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

Who’d have thought that the Summer Silly Season would begin with a social media debate about Latin?

The Education Secretary’s announcement that Latin will once again be taught in 40 more state schools ignited an explosion of opinions about its value. The cynics see it as a nod to conservative nostalgia, others see it as utterly pointless – teaching children a dead language. I have to confess, my first reaction was: if Latin can make you as happy as Mary Beard and Tom Holland, why not make everyone do it?

But, there is a serious argument to be had about learning ancient languages – and I speak as a former professional linguist who didn’t learn Latin or Greek at school and regrets it.

Yes, it’s understandable that some people think it a waste of time to learn something that has no economic development potential (unless, of course, you happen to have invented the Asterix franchise – to which I say hic, haec, hoc). But, despite current assumptions, economic value is not the ultimate goal of civilisation or the acme of human meaning. Character cannot be cashed out.

Educating a person is not the same thing as training her for a job. And isn’t it strange that the term ‘vocational courses’ – from the Latin vocare, of course – now usually refers to technical qualifications? Are our children really destined only to be cogs in an economic wheel – commodities in a competitive market? Or are they people whose mind and imagination need essentially to be teased and stretched and ignited and kindled – because, in Christian terms, they are made in the image of God … to be creative?

I well remember my first day at university – studying French and German, but not very good at either.  The professor told us bluntly that there is no point speaking a foreign language if you have nothing to say in it.

This goes to the heart of what is known as the Wisdom Literature in the Bible. The book of Proverbs nails it in its opening words when the writer extols “learning about wisdom and instruction, … understanding words of insight, … gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity…” So, when his contemporaries marvel at the wisdom of the young Jesus, this is the tradition that explains what they meant.

So, the learning of Latin is, in and of itself, not a useful end. But, it is a means to an end – opening up the mind and imagination; giving access to the wisdom and follies of past civilisations; reminding us what education is really for.

Producat illum, I say: bring it on.

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

The Power of Words

“Actions speak louder than words”. I hear that quite a lot; but, although I know what is meant, I think it is wrong. To speak is to act. Language is performative – it does something, changes something. For example, it is the speaking of the vows in a wedding that makes the marriage.

The story goes that St Francis of Assisi told his friars to “Go out and preach the Gospel; use words, if you have to.” Well… if he did actually say it, was he right? We use words all the time to think and speak and make sense of the world; so, language matters – words matter. They do something. The fourth Gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the word…”. Go back to Genesis and the word is: “Let there be.”

A few weeks ago I convened an online conference led by scientists for a couple of hundred clergy about the current pandemic. We started off asking why we use particular metaphors as a lens through which to see or think about what is happening. In brief, why is it that in the UK we use language of conflict and combat – fighting, struggling, defeating, cowering, bravery, and so on – whereas in Germany, for example, they seem to have used imagery of “damming a flood” – particularly pertinent at the moment? An enemy is personalised, a flood isn’t.

We normally just accept the language presented as the frame through which we then interpret what is going on. But, like cancer and serious illness, words of combat and fight might not be the best. If your loved one dies, have they been defeated? Were they not up to it? You see what I mean? Words are never neutral and always carry consequences – think of the impact of blessing or cursing. They also have limits.

One of the metaphors I take from my reading of the Bible is that of “running the race that is before you” – and not just because the Olympics are on in Japan. This image insists on agency, seeing value in how I live and behave in whatever circumstances I find myself. Yet, racing conjures up different notions: a sprint is pure competition; a relay involves both competitiveness and cooperation.

At the heart of all this is an appreciation that we cannot control – or win – everything. Coming full circle, words matter because they unconsciously shape how we see and look and think and act. The question I am left with is: do I pay enough attention to the words and metaphors I use – and the way they shape the world?

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning after England beat Denmark in the Euros semi-final at Wembley.

“Stressful. Very, very stressful”. That’s what the commentator said during the England match last night. But, I wondered who he was referring to. The players looked OK – hard-working, disciplined and determined, but my heart was racing, my stomach felt rubbish, and (a bit like some recent dental treatment I had) I just wanted it to end. It isn’t easy being a spectator at times like this.

Powerful emotions all around the country as the seconds ticked away. But, isn’t it funny how those tense nervous headaches, the knots in the stomach, the sheer fear explodes so suddenly into joy and celebration and relief? All the angst gets forgotten in an instant. The pain evaporates in a blast of adrenalin. It’s just brilliant.

I remember the manager Gareth Southgate once saying: “We always have to believe in what is possible in life and not be hindered by history or expectations.” And, after 55 years of disappointment, his team managed both to ignore a history most of them can’t remember and not be over-awed by the expectations of a hungry nation. The key, he says, is character – character forged by absorbing all that’s thrown at them, but not being defeated by it. It’s quite an achievement – and we haven’t even won anything yet.

Yet, Gareth Southgate’s observation – and isn’t he the model of a confident humility? – triggered in my own mind a line uttered by an elderly German theologian who, referring to another crowd of hopeful, often-disappointed dreamers, said that “prophets don’t foresee realities; they anticipate possibilities.” In other words, there are no guarantees about the future, but it’s all there for the taking. To use two other words heard a lot last night, you can only approach the uncertain future with resilience and creativity. We absorb the wounds of past experience, but we don’t have to be defined by them.

I don’t know if football really is coming home – we have to wait until Sunday night and the Italians to know that. But, if football is about passion, love, hope, longing, struggling – physical and mental fight – then it’s already home. Because that’s what this week and last night have proved as the emotional rollercoaster has been ridden to breaking point. And there’s more to come.

I don’t know how I’m going to manage the final on Sunday. Probably with a copy of the Psalms on my knee – that wonderful collection of poems in which everything is given expression … from the depths of misery to the heights of promise.

On the other hand, I might just use the opportunity to learn to pray better.

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

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that if you make a film about a place, loads of people then want to go there to see with their own eyes. ‘The Dig’ is a case in point. I watched the film the day it came out and was captivated. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939, and the movie – with Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes – explores how it nearly didn’t happen at all.

Visitor numbers have shot up since the film was launched – so, I do understand the draw to see the place. When I was a vicar in Leicestershire we had the shaft of a Saxon cross in the churchyard, dating back to the mid-800s. I baptised in a Norman font that had been there for a thousand years (Norman was the period, not its name). We drank wine out of an Elizabethan chalice. People through the ages in that village had seen and touched these objects as the world changed around them.

I guess there is something powerful about a physical connection with people in the past that makes us realise that Now is transient, and one day we will all be someone else’s past.

Next Saturday I’ll be ordaining 23 new clergy at Ripon Cathedral. I have encouraged them all to go down into the Saxon crypt, reputed to be the oldest stone-built place of Christian worship in England. The people who brought Christianity to these islands were brave and radical, giving up their lives for the sake of love and rejecting the brutal plays for power through violence that characterised much of life then. And they were here.

The past might be a foreign country in many ways, but we need physical things that connect us, that remind us of where we have come from, of who we are and what has shaped us. This should not come as a surprise to me: Christian faith is rooted in the conviction that God once took flesh, opting into the material world of stuff.

So, what is spiritual always needs a touching place.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball.

This has been a great last month for me with a new album by Imelda May and Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday (which doesn’t seem to have cheered him up at all). Then, this week one of my best bands, Crowded House, released ‘Dreamers are Waiting’. The problem with this album is that it makes me want to listen to the whole back catalogue stretching into the mid-1980s.

The title itself is evocative. Every generation needs dreamers – people who can see beyond the immediate challenges and imagine a different world in the future; people who  don’t agree that we just have to accept the way the world is now, but envisages something better. And, as the album title suggests, dreamers have to have the patience to wait and work for that future, not just stamp their feet when they don’t get immediate satisfaction.

One of the songs on the album goes even deeper. ‘Love isn’t hard at all’ is a beautiful song, but – and maybe this was the intention – the sentiment struck me as wrong. Love is hard. To love someone means to put them and their interests first. The Beatles knew that “you can’t buy me love” – it’s a relationship to be struck, not a commodity to be acquired.

Actually, the song goes on to get it right. “It feels like love isn’t hard at all” – I get that. When all is well or romance is high, loving feels easy. But, love demands more than sentiment or casual ease … as anyone who has ever loved another person knows all too well. Love is costly; love, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in a letter often read at weddings, “is patient, love is kind, … is not envious or boastful or arrogant, … it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

So, to go full circle, love lies at the heart of patient dreaming, too. Love draws us into a place of openness and vulnerability, a place where others might ridicule us or call us naive for our longing for mercy.

In other words, love hurts, but is worth the cost. So, I’m going to dream on and learn to wait.

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

One personal casualty of current travel restrictions is a long-planned trip to Germany in May where I was booked to preach in Eisenach in the church where Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised and where Martin Luther preached. Looming on the hill above the town is the Wartburg – the castle where Luther was held for his own protection.

Today is the 500th anniversary of the event that led him there. He was summoned to the city of Worms where the Emperor, accompanied by the princes, listened to Luther’s defence against accusations of heresy. The Diet of Worms was not, as many children assume, a bad food day; rather, it was more of an inquisitorial court which had the power to condemn a man completely.

The story goes that Luther concluded his defence against the charges with the bold statement: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Even though there is no evidence that he did actually say this, it sums up his position well and justifies the pair of socks I was given in His home town of Wittenberg that has it imprinted on the sole.

What I find interesting about this episode is that it was Luther’s courage that gave credibility to his position as a reformer rather than purely the content of his theology. People so admired the personal bravery of a man who was willing to deliver himself into the hands of the authorities that they then paid attention to what he was saying.

In other words, character was as important as content when it came to the credibility of his case – what we today call virtue ethics. Luther would not recognise the term, but he exemplified it. He was a complex man who demonstrated the resilience and determination to stand up for the truth (as he saw it in the Bible), but he was also rude, obstinate and difficult. While he was being protected in the Wartburg – and translating the New Testament into German, a work of historical and cultural significance – his colleague Andreas Karlstadt took up the Reformation mantle; but, when Luther emerged a year later, he reversed many of the changes Karlstadt had made.

Luther is recognisable as, fundamentally, a disciple of Jesus. I wonder if, when he was translating the gospels in the Wartburg, he saw in the first followers of Jesus a similar complexity to his own. For the early apostles and Saints were just as complicated, obdurate and contradictory as he was.

Luther stood before the emperor on this day in 1521 not knowing if he would see tomorrow. What his courage demonstrates is that nothing is inevitable in history – that the world is changed by people who embody integrity today – who love truth, even when they have their own limited relationship to it.

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

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh last week at the age of 99 puts into sharp relief some of the cultural changes we have seen in the world during his lifetime. Much is being said and shown about his long life and some of its ups and downs. For a younger generation, especially one that goes to Netflix’s The Crown for its history lessons, his choices might cause some discussion.

Prince Philip was a husband and father as well as consort to a monarch. But, the questions raised by these roles – how they co-exist and which should have priority when – demonstrate the personal cost of public service for him. Put simply, would he live to fulfil his own potential, or would he put his own interests at the service of his wife, the Monarch?

These are not trivial choices. Prince Philip decided to serve his country and the Commonwealth by serving – not always comfortably – the Queen and not himself.

I only met him a few times, but found him astute, combative, curious and very funny. He lived through so many social, cultural and political changes that his ability to keep abreast of it all seems even more remarkable. Indeed, his establishment of St George’s House in Windsor, a place for conferences, debates and learning, was one outcome of his commitment to enabling real development of people, not just flashy events.

Yet, perhaps he earned the respect of many people around the world precisely because his wrestling with a changing world was not always hidden. Noted for his frank talking and acute – sometimes un-PC – observations, he always ran the risk of saying more than intended and opening a crack into which the light of realism might shine. In other words, he was a real human being who strove to fulfil his duties and work out his choices within the constraints of the particular times and mores in which he lived.

He also was clear about questions of faith. Having preached at Sandringham one Sunday morning, he took me to task over the content of my sermon. It made for an interesting and feisty dinner. But, he avoided indifference and, wanting to press the matter, pushed me on content and sources. Now, this might sound odd, but this is how Christian life should be lived: arguing and wrestling with the Bible and with faith – not merely nodding as if it really didn’t matter what was said, thought or believed.

My prayers are with the Queen and their family as they grieve their personal loss. This is not diminished by fame. Prince Philip has lived long and well. The country and the Commonwealth owe him a huge debt. May he rest in peace … and rise in glory.

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

Back in 2010 in Munich I attended a remarkable public conversation about the nature of the Church between two elderly academic theologians from Tübingen: the Protestant Jürgen Moltmann and Roman Catholic priest Hans Küng.

Küng died a few days ago at the age of 93, leaving behind him a long legacy of intellectual and spiritual enquiry. He wrote prolifically, always unafraid of truth and undaunted by the opposition he engendered within the Church hierarchy. His approach is probably best summed up when he realised as a child that he could swim “because the water’s supporting me”. What he called “the venture of faith” could not be proved theoretically by doing a course on dry land. In other words, commending or deriding the exercise of faith could not be done from any place of security, distant or removed from the experience of actually living it.

And this is where Küng found his courage and clarity. He not only dug deeply into theological themes, but also pursued, in conjunction with the world faiths, what a “global ethic” for the religions might look like. In 1993 he famously declared that there could be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

This is where Küng was remarkable. He refused to separate intellectual curiosity from the search for truth – both rooted in his passionate commitment to Jesus Christ. Although his persistent challenges led to his licence to teach in the Roman Catholic faculty in Tübingen being removed, he continued in academia and in exercising his ministry as a priest. He once remarked to an interviewer that “I do not have many prejudices before starting, as I do not fear the outcome.”

This was evident in the conversation in Munich. Apart from teasing each other about things they had said in the past, they also agreed that Christians should be like human beings: eat and drink together first, then discuss theology afterwards. It is a nonsense to do it the other way round, they said.

And it is this that goes to the heart of Küng’s often controversial views. Mutual hospitality creates the context in which committed, curious, honest and intelligent conversation can emerge. Our common humanity is the starting point, rather than the evident points of difference.

Some people assume that religious people must live in two worlds: what their ‘church’ tells them to believe, and what they actually believe. Küng took Jesus seriously in denying the split. In 2009 he published ‘What I Believe’, demonstrating that nobody need fear the outcome of such rigorous and honest exploration. But, believing meant commitment, not just intellectual assent to a set of ideas.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 with Matt Lucas.

I went for a walk the other day.

You’re supposed to be impressed! Most days for the last year or so I’ve been stuck in my house behind a screen, talking to people or ‘enjoying’ meetings. I know we’re supposed to get exercise, but it hasn’t always worked out.  And that app on my phone that tells me how many steps I haven’t done each day – well, it’s an embarrassment.

Thirty years ago we lived in the Lake District and one of the great pleasures – when it wasn’t raining – was to get out into the fells. I’m not good at walking on my own, but loved doing it with family or friends. I actually discovered that you have a different sort of conversation when you’re walking than when you’re sat in a room.

This is why I am taken with the story at Easter of the couple walking home the few miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, deep in conversation about how to make sense of what had been going on at the weekend. They couldn’t work out how Jesus, in whom they’d invested so much hope, had got himself nailed to a cross and killed. It didn’t compute. Nor did the stories of him now being seen again by his friends.

While walking and talking, a stranger joined the couple and asked what they were discussing. They were surprised he didn’t know the gossip about the dead man walking, so they told him anyway. And it was only when they’d finished trying to explain it all that the stranger offered to re-tell the story in a way that did make sense. But, it meant they had to risk seeing God, the world and themselves differently. Not easy.

One element of this is simply that walking and talking is good for us. Given the last year in which many people have felt trapped or stuck between four walls and a screen, the spring opens up the space to walk and talk. To express what has been going on. And possibly, by talking about it, to draw some of the sting of loss. And share the hard questions of what it all means.

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

Winston Churchill is famous for many things and renowned for his way with words. It is a little ironic, then, that what I always associate him with is a brick wall.

If you go around the back of his house at Chartwell in Kent, there is a walled garden. One wall was built entirely by him as he tried to cope with the black dog, his deep depression. The first time I saw this wall I wondered: why a wall?

Well, it struck me eventually that if you are building a wall in solitude – and remember there would have been silence rather than the ubiquitous noise and talk and music we carry around with us today – you have to stop thinking about other things, focus on one point, and pay attention to detail. It slows you down, narrows the focus for a time, shuts out the distractions that can debilitate a fragile mind. You have to look and stare and coordinate hand with eye and material stuff.

Silence and paying attention to one thing.

Around the world today, Good Friday, Christians will contemplate the events and meaning of the day when Jesus, having celebrated a final meal with his friends – a meal, ironically, heralding liberation – is brought to trial before an imperial governor. It is clear where power lies in such an encounter. Yet, Jesus remains silent in the face of questioning and, subsequently, goes to his execution.

Betrayed, denied and deserted by his close friends, he suffers in silence. Today many Christians will sit in front of a wooden cross and, in unhurried silence, look at the wood, recall the events of the first Good Friday, and let their imagination run while the questions are fed by the mystery of meaning.

But, this is no idle staring at some material idol. Rather, it is the quiet space in which we refuse to fill the gaps with noise or words, decline to run away from the agonising reality of human suffering, resist the powerful urge to avoid the pain. Contemplation of the cross is no empty escapism; in fact, it is the opposite.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas, in his poem The Letter, writes: “I gaze myself into accepting that to pray true is to say nothing.” This is the same poet who once wrote: “History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

Today’s gazing and silence creates a unique space in which, coloured by the story in the gospel books, I can face the realities of a fragile world, own the undeserved suffering of too many people, and refuse to give in to easy answers.

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