One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.

 

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

I have just got back from the reading of fat books on holiday. The one that grabbed me this time was Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar'. It all sounded so contemporary. The voice in my head kept repeating the plaintive phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Power, violence, subterfuge, ego, leadership struggles, populism and politics – it's all there. It always is.

I also kept hearing the line from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The problem with vision is that it emerges from memory. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this week that Judaism is a religion of memory. So, I would argue, is Christianity. Both remind us, for example, that empires come and go, that hubris is ultimately embarrassing, and that history sadly repeats itself. Christianity makes no sense at all without rituals that are there to compel compulsive amnesiacs to re-member their story: in this case that by recalling that we were once slaves, we will refrain from treating other people like slaves; that we are set free to serve; that we are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (and one another). For Jews the Passover goes to the heart of this memory; for Christians the Eucharist re-tells the story into which we fit ourselves and shape our future.

We can only know who we are if we know from where and from whom we have come. The problems emerge when either we think we have been born into the ultimate 'now' – that nothing valuable went before us – or we choose the bits of memory that are convenient to our present or future self-justifications.

And that is as dangerous for nations, continents and communities as it is for individuals or religions.

With this in mind, and having read about the Caesars, I wonder if every government should appoint a Cabinet Historian to remind it of the past and challenge policy for the longer-term future in the light of experience.

Of course, all readings of history are partial, and memories are always susceptible to selectivity. But, some of the challenges we face (for example, in the light of Brexit) would be informed by a sober re-membering. Memories are short, but how will anyone born in this millennium understand Russia and Ukraine when they have no experience of the Cold War – and a world divided not just by affluence but by starkly competing ideologies? Memory is not quite the same as history, but both can become commodities in struggles for power, as the biblical narrative reminds us.

Well, I won't hold my breath, but without a memory the people cannot form a vision. And without a vision the people perish.

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate. It comes in the wake of the atrocity in Nice and the failure of an attempted military coup in Turkey last night.

Earlier this week the bishops met for our monthly meeting at Hollin House. We always begin with a Eucharist, have breakfast, then do Bible study together before attending to the business before us. Obviously, we have a rota for leading the Bible study, and this week it was the turn of Bishop Toby, just a few days before he will be leaving for a visit to Sudan representing the Archbishop of Canterbury – of which more later.

Bishop Toby took us to Jeremiah 32 and the iconic story of prophetic hope: Jeremiah buys a field at Anathoth. Nothing odd about that? Just a wily old man playing the Ancient Near East version of the Stock Exchange? No. Jeremiah buys his field, places both the sealed and unsealed deeds in an earthenware jar, then has it buried in the field. Why? Because this looks like an absurd investment and Jeremiah looks mad.

The context is this. Society – and what we today might refer to as political and economic life – is about to fall apart. The Empire is closing in and the future looks bleak. Horizons have narrowed and people are looking increasingly short-term. They are, to reverse a phrase I often use of Easter, being driven by fear and not drawn by hope. And it is now that Jeremiah buys a field and hides the deeds and, in this quiet prophetic act, votes for hope. The end might be nigh, but the prophet catches a glimpse of a new future and, when others look down, he dares to invest in that future. Now is not the end.

This seems to me to be very apposite at a time when we live with huge uncertainties in both nation and church. Whether you voted Remain or Leave in the recent EU Referendum is not the point. We are where we are and we must take responsibility for the future and our shaping of it. It is infantile to sit on the sidelines, sure of superior wisdom, sniping at those working for the future and taking no responsibility for it. And Christians in particular are called, whatever the circumstances, to voice hope, live hope, and illustrate hope. (I am not sure now is the best time to buy a field and bury the deeds, but you get the point.)

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann is well worth going to for biblical and theological insights into the role and language of God's people at times of pressure or exile. One of his books is called 'Hopeful Imagination'; another 'The `Practice of Prophetic Imagination'. A third, with the subtitle 'Listening to Prophetic Voices', is titled 'Texts that Linger, Words that Explode'. These titles by themselves sum up the vocation of God's people, whether three thousand years ago at Anathoth or here in England in the twenty first century: to be a people of hope, drawn by a hope that comes to us from the future (and in which light we now live), articulating and giving a vocabulary for hope, acting and living hopefully at the heart of a society that is too easily driven by fear.

It will come as no surprise to you that I am particularly keen on how we articulate Christian hope, even where it looks absurd, even where it defies the evidence of “now” with the promise of “then”. What Brueggemann is asking us to do is to use words and actions to capture the imagination of a people so that they look beyond the immediate crises and dangers to a future that only God knows. Whether, despite our faithfulness and fidelity, and like Jeremiah the miserable but hopeful prophet, we head off into exile and the loss of everything that gives our life meaning – with all the sense of loss and betrayal and despair that involves – or life goes well and we prosper like never before, our vocation will be the same: to speak and live hopefully, holding out to people locked into “now” the possibility of God's future.

Now, I have taken some time on this at the beginning of this address because we need as a diocese and a synod of that diocese to root our deliberations in a theology that is strong enough to bear the weight of uncertainty. Theology is never merely academic, though we honour those whose academic attentions enlighten the rest of us. The point here, however, is that we need to sharpen more than our intellects, and have our imagination captured by the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who, as Matthew tells us, is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

So, whether we are happy with Brexit or not, whether we are fearful of the future or not, whether we are obsessed with particular hobby horses or relatively indifferent to matters that are deemed crucial by other people, we are called to hold the detail – the particular – in the light of the broader and longer-term vision. Will our debates and deliberations today demonstrate that our imagination has been captured by a prophetic vision? Or will we just go away satisfied that we have done some business?

Today we address some very important matters. What are our responsibilities towards those who, regardless of their own views and commitments, take up arms to defend us – even when our politicians demand that they serve in conflicts with which they do not agree? More particularly, what are our responsibilities to serve them once they have left the armed forces, but are themselves left with traumas, memories, disabilities or broken relationships? It can be tempting to think that this applies to areas around Catterick, but not, perhaps, to places where the Forces are not immediately located. Yet, it is highly probable that there are ex-servicemen and women in almost every parish in our diocese. How should we care for them as our response to them having fulfilled their part in serving to defend us?

Of course, for the church in every parish to offer such care to those in need (when they need such care) we need the church to be there in the first place. We know many parishes in both urban and rural areas face challenges in relation to the maintenance or development of buildings. In the next few years the number of stipendiary clergy available to lead our parishes will reduce. The models we have employed for several generations or more will no longer work – and we must address this in the years ahead. But, what is fundamental to any approach to deployment of ministries is the cash to fund it all. To put it crudely: if we don't want it, we won't pay for it; and if we don't pay for it, we won't have it. The parish share goes to paying our clergy: if it doesn't come in, it can't go out.

So, today, after much detailed work and revision, having worked through a number of options and gone through the implications of each, we must decide whether or not to approve a new Parish Share system for our diocese. Three old systems could not simply be combined – and the creation of our diocese allowed for a new consideration of many options best fitted for this new entity going forward. What is clear in any such proposal is that not everybody will be happy. This is reality. But, if I dare invoke the prophetic imagination mentioned earlier, does what is proposed allow us to move to the next stage of our diocesan life and mission? That is the question.

However, the church, however it is funded, and the ministry, however it is shaped and ordered, is whistling into the wind if it speaks and acts as if in some spiritual isolation unit, accountable only to itself. Our biblical theology begins with creation and ends with new creation. The future of the earth is a matter of massive import when most of the world's scientists are clear about the impact of human behaviour on the climate. Some of our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion have got rather tired of disputes about sex when their habitat is disappearing, their economies are collapsing and their future is in serious doubt.

Too big to get our heads around? Tempting, isn't it? But, we must be a responsible people who do our bit of Anathoth not only to invest in a future, but to shape ourselves accordingly. So, we will consider a Green Energy Saving Scheme, and we need to see in our decision where the prophetic language and action lie. Remember, the 'prophetic' is not the same as 'fantasy'.

But, whatever we do has to be paid for. I want to pay serious tribute to colleagues who have slaved over financial matters during the last two and a bit years since we were born as a diocese. It has been difficult bringing three systems together and trying to forge a meaningful future with numbers that were accounted for differently in historic dioceses. As I have constantly reiterated, we are on track to start 2017 with our structural foundation in place and with clarity about the resources at our disposal. We ended 2014 legal, operational and viable – which was not a forgone conclusion. We spent 2015 keeping the show on the road while reviewing all aspects of diocesan ministry and mission, aiming to propose a new shape for a new diocese. This process has not been easy for those whose jobs or roles were caught up in the seemingly endless, but unavoidable, uncertainty. This year we have been starting the processes of re-shaping, building on our new governance structures and developing our vision for prioritising our mission across the diocese and episcopal areas. We are nearly there, but the debates we have today, and the decisions we make, will allow us to be clear about where we start from on 1 January 2017. We will move into the new diocesan office in late September, bringing our administration under a single roof for the first time.

I pay tribute to all in this diocese who have worked so hard to get us to the starting blocks – a task and challenge for which we should all be grateful. But, 2017 does see us at the beginning and not the end. Personally, I will feel able to look up and out in a way that has not been possible thus far because of the sheer volume of work needed to get the foundation established upon which the rest of the building might be erected in the future. So, 2017 sees us clear about who we are – the Diocese of Leeds -, how we are shaped, what resources we have decided to apply to our mission, and how all this shall be funded and administered most effectively. But, that only means that we can then turn our attention to bedding it all in, inviting the scrutiny we require, looking to the medium-term, looking seriously and radically at how we wish to deploy our clergy and lay ministers in the future, constantly re-assessing our priorities and behaviours, not confusing ends with means, and ensuring that at every level of the diocese's life we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear or particular interest.

So, I want to conclude by drawing us back to the wider context in which we do our particular business today. As I said at the beginning, Bishop Toby will soon leave for Sudan to take part in an ACC consultation about whether Sudan should form a Province of the Anglican Communion separate from South Sudan. Currently there is one church across two countries, and South Sudan is collapsing into conflict. Our partnership link is with the five dioceses of Sudan where the church is coping with almost insurmountable demands to cope with refugees, feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the naked. We will be involved in any future support for our sister church in Sudan … where the challenges are beyond enormous. As we do our business today, conscious of our responsibility towards refugees here (and we will debate a very practical response to this later), we send Bishop Toby to give our love to Archbishop Ezekiel and his colleagues, to promise our prayer and support, and to take with him our gratitude for our partnership in the Gospel.

Now, let us turn to business, but with a prophetic imagination that dares us to shape our thinking, our listening, our speaking and our hearing in a way that might be described as godly.

The second book I have just read (see here for the first) from the imaginative Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books is John J. Collins’ The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography. Great stuff, again.

I have waited for a straightforward book about the Scrolls that not only introduced the contents and told the story, but opened up their implications and described the – often bizarre – academic controversies that have arisen around them. This book does it.

I haven’t the time or ability to deal with detailed academic scrutiny, important though that clearly is. I need something that gives me the big picture.

Towards the end of the book Collins concludes:

Despite sensationalist claims, [the Scrolls] are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape. (P.240)

Other works that do a similar job are (depending on whether you like film or book) Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilaean.

Princeton University Press is publishing a series of books about books: Lives of Great Religious Books. Among the first batch is (perhaps predictably) The Book of Genesis: A Biography. And, though brief, it is excellent. (See a good review of the book here.)

Having traced the book's 'biography' from its textual and literary-contextual origins, Ronald Hendel takes us on a journey through apocalypticism, Platonic worlds, the figuralism of Dante and Rashi, the 'realism of Luther, the science of Copernicus and Galileo through to Spinoza, Darwin and Fundamentalism, the literary explorations of Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka to Erich Auerbach. And his concluding sentence?

We live on the far side of tradition… In our exile, we can read Genesis as it is now – an astonishing book of marvelous realism and the root from which we came. (p.241)

In fact, Hendel has done more than concoct a narrative thread; he has fitted the book of Genesis into a brief history of biblical hermeneutics as they are shaped by the wider intellectual, religious and social movements of history. En route he places an implicit question mark over those who assume that the biblical text is self-evident in meaning – that is to say, without reference to the unarticulated assumptions we bring to our reading of it. (Which might usefully be considered by those orchestratedly bombarding bishops like me this week with their – remarkably identical and sometimes offensively expressed – views on bishops and the Pilling Report. The phrase “the plain meaning of Scripture” is used with what used to be called 'gay abandon'.)

There are points where I would wish to quibble with what I think are wrong or generalised observations, but these are hardly worth noting in a book which is clearly and vividly written for a general-interest audience. And there are statements that concisely say what might usefully be expanded on grounds of interest and importance. For example, on 'translation':

The Platonic flavor of Creation in the Greek [Septuagint] Genesis does not mean that it is a bad translation, but simply that it is a translation. All translations mingle the concepts and categories of the source language with those of the target language. The words and the ideas of Genesis take on Greek color because they are now written in Greek. The Septuagint became the standard Scripture for Greek-speaking Jews and for most Christians, including all the writers of the New Testament. And this means that Genesis described, for them and their descendants, a Platonic world. (p.90)

Now, you have to read on to see how the language itself, as well as the impact of the act of translation, shapes – and is shaped by – an assumed world view.

I would love to have read some reference to Robert Crumb's cartoon version of Genesis! But, reading this book did remind me of Alan of Lille's great aphorism: “God is the intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” (p.115)

Discuss…

 

Yesterday was an odd one. It was Yorkshire Day here in … er … Yorkshire – the annual celebration of the White Rose counties just south of 'Desolation'. It was also Swiss National Day – which caused me to say, at the start of an address in Skipton, that we should tip our hats to Toblerone and recognise that William Tell would never get a clean CRB for shooting a crossbow at an apple on the head of some kid.

But, if moving elegantly – if bizarrely – from lessons learned in my last two years in Yorkshire (including when it is unwise to go anywhere without a 'priest' and a 'condom') to the human vocation to be generous to outsiders (it all has to do with Deuteronomy 26, never forgetting your origins as homeless people, and making space for the strangers) seems odd, then have a look at today's news.

The US Secretary of State has called the military coup in Egypt “restoring democracy“. So, whatever we might think of its behaviour and policies in office, a democratically elected government is ousted by the armed forces and this is “restoring democracy”? Forgive the rest of us simpletons for having trouble with this notion – which sounds like it came out of 1984. This has nothing to do with Morsi's credentials or the Muslim Brotherhood's real intentions, but a lot to do with principles. How many other 'democracies' might be overturned by the military because they don't like who got freely elected – only to find this approved by the USA?

On the other hand, the US administration is furious at Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden one year's asylum in their country – not one renowned for upholding human rights or freedom of information. But, if a Russian exposed what the Russian secret services were doing to bug the world's communications systems, would the US simply return him to Russia at Putin's request? 'Our' spies are always traitors; others' spies are always courageous heroes. And isn't there something profoundly undemocratic about a surveillance state harvesting electronic communications indiscriminately and without the sanction or knowledge of those who elected them?

However serious we need to be about having an intelligent and informed debate in the UK about immigration, the current output of the UK Government on Twitter (@ukhomeoffice) on the matter is disturbing. The feed regularly updates the number of people being arrested and where they are. You don't have to be a defender of illegal immigration to find this sort of reporting by a government department as worrying. If, for example, the Zimbabwean Government did a similar thing, would we find it acceptable – or deliberately intimidating? Campaigns of fear are questionable at best.

Which brings us back to the irony of Deuteronomy and the injunction to have rituals whereby we compel ourselves to remember where we have come from and that we are all transient in one way or another. I spoke at the service today in Yorkshire, a county that owes much of its industrial growth in previous generations to immigrants (in Bradford's case, from Ireland and Germany) and much of its entrepreneurial development now to newer generations of immigrants (from South Asia and beyond).

The terms in which we currently 'debate' immigration in the UK cast a dark moral shadow. It is a strange world we live in.

(And a 'priest' is the wooden thing you hit a fish with when you have caught it; a 'flying condom' is a spinner, apparently – although I erroneously called it a 'fly'. Just proves I am at heart a city boy.)

 

The Kirchentag has to be experienced to be understood. The sheer enormity of scale is mitigated by an organisation that marries efficiency to intimacy. It is estimated that around 300,000 people will come through Hamburg for the Kirchentag in the next three days, but somehow it never feels hassled or crowded.

Unless you don’t get to some venues early enough to get in, that is. The was almost a riot outside the enormous hall where Margot Käßmann was doing a Bible Study this morning: the hundreds that couldn’t get in to this or the subsequent discussion involving the Federal President, Joachim Gauck, were not happy bunnies.

The Opening Services last night took place in four places. The sun shone on the tens of thousands of people (of all ages) who sang, prayed and listened together. This was followed by the Abend der Begegnung where the city of Hamburg opened its arms in welcome, cultural invitation and generous hospitality.

The theme of the Opening Service on the Rathausmarkt was basically a call for the Church to grow up and take responsibility. There was a particular edge for those of us from Bradford and Wakefield as the preacher spoke of the fusion last year of three Landeskirchen (dioceses) into the single Nordkirche. This new Landeskirche maintains the distinctives not only of regional identity, but also of the three Protestant traditions that make up the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD): Lutheran, Reformed and United. The call was clear: stop complaining about change and shape what can be.

And I thought I was coming here to get away from all that…

Anyway, this morning we had to get to our venue an hour early in order to get a seat for just one of the many Bible Studies being led each day. We wanted to hear Margot Käßmann on Luke 18:1-8 – the story of the persistent woman and the unjust judge. 7,000 people; many more unable to get in. Inconceivable in England.

I will put a link up to her text, but she spoke powerfully of the need for persistence in challenging injustice, annoying those who wish to deny justice to the weak and the powerless in society. I can’t do justice to her text here, but will cite one – almost incidental – comment she made about a woman called Elisabeth Schmitz (of whom I had never heard.

Elisabeth Schmitz corresponded with the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth between 1933-36, trying to get Barth to engage with the ‘Judenfrage’ – the fate of the Jews. Barth declined. Theology always has to be read through the prism of history and culture; it never stands alone in some abstract world inhabited by a remote God or a disengaged church. When Schmitz died in 1977 only 7 people attended her funeral – it was only the later discovery of a load of personal documents that gave an indication of the relentless courage of this woman who resisted Hitler and kept a prophetic call alive.

Germany always provides glimpses of people whose integrity is remarkable and whose fearlessness in facing challenge is humbling. Käßmann reiterated the importance of seeing irritating people as ‘persistent widows’ who compel us to not lose sight of other people’s – particularly the weak, the powerless, the abandoned and the refugees – fundamental humanity.