week.

So, today I’ll laugh when I read the hot news that “Puddle splash victim vows revenge” and remember that loving your neighbour starts just here.

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning:

I am suspicious of straplines and convoluted vision statements that are quickly forgotten or whose formulation are seen as an end in itself. This suspicion might have something to do with the fact that when I was Vicar of Rothley in the Diocese of Leicester in the 1990s I worked with my Baptist colleague to set up an annual festival. Naturally, we called it the Rothley Festival. All was fine until someone decided to create some headed notepaper for me as the Chair. Under my name was our strapline: Nick Baines – Putting the Rot back into Rothley.

I suppose it was funny really.

Our diocesan strapline, however, is different. Loving Living Learning might better be described as a statement of our values. Simple, short and memorable, it is offered to our parishes and institutions as a prism through which our priorities, mission and activities can be refracted – or a lens through which we are enabled to keep things simple, clear and visible.

You will remember that when our diocese began at Easter 2014 I had to articulate a vision for it in a challenging context framed by an absence of governance, infrastructure or common systems. That articulation still holds: to create a vibrant diocese (vibrating in the tension between the wind of the Spirit and the wind of the world) equipping confident clergy to enable confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in our region. This has always been the vocation of the Christian Church; all we were doing was to call us back to our core vocation.

However, we simplified this into Confident Christians – Growing Churches – Transforming Communities. This worked well as a guide for our churches and diocese in focusing us on what and for whom we are here. So far, so good.

Then, when opening our new office in Leeds and addressing the need to attend to our visual identity, we employed a company new to working with the church. They didn’t know what we were trying to say – or, more specifically, what our offer is to the wider world that is not in church. In other words, we were speaking to ourselves in a language that meant something only to us. So, a fine articulation of vision and priorities for internal consumption. But, if the world with whom we wish to engage is to catch a glimpse of what we offer – good news – we needed something more… to shine a fresh light on it.

And that is where Loving Living Learning came from. As soon as we drafted it, our company got it. And now we offer it as a prism or lens.

The most fundamental command – or invitation – in the Bible is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourself. This pertains primarily to worship … and the ethical injunction to reflect the nature of the God we worship in the way we order our lives and our society. We love God, our neighbour and the world that is God’s creation. You can see the themes that might emerge within that framework: the environment, social ethics, political order, and so on.

Christianity is an incarnational faith. We are committed to the world as it is, getting stuck in and not exempting ourselves from all that the world can throw at us. Christian discipleship is not an insurance policy against trouble; if anything, it might well invite trouble. Jesus was not crucified for getting his vocation or his message wrong. Loving our neighbour means loving our neighbourhood and striving for the flourishing of individuals and our community or society. If God loved the world so much, then so must we. And this implies that our living in the world is done with the sort of faith and joy, rooted in resurrection and hope in a God who is not defeated by violence or death, that surprises earth with heaven and offers an alternative to the anger and fatalism that too easily pervades our public discourse.

How, then, should our church behave, prioritise its resources, demonstrate its commitment to all people, looking something like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels and whose ‘body’ we are told we are? This applies to manifestations of the church anywhere and at any level – parish, diocese, nation, Anglican Communion.

We are not good at all this, are we? Which is why we need to be people who are unafraid to do the learning that characterises a community shaped by a confident humility. Do we think we have nailed every detail of theology and ethics? No. Do we need to have the humility to keep learning. You bet. A church that knows its mortality and its fragility is more likely to be open to people who discover theirs.

Loving. Living. Learning.

So, when we look at the PCC agenda, is it possible to refract the business through this prism? How does each item contribute towards us being a loving, living and learning church for the sake of others? And when we look at the agenda and priorities of this emerging diocese, how does this prism offer a way of keeping us focused on what really matters – keeping things as simple as we can in order not to get bogged down in a million distractions? How do our buildings help or hinder us in this? How will the allocation of diminishing numbers of stipendiary clergy reflect these priorities or values?

These questions are pertinent to our agenda today. We live in a context in which the Church of England (but not just the Church of England) wrestles with demanding questions and claims. How are we to address the question of marriage and same sex relationships in a way that honours all people as children of God while paying attention to the biblical text and the wider ethical questions this raises. If the House of Bishops report to the last General Synod was inadequate, then I look forward to hearing the solution from those who didn’t like it – especially as the reasons for not liking it are actually diametrically opposed to each other in many cases. So, how are we as a loving, living and learning church to conduct this apparently unresolvable debate in a way that is godly, honest and resists the easy fragmentation against which the cross stands as a scandal?

The withdrawal of Bishop Philip North from his nomination to the See of Sheffield raises further questions for a church that wants to learn to be loving, living and learning. We forget very quickly that the arrangement we came to in order to allow the ordination of women as bishops involved compromise from those who longed for this and from those who opposed it on grounds of theology or ecumenical solidarity. No one thinks the outcome is ideal as it prolongs the messiness. But, whatever one thinks about the process (which was followed scrupulously) and the particular nomination, the personal nature of the attacks on Bishop North and his opponents demonstrates ignorance of a gospel characterised by loving, living and learning. I don’t know the answer, but we mustn’t let go of the question. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we cannot simply let go of each other without risking missing out on the blessing. Like Jacob we will walk with a limp and our wound will be noticed; but, better that than to collude with the culture of a world which resolves every dispute by simply walking away.

I well remember Bishop Tom Butler’s final Presidential Address as the soon-to-retire Bishop of Southwark. He spoke of how he had spent his holidays in Wakefield working on the house into which he and Barbara would retire. The cottage is on a farm and is surrounded by sheep. Tom related how he had rebuilt a wobbly wall in order to ensure that the sheep didn’t get into the garden form the field. The sheep watched him curiously. Once the wall was finished and firm, the sheep simply jumped onto it and then down into the garden. What had previously kept them out was the wobbliness of the wall. Tom’s point was simply that sometimes firm and solid walls are not the best thing to erect, and they might lead to the very thing they were meant to avoid in the first place.

So, messiness can sometimes be helpful. At the very least, it reminds us that loving, living and learning can be as embarrassing as the elderly relative who has given up on social proprieties and simply says what she thinks.

Well, all this sits nicely in Lent. We walk with Jesus and his friends – you know: Peter the impetuous, James and John the loudmouths, Judas the treasurer, and all the other examples of human perfection and moderation – towards a cross. The disciples cannot comprehend what lies ahead when Jesus speaks of his impending demise. He doesn’t despise them for their ignorance or their false conceptions or their competing visions for what constitutes an effective messiah. He walks with them, committed to them, open to their humanity, knowing that they would be broken by what lies ahead of them. And their witness – ultimately – is to stick together despite everything and learn to love and live together as fallible followers of the resurrected one whose body still bore the wounds of cruelty, violence and suffering.

And this is what a synod is. Disciples of Jesus Christ are brought together to do the business of the institution we call a diocese. We are responsible stewards of what has been committed to us by God and the Church. We do not randomly make decision in the interests of being seen to be successful; we look to be faithful to the vocation given to us by God for this time and in this place. And our task is to address this with as great a clarity we can, asking how this enables us to be a loving, living and learning Church.

Today we will look at matters such as how we order our Quinquennial Inspections of Churches, the call to grow our churches (because we believe this Gospel and its power to transform), and the use of vacant diocesan properties. As we frontload the diocese in order to provide the right drive and support for clergy development and lay training – and inspiration – we also consciously invest in appointing the right people to the demanding posts we have either re-shaped or created. Andrew Norman has taken up the reins as our first Director of Ministry and Mission and is already bringing to this work a wisdom and questioning clarity that we need. We continue to face financial challenges and will do so for some time. We are working with the Church Commissioners on funding applications for addressing some of the urgent missional needs of our region. We need to increase receipt of Parish Share if we are to pay for what we think we need to be doing. We do all of this in the face of increasing safeguarding demands and the burden some of our (required) bureaucracy imposes on us at every level.

So, why bother? Because all of this provides the evidence of whether we really believe what we say we believe, and what we claim our worship of God is all about. The authenticity of our worship will be evidenced by the priorities we set, and as seen through the prism of living, loving and learning.

I will conclude. We are in this for the long haul. No quick gimmicks or easy panaceas. No hiding from reality or simply trying to keep everybody happy. No episcopal initiatives descending on you to make you cross. But, a common commitment as disciples of Jesus Christ and ministers of his Gospel of reconciliation to one another and to the world around us: the world of Brexit, migration, famine, foodbanks, poverty, wealth creation, and everything else. We, too, shall walk the way of the cross. Together. And, in different ways, just like the first disciples, we will glimpse the world- and misery-shattering reality of resurrection. Together. And, like the couple who walked home to Emmaus trying to figure it all out, we will find the risen Christ walking alongside us – possibly even in the guise of someone else – listening to our incomprehension, staying with our grief and passion, reconfiguring the Big Story of God and the world, blessing us in sacrament, and leaving before we can enshrine him in a static encounter or even a memory.

May Easter awaken us to the loving power of God. May his cross-shaped sacrificial commitment to us and the world fire us in our Christian living. May our Lent be the place of our learning – for the blessing of the Church and the world we serve.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

Well, we’re one day into Lent and I’m already struggling. The next five weeks give us time for self-examination – not the same thing as selfish introspection – and I never find this comfortable. And it reminds me of a very long car journey (from Leicestershire to Linz in Austria) with my family nearly twenty years ago.

The biggest surprise was not my youngest son marvelling for hundreds of miles down the Autobahn at the size of the place called ‘Ausfahrt’ – it actually means ‘Exit’ – but when the same small voice asked me: “Dad, in Star Trek why do they say ‘Beat me up, Scottie’?”

How we larfed.

What it proved, of course, is how easy it is to mishear or misunderstand what is really going on or what someone is actually trying to say. Just how long my son had mused on the masochistic nature of Star Trek I have no idea; but, it clearly coloured his take on sci-fi.

This isn’t new, is it? A reading from the Bible yesterday complained that God’s people had got the wrong end of the stick. They were supposed to fast and pray in order to expose themselves to the real stuff deep within them and examine their common life; but, they had turned this spiritual discipline into a way of showing off how pious they were. And Isaiah the prophet asks: can’t you see the irony when you pray to God for the poor while trampling all over them? If the language of your worship contradicts the living of your life – or the shaping of your society – why aren’t you embarrassed?

The point is that it is dead easy to spot the gaps between the talk and the walk of other people, and really hard to spot our own. It’s what Jesus pointed to when he suggested people should pay attention to the plank in their own eye rather than the speck of dust in someone else’s.

Well, that’s easier said than done. But, while hoping that Scottie recovers from his self-generated beatings, I now have the next month or so to shine a light on my own gaps and see what – under the gaze of a merciful God – can be done about them.

This afternoon the House of Lords voted at Committee stage against the Government and in favour of an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The amendment – one of many – was to add the following:

Within three months of exercising the power under section 1(1), Ministers of the Crown must bring forward proposals to ensure that citizens of another European Union or European Economic Area country and their family members, who are legally resident in the United Kingdom on the day on which this Act is passed, continue to be treated in the same way with regards to their EU derived-rights and, in the case of residency, their potential to acquire such rights in the future.

The debate was long and passionate. The chamber was packed – standing room only. I listened to the entire debate very carefully, but, when I went to speak, the House wanted to bring the debate to a conclusion and the Minister to respond; so, I missed my chance to add to the word count.

When it came to the division, I felt conflicted. I heard clearly the plea not to frustrate or delay the progress of the bill – or to compromise the Government’s freedom to negotiate once Article 50 has been triggered. However, I eventually voted for the amendment because I think the Government has not explained the reciprocal linking of the situations of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU. We have some power in the case of the former, but none in the case of the latter.

Furthermore, and as I have questioned in the House before now, there is no bargain to be struck between the two parties. EU negotiators know (given that they watch the telly and read newspapers) that we cannot throw out EU immigrants already in the UK because much of our construction, academic, agricultural and NHS sectors would cease to function. On what ‘reciprocal basis’ do we think we can negotiate when our hand is already declared? The Government is right to refuse the language of “bargaining chips” because there are none – there cannot be a bargaining where a bottom line has already been assumed and articulated. Contrary to the assertions of some, there is no “equal footing” for the two groups.

One of the intriguing features of this debate for me was to try to listen through the ears of Angela Merkel or other Europeans. We do speak as if we are holding a private conversation. We spent over forty years telling European partners that they are corrupt, lazy and incompetent… and now we expect to get a great deal from them? Had France or Italy done what we are doing, we would have outstripped Merkel in our indignant “make them pay” calls.

Two other elements of the debate are worth moaning about, too. (a) The ‘moral high ground’ was claimed repeatedly. Yet, there is never any definition of what makes a position moral in the first place. What we usually mean is that the ground I stand on is moral, whereas the ground you stand on is not. This is a poor – and rather grandstanding – way of conducting a moral argument. (b) The language of ‘moral gesture’ was used by several speakers, and I know what they mean. But, Parliament is there to do moral good, not to make gestures. This way lies trouble.

That said, I voted for the amendment as the whole purpose of the House of Lords is to scrutinise and question, sending stuff back for further perusal by the Commons. This amendment will not slow down the triggering of Article 50 and will not ultimately frustrate the Government’s will (although the mass of correspondence – most of which I simply could not respond to – was divided on what was morally imperative and how I would be personally judged in the matter). But, it does make a statement that our democratic institutions should not bow to unconvincing arguments about process, and have the duty to raise questions of moral purpose … even where the language of such gets messed about.

EU nationals in the UK need reassurance and security now. I cannot see any reason why they should not be given it – in their interests and in the interests of the country.

The bill will now go back to the House of Commons where (I expect) the amendments passed in the Lords will be resisted; it will then return to the Lords quickly, and we will see what happens.

Beware the Ides of March…