This is the basic text of my Maundy Thursday sermon in Bradford Cathedral and streamed for the clergy and lay ministers of the Diocese of Leeds:

“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

We do not lose heart. Good for Paul.

But, what if we do? What if mood or circumstance or experience close down our horizons and dim the lights of love and vocation? What if the exigencies of the last year have ground us down and diluted our confidence? What if we are no longer sure how to do our ministry when the ground has moved and the familiar ways don’t work any longer?

Do we carry on pretending, in the hope that things will improve? Or that my mood will change when the sun comes out and the trees begin to blossom? Or that God will do a miracle and transform my personality and make everything OK again? (I remember when I was younger thinking that this is exactly what God had done to me; but, it turned out to be the steroids.)

Well, I recently had a conversation with someone I hadn’t met before who challenged my contention that what we need in these strange and testing times is hope and not optimism. Optimism assumes that things will get better – often despite all the evidence; whereas hope draws us through the reality, however good or bad that might actually prove to be. I think the challenge was around whether that hope ought to be showing a bit more brightness (optimism) – an upbeat vision for the future. I will return to this shortly, but it is a challenge I have thought about a lot since the conversation.

Because I think this goes to the heart of where we are as a church – and as clergy and lay leaders – emerging from a dreadful year of lockdowns, isolation, tragedies and loss. Without warning, we have had to adapt practices, invent new rituals, create community using unfamiliar media, try to shape a changed workload – especially when the normal means for exercising pastoral care have collapsed. It has reminded me of my feeling as a parish priest that if I were to have a slogan or motto, if would be in three-foot high letters around my study wall and would say – confidently – “Everything you do is wrong!”

I wasn’t being miserable. It’s just that if I visited one person, then I wasn’t visiting a couple of hundred others, and, to someone’s mind, I will have made the wrong choice. In ministry we get used to having to set priorities in pastoral care that might always prove to be the wrong ones. But, we get on with the job anyway, despite a lack of certainty regarding our choices.

And this last year has demanded of our churches and ministers an exhausting willingness to change, innovate, limit and expand – and all without any certainty that we are, in fact, getting it right.

Did some of us feel overwhelmed by the new demands? Yes. Did others among us look at our neighbour’s creative enthusiasms and feel inadequate (not least, technologically)? Certainly. Did some use lockdowns as an excuse for laziness? Possibly. Did others become manically activist and hide the fear behind new initiatives or organisation? Probably. Did some feel paralysed by insecurity or dread of being seen to fail? Inevitably. And did some look at their neighbour’s weakness and compare themselves accordingly? Maybe.

And that is all OK. If that complex of reactions is the reality, then that’s what we will deal with. But, how might we think about all this on this day, as we sit with Jesus and his friends as they rehearse their foundational story and celebrate the liberation of his people in the Exodus? How are we to think about our re-commitment to our vows as ordained clergy or our commissioning as lay leaders and disciples of this same Jesus?

(I am conscious today that we celebrate this service in communion with our sisters and brothers in very different contexts across the globe, particularly in Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the USA, Germany and Sweden. The contexts might differ, but the commitment is the same.)

Luke 22:24-30

Jesus has come with his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. Their minds are full of hope that the liberation of God’s people, celebrated in this meal, might now – this year – be incarnated afresh as Jesus leads the expulsion of the Roman blasphemers, heralding the return of God among them. They have been praying for several hundred years for this moment, repeatedly being let down by would-be messiahs who promised much, but always delivered only disillusionment. Yet, now, what Jesus had spoken of as the “Kingdom of God” was imminent – something to be anticipated and celebrated. Spirits are high.

Yet, here, in this upper room, Jesus is surrounded by people who have missed the point and argue about their status. For one of them, Judas, Jesus is not going about things in the right way and his hand is going to have to be forced. No doubting Judas’s passion for the kingdom of God or his personal commitment to seeing it realised. Another of them has a self-image that is illusory and deceptive: Peter might think he is made of granite, but will soon discover that his rock is actually leaky limestone.

Betrayal, denial, illusion, optimism. All are there in that room.

It’s the loneliness of Jesus that gets me.

Yet, what Jesus does is take a longer-term view. He re-frames the story of Israel’s liberation, knowing that his friends don’t quite get it. Broken bread and wine outpoured will one day make a different sense for them, but not just now. Jesus isn’t trapped in the ‘now’ to the extent that he can’t see the way forward. He knows also that things said and done now will, when circumstances have changed, complete a picture. A bit like when you look at one of those 3-D images that look like a mess until your eyes re-focus and you suddenly see the dinosaur looking out at you.

In other words, and translating this to our context, being a minister or leader in the name and image of the Christ whose name we bear means seeing beyond the moment, looking into an uncertain future, but knowing that re-telling the story, re-framing the narrative, adding different colours to the picture, might only make sense later. Our job is to look further and deeper and to tell the truth that goes beyond fear.

Terry Eagleton, the Roman Catholic Marxist philosopher, literary theorist and theologian, in his book Hope Without Optimism glosses St Augustine as follows: “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith.” (p.41)

You see the point? We articulate hope because we love the people we serve, and we do all this in faith because the world is uncertain and people are a mystery.

At this Passover meal Jesus strips everything back to its essentials, conscious of the contradictions and limitations of the people with him, then goes out to pray as events take their tragic course. Which suggests that our task is also to articulate the heart of the gospel, expose ourselves I prayer to the God who has no illusions about the nature of the rock from which we are hewn, and then face events with faith and love and courage. Even with hope.

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:12

This is why Paul can confidently urge the Christians in Corinth to hold mercy and encouragement together. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” We will not be discouraged because each of us knows that our ministry is rooted in the mercy of the God who knows us, and that this mercy has to be experienced before it can be shared.

And what is this ministry of which Paul writes so passionately? Well, he speaks in chapter 2 of “proclaiming the good news of Christ.” He goes on to tell us that we are the “aroma of Christ to God”. We are a “letter, to be known and read by all” – “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit”. (3:6)

This vocation has not changed from Corinth to now. Paul writes passionately about his sufferings and chides the Corinthians for their fickleness, desertion and easy distraction. In other words, he walks in the shoes of the Jesus he serves … in being surrounded by people like you and me and Judas and Peter and all the rest of them. His world is one of uncertainty and fear. His own mortality was ever before him and he demonstrates in this painful letter the real impact on himself of the pressure to adapt, innovate, move on and drive mission, despite the poverty of the tools he had to implement his task.

Does this sound familiar? It should do.

As Paul goes on to note, the treasure of the glory of God is contained in clay jars. After this last year we need no reminder of our limitations and fragilities. But, we also find ourselves re-orientated towards the glory rather than the clay. We fix our eyes on the glory of God and the promise of the good news of Jesus Christ, empowered by that same Spirit that breathes and blows through the chaos of creation bringing order and life.

As spring has brought sunshine and warmth, and as restrictions have been relaxed and people congregated in parks to leave their rubbish in heaps, people in our communities are grasping at optimism and cheerfulness. The vaccines are working their scientific magic and people are booking holidays in the summer. The world feels a bit brighter and shouldn’t we all be joining in and talking it up?

Well, maybe. But, for us as clergy and lay leaders – all of us followers of the Jesus who went to a cross and bore the wound marks in his resurrected body – we are called to a deeper task: to be both realistic and hopeful, courageous and cautious, and to navigate the changing territory with faith, hope and love. If everything opens up, we will not aim simply to go back to how it was in early 2020; and if we face further lockdowns, we won’t be knocked off course, but will adapt again. For our vocation is not to tick boxes or hibernate until the ‘normal’ resumes, but, rather, to navigate reality and create new norms – ones of faith and hope and love … whatever the circumstances that shape our every day.

I guess that what I am commending is what Walter Brueggemann calls “a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways”. (Virus as a Summons to Faith) Freshly faithful among a people whose strength lies in what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called “the solidarity of the broken”.

This is why we now need to open our churches and consider how they can be a locus of hope and joy for our communities, not just our congregations. The need for joyful evangelism has never been greater. One day soon we shall be able to sing again; and when we do, we need to offer vocabularies for all the questions, lamentations, hopes and fears, aspirations and meditations that lead us to open our hearts and voices to the God of mercy who has engaged us in this ministry.

Thank you for all your service in the last year. Thank you for being colleagues and not competitors – the very message Jesus was trying to get through the skulls of his friends. Thank you for your patience and longsuffering. Thank you for ordering pastoral care and for kindling the flames of theological and spiritual hope. Thank you for praying when words have failed; for burying the dead when you couldn’t do justice to the bereaved; for living with criticism and a sense of failure, but with conviction and determination. Thank you for keeping people connected, for sacrificing much in order to love your neighbour through this curse of a public health disaster. Thank you for holding out a confident joy in times of stress and struggle.

We are not out of the woods yet. When we do finally emerge, the world – and the church – will be different. And this is a glorious opportunity to take stock, let go, newly embrace, innovate, negotiate, navigate and shape a different future. This is our vocation now, and we are in it together. No shame, no fear.

For “since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or, as John Bell put it in a song I quoted at this service in 2019 – the last time we met together in one place:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the basic text of this morning’s sermon at Bradford Cathedral:

John 20:1-18

Do you realise that in the eyes of many, many people, by coming here this morning you are an April Fool? You are doing something ridiculous. Dead men do not rise from the dead – as the Guardian pointed out with great patronising cleverness on Friday. So, if you are here this morning celebrating Easter and the resurrection, then you are to be pitied by the commentariat and those who clearly know best.

I did an interview on BBC Radio Leeds this morning and the track played before I went on was Queen’s ‘It’s a kind of magic’. And I thought: “No, it’s not!” Easter is about plunging into the heart of human reality and resurrection is about the transformation of that reality, not some magical escape from it.

Did you know that one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion was found scratched on a wall in Rome, dating probably from the second century? It is shocking. A man with the head of a donkey is strapped and nailed to a cross; next to the cross is a very badly drawn little figure wearing the short tunic of a slave – with, scribbled above it, the words: “Alexamenos worshipping his god.” We don’t know who did this, but they were clearly poking fun at Alexamenos. After all, isn’t the god of a slave inevitably a failure? Isn’t it a feeble god who gets himself crucified by the powerful Roman Empire? Wasn’t Alexamenos deluded and a bit dim to worship a god who is so obviously not worthy of common devotion?

Seen on Twitter, but unattributed

The early Christians did not invent the crucifixion and resurrection in order to establish a new religion, nor did they wake up one day and think to themselves: “You know, let’s perpetrate a fraud on the world and see if it brings us safety, liberation and prosperity!” Rather, the first Christians were compelled to worship the crucified God because they could find no other response that did justice to the facts of their experience. Dead men don’t walk; but, all the Romans had to do was present the body and Christianity would have been as dead as Jesus on day one. Why didn’t they?

In the face of oppression, unspeakable violence and widespread ridicule, these early Christians knew somehow that if just this one man did walk again, then the world is changed for ever and this God is worth the world.

The bit I struggle with every Easter Day is … joy. Not because I am miserable or pessimistic or worn out from a long Lent and Holy Week, but because we jump too quickly from the pain of Good Friday’s world-shattering loss, through the emptiness of Saturday (when we wake to the reality that this loss was not an illusion or a nightmare from which we will come round), to the “happily ever after” resolution of the problem. Shouldn’t the resurrection fill us with confusion and fear rather than joy that the nasty stuff has been sorted out? Shouldn’t we respond to the cry of “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” with a resounding whimper of something like: “Stop mocking us – you can’t be serious.”?

Let me explain by reference to the text.

“The two disciples were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in … but he did not go in. … Simon Peter … went into the tomb. … Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. … Then the disciples returned to their homes. (While Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.)”

This certainly has the ring of authenticity about it, doesn’t it? No great heroics here. No building up of the future hero of the faith – Peter himself – by having him grow spiritual muscles that he then flexes fearlessly in the face of a by now wondering world. No. Here we have these men greeting the resurrection with fear, bewilderment, maybe even silence, and then “they returned to their homes”. To do what? Read the paper? Have lunch? Just carry on?

Well, this is probably what I would have done. How do I make sense of what I have just witnessed? I need to think about it. For goodness sake, don’t breathe a word about this: we might get accused of nicking the body. It doesn’t make sense of the world as we know it … or of God as we think God should be.

Isn’t there something powerfully real here? People respond differently to the absence or appearance of Jesus in their life. The first disciple would only enter the tomb once someone else had done so – not exactly what today in the Church of England we would call ‘Pioneer Ministry’. Peter goes straight in, impetuous man that he has proved to be throughout the gospel accounts of him. The quicker disciple, we are told, “saw and believed”. We aren’t told what Peter thought … or believed. The story is only just beginning and this is not the problem-solving end of it all.

But, then, I have to ask the question that this text begs of us. Why do the men respond like this, but the woman stays there and ponders in her heart while weeping? She, too, is caught in the moment and yet, when presented with the same evidence as the men, responds so differently. This woman disciple, the subject of a new film in the cinemas now, acts with raw emotion and determined will. Whereas the men go home in silence, having seen the empty tomb, this woman – Mary of Magdala – the first-responder, as it were, has already returned home … not to silent and bewildered contemplation, but to tell others what she had seen. She didn’t wait until she understood it. She didn’t assume that she needed to get her theological ducks in a row before she could dare to tell anyone. She didn’t worry about being thought dim or ridiculous. She went and simply told the men what she had seen.

No wonder, then, that she is seen as the first evangelist of resurrection hope. No wonder that her first reaction to the fearful experience of the missing body was to tell and bring others to see what she had seen.

And isn’t this encouraging? We will all respond differently to the news of the resurrection of Jesus. Some will doubt and some will just drag others to have a look. Some will weep with emotion whilst others withdraw and try to work it out in their head. Some will draw all sorts of conclusions, but do so knowing that their conclusions are not conclusive and the story does not end here.

Yet, isn’t this all a little bit abstract? OK, we see how several friends of Jesus encountered the resurrection event two thousand years ago, but, … so what?

Well, today we might encounter the resurrection in a variety of ways. We might ponder the wonder of it all and find ourselves being transformed by the implications of it for our own life and values and behaviours. Or we might look at the historical evidence – of which there is plenty – and draw some conclusion on the basis of probability as to what happened … and how we must now respond. Or we might find ourselves overwhelmed emotionally at the realisation that, despite the ridicule of the clever world around us, the whole world is challenged and changed by the presence of a God who confounds – in real time and space – the ‘normality’ of a world too often coloured by violence, fear and chaos.

Of course, the resurrection is not just about individual discipleship of Jesus in a changed world. The resurrection and its impact on these first Christians was not a mere private pursuit of people who needed a crutch with which to limp through a hard life. The resurrection was what we might call ‘public truth’ from the word go. The Romans wouldn’t have been worried for one moment, would they, by a group of Northern peasants entertaining private religious devotions and devising cliquey rituals for celebrating their delusions? Of course, not. But, these followers of the crucified and risen Jesus proved difficult from the beginning because resurrection posed a fundamental challenge to the world order of their day. If Jesus is Lord – and resurrection as the ultimate defiance against imperial power, against the threat of violence and death, against a social order shaped to keep the mighty on their thrones (to steal a phrase from the Magnificat) actually happened – then the clear implication is that Caesar is not Lord. And if people start thinking that there is one more powerful than Caesar, to whom ultimate allegiance must be owed, where will it end? Clearly, this is subversive of natural order; clearly, this is fundamentally seditious and must, therefore, be stopped.

You can see the problem. But, Christian faith has to be subversive: subversive of narratives driven by fear and not drawn by hope; subversive of habits of worshipping the way the world is – with its global business and financial systems, powerful data companies, nasty ideologies, rogue military and paramilitary forces; subversive of any capitulation to fear or fatalism or resignation. Those who follow the risen Christ are free from these paralysing fears. The world does not have to be the way it is.

Did you know that one of the reasons the Romans found the early Christians offensive was that they kept looking after the poor, the vulnerable and the destitute? Not just their own Christian poor, vulnerable and destitute, but even those pagan Romans who had no Christian faith in the first place. This was the scandal: indiscriminate love; generous mercy; reckless compassion; a quiet but resolute challenge to the fundamental values – the basic understanding of why people do or don’t matter – of a society that is threatened by goodness.

This was – and remains – revolutionary. Christians, fired by resurrection hope, respond to the selfless love of God in Christ by imitating him – loving as he has loved us, giving ourselves as he has given himself to and for us. We are an Easter people who, like Mary and Peter and Thomas and all the others, will fail a million times and feel our bewilderment at being grasped by this love. Yet, like resurrection after death and loss and emptiness, we find that this is the love that will not let us go (even when we try to escape it for ourselves).

And this is the love – the love that will not let us go – that compels us to challenge any social order that kills and demeans and diminishes any people. Racism, antisemitism, imposed poverty, industries that enslave and drugs that steal people’s souls, politics that prioritise ideology over people and sacrifice truth on the altar of power. And that includes the church in which, historically, abuse has been allowed, the shame of which is being exposed in the light of day. A resurrection people will find themselves to look deeper, then whisper to a sceptical world: “That way lies darkness, emptiness and death; the way of Christ empties the tomb and opens the way to light and transformation.

Is this the day you peer into the tomb and decide to follow this Jesus? Is today the day you choose to walk the road of faith in defiance of the ‘evidence’ that might always wins? Is today the day you catch a glimpse of light scratching away at the darkness of your loss, and drawing you away from resignation towards hope? Is today, Easter Day, the day you decide the world does not have to stay the way it is … because God, having surprised earth with heaven by coming among us in the baby of Bethlehem, has not exempted himself from all that the world can throw at him (or us), but has drawn the sting of all deathliness and opened the gate of glory?

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

This is a poignant week. Not only do we we in the church consciously walk with Jesus and his bizarre group of friends through acclamation, popularity, betrayal, denial, desertion and death, but up here in West Yorkshire we experience all the emotions that go with 'endings'.

This evening my office closed for ever. Tomorrow I will preach and preside at Bradford Cathedral with the clergy and ministers as we recall Jesus sharing a final meal with the friends who would fail him so badly only hours after pledging eternal allegiance to him. We will re-affirm our ordination vows, looking with a confident humility to the future, fully conscious of our failure to be consistent. On Saturday night the Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield, and Ripon & Leeds will end and the new Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales will be born. On Monday I will become the acting Bishop of Leeds until I get made 'legal' on 8 June at York Minster. My office in Leeds will open for business on 30 April. We will move house at the end of July (structural problems have been found and will take some time to resolve).

A crucified ankle bone (Basel)

Even those of us who believe completely in the way we have chosen cannot help but find this ending poignant. Earlier generations have been faithful to their call from God to celebrate and hand on the faith – and we are now called to be faithful to the challenges and opportunities presented to us.

Holy Week is a good time to prepare for this – despite the sheer hard work and hidden complexity of just making the new diocese legal, viable and operational on day one. Endings are important and need to be lived with. But, Sunday is coming and apparent endings are surprised by the irruption of new life and a hope that cannot be quenched. Christians are constantly told by Jesus not to be afraid: after all, we are drawn by hope, not driven by fear.

The practical work and decision-making involved in creating the new diocese are detailed, demanding and challenging. My colleagues deserve medals, but only get a barrage of emails! And Sunday is coming.

In fact, most people in the parishes and institutions of West Yorkshire & the Dales won't notice much difference at first. Changing the bank accounts overnight is unlikely to excite a great wave of joy. But, those whose lives and roles are affected will notice – and they are examples of vision, courage, faith and hope.

This might sound a bit trivial in the light of Syria, the dangerous situation in Ukraine, the sinking of a ferry in South Korea (to say nothing of Liverpool's Premiership title ambitions). However, the local and the personal are always most powerful, even if the wider world helps keep things in perspective.change is always upon us: we either shape it or we become victims of it. Our three dioceses have decided to shape the future and have taken the brave step of choosing to commit ourselves to both the known and unknown challenges that face us.

 

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)

 

The English Defence League – minus most of its recently-resigned leadership – is coming to Bradford on Saturday.

In one sense it is really nice that lost of people from outside the city want to come and visit. They need to know, however, that the weather forecast is shockingly awful and it will be cold.

In response to a request by the local newspaperwpid-Photo-16-Sep-2013-1332.jpg for a few words about this visit, I offered the following:

The first question we need to ask of the English Defence League is: what sort of ‘England’ do you think you are defending? Is the answer something like: racist, violent, anti-social and destructive?

Where the EDL goes, they disturb ordinary people’s lives, and leave behind a huge financial cost to the police and local authorities. Many ordinary citizens speak of feeling violated.

It is interesting that the leaders of the EDL have just announced their departure on the grounds that the organization has become too extreme and has fallen into the hands of the far right. Well, past experience would suggest that none of this should have come as a blinding revelation. But, Tommy Robinson has now distinguished between “Islamist ideology” and “Muslims”: he wants to be against the former, but not the latter.

For Bradford this is significant. Bradford is mature enough in its community and intercultural relations to be able to face hard questions and to have honest conversations about the challenges as well as the opportunities afforded by our cultural interactions (or lack of them). These challenges are clear, but are best addressed by people who live in Bradford and have a purchase on what happens here. We are big enough to avoid illusions and work towards better integration.

Bradford is rich in diversity – and more colourful than any other city in England. We need to hold firm to our common heritage as we shape what it will mean to be ‘English’ for our grandchildren. The EDL has no place here because it has nothing to bring to the conversation.

Really, this just picks up on something I wrote when Channel Four broadcast its two-part programme entitled ‘Make Bradford British’. Since when was ‘Englishness’ or ‘Britishness’ something we merely inherited rather than something we are creating? In the earlier post (referred to above) I observed:

Focus on the naff title is fair – especially as this first programme, if anything, is clear that Bradford is British. The question is: what does it mean to be British? It seems that when we try to identify identity we look to the past. But, ‘Britishness’ is not some sort of product we inherit and then try to keep in a cultural box; rather, it is evolving as time moves on. We are creating Britain as we go. In this sense, perhaps, the title of the series unwittingly opens up a more productive debate – or provides a better-shaped lens through which to look at local culture: how do we take our responsibility in shaping at every level the Britain we are becoming?

I have no idea what fantasy of ‘England’ the EDL thinks it is defending. And I am not holding my breath that they’ll be able to articulate any coherent vision for the England we might create together.

Whatever. If they make it through the wind and the rain, they’ll find a confident city, facing challenges with eyes open, and they can at least marvel at the wonderful Victorian architecture.

 

Whenever there is an atrocity committed against Christians elsewhere in the world I get asked what we are doing about it here. The insinuation is that we appease Muslims, but ignore the plight of Christians being persecuted or victimised in Muslim-majority countries.

The quick answer is that loads of stuff goes on under the radar at national, international and diplomatic level. Anglican Communion partnership links mean that dioceses and bishops here are intimately connected to those places where Christians suffer. Relationships are often strong and communication good. However, such situations often mean that 'we' are wise enough not to salve our own consciences by making proclamations that make us feel better but do nothing to help the sufferers. Public silence does not equate to inactivity or inertia.

The latest atrocity was in Pakistan and the Archbishop of Canterbury was strong in his observations on events there. I also raised questions in a post the other day. But, what do we do on the ground, as it were?

In Bradford the President of the Council for Mosques called a meeting the day after the suicide bombing in Peshawar and a common statement by Muslim and Christian leaders was agreed. A joint appeal was launched at the same time in order to provide both symbolic and practical support to the Christian community that was attacked. The statement reads as follows:

Unfortunately attacks on places of worship of both Muslims and Christians alike are becoming more frequent. In recognition of this, Christian and Muslim leaders are encouraging all to join in prayer and supporting a joint appeal through mosques and churches across the city to raise funds to support the victims of this most recent atrocity.

We invite faith leaders of mosques and churches to support this worthwhile initiative through prayers and by raising funds for the appeal.

Bradford Cathedral, with my encouragement and at my instigation, is to hold a silent prayer vigil this coming Sunday evening from 6.30-8.30pm and Muslim representatives will be present. The vigil will be introduced by the Dean of Bradford and Dr Philip Lewis (Interfaith Advisor to the Bishop of Bradford). (I will be in the north of the diocese that evening in a rural parish.) Furthermore, a place of prayer will be established within the Cathedral for those Christian victims of such violence and other minorities who are subject to violence on account of their faith. This place will remain until Remembrance Day.

While writing this I have received information about a serious outbreak of civil violence in Khartoum, Sudan, and continued violence against civilians (mainly African and Christian in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions of Sudan. These are our brothers and sisters and we know many of them by name. So far the appeal in my name to support displaced people in these areas has raised well over £100,000 in eighteen months. There is more to be done.

But, perhaps this illustrates what partnership means and how we respond in Bradford to events that appear as news headlines.

… is where the Meissen Commission met from Thursday last week until yesterday (Sunday). Locating the annual joint Commission meeting in part of Bradford called Little Germany is not nearly as tactless as the hotel bar showing a war film (Nazi planes bombing England, etc.) while we were grabbing lunch before dispersing yesterday afternoon.

One of the surprising things about Bradford is the stunning Victorian architecture. Little Germany is wonderful and is gradually being re-populated by businesses as part of the city centre's regeneration. And Bradford Cathedral happens to be located right by Little Germany.

This Commission (which I co-chair with the Bishop of Braunschweig, Bischof Professor Dr Friedrich Weber) came to Bradford to learn about how churches are learning to re-define their mission in a complex cultural context. If your parish is 82% ethno-Muslim and the local Church of England primary school is 95% Muslim, what does it mean to be an Anglican parish church or vicar – when Anglicans organise and define themselves territorially?

To help us look at this we met the Vice-president of the Council for Mosques, a leading Hindu businessman, the Anglican chair of the Presence and Engagement Task Group, the new Dean of Bradford Cathedral, the Vicar of Manningham and my interfaith adviser. We visited the wonderfully excellent Bradford Academy and the equally remarkable St Stephen's C of E Primary School. The Commission, in reviewing the visit, was struck by the warmth of welcome and hospitality in Bradford (the Great Victoria Hotel is excellent) and the “creativity and energy” with which the cultural challenges are being met.

The situation in Germany is different in so far as most Muslim immigration there is economic in origin (the Gastarbeiter from Turkey) and not post-colonial as it is here. Therefore, the corporate psychology of interaction is different. The Germans came to Bradford and discovered a church that, rather than buckling under the challenge of being – in some parishes – a minority, has risen to the challenge with vision and amazing imagination.

Just look at the schools we visited and the leadership exercised there.

So, the annual meeting over, I am now in Oxford for the annual meeting of the bishops of the Church of England. No time to write more now, but Meissen continues to fire me up.

 

This is the text of the sermon preached in Bradford Cathedral this morning (16 June 2013) by Sebastian Feydt, pastor of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, based on Luke 7:36-50.

Dear brothers and sisters, are we bound together by this biblical story? You as you are living here in Bradford and me who has come from Dresden?

Is Jesus talking to the Pharisees and the woman in a language which we all understand? If so, it must be the language of love. The language of peace. These languages we all understand.

And they connect us.

Because they reflect our longings: to be accepted and loved; to be able to take the next step in our lives freed from burden and guilt; to walk in peace. This longing for love and peace binds us together much more than many other things which were mentioned when Jesus, these men and the women met.

Self-righteous men who talk so much by themselves, who prejudge and judge so quickly other people – often women – still exist in today’s England or Germany as they existed in Jesus’ days.

That women are forced to sell their bodies in order to make a living – and that there are enough men who take advantage of it – this form of slavery goes back further than we can imagine. Prostitution is by no means the oldest business in the world, it is one of its oldest scourges. All recent efforts to make prostitution socially acceptable, to declare it a reasonable service in our modern society does not change the fact that love cannot be “made”, nor can it be bought. Wherever people try to, the language of love withers away. In the end it is muted.

Like the woman Jesus met: no sound passes her lips; she is out of words. Instead, her heart speaks. She pours it out by wetting Jesus’ feet with her tears.

I am touched by this thought.

This is not an everyday moment.

This is not a situation in which someone sheds a few tears out of anger. No, here we are confronted with an eruption of pain and despair and we find it hard to react in an appropriate manner. Just to put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her does not work – it didn’t work back then either. There is more going on than what could be healed by pity. This young woman is looking for a new life. She wants to be recognized as a person, to be addressed by her name and not to be reduced to her past.

This young woman at Jesus’ feet no longer wants to be mute and nameless. She wants to get up, straighten up, to finally start her true life.

Have you experienced such a moment in your lives as well? When it becomes obvious that life cannot go on the way it did any longer? Because the love there was between husband and wife or between partners had faded? Because the big dreams of a merry family did not come true? Because children left and loneliness moved in instead?

We all know times of crisis. We are no strangers to incurring guilt by ill-treating ourselves or others. It leaves us speechless, loveless, peaceless. And it raises our longing for being accepted and loved so that we can take the next step in our lives freed from burden and guilt.

And also to hear: Go and walk in peace.

By following her heart, the woman finds her way. She goes to where she knows she will be accepted: at the table at which she knows Jesus sits. There she gets on her knees. Humble she becomes. And she confesses her sins – to God. Without a word, but still comprehensively. In a way that has Jesus tell her: Your sins are forgiven.

If I want to confess the sins I committed in my life it’s not my mouth that needs to speak but my heart that has to bring it before God and the people. It takes a very special language to realize my guilt and the truth about me and my life and to bring it before God.

The woman speaks the language of love with her tears and her tender gestures. She experiences that she is being heeded and thus considered, accepted and thus admitted into society, acknowledged and thus appreciated. All that lies behind her is not going to build up anew in front of her. Neither she nor any of the other men can re-erect it. The way is clear. Jesus helped this woman to take that step.

This is what is meant by being freed: not FROM your past but WITH your past. I’m not free because I leave things behind but because I face them.

Thereupon Jesus grants the gift of forgiveness as the main precondition for reconciliation and for peace – Shalom. Goodness in our hearts and minds – and our lives. This nourishes the blessing

“Go and walk in peace!”

As Christians we can be peace messengers.

Does the world recognize us as such? As the ones who know how we can find peace?

– In ourselves.

– Together with others.

– Within society, between peoples?

Go and walk in peace!

What is it that connects us? It is the language of peace and light.

Let’s speak it! Here in Bradford. And in Dresden. In Afghanistan. In Mali. And when we ask what would do good to Syria …

Go and walk in peace.

Peace be with you!

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the fire that killed 56 and injured over 265 people during a football match in Bradford. The city marks the event each year, led by the Cathedral.

These sorts of scars remain for generations. I remember coming back to Bradford for a six-week parish placement at the end of my first year at theological college in 1985. There were men in the church who had to go to Pinderfields Hospital almost daily to get their burns treated – one of them whose head had been 'melted' by dripping bitumen from the roof.

I had studied modern languages at Bradford University from 1976-80, so knew the city well. I had come from Liverpool where, later, another stadium disaster would scar a city and the nation. In 1989 96 people were crushed to death in the now infamous (and ongoing) Hillsborough debacle. Only now is justice beginning to be done, whilst the families see some light at the end of a cruel and unnecessarily long tunnel.

Both these disasters led to radical re-thinking about the design and construction of football stadia. Safety became the priority – which makes it boggling that the well-being of the paying customers had not been previously. Going to a game in England these days is a totally different experience from thirty years ago. OK, I still miss being able to stand on the Kop at Anfield (rather than sit, that is), but you generally feel safe and that the signage, etc has been seen through the eyes of the punters.

Perhaps none of this would have happened had these two stadium disasters not happened. We learn from what goes wrong. But, the changed rules about ground construction and crowd safety came at the cost of considerable suffering on the part of people who in 1985 and 1989 set off (or watched their family go) to watch a footie match. The scars will not heal quickly.

 

This is the basic text of a sermon I preached this morning to the judges, magistrates and diverse lawyers of Bradford at the so-called Legal Service at Bradford Cathedral. Not many jokes. And, to those on Twitter who asked if all the other services I do are illegal, I just call for a moment’s silence…

LEGAL SERVICE BRADFORD

You don’t have to be a Christian or a Jew to recognise that the English legal system is based on and derived from the Judeao-Christian tradition seen in the Scriptures. Justice lies at the heart of God’s character and is measured by how the powerful and the powerless are treated in society.

If you break justice, you are left with just ice. So says Scouse poet and Radio 4 presenter Stewart Henderson. I am glad he has come to that realisation as one of my earliest memories of him was being beaten up by him and Billy Mason when I was nine. Not that it still hurts, you understand…

wpid-Photo-17-Aug-2011-2351.jpgThe point he makes in his poem is a suggestive one: it is a cold world where justice is a commodity to be bought and sold, or where lip service is paid to justice, but it has become a means of privilege to those who either are powerful or have the skill to manipulate it.

I speak here from experience – not here in Bradford, I hasten to add, or even in England. In my previous post as Bishop of Croydon in the Diocese of Southwark I had a close link with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. Some years ago the then Bishop of Harare, Dr Nolbert Kunonga, tried to take control of the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, was deposed from his post – and no longer recognised by the Anglican Communion as a bishop in the church – and, declaring UDI from the wider church, took possession of all the assets and finances of the Diocese of Harare. Of course, he didn’t do it alone: he used armed henchmen to attack anyone who tried to gain access to churches, threw out clergy and their families from their homes if they had not supported him, and, with unchallengeable hubris, declared war on the province, the Archbishop of Canterbury, all colonialism (which was defined as disagreeing with him) and anyone who stood in his way.

The problem with Dr Kunonga, however, was that he was backed by Robert Mugabe, who rewarded his faithfulness by awarding him expropriated white-owned farms and full support in the public sphere. And the public sphere included the system of law. Even when the courts found against Kunonga, the police and security services simply ignored the courts and defended the status quo.

It was evident, in all the complexities of my engagement with Zimbabwe, that no progress would or could be made in rebuilding the economy or renewing politics until the rule of law was re-established and allowed to stand at the heart of Zimbabwean life. To twist the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Where there is no justice, the people perish.”

wpid-Photo-15-Jan-2013-1056.jpgHaving moved from Croydon and a link with Zimbabwe, I am now in Bradford where our diocesan link is with the five dioceses of Sudan. I had hoped for somewhere like the Bahamas this time round, but Sudan is now beginning to make Zimbabwe look tame. My wife and I spent just over a week there this month. I discovered a couple of days ago that immediately after we had left the guesthouse where we had been staying in Khartoum – at one o’clock in the morning – the place was raided and everyone taken in for interrogation by the security services. The building has now, apparently, been held by the security services.

The rule of law, impartially administered, is clearly fundamental to any free society or system of justice. Both Zimbabwe and Sudan – where indigenous people are now being disappeared and foreigners expelled – demonstrate clearly what happens not only when justice is corrupted by the fear and greed of the powerful, but also when any anthropological undergirding of human value is diminished to the point of tyranny.

While in Sudan I was reflecting on a line written to Katkov by Fyodr Dostoyevsky: “Juridical punishment for crime scares a criminal far less than law-makers think, partly because the criminal himself requires it morally.” Isn’t that interesting? Dostoyevsky doesn’t see the need for justice and juridical punishment simply in terms of society’s need to keep the peace, deter the wrong-doers or fulfil a bureaucratic requirement in order to keep elected politicians happy with their harshness. Rather, he appeals to something far more fundamental: criminals require justice because only this takes seriously their humanity, their moral accountability, their very being as moral agents who have both rights and responsibilities in a human community of mutual obligation.

Now, in one sense, this shouldn’t need to be spelled out. But, in a society which is shaped by media headlines that scream for the blood of ‘people not like us’ – who remove criminals from the moral page by categorising them as ‘monsters’ – we have to keep reminding ourselves of the anthropological assumptions that underlie our practice of justice. What is a human being and why does anyone matter? Why, ultimately, does it matter that some people break the law and put themselves beyond the reach of mutual or civil society?

Which, I guess, is what unites us here today. Lawyers, magistrates, judges – all those involved or employed in the justice system assume certain fundamental things: that a good society is one that is properly ordered; that law is not sufficient of itself in securing an ordered society, but is indispensible to it; that the common good demands a common legal system that shows no favour and cannot be manipulated by those who would gain personal advantage at the cost of social integrity or coherence. However we might articulate it, we believe that good law is essential to justice and that justice does more than simply ‘keep things on the rails’. Justice demands more than mere pragmatism – it rests on an assumption about virtue being essential to human and societal character.

wpid-Photo-30-Oct-2012-1057.jpgI haven’t time – and this isn’t the place – to go into contemporary debates about what is called ‘virtue ethics’, but it starts from an understanding that rules and regulations are not enough to shape or guarantee ethics; virtue has to do with the making of character, and it is character that shapes behaviour and ethics… whatever the rules and regulations might actually be. I am assuming here that good ethics require just such virtue, if they are to be more than ‘rules of engagement’.

Perhaps surprising, then, that the reading from Job 28 speaks not of justice, but of wisdom. And, perhaps, surprising that a question asked three thousand years ago in a context of abject suffering in an obscure place in the Middle East should cry out to be heard even in Bradford in 2013: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” This man, Job, whose world has fallen apart in every aspect, cries out here not for mere practical solutions to his problems, not for a quick way out of his predicament, not for an anaesthetic to dull the pain of apparent hopelessness, and not for a panacea imbued with the complexion of fantasy. No, he cries out for wisdom and understanding.

Now, I realise that this sounds weird to a generation brought up on instant gratification, fast knowledge, bewildering amounts of information and the wallpaper-like surroundings of immediate judgement and dramatic analysis. Why wait? Why dwell in a space of indeterminate questioning or unsatisfying waiting? Why not, as the credit card advert once tempted us, “take the waiting out of wanting”?

Well, wisdom is learned, not bought. And it is learned by paying attention to what makes the world what it is, what makes people who they are, what gives meaning to what appears to be formless and void, what makes sense of lived experience in community with others, many of whom have no interest in becoming wise at any price. Wisdom – which is more than the product of information plus knowledge plus judgement – lies at the heart of any consideration of justice… precisely because justice can never be subject to whim or trend or fashion or even mere popularity. If Benjamin Disraeli was right when he said, “Justice is truth in action”, then it must be truth driving the action and not simply action defining what is deemed to be true.

I am sorry if all this sounds a bit abstract or academic, but justice is not a simple thing which can be claimed without examination and argument. Justice has to be seen to have a deeper foundational rationale, rooted in and emanating from a clearly understood anthropology… which knows why it thinks people matter essentially. And I’d like to say briefly what this looks like in a Judaeo-Christian narrative – indeed, the very narrative which gave birth to and has shaped the system of justice developed in England over the centuries.

To do this I need to tell a story. Way back in the Hebrew Bible the people who saw themselves as God’s people lost the plot – in more senses than one. First they lost sight of the story that had shaped – and was intended to motivate – their common life and relationships. Then, second, they lost their place in the land they took for granted as their own, and found themselves learning the lessons that can only be learned in the desert of exile.

Yet, right at the outset of their settlement of the so-called Land of Promise, they had been instructed to actively and religiously re-tell the story of their liberation from oppression in Egypt. The year and the seasons were dotted with festivals during which the community and its constituent families would rehearse story-telling and ritual, all bound up in the production of food and the economics of trade. The point of these was not to make life miserable for them, trapping them in a dour-but-romanticised myth of past generations – a sort of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, vying with each other for how bad their childhoods had been. Rather, this active and costly re-telling was designed to hold the people to truths that wisdom depended upon: they themselves had been dispossessed and landless slaves – and so should treat the poor and destitute with kindness and generosity; they themselves had been captive and unable to save themselves – and so should set people free and give undeserved grace; that they themselves had had nothing to call their own – and so should never forget that the accumulation of stuff, the acquisition of status and the appropriation of land must never be ends in themselves, but a means of generous and wise common flourishing.

Bradford CathedralIn fact, one of the most vivid of these festivals is described (or perhaps prescribed) in Deuteronomy 26 where the first ten per cent of your harvested produce should be brought to the priest whereupon you would recite a creed. How exciting is that? And the creed would begin: “My father was a wandering peasant…” In other words, the opening line of the story is a blunt articulated reminder that none of us can simply depend on the very things we think give us meaning. (We behave differently towards the homeless if we remember that once we were homeless.) In other words, regularly check that you are building the foundations of your life on something durable and not the shifting sands of material stuff.

Now, the point of this is simple. What unites both judge and accused, advocate and prisoner, is a common humanity which, if morality is to mean anything and justice is to have any currency beyond the pragmatic, not only imbues the legal process with dignity – building toward the common good – but also establishes the moral value of every human being. Justice takes people seriously, refuses to make excuses, but sees the dignity beneath the flawed and often appalling surface of greed, cruelty or selfishness.

And for this to flourish – for people in a community to flourish – those who frame justice need to remember their story, the story of mortal human beings in a contingent world, and to look wisely and deeply into the assumptions that make us think the whole justice project is worth investing in in the first place.

In other words, we need to think deeply about what we believe makes justice matter, and not allow justice to be shaped by political whim, economic pressure or media fashion.

Now, you, like those of us who serve through the church, are often on the receiving end of the media’s ‘wisdom’ (which, being meant ironically, I put in inverted commas) – usually in those unusual cases where fine judgements are hard to explain in simple language. You, too, are subject to a public that doesn’t understand legal process and shows little consideration of the consequences of their opinions. For example, if we did lock ‘em up and throw away the key, someone somewhere will have to pay. Not seeking rehabilitation or re-education will probably end in recidivism where there is no incentive or opportunity for changing one’s life or company. But, like bishops – who apparently do nothing all day other than dress up and argue about sex – you have to press on with your vocation whether you are understood, respected or liked… or not.

This service is evidence of the value placed by both church and civic authorities on the work you do and the way you exercise wise judgement on behalf of the rest of us. We thank you for the service you do.

And I would join those who wish to remind you of the seriousness of your task, the import of maintaining and securing a system of justice that is never capricious, and the essential need to dig deep into our corporate memory where we find the foundational narratives that give our justice system its very meaning.

I also hope, of course, that the bloke we caught on CCTV burgling my house and nicking my car and computer last August will one day appear before you in order to discover afresh that wise lawyers and judges have a responsibility on behalf of the rest of us to give him his full moral value as a human being.

May God bless you and us as we serve the common good, rooted in a conviction that justice goes to the heart of the character of God himself and should, in one sense, be (pace Disraeli) God’s character in action.