I knew I shouldn’t have done the interview with PA the other night. That said, I did, and I take responsibility for what followed.

For the record (unlike the Daily Mail’s rather selective quotation which is now getting further transmitted and re-shaped – I haven’t seen the original PA copy), what I said in answer to questions was this, the nuances being clearly too subtle:

There are Christians who worry about whether they can or cannot speak about their faith at work. This is a fact. There are Christians who worry about it. However, that is not to say that their concern is justified. Furthermore, we cannot – and should not – extrapolate from (for example) one media report of a Christian being disciplined for doing so to a judgement that all Christians are concerned. This is patent nonsense. Theresa May was following a report that said we should grow up and use common sense.

I did not use the word “scared”. I did not “slam” (as I am being reported to be doing) anyone. I also said clearly that this is not a concern for me and that we should get on with it with confidence.

The bit about secularists was simply that there is too often an assumption that there is a potential tension between the faiths and that others might be offended by Christians talking about their faith or the content of Christmas. This also is nonsense. However, there can be an illiberal element to some liberals who are tolerant only of those who consent to their understanding of liberalism or tolerance. That is true. However, it is not to say that all liberals are illiberal.

Not quite how the story has run, is it?

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I am in York for the General Synod of the Church of England – a session that lasts from this afternoon until next Tuesday. The agenda was varied in order to allow for a debate on a motion proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the EU Referendum. The Synod was encouraged by the Archbishop to look forward, not back.

I stood throughout the substantive debate, but was not called to speak – a little odd and frustrating given that I lead on Europe for the bishops in the House of Lords and chair the Meissen Commission, whose new German co-chair (Landesbischof Ralf Meister of Hanover) had just addressed the Synod.

Much of the debate was good, some was predictable. What was obvious, however, was how few of the ills attributed to the decision by 17million people to vote to leave the EU actually have/had nothing whatsoever to do with the EU. At some point this has to be named. If people wanted to express alienation for the political discourse or protest at the behaviour of Westminster, then the EU should not have been the target.

That said, the vote is a fact on the ground and we now need to get on with the consequences of the result.

Had I spoken in the debate I would have drawn attention back to a less introspective place. The European project had distinctively Christian origins and emerged from a Christian-driven post-war drive to create relationships that would prevent intra-European conflict in the future. Schumann did not dream up his vision from nowhere. So, the debate going forward has to do not only with economics, markets, jobs and currency values, but also with culture, education, hope and integration.

It is not insignificant that a group of German and British Christians exchanged visits as Europe “sleepwalked” (Christopher Clark) its way towards what was to be the First World War. As the world collapsed around them within a few years, the relationships continued. Enemies knew that they were friends because they were untitled by the cross and resurrection of Christ. In the run-up to what became the Second World War it was also relationships between Christians that held while the nationalisms screamed their allegiances. It wasn't just Bishop George Bell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who kept the fires of love burning amid the conflagration of an 'Enlightened' continent.

So, in looking forward to what might come next for the UK and its place in Europe (if not in the EU), we might just learn from such a brief look back. It is the relationships that matter. And they matter more now, perhaps, than they did three weeks ago.

Church of England dioceses often have strong partnerships with Anglican dioceses around the world – often in exotic or 'other' places. Quite right, too, and very important. Trying to get links with European dioceses has proved more difficult because there is an assumption that “they” don't need us and, anyway, we know them already. But, this is simply wrong. There has never been a greater need for us to build strong relationships and partnerships with European Christians and churches than there is today. It is the relationships that sustain when everything else collapses – and the future of Europe looks more fragile today than it did just a few weeks ago.

I would say this, wouldn't I? After all, I am a europhile. I speak several European languages. I have strong friendships across Europe. I co-chair a European ecumenical body (the Meissen Commission). But, at risk of repetition, I say:

  • Now is not the time to diminish our investment in European ecumenical work, but to grow it.
  • Now is the time to create, build and strengthen sustainable relationships with European churches and Christians.
  • Now is not the time to look just at what is happening in our own islands, but to look through the lens of those on the continental mainland.
  • Now is the time to ask what we can contribute to the future of Europe and not just what we can gain from it (or from leaving the EU).
  • Now is the time to do the step-by-step, hard work of building relationships and making reconciliation a reality – not just in the divided communities of the UK, but also across the continent.

 

It is the fifth anniversary of the war in Syria.

I am in Iraq with several colleagues and under the auspices of Christian Aid. It is a brief visit, but we are covering a lot of ground (some of which has got caked in our shoes).

I will write more when I am back in England and have had time to assimilate the experiences and reflect on their import as well as their impact. For now, however, here is a brief account so far.

The narrative in the UK is that refugees (mostly from Syria) and internally displaced people (IDPs) should be encouraged to go home once ISIS has been defeated and expelled from this land. This is understandable. After all, (a) shouldn't people naturally want to return to their homeland, and (b) we mustn't – in the words of one Christian leader we met – “complete the policy of Daesh by cleansing Iraq of Christians”. Yet, “home no longer exists for thousands of people, and we cannot simply condemn Christians to remain just in order to keep a presence there.

Today we spent time in an IDP camp that houses 4,203 people (comprising 791 families, 2,087 children – 672 families being Yezidi and 90 Christian). There are 3 million IDPs in Iraq of which 450,000 are in the region we are visiting – 193,000 in the eighteen camps here.

Numbers numb. So, here is one family's story, told as we sat in the single-compartment portakabin that houses eight people.

The two younger men were taken by Daesh to Syria, their families divided. They were constantly on the move. Eventually the men escaped, running by night and hiding by day. After five days and nights they came to a village in Sinjar and occupied an empty house: 25 people of all ages. Capture would have meant death to the men and slavery to the women and girls. They had no food. Their only drinking water was the rain.

Forced to flee again, they were caught up in the siege of Sinjar Mountain from where they among the fortunate ones to be airlifted to safety. They are now in the camp, three hours from where their homes had been before Daesh brought death and destruction and unimaginable fear.

Among the many questions we asked was the obvious one: do you want to go home?

The older men want to go home, but will only do so if they are guaranteed complete security from their Arab neighbours. Trust built over centuries died in a single day. The younger men see no future and no security: they want to go to Germany where some of their family already live. They feel safe in this well-run camp, but the future is uncertain. They own nothing.

There was one young woman in the room, but she sat silently and just occasionally looked up. I asked our interpreter if the young woman would like to say anything to us. She said simply that her two sisters had been taken by Daesh and, upon their eventual escape, were taken to Germany. Women and girls in such circumstances appear to be automatically taken out of the country. It is not hard to imagine why.

A policy of resettlement in their original homes only makes sense from a distance. What might it actually mean for women whose family has endured fearful threat, violence and loss before being been scattered? Or for those whose home no longer exists: relationships are dead, houses are destroyed or occupied by former neighbours, where there is no economy and no infrastructure?

I don't intend to draw political conclusions from this – I simply record the story told to us in a single room in a large camp under stormy skies and ferocious rainfall. Tomorrow we go to a refugee camp and the story will become more complicated again.

It is not hard to see what pushes these people to want to leave. It is hard to see what might pull them to stay.

More anon.

 

This is the text of an article (about the persecution of Christians) commissioned by the Times today:

Religious special pleading is rarely convincing or attractive. Overblown complaints about being picked on run the danger of diminishing or trivialising genuine suffering.

So, it is remarkable that when Christians are specifically targeted for the most appalling persecution, either politicians or media commentators find it difficult to name it for what is. To identify the persecution of Christians is not to diminish the targeted suffering of others.

It is reckoned that Christians represent the most persecuted people on earth in the twenty first century. And we are not talking here of a bit of ridicule or silly marginalisation. We are talking about men, women and children being singled out because of their Christian faith or identity and put to an unimaginably cruel death. Or, of course, being driven out of home, away from livelihood, deprived of identity and dignity. Or, for women and girls, being forced into sexual slavery and subjected to rape-at-will.

Everyone knows about ISIS/Daesh – how they systematically brutalise those they deem unholy. Yet pressure on Christians is being applied with renewed vigour and imagination in some surprising places. Just last week the Sultan of Brunei banned the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that this could damage people's commitment to Islam. And those who defy the ban face heavy fines or imprisonment. Who will defend Christians in Brunei?

It was timely, then, that 60 UK parliamentarians published a letter this week asking for government pressure to persuade the United Nations to designate ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis as genocide.

The specific nature of anti-Christian persecution in many parts of the world make it difficult to identify a single solution. What happens in Nigeria clearly has a different local manifestation from in Pakistan or Syria (or Brunei); but the complexity or ubiquity of the phenomenon should not lead to embarrassed silence on the part of the largely religiously illiterate western intelligentsia.

The first demand of such a phenomenon is to name it for what it is. Where Christians are being persecuted, then the word should be used without embarrassment. When my Christian brothers and sisters suffer in Sudan (and they do), they rely on the rest of us to tell their story and to use what powers we have to bring political pressure for an end to such suffering. The Anglican Communion and the links forged between dioceses across the world are essential in fulfilling this demand and vocation.

 

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address at the first Diocesan Synod of the new triennium in the Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire & the Dales):

“As far as I am concerned, to die in Christ Jesus is better than to be king of earth's widest bounds.” So wrote Syrian-born Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr, at the beginning of the second century. And not a bad way to start this first synod of the new triennium on the day we remember the remarkable saint.

If nothing else, it focuses our mind on why we are here, begs us to keep our business in a true perspective, and invites us to remember, as Ignatius did in his powerful final letters to early Christian churches, to heed the injunction of Jesus himself: that if we do not love one another, we are whistling in the wind. (Which I cannot pretend to be an entirely accurate translation of the Aramaic.)

Ignatius was clearly no romantic. He pleads with his fellow Christians in Rome not to allow anyone to get in the way of his martyrdom. But, although often questioned, this was not some maniacal death-wish, but, rather, an urgent plea for clarity and not compromise in his living and his dying. Like the Apostle Paul, “for [him] to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

I have to admit, this feels a little glib when said by me – and probably by you. We do not face the lions of the Colosseum or the bloodthirst of the Roman powermongers who thought human life cheap enough to provide fodder for the entertainment of their bored souls.

Yet, for many Christians in the second decade of the twenty first century, this is precisely the choice they face. In countries like Syria and Iraq, where Christians have lived, prayed and served for centuries, it is entirely possible that the next decade (or sooner) will see them almost completely absent. Persecution of Christians is something our own politicians and media appear to find difficult even to mention by name – as if to do so would, rather than being truthful or factually accurate, be selective or intolerant of the suffering of others. Needless to say, this is utter nonsense.

But, it also reminds us that easy recourse to claims of persecution in this country is equally stupid. Ridicule or marginalisation – either deliberate or by cultural default – is not persecution. That is a word that should be reserved for our brothers and sisters who are being crucified, butchered, driven out, abused, dispossessed and rendered homeless and, sometimes, hopeless in a world of violence and misery.

Well, you might think this is a bit of a miserable way to begin a new synod in this diocese. You might even be right. But, my intention is to locate the experience of many Christians in the world against the backdrop of our experience and business today. Are we building a diocese and a church that has its priorities right – one that creates the spaces in which people can come to faith in Jesus Christ, be nurtured in the community of his people, serve the world around them with a wide vision of God's grace, and so order their lives that people might look at us and listen to us and recognise that for us “to live is Christ, to die is gain”?

This is a question that I live with every day. Whether conducting worship, preaching, enjoying meetings, ordering the life of a diocese-being-created, or praying and reading, this is the one that won't let me go. And I know I am not alone. Colleagues both lay and ordained are doing their work in the light of and under the shadow of that question, even if not all would frame it in the language I am using here. Given that we face a million distractions every day, we have to keep coming back to the fundamental questions of who we think we are and why we do what we do.

I well remember, with some personal embarrassment, asking the former Archbishop of Canterbury which great divine the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann was quoting in a lecture at Cambridge when he paused in his lecture and said, deeply and meaningfully: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” Rowan Williams looked sadly into my eyes and said, “I think he was quoting himself.” He was. Moltmann's autobiography was published just a week or two later and was given the English title of 'Broad Space'.

The wide space of our hope must be focused on the particular details of the choices we make.

Now, this pertains to the internal business of the diocese – for which this synod exists; but, it also applies to and shapes our response to the world in which we do our internal business. The budget for this diocese has to be debated in the context of a church that is reviewing how we might use our buildings in the future, how many clergy we can invest in (and how to train, equip and resource them for the task we decide we need them to do), how to shape our administration in the future, and how to nurture mature Christian disciples in West Yorkshire and the Dales. Yet, all of this will be debated in the light of an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants into Europe – a test of what we really mean by 'solidarity' and 'union'.

Last Thursday we held at Bradford Cathedral the first Diocesan Clergy Study Day since our diocese was born at Easter 2014. The Chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist District, Dr Roger Walton, led us in the morning thinking about discipleship. In the afternoon we were led by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, in thinking about a theology of place – coincidentally only two days after publication of the Church Buildings Review report by a committee that he chaired. These were not two separate and distinct topics. Rather, they hold together: discipleship is to be exercised by people who live in space and time, have bodies and use buildings. Discipleship, like worship, has to happen somewhere. And how we regard that 'somewhere' matters a great deal.

So, this is both the great opportunity and the great challenge we face in our diocese. How do we focus on evangelism, nurture, service and discipleship in a way that sees our buildings not as a burden, but as a resource? The answers are not easy, but the question must constantly be asked. In recent developments in the diocese this has been this has been central.

We have appointed two new archdeacons who will strengthen not only the leadership of the diocese, but also bring new capacity to supporting, encouraging, challenging and resourcing the parishes. I look forward to Beverley Mason and Andy Jolley beginning their new ministry towards the beginning of 2016, and am sure you will wish to encourage and support them as they embrace the changes in their own life and ministry and location. At this point I also wish to pay tribute to Archdeacon David Lee who stood down as Archdeacon of Bradford in the summer and who is conducting pilot studies on buildings review in the Bradford and Leeds Episcopal Areas. He will retire at the end of January 2016 and we will have an opportunity to thank him for his ministry during that month.

As you know, we have also finally bought a new office in central Leeds, only a five minute walk from the station. Bringing our administration under a single roof will bring enormous benefits as shape up to move in one direction and develop a common culture for the diocese. I pay tribute to those who have been involved in the often complex detail of searching for, identifying and finalising the purchase of this building – especially Ashley Ellis and Debbie Child and their colleagues, and members of the Diocesan Board of Finance.

We are making good progress. Consultations on a new parish share system are being conducted; reviews of training and communications have been completed – a review of mission activity is now being commenced. We are on track with our projected journey: by the end of 2014 to be legal, viable and operational – for which we owe a huge debt to the often unseen work of John Tuckett; by the end of 2015 to have reviewed the areas of diocesan life and mission and worked out options for shaping the diocese in the future; during 2016 to create the new shape, institute the new governance structures, set our direction, and agree how to finance it. From 2017 we should be up and running as a single diocese with the historic assumptions and ways of doing things united in a single system. This might not be the language that everyone will want to use, but it is the best I can offer at this stage.

I am personally very grateful to all of you for being willing to serve on this synod, bringing experience, perspective and commitment to the work of the diocese – constantly asking the fundamental questions, bearing one another in love (especially those charged with doing the detailed work behind the scenes), and praying for the mind of Christ in both what we do and say, and how we do and say it.

We will conclude our synod today by turning our eyes both outwards and inwards: outwards to the pressing needs of those – Christian, Muslim, Yezidi, Jewish, and those of no religious faith – who are being oppressed and driven out of their homelands. The plight of refugees is desperate. Yes, there might also be among them those who might ride on the back of genuine collective despair for their own individual interests and gain. But, the abuse by some should not blind us to the appalling choices faced by millions of people in this world. How we respond to their plight matters enormously. It is not a simple matter. As I wrote in the Yorkshire Post last month, we do need to engage both head and heart as we consider how to respond and at what level. Today we have an opportunity to share our wisdom on this, recognising that this is the beginning and not the end of this matter, and that the situation changes every day.

So, I commend the life of this synod in this triennium. Let us apply our best efforts to attending to the calling God has given. And not lose sight of the fundamental truth that our ministries derive from our discipleship, and that discipleship cannot be held distinct from the material stuff we live with and use.

To God be the glory. And to his people peace.

In his book Culture and the Death of God Terry Eagleton quotes Voltaire being rude about the English. “They give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts,” he said. I guess his point was that the English are cool about religion, hating extremes and being wary of enthusiasm. It also suggests, though, that the English are concerned only with money, and that the greatest blasphemy is to lose it.

But, heard in today's world, it questions our basic values and what, essentially, we consider to be worth living and dying for – or, at least, what we consider worth allowing others to die for.

At the end of August I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in which I put a series of questions about British foreign policy in the Middle East and its coherence within a clear strategy for realising a thought-through vision. The letter caused a bit of a media storm when it was published in the Observer newspaper. The PM was – understandably – not pleased.

When I received a long, helpful and detailed response from David Cameron, he addressed some questions more clearly than others; but, it was certainly not a fob-off response. I replied to his letter recently and pressed certain points.

As I said at the time, my purpose in writing the letter was to articulate what I thought to be the focused questions that went to the heart of people's concerns about what was going on particularly (but not exclusively) in Syria and Northern Iraq. What, I asked, is the overarching vision that guides responses to the particular crises that keep exploding? In my response I explained that the reason for allowing the Observer to publish the letter was that too many people were writing to ministers and MPs with serious concerns about the plight of suffering people and simply getting no response – including the Archbishop of York. For weeks. My approach certainly got the debate out into the public and media and placed the question of coherence at the top of the agenda.

Or did it?

Parliament is being recalled on Friday in order to – and I quote the BBC news report I heard on the way to the airport this morning, prior to writing this post on the flight to Berlin – “endorse military attacks on Islamic State”. Not to debate and decide, but to endorse a decision already made.

Now, the morality of this decision will be for another discussion. What concerns me here is the strategic purpose of the decision. What I meant in my question about coherence and (ad hoc) reaction is this: how do we avoid foreign policy commitments that simply respond pragmatically to short-term stimuli whereby yesterday's friend (to whom we supplied arms and money) becomes my enemy and today's enemy becomes my reluctant friend simply because he happens – for now, at least – to be my new enemy's enemy?

Is the planned use of violence part of a coherent long-term plan, or a short-term pragmatic response to an immediate stimulus – which might cause problems down the line which haven't been thought through properly now? Killing terrorists is the easy bit.

One of the problems with our politics is that we don't allow space for doubt. Repeatedly stating that “our policy is clear” does not make that policy clear, any more than me repeatedly saying I am a banana makes me yellow. But, politicians aren't allowed to ask difficult questions publicly because (apparently) we, the electorate, want clarity and certainty. Not always helpful, is it? I, for one, would prefer honesty – and some clarity about what would be gained and lost by any particular policy, without the pretence that every policy has to be 100% clear and certain. And right.

So, what have I learned from recent correspondence? (a) If the overarching vision and strategy are clear and coherent, then I still can't see it. Perhaps that says more about my limited mind than it does about policy. (b) What is very clear, however, is that there is no intention to make any asylum provision for IS refugees beyond what is already open to people wanting to claim asylum in the UK. I suspect this is because the PM (but other leaders are not breaking ranks on this) sees electoral suicide in doing anything that feeds UKIP or associates such provision with toxic immigration contamination. The only way to get around this is for those – particularly Christians – who don't like this to bombard party leaders and MPs with very focused letters that demonstrate that not all voters are xenophobic. (c) Asylum provision should be made, but should not be a tool for encouraging the evacuation of Christians and other minorities from the Middle East where they have been for centuries and where their spiritual, social and cultural contribution must not be lost. The stakes are high.

Incidentally, the two unanswered questions put down in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Coventry regarding asylum were eventually answered on 15 September by Lord Wallace of Saltaire. They read as follows:

“There are no current plans to resettle those displaced from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. However, we are proud of the UK's record of offering protection to those genuinely in need, and the Government will of course continue to consider asylum claims, including from Iraqi nationals suffering religious persecution, under the normal rules.”

“The safety and security of the UK are our priority. An essential part of delivering this is knowing who is coming to the UK and carrying out all necessary checks in advance of their arrival. We therefore ensure that the necessary checks are undertaken before those accepted on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme arrive in the UK. We have also been working with local partners, including local authorities, the police and healthcare sector, to ensure the safeguarding of individuals on the scheme when they arrive in the UK.”

Was Voltaire right in his assessment of the English? Discuss.

(And the reason it has taken me so long to post on this blog is simply that I have been working all hours for weeks – the creation of this new diocese is a little demanding at present – and haven't had the headspace or time to write. And, coincidentally, I am now in Berlin with the Meissen Commission, having spent time today in the Reichstag being hugely impressed with the approach and deep thinking of German political leaders.)

PS. Letters from anonymous people who don't have the courage to put their name and contact details on their communication will be disappointed that all their green ink was spilled in vain. I don't even read anonymous letters – they go straight in the bin.

 

The timing is terrible. The furore over my letter to the Prime Minister has exploded on the day I begin a family holiday in a place with no mobile signal and intermittent wifi. Sky sent a satellite truck to the middle of nowhere and, so, got their interview (although I struggled to hear the questions in my earpiece and, therefore, probably sounded incoherent). Otherwise, it is almost impossible to do interviews.

I think one or two comments of explanation are due:

  • My letter is neither “bitter” not an “attack” on the Prime Minister. That was journalese. My letter simply tries to ask questions many people are asking, but to which we are not getting answers. I wrote reasonably and respectfully.
  • The Prime Minister is in a difficult position and I bet even Ed Miliband is grateful not to have to attempt to bring some order out of the chaos of crises around the globe this month. Prioritising cannot be simple, given the complexity of the issues to hand.
  • Asking questions of “coherence” should not imply that there is none (even if there isn't); it does ask for any coherence to be articulated. We are all implicated in our Government's decisions and should, therefore, be able to understand the big picture into which the reactive details fit.
  • There is no implied hierarchy of suffering in my letter. Asking questions about the lack of attention to the Chritsians in Iraq cannot imply a rejection of the focus on the suffering of others. It is a specific question about silence.
  • It has become clear that many people have written to their MPs (including ministers) about their concerns, and often not even had a reply. Perhaps giving these questions a higher profile might help.
  • I do not expect the Prime Minister or his colleagues to reply immediately to my questions. Indeed, I would prefer to wait and receive a considered response that indicates how these concerns are being addressed holistically than to get a reactive response that doesn't take us further.
  • The central point (backed up by some quoted military leaders) is that there must be some overarching vision about what we want to see happen in the Middle East – the “we” being not just individual governments in isolation from each other. The strategy is the 'plumbing' that gets us there. If a strategy is to be at all coherent, then it must serve the 'end' to which that strategy is the means. It is this that needs to be seriously debated and agreed – as we will then have to accept the price we are prepared to pay in order to make it happen. (For example, if it meant us staying in Iraq for thirty years, rather than ten, will we do it?)
  • I doubt if the Prime Minister will have me on his Christmas card list after this. But, the letter was not an attack on him; it was a questioning of policy and practice. There needs to be a distinction between the letter and the reporting around it.