Last night I was the president and preacher at the ordination of Nick Dill as the Bishop of Bermuda. The Cathedral in Hamilton was packed and it was – for us feeble Brits, at least – hot and sweaty. For me it was a privilege to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury here.

I know I am always banging on about this, but being somewhere different invites (or compels) you to look at 'home' through a different lens. Familiar themes and assumptions have to be re-thought when applied in a different context. So, preaching here made me ask basic and simple questions about what a bishop is actually called to do – when you strip away all the detailed stuff and try to identify the big picture of the church's vocation. I don't know what it feels like to be a bishop in Bermuda and I can't look through the eyes of people for whom this reality is in their DNA. But, I can recall the fact that a bishop is called to hold before the people – whoever and wherever they might be – the story told in the Bible of God's engagement with his people: that we are to give our lives in order that the world might see who and how God is.

If we lose the plot (the basic narrative of our vocation), we will lose the plot (the stuff that speaks to us of our identity – as Israel lost the land during the prophetic years of the eighth and sixth centuries BC).

Anyway, the hospitality, welcome, kindness and friendliness of the people we have met here is wonderful. The new bishop is hugely popular and is a source of hope and encouragement – and, I suspect, of necessary challenge.

I have also discovered the link between Bradford and Bermuda: Nakhi Wells, the Bradford City footballer who is very popular here. At the same time I read today that Liverpool's brilliant Luis Suarez is complaining that the British press don't understand him. Fan though I am, this is not a bleeding heart moment of sympathy. Suarez is brilliant, but he dives a bit, bites opponents and then feels 'misunderstood'. I'd hate to see him go, but, even given appropriate criticism of the British press, this is a fatuous reason for heading for Spain.

Oh well, better go and cool off in the sun.

 

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.

 

Do you remember the Deacon Blue song Dignity? It echoed through my mind as I heard the result of the Bradford City vs Swansea City League Cup final at Wembley today. Swansea won 5-0. But the sheer dignity of Bradford's fans as the club lost was phenomenal.

As the excellent manager, Phil Parkinson, noted, the wages of a single Swansea player would probably pay the entire wages bill of the entire Bradford squad. The gulf was enormous. But Bradford has done fantastically well for the city, the club, and the lowest Football League division.

The manager and players must enjoy the amazing achievement and now get down to promotion to the first division.

Massive kudos and credit to the club tonight. No shame. Keep it in perspective. Brilliant achievement. So proud.

What do you do when you find out the great Suggs is going to be in the studio when you go in to do Pause for Thought on the the great Chris Evans Show on the great BBC Radio 2? And how do you do justice to the great Bradford City cup final at Wembley (on Sunday) at the same time as recognising the shocking child poverty realities I referred to yesterday… when Liverpool have just gone out of the Europa League on an away goal… and Suggs is in the studio?

No idea. So, here’s what I said this morning – including sixteen Madness song titles:

It’s a bit of a strange experience living in Bradford at the moment. Believe me, it was a grey day when I left yesterday, but whatever the weather this weekend, nothing will dampen the spirits as Bradford City go to Wembley for their first ever cup final. If Liverpool could bang in five against Swansea last week, anything is possible. What an embarrassment!

Isn’t it great when the underdog threatens the top dog? No shadow of fear – just the sheer madness of enjoying what most people thought was one step beyond possibility. You can take it or leave it, but in the middle of the night, when Bradfordians wake up in a cold sweat thinking of the glory ahead, nothing will take away the joy of celebration.

Now, there’s lots of serious stuff going on in the world – I know that. Oscar Pistarius. Syria tearing itself apart. In this country we are still finding it hard to wake up to the appalling statistics of child poverty – forgetting that poverty doesn’t just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. It is bad for children, families, schools and society.

But this runs alongside the excitement of good stuff that goes on. Life is always a mixture of the grim and the great. Our house might be a place of weeping, while next door is a house of fun. As the Old Testament Ecclesiastes put it, “there is a time for everything.” Honest, if not always comfortable.

It’s a crying shame, but I will miss the final at Wembley cos I’ll be driving in my car to Cambridge. But my heart will lift on Saturday night, Sunday morning in anticipation of the joy to come. Wonderful? Absolutely! Or, as the song puts it: “Oui oui si si ja ja da da.”

What a wonderful start to 2012.

Manchester Utd lose at home to bottom-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers. Then Manchester City lose to a last-gasp goal by Sunderland. Add to that the return of Steven Gerrard to Liverpool’s growing-in-confidence team and the sun is already shining though the clouds of a Yorkshire winter.

But, there’s more.

Since Bradford City FC came to the Cathedral for the Carol Service they have been scoring goals and winning. I’m just saying…

Anyway, today saw me standing in for the poorly Dean of Bradford in the Cathedral pulpit and thinking aloud about God’s knack of changing people’s names. To understand ‘Jesus’ we have to go back to the beginning and God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis.

  • Abram becomes Abraham and is called to be a blessing to all peoples. Not just himself and his own nearest and dearest. Not just his own tribe or class or race. Not just those who are like him.
  • His wife Sarai laughs at God when she is old that God likes to bring new life where it all looks a bit dead – fertility out of barrenness, newness after loss (as Brueggemann put it). She calls her son Isaac – laughter opens the door to a future.
  • Jesus might well ‘save his people from their sins’, but what does that mean – even when we hear it from an angel? The clue lies in Abram and that invitation to be a blessing.

God’s people are to live and give their lives in order that other people might see who God is and what he is about. Failure (despite the warnings of the prophets) led to the loss of all that spoke of God’s presence. Jesus fulfils the calling that was always the calling of God’s people – and lives and gives his life in order to show the world who and how God is. His church is then called to bear his name – that is, to reveal in its life, priorities, values and character the life, priorities, values and character of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. In other words, the Body of Christ is to be … er … the ‘body of Christ’ – that when people see, hear and touch ‘us’, they see, hear and touch something of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels.



Simple. If only.


But, this is the only test of authenticity the Christian Church has. And, if we take it seriously, we must face the challenge of allowing everyone else a change of name that opens up a future and doesn’t condemn people to being trapped by their past or present. That is grace and it is what Jesus does all the time for those who have been allowed to believe that Immanuel is God for some people, but not for them.


Anyway, all that came out of Luke 2:21 and the naming of Jesus in the Temple. Unfortunately, the sermon began with me showing a paperweight my in-laws gave me for Christmas about ten years ago (and which I still use on my desk) which tells me that Nicholas means ‘Victory of the people’ and ‘thinks winning thoughts’. We’re still looking for that one…


So, a start to 2012 that involves good football results and a renewed challenge to be Christ-ian. OK for starters, I think. (And sympathy to fans of the Manchester clubs. Er… Hmmm.)

When I get back to Bradford I will be doing two things: working out how to use WordPress on an iPad (nightmare so far – hence rubbish posts and no pictures) and getting very familiar with Bradford City. The club might be in League Division Two (or whatever we call it these days), but they pull in huge crowds of local fans. I’ve already discovered the colourful enthusiasm in Bradford and, in addition to my Liverpool support, I’ll be joining in the party.

But, I gather that Manchester United got taken apart last night in the Champions League Final at Wembley and that it was all rather Messi. Can’t say I’m upset.

The particular aside, football is in a bit of a mess. Forget the money, how about the corruption. Lord Triesman got into trouble for alleging naughty behaviour around the World Cup decisions a few months ago, but it looks like he was doing us a service. Allegations of corruption in Fifa are not new, but now it’s all creeping out from under the stones that have offered protection for years.

Why was the alleged corruption of leading officials tolerated for so long? Was it fear of favour? Or fear of retribution (like not getting support for hosting the World Cup finals)? Or fear of being accused of racism?

The next few days should prove interesting as football tries to clean up its act. Don’t hold your breath.