September 2022


This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Some years ago on a visit to the United States, I drove from the Gulf Coast down through Florida. A massively destructive hurricane had powered its way through this part of the state only a few months before and we drove for fifty miles through utter devastation. For miles on end every tree had been snapped like a pencil, leaving the tops pointing into the earth and creating triangles of dense wood. Towns and settlements stood abandoned, leaving shattered wooden houses derelict against the now quiet sky.

Hearing of Hurricane Ian has brought it all back to mind. Solid looking buildings in permanently inhabited communities get boarded up in an attempt to withstand the torment. But, ultimately, weather will not and cannot be tamed. In the end, we are at the mercy of the elements.

The problem is that, unlike most people who live in vulnerable parts of the globe, some of us have got used to thinking we can control the world and our life. Dangers simply have to be managed in order to maintain what we dare to call ‘normality’.

But, if we learn one lesson from the Covid pandemic and the obvious effects of climate change, it surely must be that (a) human beings need to learn a bit of humility about their fragility, and (b) respect for the creation might just relativise our collective hubris. I guess humility emerges from realism and a proper acknowledgement of our human contingency.

This goes to the heart of one reason I am a Christian. Acceptance of my and our collective need of grace and one another means that arrogance and pride can be put to one side. My personal self-fulfilment might not be the ultimate goal in life, after all. Facing mortality compels me to face this fragility – not with misery, but rather with liberation. Equally so when we face the current threats caused by energy, money and violent conflict.

Fatalistic escapism? I don’t think so. Knowing our need and accepting the fragility of the world can in fact drive us to what I would call incarnational commitment. That is, a commitment to get stuck into living in the world as it is, loving our neighbour as ourselves, shaping a better and more just common future, but without any sense of entitlement to security.

How we respond to the challenges of the coming months and years – which most of us can’t control – will tell us what we really believe and whom we truly love. For Jesus, loving one’s neighbour was not a suggestion – it was a command.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (live from Leeds).

Well, this has been a weird couple of days. Yesterday I was at a house in Leeds that has been there for over 500 years – Temple Newsam where we should have been ‘live’ with Radio 2 a couple of weeks ago – and today in Seacroft at a building that is brand new. Two stories in one city.

It’s astonishing what Nick and his team of experts and volunteers have done here. Building a place from scratch for The Getaway Girls is significant for many reasons. The need is urgent – and we can’t take 500 years to develop the idea. The new space will provide refuge, encouragement, education, entertainment and much more for girls in Leeds and beyond who need to know that they matter, that their lives are as important as anyone else’s, that their vulnerability is noticed and attended to.

The trouble with buildings, though, is that of themselves they achieve nothing. Shelter from the elements might be useful sometimes, but it is the people who use the space who fill it with life. As Luther Vandross famously sang, A House is not a Home; only people can turn bricks and mortar and plaster and wood into somewhere people can belong.

That’s why this matters. Every person – every girl – is unique. As a Christian, I start from the premise that every person is made in the image of God and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Even when things go wrong. Even when people are abused or taken for granted or exploited or told they are useless. Even when they make bad decisions or dangerous choices.

We live in the real world where things are messy, people are messy, and the rest of us get invited to care for and support those who get stuck.

I’ve got to get away to London this morning, and there’s a cab waiting to get me to the station. But, now there is a new place here in Leeds where girls can getaway and find security, support – even love. Because, at the end of the day, it’s love we all need – a home, not just a house.

This is the basic text of a sermon at Ripon Cathedral on the eve of the Queen’s funeral.

The Death of Queen Elizabeth II

Ripon Cathedral

Sunday 18 September 2022

While emptying my office in Bradford before moving to Leeds in 2014 I found two brown file boxes marked simply ‘1936’. So, while my colleagues carried on shifting boxes and furniture, I opened the boxes and found in one the speeches of the then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, and in the other the correspondence that followed one such speech.

On 1 December 1936 at (what we would now call a Diocesan Synod) the Bishop of Bradford reflected on the nature of King Edward VIII’s imminent coronation and the nature of what this would mean for the new king. Expressing some concern about the King’s Christian commitment (as expressed in his attendance at worship), he famously said this:

“The benefit of the King’s coronation depends upon… the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper of me to say anything except to commend him to God’s grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it – for the King is a man like ourselves – if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.”

That observation ignited the abdication crisis and provoked the green-ink correspondence that then came the bishop’s way. (Plus ça change!)

But, the subsequent decision by Edward to abdicate the throne set in course the events that led eventually to Queen Elizabeth II ascending the throne in 1952 following the death of her father, King George VI.

Now, this might seem an odd way to begin a sermon on the eve of our late Queen’s funeral. But, it sets in context what I think is key to understanding her understanding of her role and responsibilities, her example and her commitment. In a world in which the autonomous self is king, the late Queen was a counter-cultural icon of different virtues.

It is against this backdrop that we hear the broadcast she made on her twenty first birthday in 1947 when 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.”

The world has changed beyond recognition since then and, among other things, there is no longer an ‘imperial’ anything (let alone ‘family’). But, her commitment wasn’t to being ‘relevant’ to whatever cultures would emerge in the aftermath of the Second World War, the nuclear age, the bipolar global hegemony, and so on. No, rather she was held firmly to a set of virtues and commitments that rooted her securely while everything else moved around her – in the wider world as well as in her personal and family ambit. Only so could the then young Princess Elizabeth’s commitment be made in ignorance of what might lie ahead.

At the heart of her commitment was, I believe, one word: grace. Before flying to Kazakhstan last Monday (I got back yesterday afternoon), I attended the House of Lords for the second day of parliamentary tributes (and to swear allegiance to the new King). Many speeches were long and anecdotal; mine was very short and about Her late Majesty, not me. I simply observed what I want to repeat here today: she could reign with grace because she first knew her need of grace. She did not need to be persuaded of the need for confession in Anglican liturgy; she didn’t need to be argued into some sort of religious role-playing; she didn’t need to be preached into submission to a religious demand. At the root of her convictions and conduct lay a fundamental awareness of her need of God’s grace.

Now, as I observed in the Lords, this is what enabled her to fulfil her obligations as a constitutional monarch with such grace and wisdom: being unashamed of one’s own need of grace opens the door to an unashamed inhabiting of accountability.

When the monarch sits on the throne in the House of Lords to deliver the ‘Speech’ at the commencement of a new session of Parliament, she (and now he) looks out at the assembled three legs of a parliamentary democracy: the executive (behind the bar), the legislature and the judiciary. All their work is done in the name of ‘Her Majesty’ – Her Majesty’s Government, Her Majesty’s Courts, and so on. But, she read the Speech (which sets out the government’s proposed legislative programme) in the name of God. And, as she did so, she would look up she sees the statues of the barons of Magna Carta between the windows around the chamber.

When in the chamber I always feel I am physically inhabiting the British Constitution. And you get the point: the monarch saw herself as not the ultimate authority. Accountability beyond oneself or one’s powerbrokers, beyond the immediate fashions of political or social shaping, beyond the satisfying of political egos or passions: it is this accountability that keeps a monarch honest and rooted in more than expediency or self-fulfilment.

And it is this accountability, rooted in and born out of a conviction of need – of grace – that enables us to understand why the seventy-year reign of Queen Elizabeth matters so much. Whether we were conscious of it or not, her commitment to this humility of understanding and praxis has shaped and coloured our culture, our language and the assumptions underlying our gratitude for an honourable and peaceful polity.

Politicians might be driven by different factors and even Prime Ministers might be able to get away with poor behaviour, but our late Queen quietly and confidently held herself – and, therefore, the country – to a different standard of accountability. We all benefitted from this, whether we recognised it or not – whether we acknowledge the Christian roots of it or not.

The Apostle Paul, in our reading from Romans 14, puts it like this: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. … For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

This sense of grace and accountability – which I think goes to the heart of who the late Queen was and permeates the stories that have been replayed on loop since her death – must, as part of her legacy, speak 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 need to sort out what holds, roots and steers us through whatever the particular circumstances of our world and our lives.

The Queen was explicit about what this meant for her. 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.”

Humility is strength.

And it is this faith that sustained her during the seven decades that she 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 last covid-restricted inauguration of the General Synod for the next five years, 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. Today, before her funeral tomorrow, we 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 love of God and his world.

As we watch events unfolding on the TV loop – even in Kazakhstan this week – we see played out the truth of Shakespeare’s observation in Henry V: “Let us our lives, our souls, Our debts, our careful wives, Our children, and our sins, lay on the King.” Millions of people might project their hopes and fears, their fantasies and failures, their griefs and joys onto a monarch; but, we then need to go through these experiences to examine who we are and what fires our own commitments. That is a legacy worth honouring.

May our late Queen rest in peace and rise in glory.

God bless and save the King.

Amen.

This is the text of a brief article in yesterday’s Yorkshire Post.

The death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II changes the world. Not just the world of politics, people and the business of life as we know it, but the world inside us in which she has been a constant presence for (in my case) the whole of my life.

Having served for more than seventy years on the throne, we have clearly come to the end of an era. And this will have an impact – in ways we cannot yet fully comprehend or anticipate – not only on the United Kingdom, but also on the Commonwealth and the wider world beyond it. The response of countries and national leaders around the globe has been remarkable: honour, generosity, friendship and compassion. The late Queen has rightly been admired, respected, revered and loved.

At the heart of this love is her total commitment to duty and service. The world has changed radically since she ascended the throne, but by her constancy and commitment she has helped people navigate the complexity of change with confidence.

However, her own confidence and constancy did not emerge from some vague notion of public service as an end in itself. She was deeply rooted in the Christian faith, not because she had to be (it goes with the job), but because she believed and openly spoke about her discipleship of Jesus Christ. She was unafraid of mortality and trusted in the God who creates, sustains and loves us. She was not immune from personal suffering, but she was drawn by Christian hope rather than driven by fear.

So, we pray for the repose of her soul. We also pray for her family – especially her eldest son King Charles III as he, like she seventy years ago, ascends the throne in circumstances of personal grief. For her family she was not only the monarch, but also a mother, grandmother, friend.

We pray also for the world she impacted so powerfully (and will continue to do as we build her memory and inherit her legacy) – a world of fragility, conflict, uncertainty and fear. Further potential change looms on the horizon of the Commonwealth whose glue has been the Queen. The qualities she exemplified in life are needed more now in her absence than ever before: wisdom, historical perspective, constancy, faithfulness, clear commitment to values rooted in something deeper than mere expediency.

Every time the late Queen read her Speech in the House of Lords at the beginning of a new session of Parliament, she sat faced by the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. All their work is done in the name of the monarch. But, the monarch reads the speech in the name of God while looking up to see statues of the barons of Magna Carta between the windows of the chamber. In other words, even the Queen was fully aware of her own accountability in the exercise of her own power and responsibility. It is this sense of accountability, not to an idea but to the person of God, that underpinned the late Queen’s commitment of body, mind and spirit to service.

We will hear much in coming days about legacy. The most powerful response to this, if we take it seriously, is to ask ourselves how we might learn from the witness and example of the the late Queen. We need then to understand why and how her faith drove her commitments and priorities. It was this commitment that allowed her to create wide space for everyone – of all faiths and none – to be free and to thrive.

As we reflect in the past, we now say: Long live the King. God save the King.