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

Of the thousands of photos in my phone one I return to time and time again is of a single rose planted alone in dry soil on a parched farm in Zimbabwe. I was walking with a group from farm to farm back in 2007 – somewhere near Gweru in the Midlands Province – and listening to stories of political oppression, fear, suspicion and hope. There was no water in town (the pumps had all broken), you couldn’t get fuel, and inflation was then at only 10,000%.

Later in that trip I found myself misrepresented all over Zimbabwean media, we had problems with the secret police, and we strengthened our ties to the Church under pressure there.

That rose, watered regularly, surrounded by aridity and barrenness, spoke of defiance, of hope, of a future.

Zimbabwe was always a very beautiful land. Under Robert Mugabe it had been transformed from the breadbasket of Africa into what some have described as a basket case. Yet, no one seemed to know what to do about it. People repeatedly expressed ‘hope’ that something would change; but, few seemed ready to be the agents of change. It was all too paralysing, too threatening.

It seems a long time ago. Mugabe has retired, so to speak. Emmerson Mnangagwa has led the country into elections that appear to have been free and fair, but has been challenged by opposition parties. It looks like Mnangagwa has won a majority of seats in Parliament, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he will continue as president. The question my Zimbabwean friends will be asking, of course, is whether the future will be bright … or a further disappointment.

And this is where hope comes in. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking. Hope for many Zimbabweans was what kept them believing that freedom would one day come. For others, it was what motivated them to put their lives on the line in order to make change happen. For neither was it entirely cost-free.

Standing by the rose near Gweru I remember hearing the words of Isaiah 40 from the Hebrew Scriptures: “Comfort, O comfort my people,… she has served her term, her penalty is paid.” It is always hard for people to hear words of comfort when the evidence of the reality around them is so bleak. But, biblical hope was never fantasy. Rather, it was always about defying ‘reality’ and being drawn by a vision of how the world might be – even when the so-called realists around you just keep saying, “the world isn’t like that”. And it has always meant getting stuck in to the world as it is.

That single rose is an emblem – an investment in the future. We will have to wait and see if Zimbabwe’s rose will continue to bloom in the new world.

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

Television does not do justice to the reality of fire. Nor does what we might call ‘reasonable proximity’.

I once played with my children on a beach in Greece whilst watching aircraft try to extinguish a forest fire on the hills beyond the bay. It was interesting to watch – while we played and swam – and only became more than a spectator event when we later saw pictures of the destruction and learned the names of those who had died in the flames.

In his remarkable ‘Paradise Lost’ John Milton uses a phrase that has haunted many imaginations through the centuries. He speaks of ‘darkness visible’ – a term that has been used subsequently to depict severe depression, among other things. I think it speaks powerfully here, too. Fire, as it consumes and rages, often beyond control, sucks the light and oxygen to the extent that the dark emptiness it generates is only visible to those who spectate from beyond.

We don’t know who or what started the fires in Greece. There have been suggestions that they were started deliberately – either out of sheer wanton destructiveness or criminality. But, voices are also being raised in favour of climate-change. Who knows?

Whichever proves to be the right explanation in the end, each brings its own moral culpability. Of course, it’s easier to deal with criminality because we can blame the arsonist and distance ourselves from any responsibility for the destructiveness. Climate change, on the other hand, is harder to duck.

None of this is much comfort to those who have lost property, land or loved ones to these terrible conflagrations. It is interesting that newspapers have been describing the fires as ‘biblical’ without anywhere explaining why that word has been chosen or what it might mean. I assume it refers to certain biblical images of the end of the world – the apocalypse, hell or hades. Fire and brimstone, burning and darkness and dust. Darkness visible.

Yet, perhaps the word ‘biblical’ might actually point us to a different meaning. Even if the Greek fires do not presage the end of the world, they certainly represent the end of a world – someone’s world. Family members lost, homes and communities destroyed, businesses consumed. Yet, biblical warnings of fire and loss are always accompanied by defiant words of hope – language that holds out a future beyond the immediate darkness. What one theologian calls ‘newness after loss’ … so that the last word does not belong to destruction.

This is human experience throughout all time. And compassion for those who suffer is what should burn in the hearts of spectators, shaping the collective will of people and nations who seek to end the suffering and open a future.

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

I know it was a week or two ago, but I am still – somewhat perversely – amused by Donald Trump’s ‘mis-speaking’ in a press conference with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Do you remember it. He missed the word ‘not’ off. Easily done, obviously.

The funny thing is that as soon as you hear the … er … wrong statement, it makes your mind search for the real thing.

I remember speaking at a dinner for charitable financiers in London and concluding with the words of Jesus: “It is easier to put a needle through your eye than for a rich man to pass a camel.” Silence was followed by laughter as the mental cogs turned in search of what Jesus had actually said.

Or, do you remember Jeremy Thorpe’s famous judgement on Harold Macmillan’s so-called ‘Night of the Long Knives” when he sacked loads of ministers in order to stay in power: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”?

Or Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ where the people at the back of the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount think Jesus said: “Blessed are the cheesemakers”?

I love it. Being so familiar with the real thing means we sometimes don’t listen and catch the power of the words or the idea any more. We just hear “blah blah blah”.

It’s a bit like drawing. My wife is an artist and she once tried to get me to draw a chair. I drew it … and it looked terrible. When I showed it to her she told me to go away and this time draw the spaces around the chair. I did it – still badly – but the chair emerged from the spaces and I got the point.

The point here, of course, is that we become surprised and curious when we see and hear things differently. So, if Jesus didn’t bless the cheesemakers, who did he bless? Isn’t the startling truth that love is seen in the sacrifice of my life for my friends?

I think misspeaking can, if handled right, shine a light on something even more powerful and true. Anyway, didn’t Jesus also say: “Let your yea be nay, and your nay be yea?” Didn’t he?

This is the text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon in the debate on the preparations and negotiations for Brexit. It needs to be read in the context of other speeches. The italicised paragraph was omitted for reasons of time.

My Lords, others noble Lords are addressing details … which leaves me to take a step back to look at culture. At Committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill I spoke about such matters as the corruption of the public discourse – asking that we do not lose sight of the end to which Brexit is supposed to be the means. I tried to pose the existential questions of who we think we are and for whom we are doing what we are doing. However, the debate has coarsened, the ideological divide deepened, and poor use of language worsened.

What I have to say has nothing to with Leave or Remain, but where we are now and what shape we might be in the future.

Weren’t we all embarrassed by the mockery in European media at the UK government’s attempts to translate the White Paper into other languages – German being the most obvious?  Were we not aware that professionally you always translate into your native tongue, not out of it? It seems that not only are we islanders hopeless at learning languages, but we still don’t even see or understand the cost of our hopelessness.

Surely, the first requirement of any negotiation is that the negotiators understand the mindset, culture, language and perceptions of the opposite number – get inside their head, look through their eyes and listen through their ears. If I don’t understand what I, we and the world look like through the eyes of my interlocutor, I can’t begin to negotiate intelligently. This goes well beyond figures, facts and tactics; it goes deeper from the superficial to the emotional and subliminal. It is where we discover what actually moves and shapes the mindset, reactions and behaviours of those with whom we seek to trade. Yet, here we are, unable or unwilling to speak the language of those with whom we think we can reach agreement. We just tell them they have to see everything as we do.

The problem, of course, is that most of those with whom we deal in the EU do speak our language, do get behind the words to the mindset, and, therefore, are in a stronger position from the outset.

I labour this point not in order to grind an axe about the poverty of language learning in the UK – seen as a priority in other countries – but because my earlier concerns about the culture generated by Brexit have deepened. How are ‘the people’ to read a former Foreign Secretary who resigns and immediately and unaccountably earns a fortune from a newspaper column? Or an MP for North East Somerset who moves his business investment interests abroad whilst telling the rest of us that we will experience the benefits of Brexit over the next fifty years (which, by my reckoning, means we still have another ten years or so in which to work on the benefits of EU membership)? Neither of these men will suffer the negative consequences of any form of Brexit. And this is not even a party or partisan matter.

This is a moral issue. In the same way that the US President has normalised lies and relativised truth (‘alternative facts’ and all that stuff, for example), we have descended into a non-rational lobbing of slogans and empty promises and damnations from trench to trench. Honesty and integrity – the essential prerequisites of moral culture are being sacrificed on the altar of mere political or personal pragmatism.

And this is at the core of my concern: the sheer dishonesty of much of the language and rhetoric of the last couple of years. If “the will of the people” matters so much, then shouldn’t the people be told the truth about the range of potential consequences of Brexit? If the government sees that the UK (and the EU) will suffer short- or medium term negativity in order to gain nirvana after a couple of decades or so, shouldn’t they actually say that? Explain that it is worth consigning a generation of young people to a poorer life because we need to take a longer-term view of the national good? If ‘the people’ can be trusted with a vote in a referendum, why can’t they be trusted with the truth rather than being patronised with endless polarising rhetoric?

What happens if the ‘will of the people’ turns out not to be ‘in the national interest’. And who defines these terms? Whose interests have priority? If we are attempting to square an unsquarable circle – whoever is PM -, then this should be admitted – not just lobbed back at the EU for them to resolve when they didn’t ask us to leave.

These are not arcane questions. The Prime Minister has said that we now need to “get on with Brexit”. Which, of course,  begs the question as to what we have been doing thus far. The new Brexit Secretary promises “energy, vigour and pragmatism” … as if these were laudable new ideas. But, they remain meaningless and vacuous if they are not underpinned by a respect for and an intelligent learning of the languages of our interlocutors in the EU.

(If we had been as committed to the EU as France is, and France had voted marginally for a Frexit, do we really think we would be taking seriously the flexing of Gallic muscles or belligerent demands for the best deal in the interests of France over against the integrity of the bloc? I think not.)

My Lords, we can talk about a second referendum, a general election, the change of Prime Minister in a party coup, the ‘taking back of control’ and so on. But, the questions of culture, of language, of dealing with the real world rather than some nostalgic fantasy couched in slogans: these will outlast any deal or no deal. Are we paying attention to who we shall be – not only seen through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of our neighbours, and also in the eye of our children, in the months and years to come?

This debate is not neutral.

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

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service, millions of words are being written and spoken as its merits are being either celebrated or debated. But, I was struck by something said by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I quote: “of all the words used by Bevan to describe the benefits of the NHS, the one he returned to most was a word we rarely use today – serenity.” He goes on to say: “After years in which great-grandparents, grandparents and parents had no peace of mind when their loved ones were sick, because they simply could not afford the treatment, serenity was what the NHS provided. It still does.”

What an odd word to use about a massive national enterprise that swallows enormous quantities of money, employs thousands of people and provides the source of endless stories of human living and dying in every community. Serenity. Yet, isn’t that the word that sums up the aspiration as well as the oft-criticised reality of the NHS – a peace of mind that is easily taken for granted by people who have not experienced any other system of national health care? Or the constant fear that illness or debility will necessarily provoke massive anxiety about affordability on top of that of mortality?

I think this is where health professionals and priests have something in common: neither can avoid those deep questions about the meaning of living and dying or of life and death. Meeting people at their greatest points of need and vulnerability, questions of suffering and pain cease to be merely academic and become people with faces, families and stories. Not just a lump of inconvenient chemicals stuck on a stretcher, but a human being whose ultimate value cannot be counted merely in economic numbers.

I think this is important. Debates about the health service often revolve around the experience or demands of those in receipt of care; yet, those offering care through the NHS (in its local manifestations) are themselves intimately caught up in confronting their own humanity, their own mortality. Adam Kay, in his funny and sobering book ‘This is Going to Hurt’ remarks at one point: “Remember [health professionals] do an absolutely impossible job, to the very best of their abilities. Your time in hospital may well hurt them a lot more than it hurt you.”

It will come as no surprise that a Christian approach to health and illness begins with an acceptance of mortality, but sees people as a body/mind/spirit unity. Hurt one part and the rest is hurt. So, serenity is as important for the doctor and nurse and hospital porter as it is for the patient in their care. It is a rare word that needs to be revived.

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

Thank you for making it through the weather this time! I am sorry we had to cancel the last Synod in March because of snow – a decision not taken lightly, especially as I had some good jokes in my Presidential Address for that meeting on St Patrick’s Day. (Why do people wear shamrocks on St Patrick’s Day? Because genuine rocks are too heavy! (Boom boom!))

Anyway, back to today and the weighty agenda upon which we are asked to deliberate together. In order to open our thinking, let me report briefly on a recent experience.

Two weeks ago I spent a week in Novi Sad in Serbia, leading the Anglican delegation to the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches – an event that takes place every five years. Novi Sad lies on the Danube, about an hour north of Belgrade, and became well known in western Europe during the NATO action in 1999 aimed at stopping the Balkan wars that involved the systematic slaughter of Muslims – you might remember the massacre of 7,000 Bosniak boys and men in July 1995.

The Conference (CEC) considered themes such as hospitality, justice, hope and witness. It is easy to discuss such themes if you all come from the same place and share certain fundamental assumptions about God, the world and events. Bring together nearly 500 people from a huge range of countries with their own histories, and from the ecclesiastical spectrum from Orthodox through Anglican and Methodist to serious Protestants, and the exercise becomes more challenging.

The main challenge came as we concluded the six days by agreeing a communique. The preamble to the communique suggested that there was some significance in the fact that we had met in a place where physical bridges had been destroyed in order to build new bridges between Christians of differing confessions. At this point an Orthodox metropolitan wanted to insert a direct reference to the fact that NATO had bombed the bridges of Novi Sad in an act of (unwarranted) aggression. Having listened to a range of one-way speeches by politicians and bishops about “NATO aggression” and the demand to restore territory to Serbia (meaning Kosovo), I was very uneasy about all this. The proposed amendment made a response essential.

The fact is this: the General Synod of the Church of England voted to back NATO action. Secondly, NATO didn’t bomb several bridges in Novi Sad because they had nothing better to do on a wet Wednesday afternoon. And there is a reason why Kosovans want to be independent of Serbia.

So, how can people involved be so blind to the events and motivations that led to NATO action?

The truth is that we all live within narrow lines of experience and understanding. The assumptions that shape our understanding of – that is, the way we see and think about – our world do not often get challenged. But, get a group of people whose experience is different and we might just begin to spot the weaknesses in our own position. You can’t guarantee it; sometimes it is just too costly to drop the ‘prejudices’, and we thus continue to push our case blind to the experience of others.

Well, last Sunday afternoon I installed Bishop Helen-Ann into Bradford Cathedral – two down, one to go (Wakefield next month) – the Old Testament reading came from Jeremiah 6:16-21 and began with these words: “Stand at a crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.” The prophet goes on to challenge the people of God to listen to what they don’t want to hear, and to give heed to what they would prefer to ignore – even though disaster is coming and fear for their future security is growing.

Just as Novi Sad stands on the Danube at the crossroads of Europe and has historically paid the price for its location, so do we stand at a crossroads. Not just the Diocese of Leeds, but we as individual Christians called to be disciples of Jesus Christ in a world that is becoming less secure and more chaotic. Old ways are being challenged or even dismantled, and we cannot know what will follow. Even diplomacy has become undiplomatic in the hands of one or two world leaders. I need not refer more here to the chaos that is Brexit – whichever side of the debate you stand on.

But, we need to hear with clarity and courage the call of God to the prophet – and to us – to stand at the crossroads (a difficult and complicated place to stand) and listen for the voice of God … however uncomfortable that voice might be. One of the big questions that runs through the whole of the Bible is: dare we listen for the word of the Lord, or simply for reinforcement of our own view which we can then claim coincides with the word of the Lord? This is why repentance’ – metanoia, literally a changing of the mind – is the primary call by God to all people, but especially to those who claim his name.

We are no longer a new diocese. We are now a young diocese (though I hope we don’t dwell for long in the toddler stage … and the teenager phase promises to be interesting … or maybe we should not press the metaphor too far?). We have travelled a challenging road since Easter 2014, trying to listen for the ancient wisdom and to be faithful to the call of God to shape our common life and priorities according to his will and his way. 

This is why we held an excellent Lay Conference last Saturday in Harrogate. Clergy and laity, we are the Body of Christ, with a particular vocation as the Church of England in this part of the world – a vocation that involves, as it always has with people who follow the call of God, laying down our life, our preferences, our priorities, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The last four years have been about that mission, and it has not always been comfortable. However, it has been our vocation, and we have had to choose whether to bemoan it or join in and shape it. The Lay Conference felt like a significant milestone in our life and I wish to express my deep gratitude to all those who worked so hard to get us there and make it all happen.

As we have recognised in the past, clergy numbers are going to reduce in the years to come. Yet, it is not for this reason – a reaction to a clergy challenge – that we are highlighting in our emerging diocesan strategy the need to reimagine how clergy and lay must belong together, share in ministry and mission together, acknowledge both commonality and differentiation in calling and order. Clergy and lay together. As I always say to those shortly to be ordained: your ministry must derive from your discipleship, not the other way round. If our exercise of a particular ministry – clergy, Reader, churchwarden, and so on – is the sole expression of our discipleship, then we will not survive. Discipleship – following Jesus, come what may – must be the well from which the exercise of any ministry draws.

To this end, we have devised an online learning portal that invites clergy and lay people to take responsibility for their own discipleship, learning and growth. This was launched at the Lay Conference last Saturday, and you will have found the card with all the details about it on your seat today. Please take time to explore the portal – there is a huge range of training possibilities available to all. Whatever our strategy looks like, our intention as Anglican Christians in this part of Yorkshire must be clear and unambiguous: to enable us to recover and strengthen our confident commitment to discipleship, worship, witness and service.

Our strategy is not a means of increasing bureaucracy or finding things for diocesan officers to do with their time. It is not about dreaming up gimmicks that will turn the ship around when we already have the engineering in place and need to make sure the parts are properly oiled. It is not about a high-level board dictating to everyone else where our priorities should lie. It is about shaping the diocese, its support for parishes and its pastoral responsibility to be good stewards of people and things/money, in such a way as to prove sustainable in the years to come. It is about our witness and service of Christ – it is about God and the world, not essentially about our own satisfaction or sense of fulfilment.

This is not about a retreat into some privatised spirituality that aims to make us feel secure in the face of a frightening world. We must avoid colluding with some of the language and communication reflexes in increasingly common currency today that demonise or dehumanise other people, reducing them to commodities to be traded or categories to be dismissed. We must be a people unafraid to walk in the light, sharing the same uncertainties as everyone else, but knowing we are held onto by the God who walked the road to Calvary before leaving behind him the emptiness of a tomb. We, too, stand at a crossroads where difficult decisions must be taken – not least financial (and some of these will be demanding and painful). We do not stand alone.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann famously said: “God is our happiness; God is our torment; God is the wide space of our hope.” Faith does not let us escape; rather, faith holds us … whatever the circumstances we find ourselves facing (as individuals and as a church). “God is our happiness; God is our torment; God is the wide space of our hope.”

Well, at the heart of all I have said this morning lies the faithfulness of the God who calls us to follow him. It is trust in this faithfulness that allows us sometimes to take steps in new directions – not just as a diocese, but also as individuals. Today we welcome to her first Diocesan Synod Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley who has moved around the globe to assume her ministry here as Bishop of Ripon. Her feet are under the table, but it will take time for her to find her way – even if she already agrees with me that Beltex sheep are just plain ugly. Pray for her as she continues to settle in and gets to know the diocese, the episcopal area and the region. We welcome Geoff Park to the hard task of managing our finances and challenging as well as supporting our priorities. Pray for Debbie Child as she carries enormous responsibility as Diocesan Secretary following the departure of Ashley Ellis.

Much of our agenda as a Synod in the last four years or so has been getting our foundations dug and established, sometimes placing a focus on internal matters as a priority. In future, now we have done much of that hard work, our agenda can also develop in a more outward-looking direction, inviting us to learn, discuss, debate, resolve, and so on. I look forward to the parishes and deaneries working on more motions like the one today from Inner Bradford. Today’s agenda addresses the fraught world of education, poverty and evangelism. I am grateful to this Synod for all we have done together, and look forward to the election of a new Synod for the next triennium. The agenda should in future be more outward facing.

In the meantime, Synod, thank you for your patience, your prayers, your faithfulness and your hopefulness – probably sometimes against your better judgement or sentiment. We hold before us a vision of God’s ‘wide space of hope’ as we turn to our agenda and attempt to see our work and hear our words through the eyes and ears of the Christ who calls us.

It’s really hot and humid here in Novi Sad, Serbia. This morning threatened thunder and rain, but it’s ended up being just … er … hot and humid. Fortunately, the 500 people in the conference centre don’t have to sit too closely together.

The theme yesterday was ‘hospitality’; today’s is ‘justice’. We began with a Bible study on 1 Kings 21 (Naboth and the art of hiding behind the law when you do terrible things) by a Brazilian theologian, Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt. This was followed by a young German lawyer, Lisa Schneider, speaking (in German) both thematically and practically about justice – her main plea being that the church should never try offering young people simple solutions to complex questions. She stressed the need for young people to see the church demonstrating authenticity (‘practise what you preach, or just stop preaching sort of thing’) – young people, she said, are passionate about truth and justice.

A Swiss Methodist bishop, Dr Patrick Streiff, reflected on this (in French). I found his final point the most interesting: an over-preoccupation with the language of values ignores the actual root of Christian relationship: our unity in Christ. He observed that in many official comment on social themes we refer to “Christian values for Europe”:

Certes, il est nécessaire que les Églises participent au dialogue – et parfois dispute – sur des valeurs. Mais parler des valeurs se base déjà sur une certaine abstraction de ce qui est au cœur de notre foi. Notre foi ne se base pas sur des valeurs, mais sur le Dieu trinitaire qui s’est révélé à nous et dont la relation avec lui se répercute dans certaines valeurs qui nous sont chères.

In other words, Christian faith is rooted in the trinitarian God, not an abstract set of values. He then illustrated this in the following way:

Dernièrement, en Autriche, après une entrevue du ministre avec tous les dirigeants des religions officiellement reconnues, le ministre voulait encore voir le sanctuaire dans notre immeuble méthodiste. Le surintendant le lui a montré et expliqué qu’il y a une paroisse de langue allemande et une paroisse de langue anglaise qui se réunissent chaque dimanche, avec des personnes d’une trentaine de nations. Le ministre était étonné, puis a dit : « oui, il semble que c’est possible si on a les même valeurs ». Un peu plus tard et à nouveau seul, le surintendant s’est dit : « Ce n’est pas vrai. Ces gens ont des valeurs souvent très différentes, mais ils se réunissent ici à cause de leur foi en Christ. »

He concludes with this question: “How are we to witness to that which lies at the heart of our faith when we address ethical questions?”

The point is that Christians in Europe inhabit different cultural and political contexts, these arising from different histories of conflict and loss. Serbian Orthodox Christians will have a different approach to Kosovo, Muslims and justice from that of a Welsh Presbyterian (for example). Our perspectives and values (such as justice, reconciliation and the conditions these demand) might be seen differently depending on our communal experience; what unites Christians is our unity in Christ – which is shaped like a cross before which we must be repentantly hopeful. Unity of relationship and mutual obligation is not the same as unanimity of opinion on values.

In the light of this, this amazingly international and multilingual conference went on to address head on challenges to the future of Europe. No fantasy here, but, rather, a head-on articulation of the hard challenges facing Europe in the light of corruption, populist nationalism, and the collapse of a common vision.

On that cheerful note, we move on to business.