June 2022


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.