This is the text of my sermon at this morning’s Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist for the Diocese of Leeds in Bradford Cathedral.

1 Samuel 3:1-10 & Luke 7:36-50
I find this the hardest service at which to preach each year. Not because of the occasion, but because it is powerfully moving to see so many clergy together. I am immensely proud of the clergy of this diocese who exercise their ministry faithfully week in week out, day in day out, usually unseen. I am very grateful.

The best birthday card I got last year was of Satan, fully equipped with horns and tail, reading the Bible in bed and saying, “Bit harsh…”

I know the feeling. Reading judgements about yourself or the church and feeling that you can’t control the narrative, even when the narrative is either simplistic or one-sidedly erroneous – often in the media. It is particularly irksome when the damage is done from within and by those whose vocation n it is to build up and not break down.

A bit harsh?

The story is this. An ancient middle-eastern man called Elkanah has two wives; one – Penninah -has given him children, the other – Hannah – has not. But, in a surprising reversal of expectation, it is Hannah whom Elkanah loves best. In a moment of tender affection, and after yet another long year of barrenness accompanied by the humiliating ridicule of her fertile fellow wife, he says to her: “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

What a question. The answer is clearly “no”. Hannah, deeply distressed, prays that if God will give her a son, she will commit him to a lifetime of no alcohol or grape juice, no shaving or having his hair cut, no hanging around corpses – you can read the full list of Nazirite rules in Numbers chapter 6. My guess is that some of these rules were easier to keep than others. She duly gives birth, weans the boy, then hands him over to the priest. Actually, the text says that she “lent him to the Lord” (verse 28). She lent him.

Now, let’s just step back at this point and notice some of what is going on here. This woman has a hard life: loved by her husband, mocked by her fellow, humiliated in society, and unable to be at peace with herself or others. Yet, she had done nothing to deserve this. Don’t talk to Hannah about justice.

But, the song she sings at this point of blessing-followed-by-loss contradicts what we might assume to be a justified cry for relief from obligation. Couldn’t she break her vow, now that her longed-for son is born? Couldn’t God give her a break – even just to confound the smugness of Penninah? Yet, she sings of hope and freedom, of a God who brings light into dark places and who raises up those who have fallen low. Her song is the one picked up by Mary when her son is about to be born – the deeply subversive song of God’s paradoxical kingdom in which the wrong people are celebrated. The Beatitudes haunt this text, too, like the whispering of melody behind the raging noise of chaos and injustice.

In other words, life is rubbish. Even the good bits don’t satisfy, because other bits keep scratching away like a running sore that won’t stop weeping.

But, then the story moves away from Hannah to the priests at the shrine at Shiloh. If Hannah is the one who appears not to have God’s blessing, then the priests have forgotten what they are there for. The meaning and purpose of the sacrifices have been corrupted to the point that the young priests see the celebration of religious ritual as a means for their own self-fulfilment, power and greed. Religion has become a vehicle for something else. How Shiloh is fallen. And faithful Eli has to hear harsh prophecies about the fall not only of the shrine, but also of his own family. It is a miserable picture that is painted here.

Perhaps the point is rammed home in the reading we read earlier from chapter three. If the old time religion had lost the plot, then God would, as one commentator puts it, simply “bypass the established priesthood and disclose his intentions concerning that same priesthood to a novice”.

A bit harsh?

Well, the picture then looks like this – and I wonder if this sounds a little familiar to us in 2017: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Oh dear. Clearly there were many words spoken and many visions propagated in those days; but, how should the people discern the rare words of the Lord amid the cacophony of the shrine worship, political promises, voices claiming to be God’s voice, and religious allegiances? How are they to discern which of the many competing visions of God and his ways is the right vision? How might they work out whether their eyesight is myopic or dimmed? How do they know what is reality and what is truth?

These are hard questions, and they are made flesh in the person of the old priest Eli whose eyesight began to grow dim. He recognised the decline in some of his own perceptions and made space to allow the next generation to grow and to look and to see differently. The errant generation of young priests are bypassed by a God who will not be played off by religious professionals who have lost their sight of the glory of God that once drew them.

And the young prophet – that is, the one who will see clearly the world as God sees it – finds himself addressed by this God … addressed by name and called out to a new service.

Now put yourself into his ephod (as it were). Your mother took a vow that you had no say over. You take a vocational path that did not come to you via the careers officer. And, if her own life had been tough and contradictory enough, she has now shared the misery with you by bequeathing you a life not of your choosing, but of obligation anyway.

Yet, Samuel accepts this and makes this vocation his own. He chooses to go with it, discovering as he does (and as he grows as a person and as a prophet) that life is pretty messy and that there is no place for the self-indulgence of rights and self-fulfilment. Obedience is not a popular word, but it is one that has a place in the life of those who do not complain about their lot, but choose to make the best of what they have inherited.

I just wonder if this text, this story, has anything to say to us here in the Church of England, in the Diocese of Leeds, today? Maundy Thursday, when we re-live that poignant moment at which Jesus confounds convention, kneels at the feet of his friends – and of his betrayer and his denier and his doubter – and washes their feet. Maundy Thursday, when we see Jesus calling his people back from the manipulations and seductions of power and religious game-playing, and asking them to watch and listen and learn and do. Maundy Thursday, when he knows that life is closing in, that suffering awaits, that he could escape it all, but chooses the way of obedience.

After all, this is the same Jesus who, as we heard earlier, has a knack of bringing out of embarrassing dead ends something surprising and new. A woman intrudes into a party at which she is not a guest, and weeps all over Jesus, anointing his feet with expensive oil. The stand-off between propriety and humanity is electric as everyone waits to see which way Jesus would jump. In the end, as Tom Wright puts it, “Jesus keeps his poise between the outrageous adoration of the woman and the outrageous rudeness of the host” and comes up with something fresh and unexpected … and outrageous to those watching whose religion is fairly simple: keep the rules, avoid dirty people, and prioritise your own purity. Read the story: Jesus turns convention on its head and pours out grace where harshness had dominated.

I think both these stories hit on the same point and address us today with hard questions. Do we number ourselves with the religious professionals who have lost the plot, or do we allow ourselves to be outraged by grace … being grasped once again by the power of mercy? Do we rail against the call of God and the demands or privations of an obedient priesthood, or do we deliberately choose life and joy and commitment to an obligation we would sometimes rather throw off? Do we complain about our lot – especially when it seems inherited or not our fault or not by our choice – or do we, like Samuel, accept the choosing of God and get on with it, learning as we grow?

I don’t ask these questions glibly – or miserably. I ask them because I think they cry out from the texts we didn’t choose this morning. There might be much that we find irksome about the Church of England in 2017 – but, we are part of it and called to serve in it as clergy or lay disciples and ministers. If this is the case, then we must love the church as God’s gift and the locus of his vocation. This does not mean that we sit back and let it be; but, it does mean that we pray like Hannah and don’t mock like Penninah. It means that we pray and shape an uncertain future, conscious of our obligation to future generations to bequeath the faith that makes such demands of us. It means that we be open to hear the prophetic witness that questions our priorities, our attitudes and behaviours, challenging us to recover the vision that contradicts the easy visions and learns to listen for the word of the Lord that is – remember – rare, but not absent.

Our readings today invite us to take responsibility for the calling God has given us – to be faithful in our time to the gospel that draws and drives us. Not to blame other people or other generations for what we have inherited, but to take responsibility for accepting what is and helping make it what it might become. We might refer to this dynamic in words such as ‘loving, living and learning’.

Our diocese is nearly three years old. We began with no infrastructure, no governance, no integrated data, no inherited vision, not even the right number of bishops to do what we were being asked to do. We faced many challenges and it sometimes seemed that all the odds had been stacked against us making this work. But, thanks to the hard-won commitment, faith and – sometimes reluctant – persistent generosity of both clergy and laity, we started this year as a single entity. I do not take this for granted.

But, the challenges have not gone away. We face financial challenges and we must address the declining numbers of deployable clergy available to us in the coming decade and beyond. We will face the challenges posed by buildings and structures, and by people who do not want to change. We will see again that people and places thrive when they grasp the opportunity to choose change and don’t see themselves as victims of someone else’s terrible or malign decisions. Remember, Easter chants the mantra that we are not driven by fear, but are drawn by hope.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, if our feet are washed by the Lord who kneels before us in humility, should we not speak well of one another, seek the best of one another, and believe the best of one another? Should we not be generous, even though we know we kneel before our denier, our betrayer, our doubter? Are we not called back to a vision of love and mercy and grace that pulls out of polarised tension something new and fresh and hopeful? Do we believe ourselves invited as a church to shine the light of mercy on the intrusive woman and not just to show our cleverness in embarrassing the Pharisee?

We come today to re-affirm ordination vows and to recover the priority of our own discipleship of Jesus Christ. In doing so we allow the light of his face to shine into the dark places of our own prejudices, judgments and fears, leaking grace like an extravagant ointment onto the tired and dusty feet of our faltering journeying. And we pray that the Lord whose church we are, and whose beloved we are told we are, will anoint us for the next stage of our ministry – as a diocese, as ministers of the good news, as disciples and followers of Jesus.

Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me.

Here are video interviews with Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson during the first Diocese of Leeds clergy conference in Liverpool earlier this week.

https://youtu.be/9-eG-xDPXS8 and https://youtu.be/gaK3lyiNKtc

 

I have just got back from the first ever clergy conference in the Diocese of Leeds. We met at Liverpool Hope University – a place to which I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. I grew up half a mile away.

It went remarkably well. The last few years have not been easy as we dissolved three dioceses at Easter 2014 and worked to keep everything going while creating something new. This conference was a turning point and felt like a celebration.

However, it wasn't just the atmosphere that did it. The speakers excelled. The particular highlight for most of us was yesterday's presentations and conversations by Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning'. Their presentations were superb, clear, stretching and totally engaging. The enthusiasm for science was palpable, but also held in a rooted sense of curiosity and wonder. I am not sure we all understood all the equations, but we were able to span the enormity of the universe (and multiverses) whilst earthing the whole thing in questions of meaning, existence, faith and the possibilities of God.

What was great was the mutual respect and serious engagement between Brian Cox and David Wilkinson as I moderated a conversation between them following their presentations. After lunch (and a million requests for selfies and autographs – not mine, obviously) we had an hour of questions, observations and conversation that ranged widely and really intelligently. The standing ovation for our guests was richly deserved.

This offered a model for how serious engagement can take place where difference is respected. Our public discourse – especially our political and media discourse – in the UK is not great at the moment. See the whole Brexit business, if you don't believe me. There is clearly a need for more attention to be paid to modelling good conversation on contentious issues… and, especially, where prejudices about the conflict between science and religion too often polarise positions before arguments have even been articulated, let alone listened to or heard.

Brian Cox is doing a tour. Book now.

 

The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behaviour is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realise that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realise that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.

When the Apostle Paul rode on to the road to Damascus he clearly didn't expect to have his life abruptly interrupted and radically challenged. But, that is exactly what happened. And the challenge was radical because it didn't involve just nuancing his comfortable or convenient faith, but, rather, went to the roots of his worldview, his life, his meaning. As Andrew Davidon says in his introduction to the book Imaginative Apologetics:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything.

For Paul the challenge was so debilitating because it went to the heart of who and how God is, and put a question mark over the entirely of his life, his worldview, his understanding of why the world is the way it is.

This is significant for us. For the world Paul lived in two thousand years ago is similar to ours. Christianity was tiny and nascent. The world was multicultural and multifaith. And the totalitarian demands of the Roman Empire were not supposed to be challenged. Christianity was new and was decidedly weird. And Paul did not go looking for Christian faith: it came looking for him.

This is it: the Gospel draws us. We do not choose Jesus Christ; we respond to his invitation and call to us. We walk the path of discipleship out of obedience to his call. As I have said before: we are drawn by hope, not driven by fear. Jesus chose us.

This is what Paul discovered: Christian faith found him. And, like us, Paul set about growing and losing churches in a culture that was fundamentally hostile to the Christian innovation (known in the Empire as 'atheism').

But what lay at the heart of Paul's passion was simple: as he says in 1 Corinthians 11:23, “I received… I handed on”. He didn't possess and control his ministry; rather, he received and passed on. Yet, Paul also understood very clearly that he not only received a tradition, but, by being faithful to it, created a new tradition. This reminds me of the statement by the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, that

Tradition is the church interpreting, not the church reminiscing.

Which immediately reflects on Sir Thomas More's maxim:

Tradition is not holding onto the ashes, but passing on the flame.

(A couple of years ago I visited the town of Intercourse , Pennsylvania, to see the Amish community. This living tradition – no electricity, no modernity – had been turned into a 'heritage' for voyeurs. You could ride in their horse-drawn buggies and enjoy the 'Amish experience'. This is not what the church should be about.)

As the Diocese of Bradford ends after 95 years – during which people had to be faithful to their generation- we are faced by this hard question: what is the tradition which we have received and which we must pass on? How do we do this faithfully? And how do we do so without losing sight of the point of it all – what the heart of the 'tradition' actually is?

Christians know themselves to be loved by God. That, in one sense, is the beginning and the end of the matter. But, this 'being loved' has to be handed on. That, essentially, is what the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is all about.

Rowan Williams writes about the Eucharistic community in his wonderful and essential new little book Being Christian. He shows how each Christian community that breaks bread and shares wine together is not doing an empty ritual; it is re-telling the Story that had created and shaped it and, by comprising people who have received the grace of God then are compelled to hand on the grace of God, it invites people in. Together they create a new community.

Whether churches in the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales are small or large, struggling or thriving, they should be consciously creating a new community of people who, grasped by the generosity of God, are unafraid to own what they have received… and hand it on.

This is basically what I said in the sermon at the Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist in Bradford Cathedral this morning when clergy and other ministers gathered to re-affirm their ordination vows and commit themselves to the call of God into an uncertain future.

 

Having just got back from holiday, I am missing the Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham. This also means I missed the launch of Jeremy Fletcher's advice to clergy, neatly contained in a new little book called Rules for Reverends.

I read the proofs and thought it was funny, insightful and sometimes very sharp. It is mostly funny.

The cartoons by the excellent Dave Walker are, as ever, excellent.

I can't quote anything from it because I haven't yet seen the final book (the promised copies didn't come while I was away). I just remember laughing my way through it.

Just order it now!

 

Last Monday I left home early and drove through the most beautiful countryside up to the north of my diocese. The Yorkshire Dales are gorgeous anyway, but add in a massive dollop of snow blizzards, high winds and freezing temperatures, and you get a bit of a taste of wild life. I was there two days, visiting clergy and parishes, dropping into village schools, chatting with colleagues and loving the views (when you could see them). I remarked to a friend that, unlike in London (where I spent the last eleven years), here the weather is real: real driving sleet, real snow, real winds – the sort of weather that makes you realise you’re alive.

Well, I hesitate a little before loving this too much: Scotland is enduring enormous storms today. I was at Bradford University with my wife for a graduation ceremony and even inside the building we were aware of the hammering rain outside… when it began to drip through a light fitting on the stage inside.

And if the weather isn’t enough, Angela Merkel has begun the Euro-Summit with the claim that the euro has ‘lost credibility’. European leaders are aiming their weapons at David Cameron – who faces pressure from inside his own party as well. Trying to hold some middle ground might not be possible when the high winds start blowing across the small island we call home.

All this paints an inauspicious picture for those graduating from the university today. Many of them now have degrees in subjects I never knew existed. But, sitting in the Great Hall for the first time since I graduated from this same place thirty one years ago, the names of some of the degrees summed up the insecurity of the world in which we now live: lots to do with security, international justice, criminology, conflict resolution, etc. Many of the graduands came from parts of the world where conflict was real and not just the notional theme of some academic study.

This is not the best time to be emerging from the academy and looking for work. But, it will certainly stretch the creative ingenuity of those who want to make things happen.

This wild world comes together with the world of the church (believe it or not). The parishes I visited in the Yorkshire Dales this week are communities of real people who live, work and move in a world of transience, mortality and insecurity. Anyone close to the land cannot be a stranger to the contingency of living in a changing world. They can’t hide in the bubbles of imaginary security that can so easily be created in the glass towers where numbers on a screen cease to relate to anything real. I once argued with an economist that money doesn’t exist – that it is simply a system of values set in ratios agreed by some arbitrary conventions for mutual benefit; he thought this was a bit naive (and it might be). But, as we have seen in the last three years, economies that appeared sound simply collapsed like a deck of cards. Empires that appear invincible simply melt under pressure. Nothing stands still – and we forget our mortality at our peril.

I am dead proud of the clergy I met who get stuck in to their communities, often against the odds and with limited resources, sometimes with little confidence and too little reward. But they stay in the heart of communities, available to all, a visible reminder (with their congregations and church buildings) of that prophetic Christian refusal to go away – committed to accompanying people through their living and dying, enjoying and losing, celebrating and weeping. Like God at Christmas, they embody that gift that is freely offered, that looks vulnerable and sometimes weak, that opts into the real world, that names reality and embarrasses fantasy, and that cries hope for a future when the present seems to be closing wildly in.