It’s really hot and humid here in Novi Sad, Serbia. This morning threatened thunder and rain, but it’s ended up being just … er … hot and humid. Fortunately, the 500 people in the conference centre don’t have to sit too closely together.

The theme yesterday was ‘hospitality’; today’s is ‘justice’. We began with a Bible study on 1 Kings 21 (Naboth and the art of hiding behind the law when you do terrible things) by a Brazilian theologian, Dr Elaine Neuenfeldt. This was followed by a young German lawyer, Lisa Schneider, speaking (in German) both thematically and practically about justice – her main plea being that the church should never try offering young people simple solutions to complex questions. She stressed the need for young people to see the church demonstrating authenticity (‘practise what you preach, or just stop preaching sort of thing’) – young people, she said, are passionate about truth and justice.

A Swiss Methodist bishop, Dr Patrick Streiff, reflected on this (in French). I found his final point the most interesting: an over-preoccupation with the language of values ignores the actual root of Christian relationship: our unity in Christ. He observed that in many official comment on social themes we refer to “Christian values for Europe”:

Certes, il est nécessaire que les Églises participent au dialogue – et parfois dispute – sur des valeurs. Mais parler des valeurs se base déjà sur une certaine abstraction de ce qui est au cœur de notre foi. Notre foi ne se base pas sur des valeurs, mais sur le Dieu trinitaire qui s’est révélé à nous et dont la relation avec lui se répercute dans certaines valeurs qui nous sont chères.

In other words, Christian faith is rooted in the trinitarian God, not an abstract set of values. He then illustrated this in the following way:

Dernièrement, en Autriche, après une entrevue du ministre avec tous les dirigeants des religions officiellement reconnues, le ministre voulait encore voir le sanctuaire dans notre immeuble méthodiste. Le surintendant le lui a montré et expliqué qu’il y a une paroisse de langue allemande et une paroisse de langue anglaise qui se réunissent chaque dimanche, avec des personnes d’une trentaine de nations. Le ministre était étonné, puis a dit : « oui, il semble que c’est possible si on a les même valeurs ». Un peu plus tard et à nouveau seul, le surintendant s’est dit : « Ce n’est pas vrai. Ces gens ont des valeurs souvent très différentes, mais ils se réunissent ici à cause de leur foi en Christ. »

He concludes with this question: “How are we to witness to that which lies at the heart of our faith when we address ethical questions?”

The point is that Christians in Europe inhabit different cultural and political contexts, these arising from different histories of conflict and loss. Serbian Orthodox Christians will have a different approach to Kosovo, Muslims and justice from that of a Welsh Presbyterian (for example). Our perspectives and values (such as justice, reconciliation and the conditions these demand) might be seen differently depending on our communal experience; what unites Christians is our unity in Christ – which is shaped like a cross before which we must be repentantly hopeful. Unity of relationship and mutual obligation is not the same as unanimity of opinion on values.

In the light of this, this amazingly international and multilingual conference went on to address head on challenges to the future of Europe. No fantasy here, but, rather, a head-on articulation of the hard challenges facing Europe in the light of corruption, populist nationalism, and the collapse of a common vision.

On that cheerful note, we move on to business.

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This is the basic text of my Maundy Thursday sermon at Wakefield Cathedral when the clergy gather to reaffirm their ordination vows:

2 Corinthians 4 (with reference to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-17, 31-35)

Treasure in clay jars. We don’t need any reminder of that, do we? We have no illusions about our fragility.

When I was a teenager I picked up a book from the bookstall at the front of the church I belonged to. It was white and it bore the title: ‘With a Church Like This Who Needs Satan?’ Even then it didn’t strike me as the most optimistic question. But, it also made me start thinking about what the Church should look like.

Of course, the problem with being a teenager is that you harbour ideals that you hope won’t get crushed by the onslaught of time and experience. Many of them do. Growing up inevitably sees the dreams and fantasies of youth get tempered and reshaped by the realities of life, events and other people.

It is equally true of the church that I as a teenager wanted it to be. I couldn’t understand why Christians were so consistently disappointing – or so obviously contradictory. Why couldn’t they just ‘get’ the gospel as I did and change the world? Why the constant passive aggression? Why the competitiveness and self-aggrandising self-regard – the holding onto roles or ministries as possessions and service as privilege? Of course, the irony passed me by: that here was I, arrogantly complaining about the arrogance and constant complaining of everybody else. Humility and humour have more than the first three letters in common.

I recall this encounter with Christian literature simply because any romantic notions about the church would certainly not survive scrutiny by the media or courts today. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has just completed its first look at the Church of England, spending three weeks looking at the historic failures to protect vulnerable children and adults in the Diocese of Chichester. More will follow in the next fifteen months, and the discomfort and shame will continue. That a church could allow the conditions within which children could be abused so terribly is a source of shame with which those who love the church must learn to live.

However, I am not ashamed of the Church herself – or of those who are working so relentlessly to change the culture and make our churches safe for everyone. I am immensely grateful to those who, despite the barrage of inherited historical failures in safeguarding matters, keep plugging away at making it better. And, contrary to those who complain about the bureaucracy involved, or the cost of training and so on, we are attending to this because the church of Jesus Christ should never be an unsafe place for anyone. It goes without saying that people – especially vulnerable people – should find in the church a place of safety, hope and healing … not a place of threat, fear and exploitation.

I make no apologies for speaking of this miserable situation this morning. This week it is impossible for any of us to be romantic. In the story of Jesus and his friends we see a mirror of humanity and a face head on the reality of fickle human contradiction. Peter pledges macho allegiance to his friend, but caves in when confronted by a girl in a garden; Judas longs for his friend’s glory, but betrays him with a kiss; crowds shout praises, but soon call for blood; the men who had their feet washed by their friend now run, leaving the women watching to the end.

No illusions. No mystery. No tidy solutions. No glorious heroes.

Yet, emptied of fantasy, these people – people just like us – watch their hopes and dreams bleed into the dirt of a hill outside the city, leaving them crushed and empty. And, to their eternal surprise, they will discover that this world of shame and fear, of contradiction and disillusionment, will find itself whispered into hope as the emptiness of Saturday is followed by the surreptitious Sunday smile of a tomb with something missing.

Yes, this is the real world, too. This, too, is the world in which violence and shame and self-saving, flip-flopping destructiveness find themselves drained of power – their raging potency extinguished by a love that opens its arms to the world as it is and refuses to hide its face. This, too, is the real world in which death howls with resentment at the realisation that, despite the evidence of centuries, it does not, after all, have the final word.

This, brothers and sisters, is where our gospel hope is to be found – not in negating the pain and shame, but in seeing through it all to the reality of the inextinguishable light of a God who loves us to death … and beyond. And this is the gospel which compels us to give ourselves in service to this God and our neighbour.
When Jesus shared his final meal with his friends he knelt at the feet of the one who would soon deny knowing him, the one who would soon doubt him, and the one who would shortly betray him. Yet, these are the people he calls his friends. These are the people on whom he will build his church. These are the people whose illusions of self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency will be stripped away in the cruellest of crises, leaving them exposed to the darkness which will, in turn, give birth quietly to the light of what Walter Brueggemann calls “newness after loss”. And these are people like you and me.

And if this is not the real gospel which drives us, then we are missing the point; we are wasting our life; and the Church is perpetrating a fraud.

The Apostle Paul gets this. In his first letter to the church at Corinth – the earliest account we have of the Eucharistic meal – he doesn’t indulge in some pure or abstract theology. He doesn’t pontificate about the mysteries of the Eucharistic feast, exploring the competing ideologies of sacramental sensibilities. Rather, he describes how the Christians have already lost the plot that lies at the heart of John’s account of the Last Supper. Instead of sharing their food and mixing as an undivided and mutually committed community of people who bear the name of Christ, they hide their food, collect in cliques, and ignore the hunger of those they either dislike or disdain.

And the point is simply that they fail to reflect the One who has washed their feet. They do not look like a community shaped by the priorities of Christ. However well they might have started, they no longer reveal to themselves or observers of their common life the character of the One they apparently claim to serve. The deal is not hard to understand: if you claim to have been claimed by the crucified Christ, then people must see in your life together the Christ they have heard about and encountered in the stories of Jesus of Nazareth. Look at the Christian Church and you should see Jesus – not Caesar.

Of course, this is not new. The cry of the prophets held the people of God to account centuries before either Jesus or Paul appeared on Middle Eastern hills. Spirituality cannot and must not be divorced from sociology. How you eat together speaks of the authenticity of your theology. Don’t claim to be the children of a God of justice and mercy if you betray him by “trampling on the heads of the poor”, as Amos puts it. Don’t ask God to forgive you if you haven’t first forgiven those who have grieved you – as Jesus put it in the one prayer he told his friends to pray.

Now, is this the vision that fires us in our shaping of the church in the Diocese of Leeds at Easter 2018? Do we see only as far as the contradictions and the frustrations and disappointments that real life always throws up at us? Do we focus on the things that diminish us or our love for others? Or do we find ourselves haunted by the echoes of another world, another way, another voice whose love just will not let us go?

These are not abstract questions. If our congregations are to grow in confidence and attractiveness – which is, basically, what church growth is all about – then we as ministers of this gospel must be bearers of hope, articulators of grace, heralds of newness, nourishers of healing. That is the vocation set before us in the ordinal. But, we cannot minister to others if we have not first allowed ourselves to be ministered to – even by our betrayers, our deniers, and our doubters.

Are we up for this?

In his challenge to the Corinthians Paul is crystal clear that his ministry is not his possession – it is not a product he can claim or a commodity that he can trade in. He is a mediator of grace and a shaper of a community of grace. In his account in 1 Corinthians 11, set in the context of warning the Christians to sort out their scandalous divisions and look out for the needs and sensibilities of one another (something he reprises in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians where hierarchy had to do with status and not with order), Paul uses three verbs – verbs that are instructive for us in our ministry: “received (from the Lord) … handed on … proclaimed.”

No claim or demand. We receive the grace of God – that is what baptism is primarily about: receiving what we cannot claim. Gift. Sign.

We hand on this gift and this grace on the grounds that we can do no other. We receive, but we do not hold. We hand it on in the same spirit in which it was gifted to us. Then, in the light of this experience – receiving and letting go – we proclaim the what and why of what this good news is all about. It must not stop with us.

Brothers and sisters, does this characterise your ministry and the ministry of those you nurture and serve and lead? Receive … hand on … proclaim?

Ministry is always exercised in the real world and ministers need not fear the realities of the world. After all, the world is God’s and the mission is God’s. Our ministry in his name is exercised in the power of his Spirit. And, as our readings this morning make abundantly clear, this God has no illusions about us and our fragilities. We share bread and wine with empty hands outstretched; we know our need; but, we know the grace of a God who has lived among us, who has walked our way and lived with fickle friends like us, and yet who still calls us to go with him into the unknown future.

Thank you for the ministry you offer. It is often tough. Some of you thrive whilst some of you struggle to survive. Some laugh and don’t understand why others are weeping. Some weep and are suspicious of those who sit light and smile at the darkness. Some just keep going, hoping that one day soon the light will shine and the load become easier.

I speak for the bishops in thanking you – in encouraging you, along with us, to encourage one another. To reject collusion in suspicion and fatalism. To be agents of hope and mercy, sharing bread and wine at the beating heart of worship that powerfully transforms because it is no empty ritual, but pregnant with the expectation that God in his glory will be present as we receive and inhabit and hand on and proclaim this wonderful gift of grace. Heaven in ordinary. God’s surprise.

And now, as we prepare to commit ourselves afresh to Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, let us lay down the burdens of self-justification we too readily carry; the destructive compulsion to prove our worth, rather than the responsive joy of knowing we are loved; the weight of self-judgment in the face of a Christ who sets us free. And let us open our eyes to see afresh the glory of the cross, our ears to hear again the whispered prompting of God’s generous call, our minds to play with the limitless wonder of God’s grace, and our hearts to receive in simplicity and joyful humility the freedom of God’s embrace.

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning. (Disclaimer: I wrote it last night at Berlin Tegel and Amsterdam Schipol airports on my way home from an academic conference in Wittenberg, Germany.)

I returned late last night from Wittenberg in Germany. I was there to present a paper at a conference on Faith, Theology and the Church (from Tuesday to Thursday) and then record a programme for BBC Radio 4 on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having launched the Reformation jubilee last October, preaching in the Augustinerklosterkirche in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, it was a privilege to end the year in Wittenberg where it all kicked off. As everyone knows, 31 October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day when Luther is alleged to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche, thus challenging the Pope and the Church to address some serious concerns about both theology and the practices of the church.

Many of the stories of Luther’s words and deeds are now of dubious provenance. There is no record of him having told the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “here I stand; I can do no other”. (Which hasn’t deterred sock manufacturers from producing huge numbers of their products with the phrase added. I might bear the weight of one’s foot, but it doesn’t seem to bear the weight of history. In fact, there is no evidence that he did actually nail his 95 Theses to the church door – something impossible now because the doors are made of bronze.

Martin Luther’s tomb

But, why let facts get in the way of a good story. Whatever the details of who did what and when, we do know for certain that Luther took his life in his hands when he dared to suggest that the grace of God is there for everyone and cannot be bought – even in the good cause of building St Peter’s in Rome. Fear of the consequences of death were trounced by the mercy of God.

Sitting in the Schloßkirche yesterday morning, looking at Luther’s tomb, I was very conscious that we can’t always control the consequences of the decisions we make. The monk of Erfurt changed the world in ways he could never have imagined when he found Paul’s letter to the Romans opening his heart and mind to the riches of God’s unmerited love. Not only a revolution in the church, but political ructions, too, that too often led to bloodshed on a huge scale. I wonder what he would have made of it today, if he had known what he was about to unleash.

This is not insignificant for us here in the Diocese of Leeds. After giving my paper at the conference on Thursday, I took part in a panel discussion with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the head of the Protestant Church in Germany (the EKD),where both the divisions and affinities of ecumenical relationships were visible. As the church faces big challenges in British and wider European cultures, the need for Christians to prioritise their common baptismal discipleship over their denominational commitments becomes more urgent.

On of the watchwords of the Reformation traditions is ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ – the Church needing constantly to be being renewed and reformed. Nothing stands still in this world. And the church can be no exception. Change is here to stay.

It would be ludicrously absurd to compare the changes our diocese has gone through in the last three and a half years with the enormity of the Reformation, but we need no telling that change brings pain as well as opening up new opportunities for those who are unafraid to explore them. And not every outcome can be predicted. As Luther found out – and it caused him a whole new set of griefs and concerns – there is the small matter of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Our diocese continues to change as we move on from the initial phase of our creation from 2014 to 2016. We are now functioning as a single diocese with a single administration, and we are now clear about where we are in terms of shaping support for clergy and parishes as they ‘do’ our mission and ministry locally. But, this has all taken place at a time when the church across the country is facing a hefty drop in the number of stipendiary ordained people during the next fifteen years. This inevitably means that we will need to re-shape not only where we deploy our clergy, but the nature of the role, too. A priest cannot do in six parishes what he or she did in one. And we cannot put clergy into jobs that are not do-able.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. We do so in the face of financial challenges, too, but our primary focus has to be on what sort of ministry and mission we can provide within the constraints over which we do not have complete (or any) control. Now, is this a cause for fear or concern? Well, yes and no. We need to be concerned enough to tackle the challenges head on and pay attention to the detail – understanding the cost of growth as well as the benefits. But, we need not fear. We are engaged in God’s mission, and must never lose track of the bigger picture of God’s transforming grace, his call to keep moving – with him – and to be faithful to him and each other.

Clearly, if our models of ministry are to change, then they will involve re-focusing the attention of clergy and reimagining the role of lay people. Now, let’s get away from some of the moany stuff we keep hearing. Clergy exist for the sake of the laity, not the other way around. That will not change, but, the way we do ministry and mission will look different in the future. This is not about power or rights or means of self-fulfilment; rather, it is about identifying the gifts and vocation of all baptised people, developing and deploying those gifts for the sake of the church … which exists for the sake of the world.

But, the primary calling of lay people is not to do stuff in and for the church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ out there in the world. One of the recognised challenges of the church in more recent years has been that lay vocation has too often focused on lay ministries in the church – largely liturgical or pastoral. This is something we need to tackle as we move into the future. Discipleship first.

To this end we are holding a Lay Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 9 June 2018. More details will be forthcoming soon, but planning is well underway under the guidance of Andrew Norman and Hayley Matthews. This is intended to help us re-frame our strategy for lay discipleship and ministry into the future – although this will be a matter of process rather than event.

Nothing of what we do can be done in isolation. On today’s agenda this Synod will address several matters that, together, help us discipline our development and mission. Asking the General Synod to change the name of the See of Richmond to Kirkstall is not a whim or a bit of ecclesiastical fancy; no, it is to enable those outside the church in the Leeds Episcopal Area (particularly) to identify with the area bishop and our church structure. People assume Richmond is up north and can’t see why the Bishop of Richmond is bothered with the city of Leeds. For the sake of our ongoing mission we need to change this. More later, but I want at this point simply to locate this agenda item in our wider missional context.

A communications strategy for the diocese is not incidental. If we can’t communicate effectively in the world in which we now live, then we might as well just tend a long decline. We cannot address the lack of children and young people in our churches without engaging with social media and a way of relating/communicating that is a million miles away from what I grew up with. Do we have the courage to grasp this nettle and learn a new language of evangelism and pastoral care? That is the question – along with: are we willing to put resources into making effective communications and changing the rumour about God and the church?

Rules about synod elections and sizes of synods might not be the stuff of romance, but they matter. It is vital that our synods – at every level – should drive and enhance our mission … and for that we need people – in the right numbers and variety – who are caught up by a vision of the kingdom of God that grabs popular attention, awakens curiosity, draws people in from being met outside on their territory and in their terms. Are we up for this? It isn’t easy, and it will mean sacrifice; but, we need younger energy and vision to challenge us and drag us into new ways of being a renewed and reformed church in this part of Yorkshire.

Again, this is not for the sake of the church’s organisation or own well-being. Yorkshire faces massive challenges in the wake of Brexit (however that might ultimately look…), but also in terms of its own political organisation. Westminster seems to have a view of how Yorkshire might be governed in the future (under its devolution proposals), but how do we want to help drive this for the sake of the common good of the people of Yorkshire? Do we want to be stuck in the past, with old enmities and thinking within old white lines, or can we be bold about developing a vision of and strategy for a Yorkshire that makes the most of the Northern Powerhouse – whatever that means?

What I am driving at here is that we should not be a church that merely responds to the initiatives of others, but be creative ourselves at fostering debate and proposition that, rooted in our traditions, offers a refreshed view of future potential.

Of course, this is all stuff and nonsense if we would prefer to just keep turning the handle. In the diocese we have proved that, even where we might have differing degrees of affection for the diocese we have shaped, we can commit ourselves to it as mature adults who follow Jesus Christ.

At this point I want to pay special thanks to the Dean of Wakefield, Jonathan Greener, who will leave the diocese in November and be installed as Dean of Exeter. Jonathan vigorously opposed the creation of the new diocese, but, since its creation, has been an excellent friend and colleague, a creative and imaginative shaper of new things (three cathedrals and three deans in a single diocese), and a brave contributor to all we have done. We owe him a huge debt. Personally, I will miss him, his wisdom and advice, even his humour. But, we wish him God’s richest blessing and the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts as he and Pamela move into a not-unchallenging situation in Exeter. They go with our love, gratitude and prayers.

So, let me conclude where we began – with Martin Luther. While sitting with three young Germans in the very room in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, around the table where he and his friends argued about theology, politics, beer and bodily functions (I kid you not), having our own feisty debate about the meaning of Luther’s theology now, we felt close to the heart of passion: the passion that is courageous, contagious, irritating, maybe even hopeful – maybe even the passion for Jesus Christ, his grace and mercy, his call to us and his friends to love one another as he loves us.

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning:

I am suspicious of straplines and convoluted vision statements that are quickly forgotten or whose formulation are seen as an end in itself. This suspicion might have something to do with the fact that when I was Vicar of Rothley in the Diocese of Leicester in the 1990s I worked with my Baptist colleague to set up an annual festival. Naturally, we called it the Rothley Festival. All was fine until someone decided to create some headed notepaper for me as the Chair. Under my name was our strapline: Nick Baines – Putting the Rot back into Rothley.

I suppose it was funny really.

Our diocesan strapline, however, is different. Loving Living Learning might better be described as a statement of our values. Simple, short and memorable, it is offered to our parishes and institutions as a prism through which our priorities, mission and activities can be refracted – or a lens through which we are enabled to keep things simple, clear and visible.

You will remember that when our diocese began at Easter 2014 I had to articulate a vision for it in a challenging context framed by an absence of governance, infrastructure or common systems. That articulation still holds: to create a vibrant diocese (vibrating in the tension between the wind of the Spirit and the wind of the world) equipping confident clergy to enable confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in our region. This has always been the vocation of the Christian Church; all we were doing was to call us back to our core vocation.

However, we simplified this into Confident Christians – Growing Churches – Transforming Communities. This worked well as a guide for our churches and diocese in focusing us on what and for whom we are here. So far, so good.

Then, when opening our new office in Leeds and addressing the need to attend to our visual identity, we employed a company new to working with the church. They didn’t know what we were trying to say – or, more specifically, what our offer is to the wider world that is not in church. In other words, we were speaking to ourselves in a language that meant something only to us. So, a fine articulation of vision and priorities for internal consumption. But, if the world with whom we wish to engage is to catch a glimpse of what we offer – good news – we needed something more… to shine a fresh light on it.

And that is where Loving Living Learning came from. As soon as we drafted it, our company got it. And now we offer it as a prism or lens.

The most fundamental command – or invitation – in the Bible is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourself. This pertains primarily to worship … and the ethical injunction to reflect the nature of the God we worship in the way we order our lives and our society. We love God, our neighbour and the world that is God’s creation. You can see the themes that might emerge within that framework: the environment, social ethics, political order, and so on.

Christianity is an incarnational faith. We are committed to the world as it is, getting stuck in and not exempting ourselves from all that the world can throw at us. Christian discipleship is not an insurance policy against trouble; if anything, it might well invite trouble. Jesus was not crucified for getting his vocation or his message wrong. Loving our neighbour means loving our neighbourhood and striving for the flourishing of individuals and our community or society. If God loved the world so much, then so must we. And this implies that our living in the world is done with the sort of faith and joy, rooted in resurrection and hope in a God who is not defeated by violence or death, that surprises earth with heaven and offers an alternative to the anger and fatalism that too easily pervades our public discourse.

How, then, should our church behave, prioritise its resources, demonstrate its commitment to all people, looking something like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels and whose ‘body’ we are told we are? This applies to manifestations of the church anywhere and at any level – parish, diocese, nation, Anglican Communion.

We are not good at all this, are we? Which is why we need to be people who are unafraid to do the learning that characterises a community shaped by a confident humility. Do we think we have nailed every detail of theology and ethics? No. Do we need to have the humility to keep learning. You bet. A church that knows its mortality and its fragility is more likely to be open to people who discover theirs.

Loving. Living. Learning.

So, when we look at the PCC agenda, is it possible to refract the business through this prism? How does each item contribute towards us being a loving, living and learning church for the sake of others? And when we look at the agenda and priorities of this emerging diocese, how does this prism offer a way of keeping us focused on what really matters – keeping things as simple as we can in order not to get bogged down in a million distractions? How do our buildings help or hinder us in this? How will the allocation of diminishing numbers of stipendiary clergy reflect these priorities or values?

These questions are pertinent to our agenda today. We live in a context in which the Church of England (but not just the Church of England) wrestles with demanding questions and claims. How are we to address the question of marriage and same sex relationships in a way that honours all people as children of God while paying attention to the biblical text and the wider ethical questions this raises. If the House of Bishops report to the last General Synod was inadequate, then I look forward to hearing the solution from those who didn’t like it – especially as the reasons for not liking it are actually diametrically opposed to each other in many cases. So, how are we as a loving, living and learning church to conduct this apparently unresolvable debate in a way that is godly, honest and resists the easy fragmentation against which the cross stands as a scandal?

The withdrawal of Bishop Philip North from his nomination to the See of Sheffield raises further questions for a church that wants to learn to be loving, living and learning. We forget very quickly that the arrangement we came to in order to allow the ordination of women as bishops involved compromise from those who longed for this and from those who opposed it on grounds of theology or ecumenical solidarity. No one thinks the outcome is ideal as it prolongs the messiness. But, whatever one thinks about the process (which was followed scrupulously) and the particular nomination, the personal nature of the attacks on Bishop North and his opponents demonstrates ignorance of a gospel characterised by loving, living and learning. I don’t know the answer, but we mustn’t let go of the question. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we cannot simply let go of each other without risking missing out on the blessing. Like Jacob we will walk with a limp and our wound will be noticed; but, better that than to collude with the culture of a world which resolves every dispute by simply walking away.

I well remember Bishop Tom Butler’s final Presidential Address as the soon-to-retire Bishop of Southwark. He spoke of how he had spent his holidays in Wakefield working on the house into which he and Barbara would retire. The cottage is on a farm and is surrounded by sheep. Tom related how he had rebuilt a wobbly wall in order to ensure that the sheep didn’t get into the garden form the field. The sheep watched him curiously. Once the wall was finished and firm, the sheep simply jumped onto it and then down into the garden. What had previously kept them out was the wobbliness of the wall. Tom’s point was simply that sometimes firm and solid walls are not the best thing to erect, and they might lead to the very thing they were meant to avoid in the first place.

So, messiness can sometimes be helpful. At the very least, it reminds us that loving, living and learning can be as embarrassing as the elderly relative who has given up on social proprieties and simply says what she thinks.

Well, all this sits nicely in Lent. We walk with Jesus and his friends – you know: Peter the impetuous, James and John the loudmouths, Judas the treasurer, and all the other examples of human perfection and moderation – towards a cross. The disciples cannot comprehend what lies ahead when Jesus speaks of his impending demise. He doesn’t despise them for their ignorance or their false conceptions or their competing visions for what constitutes an effective messiah. He walks with them, committed to them, open to their humanity, knowing that they would be broken by what lies ahead of them. And their witness – ultimately – is to stick together despite everything and learn to love and live together as fallible followers of the resurrected one whose body still bore the wounds of cruelty, violence and suffering.

And this is what a synod is. Disciples of Jesus Christ are brought together to do the business of the institution we call a diocese. We are responsible stewards of what has been committed to us by God and the Church. We do not randomly make decision in the interests of being seen to be successful; we look to be faithful to the vocation given to us by God for this time and in this place. And our task is to address this with as great a clarity we can, asking how this enables us to be a loving, living and learning Church.

Today we will look at matters such as how we order our Quinquennial Inspections of Churches, the call to grow our churches (because we believe this Gospel and its power to transform), and the use of vacant diocesan properties. As we frontload the diocese in order to provide the right drive and support for clergy development and lay training – and inspiration – we also consciously invest in appointing the right people to the demanding posts we have either re-shaped or created. Andrew Norman has taken up the reins as our first Director of Ministry and Mission and is already bringing to this work a wisdom and questioning clarity that we need. We continue to face financial challenges and will do so for some time. We are working with the Church Commissioners on funding applications for addressing some of the urgent missional needs of our region. We need to increase receipt of Parish Share if we are to pay for what we think we need to be doing. We do all of this in the face of increasing safeguarding demands and the burden some of our (required) bureaucracy imposes on us at every level.

So, why bother? Because all of this provides the evidence of whether we really believe what we say we believe, and what we claim our worship of God is all about. The authenticity of our worship will be evidenced by the priorities we set, and as seen through the prism of living, loving and learning.

I will conclude. We are in this for the long haul. No quick gimmicks or easy panaceas. No hiding from reality or simply trying to keep everybody happy. No episcopal initiatives descending on you to make you cross. But, a common commitment as disciples of Jesus Christ and ministers of his Gospel of reconciliation to one another and to the world around us: the world of Brexit, migration, famine, foodbanks, poverty, wealth creation, and everything else. We, too, shall walk the way of the cross. Together. And, in different ways, just like the first disciples, we will glimpse the world- and misery-shattering reality of resurrection. Together. And, like the couple who walked home to Emmaus trying to figure it all out, we will find the risen Christ walking alongside us – possibly even in the guise of someone else – listening to our incomprehension, staying with our grief and passion, reconfiguring the Big Story of God and the world, blessing us in sacrament, and leaving before we can enshrine him in a static encounter or even a memory.

May Easter awaken us to the loving power of God. May his cross-shaped sacrificial commitment to us and the world fire us in our Christian living. May our Lent be the place of our learning – for the blessing of the Church and the world we serve.

I am in Erfurt, Germany, to preach at the Reformation Day service in the Augustinerkirche where Martin Luther studied at the university and became a monk. Having arrived on Friday, we have had a packed programme, including a brilliant (though largely incomprehensible) concert in the Michaeliskirche last night – great guitar playing, especially), meetings with groups of people, a visit to a 'pilgrim church' at Schmira, a day in Weimar, and a visit to the former Stasi prison in the Andreasstraße in Erfurt today.

Yesterday was my first visit to Weimar. This is the place where in 1919 the constitution was drawn up that gave its name to the republic that was created in the humiliating aftermath of defeat in World War One. Yet it is also the place where Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Nietzsche spent their finest and most productive years. Here the culture of what became known as the Enlightenment flourished.

(An aside: one of the best stories we heard was of the pastor of the church in the centre where we attended the morning service. In the sacristy there is a portrait of him. His name was Wessel and he came from an upper-class line of distinguished clergy and military officers. When during the War the poor of Weimar couldn't afford a Christmas tree or presents for their children, he put a “tree for everyone” on the steps of the church and got gifts for the children of the town. He supported Hitler at the beginning, but gradually saw where it was all heading. He resisted and eventually was sent to Buchenwald. He survived only because Hitler pardoned him, leaving him to return to Weimar a da totally broken man. Why did Hitler pardon him? Because he was related to Horst Wessel, whose song – the Horst Wessel Lied – became almost the national anthem of the Nazis. Resistance was brutal and costly.)

The Enlightenment flourished partly as a reaction to the horrendous bloodshed in conflicts that were rooted in the sorts of religious and political power games that emanated from the Reformation. Never again should religion be allowed space in the political sphere: reason and rationality should thenceforth define genuine humanity and humanism. It is not hard to follow the logic and the sentiment. Speaking of Martin Luther today in the Augustinerkirche, there also had to be an acknowledgement of the less-than-gracious elements of his character, to say nothing of his appalling antisemitism. (Like his bowel problems, it got worse as he got older.)

Yet, getting rid of religion in favour of faith in rationalism did not quite go according to plan, did it.

The train from Erfurt to Weimar takes you past Buchenwald. Just around the corner from the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the theatre in Weimar is the hotel where Adolf Hitler was greeted by the idolatrous crowds that claimed the poets and Herder as their intellectual and cultural heritage.

My point is simple. The problem of the human bias to destructiveness is evidenced in religious conflict and the lust for power at any level. It is not cured by rationalism. How is that the culture, philosophy and idealism of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, etc. was so easily corrupted within a century or less by a populace drawn to populism, fascism and mass slaughter?

If the bloodbaths of religious wars in Europe led to a better way, then that better way also led to Buchenwald and the Stasi. Now listen to the rhetoric of the far right wing groups springing up in Germany and across Europe, blending the language of dehumanising hate under the guise of “cultural realism”.

 

Donald Trump plays into that bizarre American obsession with 'safety'. You paint America as a dangerous place where before even catching a train you have to be persuaded that it is a safe thing to do. You then demand a president who will make America safe as well as 'great' again.

Which means what? What would it look like for America to be 'great' again? Or 'safe' again? We don't get answers – just the usual perversity when it comes to asserting that more accessibility to more guns will magically make everyone safer.

Well, Americans will have to do their own business in the face of its Faustian pact with democracy in November. But, this impacts on the UK, too. Before leaving for a break I did an interview with BBC Radio 5Live in the wake of the murder by IS crazies of an elderly priest in France. Not exactly heroic, these criminals, are they? I mean, choose your targets.

The line of questioning put to me was that churches in England will now have to increase their security. What advice would I now be giving to my churches? I think my response must have been very disappointing. Increase vigilance and learn to look differently at what is going on around us, but don't go mad, start erecting fences or putting sentries on our churches. As if.

Isn't this what terrorists want us to do – be terrorised?

But, the main reason for rejecting some vast increase in security of buildings is that, as I think I put it, you can't legislate for total security. Furthermore, no one has the resources of money, time or people to provide anything remotely approximating total security. In the end, total safety is not something anyone can secure. Not even Donald Trump.

Our churches should open their doors and welcome people in. Yes, as happens already, someone should keep aware of who is there and who might be lurking around outside – especially if they are carrying knives and have their face covered. Yes, anything suspicious should be noted and, if necessary, the police alerted. That is common sense.

But, the first casualty of the current horrors should be the lie of total safety. History is littered with demagogues who promised safety and security along with renewed greatness. Their names are known to us. While understandable that in times of great fear and uncertainty people look for security and the promise of simple certainty, we should beware of the disillusionment and destructiveness that can follow when the empty and unachievable promises are seen for what they really are: a fantasy.

For the record, these are two statements issued by the Protestant Church in Germany following the EU Referendum in the UK:

The Chair of the Council of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, has issued the following statement in the wake of the EU Referendum result:

The Evangelical Church in Germany deeply regrets the decision of the British people to leave the European Union. Now it will be necessary to analyse the reasons for this decision. The imminent departure of a country from the EU is a painful matter and must prompt us to drive the European peace project forward even more energetically. With our international ecumenical network, our churches will continue to work towards a united Europe based on solidarity. If it is confirmed that many young people, in particular, voted for the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, we have a particular commitment not to flag in our dedication. Speaking for myself, I see young people as being the hope of Europe. (Hanover/Berlin, 24 June 2016)

 

The German co-chair of the Meissen Commission (of which I am the English co-chair), Ralf Meister, Lutheran bishop of Hanover, and Petra Bosse-Huber, EKD bishop of ecumenical relations and ministries abroad, are seriously dismayed by the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union:

“With all due respect for the democratic decision in Britain and all the obvious necessity for reforms in the EU, in our view Europe will suffer a painful loss with the upcoming withdrawal of an important partner,” said Bishop Ralf Meister. “The spirit of reconciliation and the ecclesial fellowship between our churches will not be affected by this political step. On the contrary, we will do everything to bring our churches and the people in our countries closer together.

“Precisely in our fragile and vulnerable world, and in a Europe that is so directly challenged today, our churches have a mutual need of each other and want to make an energetic contribution to European and global cooperation,” Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber underlined, speaking between sessions of the World Council of Churches’ Central Committee meeting in Trondheim, Norway. “Together with our sisters and brothers in the Church of England we are working for a Europe of growing community and just peace,” she added.

 

 

[The Evangelical Church in Germany and the Church of England have for 25 years been bonded through the Meissen Declaration. Together they are on the way towards the full, visible unity of their churches. In past decades countless steps have been taken towards greater togetherness – close partnership relations exist between parishes, cathedrals, German regional churches and dioceses.] (Hanover/Berlin, 24 June 2016)