October 2017


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

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Halloween. It’s not the spooky stuff or the violence done to a generation of turnips; its the Trick or Treat stuff that gets me. Isn’t the trick for me to not be at home that night … and the treat that the kids knocking on the door don’t have to meet me?

On the other hand, I love Halloween. I love the fact that it takes darkness seriously and compels us to face the reality of life and death.
OK, that’s not exactly what Halloween has become; but, it is what lies behind it all. All Souls night is when, traditionally, Christians remember those who have gone before them, face the power of bereavement and loss, and confront their own death. Here is where the rubber of faith hits the road of really tough human experience. As I know only too well – my dad died only a few weeks ago – the loss of people you love brings you face to face with your own mortality and the fragility of what it is to be human.

Well, that has the potential to plunge us into misery first thing on a Tuesday morning, doesn’t it? But, actually, All Souls (Halloween) can’t be separated from the day that follows it – by which I don’t just mean ‘Wednesday’, but All Saints Day. The darkness is followed by the light of celebration. For Christians this is all about our mortality – that death and fear don’t have the final word. At Christmas – now only seven or eight weeks away – we hear the great Gospel reading that defiantly whispers into the messiness of the world: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.” Carry on with the story and we eventually get to Easter and the darkness of crucifixion being transformed by the quiet eruption of resurrection.

To live as if all were darkness is to cave in to the joylessness of fatalism; to live as if all were happy-clappy light is to prefer fantasy over reality. The celebration of All Saints – ordinary people discovering that light and love are eternal – only makes sense once we have taken seriously the darkness of All Souls that is all too real.

Anyway, I am missing Trick or Treat this year because I am here in London and not in Leeds.

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Well, that set the cat amongst the pigeons. Last night I posted a response to the dismissive and sneering comments by Today presenters on BBC Radio 4.

I am about to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 this morning (different medium, different language, different culture, different agenda), but wanted to have a second go at last night’s story.

Despite criticism of the underlying dismissiveness of Today presenters’ comments, I would defend them, the programme and the BBC to the end. Although each presenter has a differing degree of apparent disinterest in the slot, they are still courteous, professional and do the country a massive service by holding power to account. (Whichever political party is in power thinks the BBC is against them – which probably means they are doing the job we need them to do.)

It is easy to snipe from the sidelines, but, religious dismissiveness aside, they serve us well.

Tomorrow the Radio Times will publish an interview with presenters of the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in which they dismiss as “boring” the Thought for the Day contributions that are introduced around 7.45am each morning. The Telegraph has a piece, but it has already been leaked on Twitter and in the Guardian.

What is disturbing about the reported comments by the presenters is the staggering ignorance of what the slot is about. Set aside the arrogance that dismisses religious perspectives as irrelevant – rooted in assumptions that a five year old could drive an intellectual coach and horses through – and we are still left with questions.

I declare an interest. I do Thought for the Day from time to time. The script had to be written the day before and should be topical – which in today’s fast-moving media world is challenging. The script had to be complied before it can be delivered the following morning. Sometimes it had to be amended at the last minute; sometimes a script had to be scrapped and a new one written quickly because of ‘events’.

Thought for the Day is not about privileging religious nutcases in order to appease an irrelevant subculture in the face of a BBC public service remit. It is also not about presenting religious views or views about religion. It is all about looking at the world through a religious lens, opening up perspectives that subvert the unconscious (or conscious) prejudices about why the world is the way it is – shining a different light on world events that the unargued for and unarticulated secular humanist assumptions undergirding the rest of the programme miss.

Underlying the protests against Thought for the Day (so hackneyed they are in themselves boring to anyone with a brain) is what I call the ‘myth of neutrality’. I am embarrassed to have to say it again. This myth, so effortlessly held by so many, is that there is a neutral space held by secular humanists, leaving those who have a religious world view somewhere up the loony scale. According to this assumption, a religious world view is so odd that it is potentially dangerous and has no place in the public square it should be imprisoned in the sphere of the ‘private’.

But, why is the secular humanist world view to be privileged as ‘neutral’? It isn’t.

Thought for the Day is a bold resistance to this nonsense. If we are no good at it, fire us, ruthlessly. But, then get in people who can do a better job at revealing the world and its events through the lens of a religious world view that challenges the easy and lazy assumptions of those who think their lens is either self-evidently true or neutral.

Over 85% of the world’s population hold an individual or social/communal religious commitment. In order to understand the world, we need to look through their eyes. This isn’t about proselytism, it is about something far more important: understanding and mutual coexistence.

Last night we went out with friends to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to see the Kneehigh Theatre Company’s production of Günter Grass’s epic The Tin Drum. It was surprising. It was certainly a powerful experience and an imaginative adaptation of the story. It was a bit like Marlene Dietrich meets Kraftwerk meets Gary Numan – in a good sense.

This was timely as I had just got back from holiday a couple of hours before and had just finished Stephen Green’s excellent book Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future. In it he traces not only the formative history of Europe’s most complex and powerful nation, but also explores the themes key to understanding Germany today, its tensions and corporate psyche. I have read a lot on this stuff, but this is by far the best and most accessible account of this remarkable country.

The three voices worth paying some attention to as Europe addresses challenge and change in the years ahead are: Stephen Green in this book and a couple of other small books he has written on Europe; Timothy Garton-Ash – anything he has written; Jeremy Cliffe who is now based in Berlin for the Economist and is the must-read on Twitter on all things German and Brexit. Not surprisingly, all three speak German.

I listened to the morning worship on BBC Radio 4 this morning through the filter of the theatre, the book and my thinking about Martin Luther. I presented the programme, produced by Rosie Dawson and recorded in Wittenberg a couple of weeks ago. Both Grass and Green wrestle with Luther’s legacy for German culture and political development.

Luther made a massive impact on the culture and political development of Europe. The story has not ended yet.

944136BD-7FC6-490E-8C9A-8A1AFEC2DF5COn 16 November I will be doing a gig at a pub in Pontefract with the acclaimed author of a new book on Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind fills in all the gaps around Dylan’s three-year three-album Gospel phase. It is detailed, but without ever losing the thread of what was going on for Dylan and those around him at the time.

What comes out of the book very strongly is the discrepancy between the quality of Dylan’s music and the blind prejudice of critics in the media to take it seriously. This prejudice had little or nothing to do with music and everything to do with religion.

What are we to make of music journalists who decline to take seriously the musical or lyrical integrity of their subject simply because they happen not to agree with the musician’s experience or worldview? I found this element of the book (with some faded memories of the time and the three albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) intriguing as well as shocking.

However, the phenomenon itself continues to have relevance. When university students decide to no-platform someone because they don’t agree with their stance on a particular matter, aren’t they simply prioritising their own prejudices over those of the person now barred from speaking? On what basis – intellectually or morally?

OK, the leap from Dylan in 1979-81 to free speech debates in 2017 is a bit of a big one. But, is it not surely incumbent on students and journalists to have an open (not empty) mind, to enjoy the adventure of provocative new thoughts/ideas, and to identify their own prejudices with the honesty they expect from everyone else?

And before anyone suggests that a Christian like me has no leg to stand on, let me just say this: (a) almost every act of Anglican worship begins with a collective “I seriously get stuff wrong” moment – no room for self-righteous arrogance here; (b) curiosity is the key to enjoying life, the universe and everything; and, (c) certainties should always be subject to challenge – as (I think) CS Lewis put it, “if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity”.

No fear there. (more…)

The best place to consider what is going on in the UK is somewhere away from the UK. Look through a different lens and listen through distant ears.

So, I am holiday for a week, have read five books (Robert Harris’s Conclave, Sebastian Barry’s excellent and moving Days Without End, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (echoes of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach?), Martin Luther’s Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind – on which I will post later), and am now glancing with incredulity at the Brexit debate back home.

Disclosure first. I voted to remain in the EU. I thought Brexit would be a disaster for the UK, and was not reassured that those leading the Leave campaign had the first idea how to make Brexit actually happen. Maybe it had something to do with the despising of experts, the lack of whom now presents us with something of a challenge? However, 52% of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave. Like it or not, and like the whole farce of a referendum set up (a simple majority to decide a far-reaching constitutional change?) and campaign or not, the outcome committed the UK government to begin a process to leave the EU.

This meant that the country entered a new phase of debate and process – one for which we were totally unprepared and remarkably ill-equipped. Nevertheless, never run away from a challenge, even if the nature of the particular challenge demands levels of competence that do not appear evident.

The thrust of the Brexit argument was that the UK should reclaim its parliamentary sovereignty. Having won the referendum vote, however, parliamentary democracy then fell off the democratic wagon, being seen as a perverse obstruction of the inevitable freedom awaiting us. All arguments about the shaping of actual Brexit are, apparently, simply attempts to thwart the clear will of the British people.

So, what happened to democracy, political argument and parliamentary sovereignty?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the vote had gone the other way, but by the same margin. Then let’s ask some simple questions of the 48% who had lost the argument.

Well, actually, we can’t ask the questions before rejecting the previous sentence. There is a massive difference between losing an argument and losing a vote. It can be argued – without too much brain strain – that the referendum itself threw up more questions than it ever resolved. But, for now, let’s assume for the sake of this game that Remain had won and considered the matter settled once and for all. Here come the questions:

  • Should Leavers have regarded the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU as having been finally settled?
  • Should Leavers have accepted that the argument against EU membership had finally been settled, and then packed up their minds and gone home for a long sleep?
  • Should Leavers have stopped arguing their political points and merely accepted that “the people had spoken” and, therefore, had to be obeyed?
  • Should Leavers have ceased to write newspaper articles and jumped on the BBC every time the Corporation questioned (or gave a voice to those who continued to question) our continuing membership of the EU?

OK, enough for now. But, this is how absurd the situation has become. We might expect the Daily Mail to question the integrity of universities whose academics dare to think for themselves and ask awkward questions; but, we all get it – all the time. If your argument gets wobbly, start going for the person and his/her integrity.

It is the intellectual and moral vacuity of the situation in the UK that is leaving other Europeans with their mouths open in disbelief. Vigorously debate everything, by all means; but suggest that debate should cease once a vote has been recorded, and that is boggling in a modern democracy. (I was going to quote Hegel here, but that will only get me accused of intellectual snobbery again.) Intelligent Europeans – including those known to me who respect the UK’s decision to leave the EU – are simply boggled by the nature of the public discourse in the UK (though never surprised by the Daily Mail and other organs of the press).

OK, some of the responses to ‘threatening’ letters by MPs to universities might be just part of the whole overblown embarrassment we are compelled to endure just now; but if the original arguments for opting out of the EU still hold (restoring parliamentary sovereignty, etc.), then those involved in the democratic process cannot be cut out of the debate or the information required to make intelligent decisions as it proceeds.

Instead of bland assertions that “it’ll be alright on the night”, we need proper, informed argument about the nature, consequences, benefits and costs of the decision made in the referendum. Being slagged off for asking legitimate political, economic and social questions is unworthy of any person or body who wishes to claim democratic credentials.

It is time to grow up.

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning. (Disclaimer: I wrote it last night at Berlin Tegel and Amsterdam Schipol airports on my way home from an academic conference in Wittenberg, Germany.)

I returned late last night from Wittenberg in Germany. I was there to present a paper at a conference on Faith, Theology and the Church (from Tuesday to Thursday) and then record a programme for BBC Radio 4 on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having launched the Reformation jubilee last October, preaching in the Augustinerklosterkirche in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, it was a privilege to end the year in Wittenberg where it all kicked off. As everyone knows, 31 October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day when Luther is alleged to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche, thus challenging the Pope and the Church to address some serious concerns about both theology and the practices of the church.

Many of the stories of Luther’s words and deeds are now of dubious provenance. There is no record of him having told the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “here I stand; I can do no other”. (Which hasn’t deterred sock manufacturers from producing huge numbers of their products with the phrase added. I might bear the weight of one’s foot, but it doesn’t seem to bear the weight of history. In fact, there is no evidence that he did actually nail his 95 Theses to the church door – something impossible now because the doors are made of bronze.

Martin Luther’s tomb

But, why let facts get in the way of a good story. Whatever the details of who did what and when, we do know for certain that Luther took his life in his hands when he dared to suggest that the grace of God is there for everyone and cannot be bought – even in the good cause of building St Peter’s in Rome. Fear of the consequences of death were trounced by the mercy of God.

Sitting in the Schloßkirche yesterday morning, looking at Luther’s tomb, I was very conscious that we can’t always control the consequences of the decisions we make. The monk of Erfurt changed the world in ways he could never have imagined when he found Paul’s letter to the Romans opening his heart and mind to the riches of God’s unmerited love. Not only a revolution in the church, but political ructions, too, that too often led to bloodshed on a huge scale. I wonder what he would have made of it today, if he had known what he was about to unleash.

This is not insignificant for us here in the Diocese of Leeds. After giving my paper at the conference on Thursday, I took part in a panel discussion with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the head of the Protestant Church in Germany (the EKD),where both the divisions and affinities of ecumenical relationships were visible. As the church faces big challenges in British and wider European cultures, the need for Christians to prioritise their common baptismal discipleship over their denominational commitments becomes more urgent.

On of the watchwords of the Reformation traditions is ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ – the Church needing constantly to be being renewed and reformed. Nothing stands still in this world. And the church can be no exception. Change is here to stay.

It would be ludicrously absurd to compare the changes our diocese has gone through in the last three and a half years with the enormity of the Reformation, but we need no telling that change brings pain as well as opening up new opportunities for those who are unafraid to explore them. And not every outcome can be predicted. As Luther found out – and it caused him a whole new set of griefs and concerns – there is the small matter of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Our diocese continues to change as we move on from the initial phase of our creation from 2014 to 2016. We are now functioning as a single diocese with a single administration, and we are now clear about where we are in terms of shaping support for clergy and parishes as they ‘do’ our mission and ministry locally. But, this has all taken place at a time when the church across the country is facing a hefty drop in the number of stipendiary ordained people during the next fifteen years. This inevitably means that we will need to re-shape not only where we deploy our clergy, but the nature of the role, too. A priest cannot do in six parishes what he or she did in one. And we cannot put clergy into jobs that are not do-able.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. We do so in the face of financial challenges, too, but our primary focus has to be on what sort of ministry and mission we can provide within the constraints over which we do not have complete (or any) control. Now, is this a cause for fear or concern? Well, yes and no. We need to be concerned enough to tackle the challenges head on and pay attention to the detail – understanding the cost of growth as well as the benefits. But, we need not fear. We are engaged in God’s mission, and must never lose track of the bigger picture of God’s transforming grace, his call to keep moving – with him – and to be faithful to him and each other.

Clearly, if our models of ministry are to change, then they will involve re-focusing the attention of clergy and reimagining the role of lay people. Now, let’s get away from some of the moany stuff we keep hearing. Clergy exist for the sake of the laity, not the other way around. That will not change, but, the way we do ministry and mission will look different in the future. This is not about power or rights or means of self-fulfilment; rather, it is about identifying the gifts and vocation of all baptised people, developing and deploying those gifts for the sake of the church … which exists for the sake of the world.

But, the primary calling of lay people is not to do stuff in and for the church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ out there in the world. One of the recognised challenges of the church in more recent years has been that lay vocation has too often focused on lay ministries in the church – largely liturgical or pastoral. This is something we need to tackle as we move into the future. Discipleship first.

To this end we are holding a Lay Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 9 June 2018. More details will be forthcoming soon, but planning is well underway under the guidance of Andrew Norman and Hayley Matthews. This is intended to help us re-frame our strategy for lay discipleship and ministry into the future – although this will be a matter of process rather than event.

Nothing of what we do can be done in isolation. On today’s agenda this Synod will address several matters that, together, help us discipline our development and mission. Asking the General Synod to change the name of the See of Richmond to Kirkstall is not a whim or a bit of ecclesiastical fancy; no, it is to enable those outside the church in the Leeds Episcopal Area (particularly) to identify with the area bishop and our church structure. People assume Richmond is up north and can’t see why the Bishop of Richmond is bothered with the city of Leeds. For the sake of our ongoing mission we need to change this. More later, but I want at this point simply to locate this agenda item in our wider missional context.

A communications strategy for the diocese is not incidental. If we can’t communicate effectively in the world in which we now live, then we might as well just tend a long decline. We cannot address the lack of children and young people in our churches without engaging with social media and a way of relating/communicating that is a million miles away from what I grew up with. Do we have the courage to grasp this nettle and learn a new language of evangelism and pastoral care? That is the question – along with: are we willing to put resources into making effective communications and changing the rumour about God and the church?

Rules about synod elections and sizes of synods might not be the stuff of romance, but they matter. It is vital that our synods – at every level – should drive and enhance our mission … and for that we need people – in the right numbers and variety – who are caught up by a vision of the kingdom of God that grabs popular attention, awakens curiosity, draws people in from being met outside on their territory and in their terms. Are we up for this? It isn’t easy, and it will mean sacrifice; but, we need younger energy and vision to challenge us and drag us into new ways of being a renewed and reformed church in this part of Yorkshire.

Again, this is not for the sake of the church’s organisation or own well-being. Yorkshire faces massive challenges in the wake of Brexit (however that might ultimately look…), but also in terms of its own political organisation. Westminster seems to have a view of how Yorkshire might be governed in the future (under its devolution proposals), but how do we want to help drive this for the sake of the common good of the people of Yorkshire? Do we want to be stuck in the past, with old enmities and thinking within old white lines, or can we be bold about developing a vision of and strategy for a Yorkshire that makes the most of the Northern Powerhouse – whatever that means?

What I am driving at here is that we should not be a church that merely responds to the initiatives of others, but be creative ourselves at fostering debate and proposition that, rooted in our traditions, offers a refreshed view of future potential.

Of course, this is all stuff and nonsense if we would prefer to just keep turning the handle. In the diocese we have proved that, even where we might have differing degrees of affection for the diocese we have shaped, we can commit ourselves to it as mature adults who follow Jesus Christ.

At this point I want to pay special thanks to the Dean of Wakefield, Jonathan Greener, who will leave the diocese in November and be installed as Dean of Exeter. Jonathan vigorously opposed the creation of the new diocese, but, since its creation, has been an excellent friend and colleague, a creative and imaginative shaper of new things (three cathedrals and three deans in a single diocese), and a brave contributor to all we have done. We owe him a huge debt. Personally, I will miss him, his wisdom and advice, even his humour. But, we wish him God’s richest blessing and the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts as he and Pamela move into a not-unchallenging situation in Exeter. They go with our love, gratitude and prayers.

So, let me conclude where we began – with Martin Luther. While sitting with three young Germans in the very room in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, around the table where he and his friends argued about theology, politics, beer and bodily functions (I kid you not), having our own feisty debate about the meaning of Luther’s theology now, we felt close to the heart of passion: the passion that is courageous, contagious, irritating, maybe even hopeful – maybe even the passion for Jesus Christ, his grace and mercy, his call to us and his friends to love one another as he loves us.

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