Yorkshire Post


This is an article commissioned by the Yorkshire Post and published today.

Last year my wife and I went to Germany where I conducted the marriage of two young friends. Just before lockdown. Recently they had their first baby (called Niamh – no idea how the Germans will pronounce it) and there is much rejoicing in the arrival in the world of this dependent little person.

And in that word ‘dependent’ we get a hint of what we might expect from Christmas this year – a year that has been challenging for many people on lots of fronts and in which our interdependence has been reinforced. The Covid pandemic has changed life in some way for everyone and we will be changed by the experience we have gone through – as individuals, families, communities, country and world. Life has been interrupted as the virus irrupted into the routines and ordinariness of ‘normality’, and we still don’t know what we will look like as we emerge.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The fact that we have come to harbour certain assumptions about life, the world and everything cannot supplant the reality that life is always fragile, uncertain and ultimately uncontrollable. For anyone who has suffered ill-health or the loss of loved ones, the brutality of this reality will be inescapable. The only certainty about the future is that it is always inherently uncertain.

Which is one of the reasons I am a Christian. Christian faith does not offer an escape from the uncomfortable or cruel contingencies of mortal life in a material world, but, rather, plunges us into that uncertain and fragile world. This is where Christmas comes in. Realistic, unromantic, brazen and with eyes open to all that life can throw at us.

In church or at home this Christmas I will be digging into the remarkable story of how the world was changed for ever by an event in an obscure part of the Roman Empire over two thousand years ago. The significance of it only grew through the ensuing years and centuries. We have often become so familiar with the narrative that it fades into some comfort-blanket romantic memory that warms the heart without intruding on real life and hard choices. Which is a pity.

For this story offers a radical challenge to anyone who is conscious of trying to navigate a complicated world with complicated people facing complex choices and no certainty that all will end well. It is the story of how God is more realistic than I am. Christmas tells of God’s unromantic coming – in “human dress” (as William Blake put it – into this uncertain and (often) unjust, cruel world. No hanging around in remote, uncontaminated purity, waiting for human beings to sort themselves out; rather, God opting into the messiness of the material world which brings us such glory and agony, pain and joy. No self-exemption.

This is important. Christian faith offers no escape. Like the baby Jesus himself, born in inauspicious circumstances in a violent and unjust world, growing up meant facing hard choices, making hard decisions, living through undeserved or unfair struggle, enduring loss and suffering. Yet, … this was described as bringing light into the world – light that the darkness cannot extinguish (as John’s Gospel puts it). No denying the darkness, its power or reality, but a defiant resistance to its ultimacy. Just read on in the gospel story and see what happened.

At the start I mentioned little Niamh, born just a few weeks ago in Germany. And I used the word ‘dependent’. Perhaps the defining characteristic of a baby is its utter dependence on those who love and care for it. A baby has no power, no claims, no negotiating demands. A baby has no shame in being totally dependent. But, dependence is sometimes seen in our society as a dirty word.

One thing we have learned through the pandemic is that we are all dependent on each other. I depend on a complex network of science, business, industry, finance, politics and social organisations in order to live and work – and for any vaccine to be administered across communities. If I become unwell, I depend on doctors, nurses and pharmacists to help me survive or die well. If I have to isolate, I need other people to provide food and moral support. In other words, we discover anew that “no man is an island, entire of itself” (as poet John Donne put it). We need each other. As Jesus grew he did so as an interdependent person in a society of mutual obligation and support. If, as Christians believe, Jesus is God incarnate, then this submission to interdependence becomes powerfully real. It suggests that Christmas is God’s invitation to everyone to get stuck into the world, loving our neighbours, serving our communities, giving up our lives for the sake of others. It is radical and challenging. It makes our choices harder, not simpler.

This Christmas will be different. But, the invitation remains the same. To open our mind to a different way of being, illuminated by the light who is born into our world as one of us, offering a different way of being together.

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 19 September 2020.

I have two images in my mind. One is the old BT commercial that told us in various ways, “It’s good to talk”; the second is the title of a book by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Both run the risk of sounding good as long as we don’t get down to detail.

It is no secret that societies seem more fragmented today than they were a decade ago. We don’t need to identify all the changes across the world, but just use a word like Brexit and watch what happens. Differences have always been there, but the fissures seem more exposed these days, and the language more violent. Social media clearly don’t help; they draw people into echo chambers in which the temperature is raised and the room for mutual comprehension or compromise is, at best squeezed, and at worst eliminated. Every argument forces a binary choice – with me or against me. Families have been split over political identity; everything is something to be angry about.

On the other hand, we saw during lockdown how people came together to celebrate and thank our frontline workers – crossing otherwise powerful fault lines and encouraging people to make common cause in a common ritual of gratitude.

The big challenge for us all, however, is how we hold onto the precious experiences of connection and move on from some of the powerful drivers of division. We have a mutual interest in making things better – even if there are powerful voices that exploit chaos and profit from discord.

BT was right: it is good to talk. But, there has to be a relationship from which the conversation can flourish. Talking at is not the same as talking with. And we clearly need to find a vocabulary for talking together about hard choices and opposing opinions.

Jonathan Sacks, in the title of his book, hits on something powerful. As long as there are people – every individual unique and with a different view of the world and why things matter – there will be difference. But, difference is not the same thing as division. The question for us in the noisy autumn of 2020 is not to do with avoiding conflict or pretending to some false unity; rather, it is how to find ways of reconnecting with those from whom we differ in order to disagree well (unless we have the courage to learn, grow and – heaven forbid – change our mind).

Easy to say, but hard to do. How is our society going to find ways of rejecting mere acceptance that division has to follow difference and find the nerve to come together? As the Covid crisis develops and our lives have become less certain, how might we avoid deepening conflict and creating a genuine way of holding together in a common society? For the pandemic hasn’t created disunity, it has exacerbated it. But its consequences have also exposed wider tensions between generations, ethnic groups and degrees of affluence.

Well, like most things in life, the beginning of an answer won’t be found in grand political statements or even economic fixes. Community goes deeper than these social arrangements and power factors. It is rooted in relationships that are honest, humble and realistic.

I chair a new coalition that aims to find ways of encouraging just this and it is starting work in Yorkshire. Called /together, it has emerged from some of the country’s leading businesses, arts, media, politics, youth organisations, charities and faith communities getting together to look for practical ways of doing something – not just complaining about the problems. This is not, however, a top-down organisation aimed at do-gooders dropping their protected benevolence onto a grateful society; rather, it aims at listening, convening, encouraging and resourcing local initiatives for bringing people together in common conversation and common life.

One of the first initiatives, aimed at providing genuine intelligence, is a massive national conversation. Anyone and everyone can join in. We want to hear people’s real concerns and see where they see the potential for creating a kinder and closer society. An online survey, together with conversations with people across the UK, starting here in Yorkshire next week,will help us to understand where difference has descended into division – and where, together, we might begin to address this in a humane, intelligent and mature way. The survey can be accessed at www.together.org.uk and will not take long to complete. Every voice needs to be heard. Other initiatives will soon follow, shaped by what we find out.

Why start here? Simply because we won’t find any answers until we have identified the right questions. In other words, dialogue and conversation must always begin with mutual listening. Listening leads to hearing, and hearing might just lead to understanding … even if not to agreement.

Difference can be dignified. It needn’t be a threat. In fact, in my own Christian tradition Jesus chose friends who (the Gospels make clear) didn’t necessarily like each other. They had different personalities, experiences and priorities. But, their task was to hold together –sometimes despite themselves. They had to learn to love, to make space for each other.

Together must always be better than apart.

This is the text of my article in the Yorkshire Post today to mark the seventy fifth anniversary of VJ Day.

The 75th anniversary of VJ Day is not just a day for celebrating the end of a cataclysmic global conflict. It is also a stimulus for reflection, humility and courageous self-reflection. For, in the famous words at the end of Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’, pointing to Hitler, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Not elegant, but inescapably powerful. The sort of idolatries and dehumanising perversities that led to two world wars have not gone away, and there is great danger in thinking that we have since then just “moved on”.

One of the most remarkable things about what followed VJ Day in 1945 was the ability of so many victims of Japanese military brutality to face the horrors they had endured and still forgive. Not everyone, clearly. And no one can point a finger at those whose suffering took them into silence, withdrawal or, even, hatred. Yet, many did recognise the complex nature of human identity, allegiance and obedience. (One of the best illustrations of this can be seen in the film ‘The Railway Man’ in which Colin Firth plays ex-POW Eric Lomax as he confronts the tortures he had endured during the war.)

This is not easy stuff. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged on Hitler’s orders a month before the Nazi surrender, addressed this when he rejected any notion of what he called “cheap grace”. You can’t just “forgive and forget” as a way of dealing with appalling cruelty or suffering; but, the beginning of any healing is to be found in facing the offence with courage and clarity.

A Japanese theologian called Kosuke Koyama did just that in 1984. Soaked in Japanese tradition and culture (though by then teaching in New York City), he wrote what he called a “pilgrimage in theology’ in which he went from Mount Fuji to Mount Sinai – from the heart of Japanese emperor worship back to the formative place of encounter in the Judeo-Christian narrative with God. What this meant for Koyama was not just some interesting historical study from which he could maintain academic distance, but an open facing up to personal challenge and failure. In a nutshell: how did he find himself seduced by a cultural worldview that led to unimaginable cruelty (as an exercise of power) while at the same time claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ?

I mention Koyama because his account is not one that should be restricted to Japanese or Germans in the wake of a world war. It was a failure to recognise early enough the perversity of idolatry (of Hitler, the Reich, the Emperor) or the consequences of a thinking that dehumanises people that led to fifty million corpses across the planet in 1945.

An uncritical obedience to the Emperor cult led not only to extreme violence, but also to Hiroshima and Nagasaki where national identity and racial personality were reduced to ashes beneath the mushroom clouds of technological progress. Worship idols of national identity or racial supremacy and it will end in violence. Do we never learn from history?

Koyama came to the conclusion that Japan’s collusion with emperor worship was a form of idolatry – giving ultimate worth to a dehumanising ideology. He pleads that every culture is prone to similar idolatries and that these are easily colluded with. The challenge for us, learning from his experience, is how to critique the values of our own culture … in order to avoid unthinkingly slipping down a slope that leads inexorably to violence.

Self-criticism is not something that most of us find easy. Especially when we are asked to expose to external critique something as fundamental as our worldview: that is, our assumptions about the world, its people and what ultimately matters. It takes courage to look through the lens of others at the essence and drift of what we hold to be essential about our own collective values. The moral questions that lead us to condemn war crimes are the same as those we bring to bear on current challenges such as illegal immigration: what is a human being worth? And why?

I can’t go with Koyama from Mount Fuji back to Mount Sinai where the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition is rooted (the Ten Commandments and the shaping of a just society), but I can at least see in Sinai some fundamental encouragements and warnings: to love God and neighbour; to avoid coveting and killing; to avoid idolatry and build justice; to tell the truth.

VJ Day celebrates the end of a particular dehumanising brutality and the cost of resisting it. The values that led the world to oppose tyranny must be the ones we hold onto as they come under pressure in every generation.

75 years ago tonight Allied bombers destroyed nearly 90% of buildings in the German city of Dresden, killing around 25,000 people. Dresden became synonymous with death by firestorm. I have spoken with people who were there and survived.

This is the text of an article published today in the Yorkshire Post to mark the anniversary.

Several years ago I stood in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden and addressed an audience of 1200 Germans. It was a poignant moment for me. My parents had endured bombing by German aircraft over Liverpool from 1941 and I was familiar with the stories of destruction, death and fear. But,here I was, in an iconic German church in a different world, but with the scars of war all around me.

Let me put this in context. That same morning I had preached in Meissen Cathedral and had shaken hands with several hundred people as they left the service. The last man to leave refused to shake my hand. When I asked why, I was told that “I come from Dresden and what you did there was a war crime”. I replied that (a) I didn’t do it, and (b) no one wins in war … as my parents could confirm. After a silence he extended his hand. He was in the congregation in the Frauenkirche later that afternoon.

The event he described as a ‘war crime’ was the bombing of Dresden during the night of 13/14 February 1945 which caused a massive firestorm, the destruction of the historic city and the deaths of thousands of people. Allied bombers flew in waves and the cumulative effect of the bombing of the civilian population was devastating.

Of course, Dresden wasn’t the only city to be targeted in this way by the Allies. Arguments have continued to rage ever since as to whether there is some moral culpability – whether it was, in fact, a war crime – that has yet to be acknowledged. Should civilians have been deliberately attacked in this way?

Well, moral culpability in war is not an easy or straightforward matter. One German friend of mine, an academic theologian, wondered why I was spending time thinking about this: “We started it,” she said, “and have few grounds for complaint about what was done to us.” Not everyone agrees.

Frauenkirche, Dresden, with Pfarrer Sebastian Feydt

The Frauenkirche was almost totally destroyed during the attack of 13/14 February. It stood as a ruin in the centre of the old city until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification in 1990. Local citizens were asked what they would like restored first and their answer was unequivocal: rebuild the Frauenkirche, the symbol of spiritual and moral repentance, resilience, and hope. Reconstruction was completed in 2005 and I first visited it in 2009.

But this was not some nostalgic, overly-sentimentalised restoration. If you stand in the pulpit of the beautifully restored building to lead worship or speak to the congregation, they are looking past you to the Baroque altar. What they see is the original altar restored with new stone and carving, but with original scorched and blackened stones integrated into it. In other words, their eyes are confronted with that shattering remembering: that renewal cannot escape a coming to terms with the past. Healing involves confronting the guilt and the pain of past agonies – received from or inflicted on others – and not trying to whitewash a common moral responsibility.

Dresden has now been almost completely restored to its pre-war glory. Which is a little weird. Like Warsaw and some other destroyed cities, they have been rebuilt to look exactly as they did before the bombing. Rather than build something new, they went back to what was there before. I am not a psychologist, but this must be interesting for those who are. Is it a way of trying to imagine that the Weimar Republic and Third Reich had never happened? Or does it represent a determination to remember a golden age (as if there was ever such a thing), the memory of which reassures them that there was something good in their culture in the past?

This is complex stuff. What I have always encountered in Christians in Dresden – and I have good friends there – is a courageous commitment to face the past, but move on in the light of it. The Frauenkirche stands as a symbol of that commitment. At the heart of the city, the scorch marks in its very fabric cry out with the pain of lost lives and lost decades whilst beckoning us to not repeat the crimes of an earlier time. The black streaks in pale stone confront us with what happens when power lies in the hands of liars and charlatans who see other people as commodities to be traded or extinguished.

But, the wounds also speak of forgiveness and reconciliation. The scars – like those in the hands and side and feet of the risen Jesus Christ – don’t romanticise the pain, but whisper that pain and death do not have the last word. Reconciliation is possible. Healing is not impossible.

It will be interesting to see what role this church plays as Far Right political movements, founded here in Dresden, gain traction amongst the populace. Do we ever learn from history? Perhaps the Frauenkirche might continue to stand as a challenge to sloganizing populism of the sort that, in the hands of those powermongers who exploit chaos and fear,  quickly slides from indifference or selfishness to a dehumanising cruelty.

This is the text of an article I published today in the Yorkshire Post marking the eightieth anniversary of the abdication of King Edward VIII:

It is not every day that a Church of England bishop sparks a constitutional crisis. Especially not a Yorkshire bishop. But, that is exactly what happened eighty years ago on 1 December 1936.

The then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, delivered a carefully prepared speech to the Bradford Diocesan Conference (today it would be to the diocesan Synod) in which he referred rather pointedly to the rather deficient piety of the soon-to-be crowned King Edward VIII. However, to understand the speech, it is first necessary to know something about the context in which it was delivered.

Edward was not known to be a regular worshipper. Furthermore, his romantic interest in American divorcee Wallis Simpson was causing some scandal around the Commonwealth. The British press had decided not to report the disreputable stories, but the media around the wider Commonwealth did not feel bound to be so morally scrupulous. What was widely known and commented on around the world was largely muted in Britain itself. A self-imposed censorship – unimaginable in today's UK media world – created some space for waiting to see what would happen … at the same time as frustrating the gossips.

And this is where Bishop Blunt came in. In his speech to his Diocesan Conference he drew attention to the imminent coronation of the new monarch, but exhorted him to spend more time more consistently in church. In itself this was unremarkable – after all, the king would also become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and could, therefore, reasonably be expected to show a little more conviction. His speech was a defence of the coronation as a sacramental act.

But, the bishop then 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.”

It is not clear whether he intended this to question Edward’s love life, but the ambiguity of his language allowed those so inclined to see it as a sanction to question his morality. Debate has continued through the years since Bishop Blunt gave this speech.

How do I know this? I have the original text of his speech, complete with pencil-written annotations, in my office. In fact, I have his entire set of speeches in a box in my filing room. Furthermore, I also have a box of the correspondence he then received as a result of his speech.

Coming from all around the world, many letters praised the bishop for having the courage to speak about a scandal that was being hushed up in the press. At last, they said, someone is telling the truth and upholding moral propriety in the face of such public scandal. Others, however, berated the bishop for being such a prig and for behaving in such a moralistic and vindictive manner.

These letters are mostly handwritten in beautiful English. One of the most striking is typewritten by a lawyer at Gray’s Inn in London and condemns the bishop for his “most contumacious and impudent pronouncement,” referring later to “the sole and arrogant opinion of the (for the time being) Bishop of Bradford.” One is addressed to “You worm…” Another complains about “gross interference in his private affairs by the traditionally stupid forces of orthodoxy and stagnation,” concluding “This is 1936, not the Dark Ages.”

If anyone tries to tell you that Internet trolling is a new phenomenon, point them to these letters. They are fewer, took longer to write and send, and are written mostly in excellent and elegant grammatical English. But, they are equally intended to challenge, belittle, ridicule or encourage the man at the centre, who probably had little clue what was going on.

The question is: did Bishop Blunt intend to say what he was taken to have said? In other words, did he intend to provoke the debate that led to Edward abdicating, George VI acceding and, eventually, Elizabeth II being crowned. Or was it a case of the bishop making a comment – almost as an aside – only to find that his words had become incendiary in the wider world, rather than merely mutedly critical for the benefit of a particular audience?

The rest is history. Edward married Wallis Simpson, they flirted with Adolf Hitler, and then lived the rest of their life away from the public glare of a prurient England. Elizabeth began what has become the longest reign of any monarch, serving both Church, nation and Commonwealth with a diligence and fidelity that commands the respect of even the most republican observers. And during her reign the world and the Church have changed. Modern media have changed the relationship between the Royals and the people, and the line between public and private has been blurred beyond recognition.

The world has changed. Human inconsistency and frailty have not changed. The public still love scandal, and elements of the media feed it. The Church is probably less moralistic.

What will happen next time we await a coronation? Who knows? Perhaps there will be a less blunt questioning of morals and motives. We shall see.