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

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing? Coming down to London on the train yesterday, I had a quick look for 16 October 2018 and discovered – to my amusement – that today is Dictionary Day, Steve Jobs Day, Boss Day, Department Store Day, and Feral Cat Day. Can you believe it? Who invents these things. And does anyone actually do anything on Department Store Day other than go shopping? As someone once put it: Tesco ergo sum … or ‘I shop, therefore I am’.

But, it’s also World Food Day, and here it all gets a bit more serious. World Food Day was first launched in 1945 to celebrate the start of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Its focus has been on food security and how agriculture needs to be developed a round the world in order for growing populations to be adequately fed.

Now, it’s easy to quote Jesus in the gospels praising those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but someone else then has to do the economics. Food banks around the country are absolute life-savers for individuals and families and are usually run by volunteers who believe that no one should go hungry in twenty first century Britain. But, we need to ask why they are so necessary and why use of them is increasing so markedly. But, World Food Day draws attention to the fact that global measures are needed if all people are to be fed. Look at Yemen and other places where famine and hunger are appalling, and food banks are in short supply.

Well, I can hear the voices already telling me that “I can’t change the world’s agricultural policies!” And I get that. But, today I could use my iPhone – or any other mobile phone, obviously – to celebrate Steve Jobs Day and locate a decent department store (hopefully without feral cats hanging around) where I could buy some food and take it to my nearest foodbank.

This way I can pay a small price for making a big difference to someone who otherwise will go hungry. And, in doing so, I’ll also be changing the world.

Anyway, it’s food for thought, isn’t it.

Advertisements

This is my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate this morning:

When we decided to create the Diocese of Leeds back in 2013/14, who’d have thought that before five years had passed the UK would be leaving the European Union, Donald Trump would be in the White House, the Far Right in both eastern and western Europe would be organising and mainstreaming language and ideas that previously had been kept under the counter (as it were)? (Or that Manchester United would be sinking?) Assumptions about the effortless and inevitable progress of liberal capitalism have been proven illusory, and we have been reminded once again that civilisation – however it is ordered politically – is fragile: we take order for granted at our peril.

Well, I thought I would begin on this cheerful note simply because it sets the context for the business of the church and this synod. The church does not float around in a context-free realm of spiritual isolation in which individuals pursue their personal and privatised piety as if disembodied from the real world. And Christians do not come to worship in church or to deliberate in a synod without being shaped mentally by what is going on around and among us. It is no wonder, then, that Christians are as in danger as anyone else of being driven by fear and anxiety at a time of considerable national and international uncertainty.

I am not sure anyone would put a bet on how Brexit will turn out by the end of March next year. But, whether you are an ardent Brexiteer or a die-hard Remainer, both the uncertainty of the situation and the bitterness of the public discourse in these matters will be of some concern. What is of most concern to me at this point is that argument about substance has been submerged under polarised sloganizing designed at a visceral level to diminish real engagement. However we got here, we are where we are; and simplistic categories – Leaver or Remainer – do not help us steer a common future of mutual respect.

As usual, the language is the give-away. If “the will of the people” is a vacuous and fatuous statement incapable of clear rational defence, then so is the term being used for a second referendum (which, in fact, would be a third referendum…), “the people’s vote”. I don’t think the last referendum enfranchised budgies or aliens. Language really does matter – what is not said as well as what is heard.

But, this is the Orwellian problem we now face – one that will not be solved by liberation from the shackles of Brussels or a return to the Remainer status quo. We now seem happy with the normalisation of lying and misrepresentation by politicians. Just one example from the last few days: Boris Johnson claims that the 1.3 million majority in the referendum was “the biggest majority in our history” – only for the BBC Reality Check Twitter site to reply that the majority in the referendum on joining the EEC in 1975 was 8.9 million.

The point is not the numbers; the point is the shameless lying that, on being exposed, never provokes an apology or retraction. We are getting used to this and learning afresh in the twenty-first century the lesson clearly not learned from the twentieth century that public lying, the categorising and demonisation of other people, and deliberate or careless representation of facts always have consequences – and those consequences are not normally positive. And none of this has to do whether the UK should leave or remain.

However, analysis and criticism are easy. The question we face as a church goes beyond Brexit and Trump and Orban and the far right demagogues bestriding Europe like some embarrassingly pathetic Colossus; it has to do with the need for some agents of reconciliation who have the courage simultaneously to be prophetic and generous. This goes beyond political affiliation or referendum preferences, beyond feelings about immigration and economics. This present context must push Christians back to asking fundamental questions of theology (who is God and what is God about?), anthropology (what is a human being and why do we matter?), sociology (what is a human community and how do we enable the ‘other’ to thrive?) and Christology (who and what are we for if we belong to Christ and are primarily called to resemble Christ?).

I never cease to be amazed by the self-giving commitment of our churches which, often in the face of their own resource challenges, offer food to hungry people, company to lonely people, hope to diminished people, care to abandoned people, and dignity to unvalued people. We now also face the challenge of how to broker conversations and relationships between people divided by sloganized politics, visceral rejection of those who differ, and sheer anger at uncertainty or helplessness in the face of uncontrollable powers. The national church is attending to this, and I will be taking part in an ecumenical colloquium at Lambeth Palace next month as we take counsel from partners at home and abroad. But, each church in each parish needs at the very least to ask what steps – simple and achievable – can be taken in the next few months to bring together what has been divided and begin a healing of what has been wounded. This is our mandate – a ministry of reconciliation between God and people and between people and other people. Regardless of the outcomes next March, the need in the months and years to come for common healing, common vision and common repentance will be demanding and urgent.

Against this backdrop we also do our synodical business today. Our diocesan strategy has been under development for some time in order to flesh out how our diocesan vision might look as we prioritise and make decisions. The vision is the goal; strategy is the plumbing that helps us get there. Vision can remain nebulous and imaginary unless someone does the hard work of asking (and answering) the questions how, when, by whom, how much, and so on. Following considerable road testing with groups, individuals, the Bishop’s Staff, the Diocesan Board, and many others, we bring the strategy to the Synod today. This is not an imposition on parishes or individuals; like our three simple values Loving Living Learning, this strategy invites parishes and churches to ask which elements of it might help them in their local ministry and mission as they, integral constituents of a diocese that has a responsibility to make the best of the resources of people, money and things available, seek to see the Kingdom come in our parts of Yorkshire. I look forward to good and constructive engagement with the strategy as we debate it later.

Yet, this in itself depends on the resources we are prepared to make available for the work of the Church of England in our parts of Yorkshire. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, once famously described a financial budget as “theology by numbers”. I think he was right. How we direct our finances tells the world what we really think matters – what we really believe about God, the world and ourselves as Christians. Money matters – as Jesus made clear when he pointed out that the contents of our heart will be exposed by the way we use our wallets. (He put it more elegantly than that, but the point is the same.) Or, as I put it at the excellent Lay Conference back in June this year: “If we believe it and want it, then we will pay for it; if we don’t believe it or want it, don’t pay for it and we won’t have it.” Brutal, but with the virtue of clarity.

Now, I am not naïve, and it is not as simple as that. Some people, some churches and some communities are getting poorer while others are getting richer. The Church of England takes responsibility for territory – a unique vocation in itself – and this imposes demands on our parishes that can weigh heavily. Yet, we believe in mutual resourcing according to ability and need. What generosity looks like will differ according to context and the discipleship of the people. But, we cannot avoid the hard task and challenge of deciding together how we shall aim to fund the ministry and mission entrusted to us here in the Diocese of Leeds.

This will be challenging. Significant strides have been made to reduce the deficit – this will be explained later. More will need to follow, if we are to afford what we say we want. While all the hard work is going on to work this out, please continue to pray for Debbie Child and Geoff Park in particular as they face the day-to-day hard work of bringing us into line and keeping us real. And pray for those who have asked for voluntary redundancy or who might face difficult decisions in the future as we seek to balance the books. Some have served for a long time and with great loyalty through great change; this is not an easy time, and we thank them for their service, and wish them well in their future.

So, before we proceed with this important business, I want to thank you for being willing to sit on this synod and bring your wisdom and experience to our deliberations for the next three years. When we established our new governance in 2014 the Synod was clear about maintaining a large membership of both clergy and lay people – options had been presented that would have created smaller bodies. However, there are now deaneries that are well underrepresented in both Houses, and we need to explore the reasons for this without jumping to conclusions. That said, we now have a smaller Synod, and I hope all members will feel able to contribute in the knowledge that opinions will be listened to and heard (if not always agreed with) with mutual respect and generosity. Sometimes a single voice might shine light on a matter that a couple of hundred others have not.

I also want to thank and congratulate our new chairs, Canon Sam Corley and Matthew Ambler. Please be kind to them as they get to grips with their new responsibilities – not least in chairing this Synod today. And, as in all things, let us do our business in the name of the Christ who gave himself for us, claims us for his own, and calls us to minister through the church for the sake of his world. May God bless us as we do our best for his sake.

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

13 October 2018

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.

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.