This 'away-from-home-and-reading' bit of my sabbatical is coming to an end. I haven't read as much as I had wanted to, but there is also a life to be lived (and football to be watched).

Before finishing with a couple of funny German satirical books, I spent the last couple of days reading Ben Quash's Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit. I am very glad I did.

Last year I asked Ben to be (Honorary) Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral and he agreed. He is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and was formerly Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Last summer I asked Ben to address my clergy on the subject of 'change' – given all the uncertainties about the future of the diocese in the light of proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for West Yorkshire & the Dales (which, as we know, is soon to be a reality). In the morning he presented some of the material that is now set out in this book. (In the afternoon we had Pastor Sebastian Feydt from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, to talk about radical change and its effects – he had experienced the changes in Germany from GDR to FRG at every level, including how such change affects or shapes your theology.)

If Ben had told me beforehand that he would begin with a brief study of modal auxiliaries in English language, I would probably have advised against it on the grounds that … er … it doesn't sound very … er … likely to enthral the busy clergy mind. It was absolutely riveting. Since then, I have waited for the book and for the time to read it properly – even though some bits made me feel a bit dim and slow.

I am not going to attempt to review it here. Suffice to say that this beautifully written book ranges through language, translation, art, poetry, the naming of cats, Bible, text, hermeneutics, history, philosophy, christology and pneumatology. And, yes, that was 'the naming of cats'. I rarely read a 'theology' from cover to cover, but I did this one. Basically, he wants the reader to see that the Holy Spirit breathes through the space that engages our imagination (in its proper meanings), re-lighting the past and shaping the future. En route he has important things to say or suggest about how the church is to handle new phenomena in the light of a proper reading of and handling of scripture – something pertinent to current ethical debates in and beyond the church.

I quote the opening of the first chapter on 'Historical finding':

The theology advanced in this book understands ongoing history as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to relate us to God in Christ, and it is energetically opposed to models of doctrine that assume for it any sort of ahistorical completeness; that assume it to be a set of securely held propositions from which all necessary implications for Christian belief and practice can then be deduced in any time and place. (p.1)

 

This is going to be a great week.

Not only do we hit 'the longest day' – 21 June, midsummer's day – when I and colleagues will spend the whole day from 5am to 10pm walking in the diocese, visiting places, doing meetings, taking part in the Grassington Festival and meeting loads of rural people, but we also have a Clergy Study Day on Wednesday on 'change'. In the morning we have Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and Honorary Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral) leading us through 'a theology of change'; in the afternoon we have Sebastian Feydt (Pastor of the Frauenkirche in Dresden) telling his story of living through massive change between 1989 and today.

The Diocese of Bradford faces a decision by the General Synod on Monday 8 July on the proposals for dissolution of three dioceses and the creation of a new Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales. We have lived with this uncertainty about the future for the last three years or so. I was appointed as the Bishop over two years ago in order to take the diocese through this never-done-before process and build confidence for change. If the Synod votes against these proposals (which would be mad), we cannot go back to business as usual – there will still have to be change as we look to the future.

So, doing theology on Wednesday is intended to reinforce the theological framework in which and through which we see what is happening and shape our future with vision, courage and wisdom. Listening to a personal story of how a whole world (Communist East Germany) collapsed overnight and how individuals, churches and society coped with a whole new emerging world should (a) be dead interesting, (b) flesh out some of the theology we have been discussing, and (c) put diocesan reorganisation into some perspective.

Behind this lies a conviction that structures of themselves guarantee nothing; it is the imagination, vision, will and determination of people that effect change. And for this to happen we need to dare to think and see differently. Whatever decision the Synod makes in July, one thing is certain: mistakes will be made and elements of a new structure will be found wanting. The interesting bit, however, will be how those involved either engage with and own the 'new' or seek out the failings in order to say,”I told you so.”

Not for now, but there are some very interesting biblical associations with all of this.

 

Among all the work stuff I have to read (like the report issued yesterday – funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – on the 2012 Bradford West by-election) I have just read Professor Ben Quash's excellent new book Abiding. The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book, it addresses the urgent need of Christian people to commit to place and stay there.

With reference to film, art and literature, Quash writes beautifully about how to live generously and contentedly with life lived in community. Rooted in the Benedictine experience, he draws on Scripture to encourage openness, attentiveness, reflectiveness, looking reality in the eye and living an authentic life. In so doing, he eschews the escapism of fantasy – religious or otherwise – whilst encouraging a habit of 'abiding' in body, mind, relationships, exile, woundedness and peace.

Perhaps it isn't coincidental that today I visited a church in Bradford where a simple community has arisen around the making of bread. Bread Church draws people from the local community into what I want to call an 'abiding presence' – where people bake bread together, share time together, talk together, break loneliness together, eat together, pray together, care for one another. It can only happen where one or two people commit themselves to a particular place – to abiding and not running away. It is impressive and rooted in the soil of Christian love and mercy.

Bread Church embodies what Ben Quash describes.

This is a book for slow reading and one I will be commending strongly – and not only because Ben is soon to be installed as Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral.

 

There’s a great line in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys when one character, Rudge, defines history as “just one f…ing thing after another”. This week feels similar to me: women bishops is followed by Leveson which is followed by the Chancellor’s out-of-touch-with-most-people’s-reality Autumn Statement (more welfare cuts) which is followed by speculation about a triple-dip recession which is followed by gay marriage. Elsewhere, Egypt falls apart, Syria explodes, Mandela is ill and Belfast sees violence again.

Out and about this week in various communities and meeting a wide variety of people, most of these issues don’t even hit the radar of immediate concern. Of immediate concern, however, is how to cope with the numbers of broken people falling off society’s radar while churches and charities try to stop them falling even further. And then the charitable sector raises its voice to say that many of them are likely to fold soon. What happens then to the Big Society?

Well, I haven’t had time to put down all I would wish to; I have been out and about and one thing has followed another in quick succession. This coming week will see the House of Bishops meeting in London and on Tuesday the 2011 Census data will be published.

So, I limit myself today to three recommendations aimed at bringing a different perspective to the season.

Veira O Holy NightJonathan Veira’s Christmas album of a couple of years ago – O Holy Night – is one of the best (and least cheesy) musical celebrations of Christmas. Unbelievably powerful voice and great arrangements of familiar songs and carols. Apart from Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas and a pile of Bach or Mozart, Veira gets the repeat listens from me. (And his book is a good read, too.)

WWYAMC coverI got into big trouble a couple of years ago when I published a short book about Christmas. I apparently dissed Christmas carols – but I was far more subtle than that. Anyway, the fuss also did for the book! It is still available and offers an approach to Christmas aimed at ordinary people for whom the whole business has lost its power (or plot). I still think it is quite a good little book and an accessible read – it is called Why Wish You a Merry Christmas?

Quash Abiding coverLooking ahead: Ben Quash, Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London (and soon to be Honorary Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral), has written the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2013. I have only dipped into it, but Abiding looks as excellent as one might expect from an interesting writer and theologian.

Now off to another ‘event’…