This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, guest-edited by footballer Raheem Sterling on themes of education and social mobility.

The American poet Robert Frost wrote: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” I know what he means. I remember turning 40 and realising that my life was probably half way through; today my elder son is 40 and I look back with amazement at what has happened, what choices we all made, what experiences we shared, what relationships we forged.

Frankly, I think we did a good job: despite being born in Cheltenham and living around the country, he has always been a passionate Liverpool fan. What more could I want?

Well, quite a lot actually. To go back to Robert Frost, I remember looking at a baby and realising the responsibility asleep in my arms. And the uncertainty about what might lie ahead of him – not just in the choices we and he would make as he grew up, but also what might happen in the world that couldn’t be controlled but would shape or constrain those choices.

While celebrating Christmas over the last few days I was conscious of the fact that the baby of Bethlehem grew up into an argumentative boy who clearly learned by debating and questioning. The boy grew into the man who learned his trade before hitting the political arena and eventually getting nailed to a cross.

Growing up – and letting our own children grow up – is a nerve wracking business. We can’t control what will happen to the children we love. We do our best … and face our failures … recognising that this is a pattern they might also one day repeat. But, if uncertainty is the name of the game, then society has to give all children the best start, the best example, the best opportunity.

Which means what? Especially as no child can grow in isolation from other children, whatever their background.

Well, along with guest editor Raheem Sterling this morning, we might start with education and opportunity. The Germans have two words for it: ‘Erziehung’ has to do with nurture and learning, ‘Ausbildung’ is all about training for a skill. And both are valuable. Of course, at the heart of both lies a person – the roots of whom need to be watered by more than mere information or ‘knowledge’ – if they are to develop wisdom and character.

And this means enabling young minds to roam widely, dig deeply, face unwelcome challenges and hard questions. As Aristotle noted: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Or, as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” (3:13)

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I had already written a different script that became inappropriate as the day’s news developed. I got back from London late, wrote a new one and got it out by 1am. This is what can happen with Thought for the Day. I’ll post the original one shortly, so that this change will make sense.

I was on a train back from London to Leeds last night when I caught up with the news that some people had drowned in the Channel while trying to reach England from France. By the time I got home the number had risen to over twenty and a song of lament was going around inside my head.

Some years ago the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn was in Afghanistan.  He happened to be at Kandahar Airport as the coffins of fallen soldiers were taken on board an airplane for repatriation – that is, the return of the bodies to those who loved them back home. He wrote: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.” It is a hauntingly simple and beautiful elegy in the face of human mortality. It’s full of empathy for those whose world would now have changed for ever and whose grief would be unbearable.

But, the point he makes is that if we don’t have our basic humanity in common, what is then left? This reflects the famous John Donne assertion that “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…”

It seems that both Cockburn and Donne were able to penetrate through the dominant politics and positioning of their day and find the truth at the heart of it all – that whenever people die, a hole is left into which pour the tears of the bereaved. The difference between the fallen westerners in Afghanistan and the drowned easterners at Calais is that we label the latter, question their choices, and forget their identity.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, put it well when, recognising human solidarity, he offered first his sympathy to the families of those who drowned. This isn’t just a time for politics; rather, it is a time for digging deeper emotionally and being touched by tragedy. I don’t know the names or circumstances of those who have died, but their death changes the world.

This goes to the heart of Christian faith when faced with tragedy and loss. The Judeo-Christian tradition begins with people being “made in the image of God” and, therefore, being of infinite value – a value that goes beyond their economic or utilitarian function. Every person matters absolutely – not just those we deem acceptable.

Naive sentiment? Maybe. But, it also happens to go to the heart of what Christian faith refuses to negotiate.

Each one lost in the Channel had a name, a history and people who loved them. God knows their name even if I don’t.

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

Last Sunday evening we held a celebration in Bradford Cathedral. Christians, Muslims and Jews and many others came together – not an unusual phenomenon – to remember Dr Rudi Leavor who died recently in his 90s. Rudi was loved by people across our communities and he is greatly missed.

Rudi was a refugee to this country from Germany. He and his parents escaped what became the Holocaust. He grew up, set up a dentistry business, chaired the Bradford Synagogue for over twenty five years, and was a crucial holder of the memory in West Yorkshire, insisting that we recognise the fragility of our democracy and civility. He was loved by all who knew him.

Did he “game the system”? I ask the question because the phrase is being used frequently at the moment. Not only is it applied to politicians and PPE contracts, but also to the Iraqi asylum seeker who tried to attack a hospital in Liverpool a couple of days ago. Systems, it seems, are there to be gamed.

In the case of Emad al Swealmeen, the allegation is that he converted to Christianity in order to ‘play’ his asylum application. Inevitably, this has raised questions about the motives of all asylum seekers. Yet, the Refugee Council has also published research this week that indicates that 70% of those landing on our shores are demonstrably fleeing persecution. Which then raises the question as to why it is easier to extrapolate from one example – Emad al Swealmeen – rather than another – Dr Rudi Leavor? Or the huge majority of those who do not go rogue, but become good citizens who make our country stronger?

Gaming the system is an easy conclusion for me to draw, but only if I lack empathy or imagination. Living on this island seems to make it hard for many to look through the eyes of those whose experience drives them to extreme decisions – like leaving home and crossing the globe in order to survive, let alone thrive.

The three Abrahamic traditions that gathered in Bradford Cathedral last Sunday have much in common. One is the mandate in our scriptures to pay attention to people who are poor and marginalised. In the Hebrew Scriptures a people approaching settling in a new land are commanded to make provision for those who are hungry, homeless or – for whatever reason – in need. A tenth of the harvest is to be left in the ground so that there is always something for the dispossessed to eat.

In other words: yes, mistakes will be made; systems will be gamed; good will will be mocked. But, that doesn’t remove the moral obligation to love our neighbour.

FW de Klerk

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


As I get older I discover that people and events that were crucial to my own experience and understanding of the world are unknown to a younger generation. I guess that the death of FW de Klerk fits in that category.

For my generation the curse of Apartheid and the cry for the liberation of oppressed people rang out from South Africa. Shaped by a particular Christian theology and an ideological commitment to a particular form of the nation state, white Afrikaaners fought to defend the land they dominated. Just as many of us caught up in the Cold War could not envisage how change might come, so did the South African regime seem impregnable.

Yet, change can come quickly. When de Klerk succeeded PW Botha as head of the National Party in 1989 few would have imagined what was to follow. This ideologically conservative white man recognised that the need for peace and justice transcended even deeply-held and culturally-entrenched worldviews. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990, multiracial elections took place in 1994, Mandela became President … but de Klerk continued to serve with him as a Vice-President.

I think I learn two things from this remarkable transition of power and culture: the first is about what I would call ‘repentance’; the second is about the nature and demands of leadership.

The word ‘repentance’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to change your mind’. It basically means changing the way I look at God, the world and us in order to change the way I see God, the world and us in order to change the way I think about God, the world and us in order to change the way I live in the world with God and everyone else. It takes immense courage to repent – not least because, especially for a leading politician, this will invite abuse, opprobrium, and charges of betrayal. But, integrity and wisdom sometimes demand such courage. Christian theology certainly does.

Leadership is not for the romantic. At the heart of good leadership lie the virtues of ethical integrity and moral courage. In dismantling not only a political culture, but also a theologically underpinned cultural construct, de Klerk challenged the very foundational myths of a people … and did so knowing there might be a high price to pay.

He apologised for the effects of Apartheid, but not for Apartheid itself. He wasn’t perfect; but, given that leadership has to be exercised by real, complex and conflicted human beings, he had the courage to repent in action and open the door to a new generation and a new, more just world.

His death might evoke mixed memories for some. But repentance and courageous leadership should not be ignored.

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

So, the Olympics are over and the Paralympics are soon to begin. And I still find it odd to keep hearing the title “Tokyo 2020” in 2021. I know the reasons why, but it stops me every time.

It’s not the only thing that has been strange about these Olympics, either. I learned the other day that the Spanish national anthem doesn’t have any lyrics; they couldn’t agree what they should say, so they do without. Given the weirdness of some anthems, maybe that’s a good idea.

But, what’s amused me most about these Games was how the prophets of doom – “They should be cancelled because of the pandemic, etc.” – are now celebrating a brilliant couple of weeks of sport and competition … without a hint of memory or, even, irony.

It smacks of Arthur C Clarke’s observation about every revolutionary idea being filtered by critics through three phrases: first, “It’ll never work;” second, “It might work, but isn’t worth doing;” and, third, “I said all along it was a good idea.”

Well, I put my hand up to that one. I well remember questioning out loud why anyone would want a camera in their phone; a phone is a phone and a camera is a camera. That ended well.

 But, this is just how life is and how people are. If the Olympics are a test of many things – including stamina and determination – they certainly shine a light on character. You can’t just turn up in Tokyo, get off the settee and run a marathon. Some personalities are naturally optimistic and visionary; others need time and persuasion – like me and technology. A good society needs both early adopters and late developers: the former make things happen, the latter ask the hard questions.

One of the reasons I keep reading the Christian Gospels – apart from the fact that it’s my job – is that this diversity of character is taken seriously. The first followers of Jesus have their own distinctive personalities – which is why they often clash. Peter is impetuous and harbours illusions about how strong he is … until he discovers that he actually isn’t. Judas is impatient and wants to force Jesus’s hand into bringing the revolution now. At the cross, when the men do a runner, it’s the women who stay and attend to the painful detail of miserable death and surprising resurrection.

They all have their place and their role: early-adopting visionaries and hindsight-persuaded pessimists. The rash get slowed down and the slow get drawn along. Somehow it works.

Which is just as well, really. As the apostle Paul wrote and every athlete knows, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.”

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:

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 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 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.