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

Recently my daughter gave birth eleven weeks prematurely. Both mum and baby are doing well. Then, last Sunday afternoon my mother died at 90, with all five of her children around the bed in the home she had lived in since getting married in 1955.

I had just returned from meetings in Estonia, where locals spoke about the threat from Russia and their perceptions of the invasion of Ukraine. For me, there was the whole of life, contracted to a birth, a death, and everything uncertain in between.

The evening of my mum’s death I was surprised to recall a Bill Viola video installation at Tate Modern when I was living in London. Created in 1992, it was called Nantes Triptych. The screen on the left recorded the last thirty minutes of a woman in labour. The screen on the right displayed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life; the screen in the middle showed a humanoid form swimming through the mysterious course of life, accompanied by sounds of the two women labouring towards a beginning and an ending.

The installation was intended to be lived with for thirty minutes. While I was in there I was the only person who stood from beginning to end as people walked in and out. I have often wondered what that was about. Was it, for example, that we are bad at contemplating the pains of birth and death? Or that the life in-between is complicated enough without having to think about it’s meaning? Or something else?

I was once asked, in the wake of some violent global tragedy, what happens when we die. I helpfully said, “I don’t care.” She responded: “Given your job, (I was Bishop of Croydon at the time) don’t you think you should?” Well, I think now as I did then that we need to keep it simple. So, I said that Christian hope is rooted in the person of the God who raised Christ from the dead – not in some formula for working out what happens next. But, death – not a vague ‘passing’ – is not to be avoided as if it marks the end of everything. The first truth of human existence, made in the image of God, is that we shall die. How we get there matters.

My mother did not rage against the dying of the light, but, rather, saw it as a welcome next step on the journey. She went gently into that good night and confidently.

There is an excellent article by Ed Stourton in today's Sunday Telegraph about the importance of good media understanding of religion (and a strong reference to the Sandford St Martin Awards which I chair).

As I keep saying (I know, I know…), the need for journalists to understand religion has nothing to do with whether they believe any of it, but because you can't understand the world without it. This is a matter of intellectual wisdom, not of evangelism. If you don't take religion seriously, you are not taking the world seriously – its politics, economics, traditions or people.

And, if you want to see just how unintelligent we have become, look at the comment thread under Ed's article.

I noted recently how the BBC was getting a new Religion Correspondent at the same time as the Times was losing theirs. And look what happens…

I went to St Paul's Cathedral in London on Saturday to see the new Bill Viola video installation, Martyrs. Later I caught up with the newspaper coverage of the launch and was pleased to see how positive most of it was. But, then I got to the Times, from whom one expects.

The article hails the victory of the powers of culture over the reactionary forces of church after ten years of wrangling to get Viola's video piece into the cathedral. Typical – the church has to be dragged kicking and screaming into a brighter cultural age. Other non-specific references are made, but unattributed and without evidence.

The heavy hitters of Britain’s art world have been deployed in a decade-long battle to persuade St Paul’s Cathedral to accept a permanent video installation in its hallowed interior, it can be revealed.

The artist and his supporters, including the directors of Britain’s most prominent galleries, almost gave up their fight to persuade elements within the Church of England to allow the first ever moving image artwork to be permanently displayed in a British cathedral or church.

See that? “Battle”. “To accept”. “Revealed”. “Fight”.

Really? So how does the reviewer David Sanderson cope with the fact that the work was commissioned by the Cathedral in the first place?

Just asking…

The video is superb: powerfully moving and commanding. Just go and see it.

But, remember the story.



Here goes with yet another exposure of ignorance.

Until this week I had never heard of the Spanish artist Cristobal Toral. Born in 1940 and from the Andalucian town of Antequera, he works in a variety of media. However, his paintings, bronzes and sculptures all address the pain and loneliness of transience. He seems obsessed with luggage. Yes – suitcases. And lonely people. Some of the female subjects of his paintings are the most poignant I have ever seen.

Core to his concerns are concepts of emigration – images of suitcases and a lone traveler. Emigration seems to him to characterise human experience both in reality and existentially. Hence his categorisation by people who know what they are talking about as a ‘realist’ who sees reality as a starting point and not a limitation. The result is powerful images suggestive of displacement, uncertainty and loneliness.

You have to stand in front of them to see what I mean by this. (I’d never make an art critic…)

For some obscure reason this reminded me of Bill Viola‘s Nantes Tryptich which I saw nearly a decade ago (I think) at Tate Modern in London. Viola filmed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life and the last thirty minutes of his wife’s labour, placing the former on the right and the latter on the left (I think) of a central video of a human figure floating through water. It was haunting and disturbing. Yet, it was also compelling – attempting to hold his audience to just thirty minutes of contemplation of mortality and time in the midst of a race through an art gallery. (What interested me was how few people seemed able to stick with the Tryptich for more than just a few minutes of curious voyeurism.)

Ideas of transience are not exactly new. But, representations of transience that make you stop and look differently at it demand real skill. Viola asked us to contemplate our mortality; Toral stacks his suitcases and invites us to consider the human experience of ‘leaving’. They both made me stop and, in their different ways, provoked reflection on Cain – the experience of common humanity depicted in Genesis 4.

Having found himself exiled from Eden and stranded in a meaningless expanse of uncontoured desert (‘the Land of Nod’), Cain builds defensive walls, constructs a world of meaning within them. We all need constructs of significance that make our transient life meaningful and not meaningless. If we leave God behind we still need to create some sort of structure that allows us to believe that life is not worth nothing. Of course, the problem comes when the defensive walls of our constructed world view get breached by loss or chaos or crisis (existential or otherwise). The point is, however, that common to all human beings is the need for life to be inherently meaningful and not simply random or pointless.

I have yet to meet anyone who claims that life is inherently meaningless… and lives accordingly.

Christian faith begins with an acceptance of mortality, of transience. It starts with an experience of human being and living that faces death and non-existence with frankness and realism. But, as Easter is all about, it does so in the light of a meaning found in the action of God the Creator raising Christ from death and shining new light on our living and dying. It doesn’t minimise the experience of loss or crisis, but it does challenge fear and dread.

It also suggests that Christians should start with people’s real experience and not with answers to questions they haven’t yet formulated. Our common humanity is where we should always start – empathetically as well as intellectually – because it is here that we shall also always finish.