I am the bishop on duty in the House of Lords this week. This means leading prayers at the beginning of each day's business – today at 2.30pm. The business always kicks off with Oral Questions, the four on the order paper having been selected in a ballot.

One of the questions on Monday was asked by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the closures of regional museums, particularly in the North of England, and the impact of those closures on the United Kingdom's creative industry and on the educational services provided to local schools and colleges.

Answering for the Government (DCMS), the Earl of Courtown got in a muddle and then missed the point. My question was:

My Lords, if the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse is to have any reality behind it, it has to include access to culture and cultural developments. In the light of that, will the Minister give an assurance that the sword of Damocles hanging over the National Media Museum in Bradford might at last be lifted? Sometimes up there it feels as if London is saying, “Out, damned spot!”.

The Minister replied:

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the northern powerhouse. Perhaps I should add that DCMS is sponsoring loans to museums at 1,629 different venues. As far as Manchester in particular is concerned – (he was corrected by Lords who had accurately heard “Bradford”) – I beg your pardon; I thought that the right reverend Prelate referred to Manchester. I think that the right reverend Prelate was referring to the Royal Photographic Society collection, some of which has now been moved to London. That move has provided far better access to the collection because the Victoria and Albert Museum has committed to digitising the collection and thus make it more widely available.

Digitisation does not make the collection more widely available, if the originals (which is what people want to see) are in London. This plays into a wider perception that wide availability does not include the north of England.

The Minister was good enough to explain to me personally that he had not fully heard my question and, therefore, not answered it as well as he might.

Later Lord Grade, who chairs the body that runs the Science Museum group gave me a personal assurance that the National Media Museum is safe and in a good place.

This is the text of my maiden speech – for better or worse – in the House of Lords this afternoon. It should be viewable here.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate – especially given the kindness I have already met in this House since being introduced in February. I wish to express my gratitude to all sides of the House for the welcome I have received, and particularly to the staff who have assisted and advised me – sometimes on the same issue more than once. This coming Saturday I will be speaking in Stuttgart before thousands of people, along with Kofi Annan and the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. At least I can address this house in English.

I find myself in something of a quandary as one who has lived in many parts of England, but ended up in Yorkshire. In fact, coming to Bradford as the Bishop in 2011 was something of a return journey. I studied German and French at the University of Bradford in the late 1970s before retraining as a professional Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham – an experience that shaped me, not least in relation to an understanding of security-related matters such as military intelligence and the ethics of surveillance. And not only did the journey take me from intelligence (though not take intelligence from me, I hope) to theology, but also from a West Yorkshire industrial city that was beginning to decline – not only in wealth and productivity, but also in morale and confidence. Radical demographic change also led in those days to substantial social challenge as facts on the ground outstripped the creative ability to shape a post-industrial future.

When I returned to Bradford as the Bishop in 2011 – having served in the Lake District, Leicestershire and South London, latterly as the Bishop of Croydon – I found a very different place. And yet it was evident that the seeds of a determined vision for future development were evident in the creative energy of some of the key players in business, the Council, faith communities and the social sectors. As well as the real and continuing challenges it faces, Bradford today is a place of growing confidence and well-founded optimism.

Why am I talking about Bradford when I am now the Bishop of Leeds? Well, for two reasons. First, because the Church of England has done something remarkable in Yorkshire, and, secondly, because Bradford will be one of the touchstones of success or failure in relation to the government's much vaunted aspirations for a Northern Powerhouse. (I always thought the real northern powerhouse was Liverpool Football Club, but, after its dismal end to the season, I am keeping quiet about that.)

Four years ago the Church of England – not widely known for its cheerful and adventurous willingness to change itself – began a unique process of reorganisation. The dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield – all created in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century in order to enable the Church to adapt to changed demographic and industrial realities – faced dissolution and the creation from them of a single new diocese for the region. A three-year process of debate led to a visionary agreement to do just this, and the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales came to birth at Easter 2014. I became the diocesan bishop just a year ago this week. The diocese covers a vast rural area of West and (parts of) North Yorkshire, urban conurbations of Bradford, Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax, Barnsley, and everything in-between. Now organised into five episcopal areas, we can maximise the potential for serving the region – a region with an economy greater than that of Wales – whilst optimising our attention to the distinctive local realities of local communities. Challenging? Yes. Exciting? Definitely. I am privileged to be leading a diocese that encompasses so many of the lived realities that need to be represented in this House as the details and implications of government policies are debated and scrutinised.

The relevant point here is that the future has to be shaped by those who have both vision and commitment. Complaint that the world has changed is usually the recourse of those who mourn a version of the past that probably never existed anyway. And one of the lessons we have learned through the often painful processes of reorganisation and institutional change is the need to focus on the big picture as well as the detail, never losing sight of the vision that drives us.

I think this has a wider application. In response to the Gracious Speech last week, I heard in this House several speakers refer to the need for reform of this House. Yet, this occurred in the context of the potential – or threat … depending on how you see it – for wider constitutional change. The role of the United Kingdom in Europe cannot be divorced from the questions about the possible fragmentation of the United Kingdom itself. My fear is that bits of reactive slicing here and picking there will lead to a frustrating and unworkable sequence of partial reordering that loses sight of any common purpose or overarching vision. In this context I will simply observe that calls for a Constitutional Convention have the obvious virtue of bringing together a wide range of otherwise potentially atomistic concerns that should be considered together, taking cognisance of the fact that they interrelate anyway and will have inevitable consequences that would best be anticipated and debated rather than faced ad hoc and merely reacted to.

On questions of our place in Europe I will hope to return in future debates in this House. I have lived briefly in both Germany and France, I co-chair a commission that brings together the Protestant Church in Germany and the Church of England – the Meissen Commission – and I am concerned not only about institutional national engagement with Europe, but also with how we develop a new narrative for Europe that captures the imagination of my own children's generation in a way that the narrative derived from the mid-twentieth century response to war no longer does. I could say much more – illustrated particularly by a debate I had with Herman van Rompuy in Brussels a couple of years ago -, but will leave it to another day.

I said there was a second reason why I mentioned Bradford: the Northern Powerhouse. Just under a year ago I moved from Bradford to Leeds – about ten miles – and now live in a different world. Leeds is well connected and thriving in many areas. Key to this development over the last forty years has been transport. Not only does the motorway system make Leeds quickly accessible from so many parts of the country, but it's rail links open it up to wide opportunities.

It seems to me that any concept of a Northern Powerhouse has to concentrate less on north-south links and focus more on building expandable infrastructure from west to east. Talk of the Northern Powerhouse usually includes reference to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool – understandably so. But, unless cities like Bradford are connected – and you can't currently go by one train across Bradford as there are two stations and they are not joined up – they will get left behind. The burgeoning of Britain's youngest city (in terms of age profile of the population) – with it's cultural, gastronomic, tourist and commercial riches – must not be wasted by planning that compromises longer-term development by shorter-term limitations.

I spent eight years on the board of an international insurance company (from 2002-10) and learned a good deal about business, finance, organisational change and the shaping of business to serve not just profit, but those whom profit is there to benefit. At the end of all deliberations – be they political, economic, cultural or financial – are the people who make or break our societies. By serving in this House I hope to have the adventure and humility to learn. I also have a responsibility to represent here the lived experience of people in the communities served by the church in West Yorkshire and the Dales. This includes those of wealth creation, business, enterprise, the rural economy, and industry. It also includes those who, whatever my own thoughts about the rightness or wrongness of particular policies, suffer the consequences of poverty, need and hopelessness.

There is a verse in the Old Testament book of Proverbs that stood as an indictment of much of the Christian Church in Germany in the 1930s and '40s. It says: “Open your mouth for the dumb.” In other words, give a voice to the experience of those who otherwise are silenced. I believe this is why the Lords Spiritual are here – rooted in communities across the whole of our country, networked internationally, informed (often inconveniently) and compelled to tell the truth as they see it. I hope to fulfil this vocation with the humility and confidence it surely demands.

My Lords, all the work of both this House and the established Church is done in the glare of media scrutiny – and rightly so. Intelligent and healthy media are vital to a living democracy. But, as someone very engaged with the media, I remember the caution expressed by a former Bishop of Durham. Once, when feeling depressed and misrepresented by the media, he had lunch with a rabbi. The rabbi told him the story of a bishop and a rabbi sailing on the lake in a park. The rabbi's skull cap blew off and floated away on the water. The bishop instantly stood up, got out of the boat and walked on the water to retrieve it. He got back into the boat and handed it back to the rabbi. The next morning's headline read: “Bishop can't swim!”

My Lords, we need to keep things in perspective.

 

Last Saturday a group of blokes drove up from London to Bradford, entered mosques, confronted whomsoever they could find, and tried to intimidate Muslims. I was phoned yesterday to let me know what happened. It was reported in the Independent newspaper.

Apparently, this is a group – calling themselves Britain First – that splintered from the British National Party – presumably because the BNP had gone soft. In the perverse mindset of such groups, they think they can intimidate their way to a different world – a fantasy world. They sensitively called their action a 'Christian crusade' and tried to exchange Qurans for Bibles in the mosques.

They are not Christian. They do not represent any sort of Christian church.

They also entertain fantasies about 'Britishness'. Britishness is not only what we inherit – it is what we create.

Coincidentally, I am reading a book of sermons preached by German pastors in the 1930s in the shadow of Hitler. For these brave men (and they are all men) the elision of the Christian gospel into 'race and blood' nationalism was the point where they knew they had to part company with the political leadership of the country. 'Seeking the welfare of the city' and committing oneself to the mutual obligations of citizenship are essential for Christians whose theology has to be rooted in the self-giving love of God in Christ. There is no place for 'race and blood' nationalism here. In fact, most of the pages of the Old Testament (particularly the prophets of the eighth and sixth centuries BC) actually warn about just this – and against taking the character of God for granted when the narrow appropriation of his favour propels people to perpetrate injustice and institutionalise cruelty.

A Christian must seek to create a just and good society for all in Britain. We can never claim 'Britain first' – especially when such a claim is exercised with intimidation, dodgy theology and stupidity. Statements by this Britain First group promise further action in Bradford. It won't work, they are not welcome, and they need to actually read the Bible they wish to leave behind them.

Bradford's response to initiatives like this is to shrug wearily, not rise to the bait, and to continue the excellent work of honest relationship in the city. I wonder who will be next.

 

It was announced at 10am this morning by 10 Downing Street that I have been nominated to become the first (Anglican) Bishop of Leeds for the new diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales. The Archbishop of York is to present me in Leeds before we then go on a tour of the cathedrals in Wakefield, Bradford and Ripon. Tomorrow I will visit the three diocesan offices before then, finally, starting my sabbatical proper by going away for a few days.

I have not taken this appointment lightly. The last three years – the announcement of my appointment to Bradford came one week after publication of the Dioceses Commission proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for the region – have been enjoyable, but demanding. I have agreed to this new appointment with hope, vision and realism. I am looking forward with confidence and curiosity to working with colleagues across the new dioceses as we do something unique for the Church of England: to create a new diocese that can compel us to focus on our basic mission: the worship of God, living out our vocation in and for the sake of the world, offering pastoral community, and seeing the church grow in number, depth and discipleship.

That last statement begs a lot of questions. In the new diocese we will have to face some hard questions as we re-shape how we do what we do for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We already bring enormous strengths, and we can look to the challenges and opportunities of the future with both enthusiasm and confidence. Soaked in prayer and drawn by hope, we have a unique invitation to create a diocese that chooses to renew its vision and strategic direction (how to make the vision real) – a matter of will and discipline as well as inclination.

I look forward to this new ministry and to getting to know people and places over the years ahead of us. Despite the inevitable million distractions, my prayer is simple: that the God who calls and equips us will, by his Spirit, fire our imagination, strengthen our resolve and keep our eyes focused on the Jesus we love and serve.

(I also now have to add Leeds United, Huddersfield Town, Barnsley and Halifax Town to Bradford City to my list of football affections…)

 

Just about to pack up for the night and a last glance at the news websites messes it all up.

Tony Blair has written in the Observer today about the need for the world’s political leaders to recognise and address the religious roots and nature of this century’s big conflicts. Well, he isn’t the first to do this; but, his voice will instantly wind up all the usual suspects who can’t get beyond the demonic mention of his name to engage with the fundamental issue. Letting loose the Iraq debacle doesn’t mean that everything he says about anything must, by definition, be disingenuous.

What is interesting about his latest outing is not immediately obvious.

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I dedicated a new war memorial in Bradford. On it is engraved the names of those local men who have fallen since 1947 – including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such concrete memorials are important not because they glamourise or romanticise war, but because they do the opposite. They bring us face to face (or hand to stone) with mortality: these names belong to young men who have mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers – and with loss, bereavement and pain.

We need such memorials in order to hold our cultural memory: we don’t know who we are (or why we are who we have become) if we don’t recognise where we have come from – for good and ill; and if we don’t know who we are or how we got here, we can’t shape our future or what we shall become. They don’t tell the whole story, of course; but, they rip the veneer of self-justification from our selective sensibilities and leave us naked before human fragility and failure.

And this is where we come back to Tony Blair’s reported observations. Conflict is always rooted in history; it always finds what William Blake called a ‘human dress’ – a cultural manifestation that gives flesh to wounds inflicted by ideologies and base human greed and cruelty. When people mock the Bible for being bloodthirsty, they don’t always turn the same judgement on media reportage: just today we see

  • The Syrian bloodshed
  • Egypt in turmoil
  • The Arab Spring hijacked by Islamist extremists
  • Revolt in the Ukraine now being fired by extreme right forces
  • South Sudan
  • Central African Republic
  • Pakistan

And so on.

If religion wasn’t the ‘dress’, something else would be. Human beings seem bent on violence and attestations of ‘progress’ seem exaggerated, to say the least. This is not pessimistic; it is realistic. It isn’t the final word, but the human propensity to do appalling things cannot simply be wished away.

If Blair’s argument is to be taken seriously – and the religious roots of conflict be addressed – religion must first be understood (which is what the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is working at)… and not simply sneered at by those who think they are above such things.

[Postscript: The sentencing in Pakistan of a mentally ill man also illustrates how not every culture buys into the self-evidently obvious assumptions some in the west make about the universal desirability of ‘democracy’. Pakistan needs to be seriously challenged about such legal processes/judgments as this one, but it is symptomatic of a deeper challenge that will not be addressed in any effective way by sneering or shouting.]

1. Why is my fantasy league team rubbish and getting worse?

2. Why did Education Minister Michael Gove recently accuse education in Bradford of having been appalling for decades when (a) education in Bradford had been run by a government agency for the last ten years, and (b) the failed Kings Academy in Bradford is a free school – independent of the local authority, set up by Gove and accountable only to him?

3. Why did the ECB cricket selectors still send Jonathan Trott to play the Ashes series in Australia when they knew he was suffering from 'stress-related' problems?

4. Did the ECB not learn anything from the Marcus Trescothick saga?

5. What qualifications does one need to chair the board of a bank?

6. Why are some commentators incapable of understanding the difference between (a) the Church of England “voting for women bishops” (which it did years ago) and (b) the General Synod of the Church of England voting on the form of legislation to actually make it happen?

7. When will the Daily Mail accuse Ed Miliband of being behind the enslavement of three Maoist women for thirty years in Brixton?

8. Why has George Osborne suddenly changed his mind on capping pay-day lenders?

9. Who is right about the deal with Iran on nuclear development?

10. Is there a better 'live' gig than Bob Dylan (in Blackpool… last Saturday?

 

Just back from the Remembrance Day observations in Bradford. A couple of thousand people turned out and observed two minutes silence at 11am. We also sang and prayed. Why? And what for?

Last night, for the first time in many years, I watched the whole Festival of Remembrance from the Royal Albert Hall. Why? Well, because we have two Swiss friends staying with us and this is a uniquely British phenomenon – along with the Last Night of the Proms and the Changing of the Guard. And, if I am honest (and can bear to bang my familiar drum again), when you watch something like this in the presence of foreigners, you watch it through different eyes – explaining it and asking yourself why such a ceremony has the particular form and content it does.

Last night was a real tear-jerker, especially when the young girl who had sung ran to her father as he entered the hall to surprise her; he still has three months of Navy duty to do on the other side of the world. The family testimonies of people whose loved ones have been killed in recent conflicts were as powerful as ever. But, why sing hymns and say prayers? Why bring God into this? Isn't the 'God on our side' mentality the cause of conflict anyway?

Well, again, last night was powerful partly because it combines proud pageantry (and epic television production) with raw collective emotion. And in the midst of a busy world it compels us to step back, shut up and reflect on both human mortality and the hubris of power. At no point was war glorified or blind patriotism enjoined. At no point was conflict romanticised or propagandised. At every point we saw both the complex morality of war and the devastating cost of violence – along with examples of sheer courage exercised in the field of conflict.

I was interested to see both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg singing the hymns although both are declared atheists. This is NOT a criticism of them. But, I think that when you bring God in to any reflection of human mortality we go beyond human conventions (about the meaning of life and death) and find ourselves held before a far more serious bar. Of course, this bar is not subject to passing fancy or political fashion – it holds human life as infinitely valuable (a clear theological anthropology that does not leave human life subject to 'convenient re-valuing') and eternally significant (ethics matter and not just to particular human beings or societies). I wonder what political leaders think when they are not the top dog and when the language and ceremony relativises their power?

I hope it leads to humility as an antidote to any temptation to hubris.

This was all a mystery to the Swiss, who have no similar public commemoration of their history. I am not sure if any other country does such commemoration as we do today. But, I remain convinced that if we didn't have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it. We need at least one day a year when we stop and shut up, when we ritually re-member our collective past (and recognise that we don't live in a historical or incontingent vacuum), when we confront hubris with humility, and when we recognise stories of courage and loss. There is nothing romantic or heroic about seeing a mother grieve the son who fell in a war he didn't choose.

That's enough.