I have a weird life.

Last Monday I chaired a Bishop's Staff Meeting in Leeds before getting the train to London to record BBC Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (Christmas special) with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox. I got the first train back to Leeds for the formal opening of our new diocesan office on Tuesday morning. Wednesday saw me back on the train to London for the House of Lords (also on Thursday) covering a number of issues facing the country and the world. Thursday evening I was on a panel at City University, London, on the ethics of migration – with some excellent panellists that made me want to do more academic work again. Friday morning I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (always a privilege) before having coaching and then doing a shed load of emails and other work. Saturday and Sunday were spent at Limehouse with my cell group, and Monday I spent in bed feeling like death. Today was the House of Bishops at Lambeth Palace, followed by a meeting with the government's Lord Bourne on faith issues'. Now I am back on the train to Leeds.

Me and Nick Baines

Why do I tell you that? Well, few people get an idea of what a bishop does – or the range of stuff that he/she is expected to cover. Simply illustrative. Back in Leeds, I start at 8am tomorrow and have meetings all day in the Diocese. Never boring.

But, while all this is going on the world bleeds.

One of the recurring conversations at the moment is whether democracy works. Well, of course it does. It delivers what people vote for. However, it is not necessarily truthful, intelligent or wise. It does not necessarily deliver what people thought they were voting for. Nothing new there. But, one of the glaringly bizarre questions emerging from both Brexit and Trump is why people didn't question the language used by the elite who led the campaigns. For example, who exactly is “the establishment” if it isn't the very people who were slagging off the establishment? How is “the elite”, if it isn't hugely privileged and economically comfortable people who will not suffer one iota from the consequences of what they persuaded people to vote for!

How many billionaires are there in the Trump administration? Why is President Putin so happy?

And all this finds focus in the cries of the children of Aleppo. While the blood flows today in the final brutality of war, the rest of us are confronted with an unpalatable challenge: we tell our government not to apply military power in Syria … only to complain that the Russian/Assad violence on our screens has been exercised without opposition. The West doesn't know what it believes. No wonder Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) was quoted on Twitter this afternoon as saying: ” We are fed up with the constant whining of our American colleagues.”

We will see what happens. In the meantime, Christians will find a vocabulary in the Psalms for the conflicted cries of “how long?” and “why do the poor suffer?” and “why are we so rubbish at getting things right for the sake of the weak and vulnerable?” (which,I admit, is a rough translation).

As I mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords some weeks ago (on the admission to the UK of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children from Calais), the generation of children who suffer from our inactivity will not forget what we did not do for them. The seeds of the next three or four generations' violence are being sown now.

And we cannot pretend ignorance.

 

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The usual whinge. Running to stand still and haven't the head space to write much on this blog these days.

However, Adrian Hilton wrote on the excellent Reimagining Europe site earlier this week to urge bishops to remain neutral in the current EU referendum debate. Adrian is one of the few commentators and bloggers to keep us honest. So, I take his charge seriously.

The problem, of course, is that there is a word limit to posts on the Reimagining Europe blog. This means that argument has to be concise. This is a great virtue, but it also limits the ability to develop an argument. And this – as he states – applies to Adrian as much as it does to me in my response.

Anyway, as debate assumes the development of argument and thinking, see for yourself this week's exchange and then join in.

Adrian's post is here and my response here.

Following the furore over the bishops' letter to the Prime Minister about refugees, I was asked to put pen to paper for the Yorkshire Post to explain why I agreed to be a signatory. The reason I agreed is that I had just spent the day meeting people who have been on the wrong end of war, displacement, humiliation and hopelessness – just like many of those escaping from the Iraq and Syria we have helped create. So, here is the article published this evening for tomorrow's paper.

I am not sure what the politicians and political commentators have been doing today? Still seething about the letter written by 84 bishops to the Prime Minister asking for a rethink on the numbers of refugees to be let into the UK? Still sitting behind screens being sarcastic about bishops and their big houses (which are actually their offices)? I have read today that some responses are becoming less hysterical now that the letter has actually been read.

Forgive me for being just a teensy bit touchy on this. I am in Sri Lanka visiting our link bishop of Colombo. The Church of England dioceses have links across the world: West Yorkshire and the Dales has close connections with Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Sweden (Skara), USA (Southwestern Virginia), Pakistan and Germany (Erfurt, though, obviously, this is not an Anglican link).

In other words, rather than simply pontificating about situations, we actually have grassroots connections with them. When asked why the bishops don't wade in on, say, the 100,000 killed in South Sudan, well … actually we have and we do. We also go to Sudan and see the impact of the conflicts in the South. It could be argued that we know what we are talking about.

So, back to the letter to the Prime Minister. If you are one of those seething about the well-meaning bishops getting it wrong again, have a look at this first:

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some five weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon? (Funnily enough, a letter from the Home Office arrived on Tuesday.)

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Labour ought we were right wing; the Tories think we are all lefties. We just have to get used to the knee-jerk responses that this defensiveness provokes.

The job of bishops is not to be popular or simply to go with the current, dominant flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things. The church cannot duck its prophetic vocation. Read the Bible and we are always getting into trouble with the powers that be – it goes with the territory.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument should be on the plight of refugees and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Today (Tuesday) I have moved from Kandy to Jaffna in Sri Lanka. We visited small rural communities and met people whose limbs have been blown off (or worse) during the thirty year civil war that ended in vile brutality only five years ago. One man with no left leg and a mangled right leg and foot cannot work and cannot support his family. An elderly woman has lost all her relatives in the carnage and now is totally alone. We went to an orphanage run by the Church of Ceylon where we met the inspirational priest and his wife who led a group of mentally ill women through the war zone to safety; they also brought several dozen orphaned girls. They were separated and only found each other again once the war ended. The warden of the orphanage has only one leg.

How many of the commentariat have actually got out from behind their screens to meet real people with real faces and real lives? Just asking. Because this is how the church lives, and it is how the bishops learn reality away form our small island.

Syria is a catastrophe. It is not numbers who are fleeing – it is people. And their torment will continue long after they have escaped the immediate horrors.

Much of our conversation here revolves around the civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

I think our letter might have been too gentle and diplomatic, after all.

I am currently in Sri Lanka with our diocesan link bishop. I hadn't realised when we arrived yesterday in an almighty thunderstorm that this might be the mood left behind in England by the letter from bishops to the Prime Minister about refugees.

The storm is predictable, though some of the response by the commentariat is disappointingly knee-jerk.

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon?

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Our job is not to be popular or to go with the flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument (that I can only witness from a vast distance and with intermittent wifi) should be on the plight of refugees (see previous posts and my article in the Yorkshire Post) and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Colombo yesterday, Kandy today. Tomorrow we move on to the north and Jaffna. Much of the conversation revolves around the recently ended civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

The photo above is of the notice on our hotel window in Kandy. It doesn't spell out whether it is addressed to the guests or simply alerting us to an animal problem.

 

The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda. Not in order to bolster the institution, but in order to get us back (amid a million claims on attention) to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities. Not simply growing churches for the sake of having big churches, but growing churches in all our communities – even and especially where it is tough.

I am working with lay and ordained Anglican disciples to shape a diocese that places worship, evangelism, nurture and service at the heart of our life. This will shape our priorities, how we raise and allocate our resources (of people, money and ‘stuff’), and how we shape and work our structures. We are attending seriously to growth, and to tackling the challenges of buildings, decline and discouragement. And I lead a team of bishops and other ministers – lay and ordained – who are determined, confident (in God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church – and especially the Church of England -, and the contexts in which we live and serve), and sacrificial in their exercise of this ministry.

And we are only one of 42 dioceses in the Church of England that are doing this.

You would never believe any of this from the communique issued following the meeting in England this week of the primates of what is known as Gafcon. According to this group – which, despite statements to the contrary and consistent with behaviour that is inexplicable – the Church of England has abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ and is “unfaithful”. It is probably worth noting that the key words in the rhetoric of this conservative evangelical constituency are “gospel” and “faithful”. What is actually meant is that if you do not fit their narrow description of what the “gospel” is and who might be described as “faithful”, then you are fair game for being dismissed. (Assumptions about the meaning of key words matters here.)

For a long time I have wondered if the Church of England ought not to be a little more robust in countering the misrepresentation and manipulation (of reality) that emanates from Gafcon. I am not alone. But, I have bowed to the wisdom of those who (rightly) assert that we shouldn’t counter bad behaviour with bad behaviour, and that we should trust that one day the truth will out. I am no longer so sure about the efficacy of such an eirenic response. I think we owe it to Anglicans in England and around the Communion to fight the corner and challenge the misrepresentation that is fed to other parts of the Anglican Communion. (I was once asked in Central Africa why one has to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. I was asked in another country why the Church of England no longer reads the Bible and denies Jesus Christ. I could go on. When asked where this stuff has come from, the answer is that this is what a bishop has told them.)

The Gafcon primates say:

We are uniting faithful Anglicans, growing in momentum, structured for the future, and committed to the Anglican Communion.

Which means what – especially when they claim ‘gospel values’ and speak and behave in ways that do not reflect values of honesty, integrity and humility? And on what basis is the bulk of the Church of England reported (within Gafcon circles) as being unfaithful? And who writes the stuff they put out? Who is directing whom – who is pulling whose strings? And what would be the response if I wrote off as “unfaithful” entire provinces of the Anglican Communion where there was evidence of corruption, love of power, financial unfaithfulness or other sins? Does the ninth Commandment still apply today, or only where convenient? Is sex the only ethical matter that matters, or does breaking the ninth Commandment get a look in?

The Gafcon primates get their information (and money) from somewhere. The ‘take’ on the Church of England reflects simply the perceptions of a few. I bet the wider picture is not represented. They insinuate that some clergy and churches (decidedly congregations and not parishes – and thereby lies another issue) feel marginalised or fearful – treated like ‘pariahs’ according to Gafcon – so cannot be identified. Really? How pathetic.

I was once at a meeting of evangelical bishops in England when three English Gafcon men came to meet us. They had stated that this was the case and that bishops were giving their clergy a hard time. We asked for evidence so we could consider it before we met. Bishop Tom Wright and I were just two who were outraged at the misinformation, misrepresentation and selective re-writing of history presented to us. When we began to challenge this, we were told that we shouldn’t get bogged down in the detail and could we move on. And they got away with it. I am not making this up.

The truth is that while all this nonsense goes on, the rest of the Church of England will continue to focus on being faithful to its gospel vocation and mission. We are doing it every day. We will not be distracted by people who selectively report, regularly misrepresent, manipulate truth and plough their own furrow. God bless them in their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ; and God bless the rest of us in our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We continue to support our fellow Anglicans all over the world, many of whom tell us that they have no time for Gafcon. Some face dreadful challenges and we stand with them. Some face real persecution and we stand with them. The great power of the Anglican Communion lies in these relationships of mutual prayer, learning, fellowship, mission and support – and they cannot be bought to promote the power games of a few.

Today I confirmed a number of new Christians in an ordinary and faithful West Yorkshire parish.

 

How extraordinary?

This morning the BBC Today programme brought together a bishop and a politician to discuss the pastoral letter to be published later today by the House of Bishops. The Daily Telegraph and others tell the bishops to stay out of politics because they are “left-leaning”.

Two problems here: (a) Nadine Dorries began her interview by saying she had not seen or read the document, but would comment and criticise anyway; and (b) the “church stay out of politics” line is so ridiculously silly – at so many levels – that it is heard simply as a tired cliche. If we are going to be criticised, let it be on the basis of fact, and let it be at least remotely intelligent and a little original.

The pastoral letter issued later today does not trot out a party line. It attempts to encourage engagement with politics by Christians and voting by them in the General Election. It specifically states that it is not telling people how to vote, and illustrates how fragile some political judgements can be.

Isn't it remarkable that a politician will admit to not having read something, have no idea what is in it, but still be confident enough to go ahead and comment on it?

And, pace the Telegraph, if bishops and other Christians are to keep out of politics, who else is to be excluded? Politics are about life and the stuff of life – which isn't the concern of Jesus or the Bible or ethics or relationships?

Verily, the mind boggleth.

This morning the new Bishops of Bradford and Huddersfield were consecrated (not ‘concentrated’, as someone put it in a prayer last week) at York Minster. The immediate reports and photos can be seen here.

This completes the episcopal team for the new Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales (not “Daleks’, as someone printed it recently). The new bishops, Toby Howarth and Jonathan Gibbs will start on 1 December, but might make appearances before then.wpid-Photo-20140709193123.jpg

This is the latest and very important step in shaping the new diocese. We face significant challenges, but fantastic opportunities. The new bishops will find a great openness in the diocese to new ways of doing things. They will also be able to put immediate energy into encouraging, nurturing, challenging and shaping. They will also need to learn the patch and the people – without buying in to all the myths that grow around the church and the way it does its business.

Of course, this is all happening against a backdrop of economic challenge at home and serious international challenge away. It is an exciting and demanding time to take on episcopal ministry and leadership.

Anyway, back to concentrating on the Daleks for this evening…