This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

What does it feel like when the shape of your world changes overnight and everything you take to be normal disappears – a familiar experience in the pandemic?

I ask the question because we are now marking two connected anniversaries: the formal creation of the German Democratic Republic on 7 October 1949 … and German reunification on 3 October 1990. The GDR only existed for half a century, but, for some people, it was their lifetime … and then it was gone.

For many people in the east of Germany reunification was a takeover that valued little from the GDR and sowed seeds of resentments that are being watered today. Ostalgie is a hankering for value.

This is not new. In these times of uncertainty I’ve been re-reading one of the foundational stories of the Bible: the exodus. Moses, the reluctant liberator, led his oppressed people out of slavery in Egypt towards a life of freedom. Yet, they now found themselves not in some instant shangri-la, but in an empty desert. And gratitude did not last long.

Almost immediately the people started complaining. And moaning about the current shapelessness of their life soon led to romanticism about the past and a form of nostalgia that quickly forgot recent reality. And while this was going on, poor old Moses had to pay attention to how to shape a future in an uncertain world. Freedom from does not lead inevitably to freedom for. How to create a good society depends on more than a dislike or selective remembering of an old bad one.

Well, according to the story, a whole generation of nostalgics had to die off before the next generation could disempower nostalgia and look to creating a different future.

Which brings me back to the German question. Was the GDR a desert experience between National Socialism and Merkel’s land? Or is the current arrangement also a transitory journey towards another land – for good or ill? No society knows what will come next. The present is always transitory – we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’.

Moses’ people had to unlearn the dependencies of captivity and take responsibility for their common life. This involved the hard stuff of enshrining justice and mercy in community, polity and law – protecting poor and marginalised people, ensuring that justice could not be bought and that powerful people can be held to account.

Past glories – imagined or real – do not shape a good future. Only a humble commitment to justice can do that – however often we might fall short.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Zoe Ball:

I had a chat with a mate recently when he was facing a hard choice. In the end I said: “Well, it’s in your hands, isn’t it?” I doubt if this statement of the obvious was very helpful.

But, when I rang off what stuck in my mind was the phrase about hands. Don’t ask me why – it just did.

Now, I’m rubbish at remembering poetry or quotes from Shakespeare; but, I’ll never forget doing Macbeth at school and being shocked by Lady Macbeth murdering the King of Scotland and then going mad trying to wash her hands of the guilt. “Out, damned spot!” she cries as her life disintegrates and she finds that all the hand washing in the world won’t rid her of her guilt.

And that takes me to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate who also tried to wash his hands of responsibility for chickening out of setting Jesus free when the crowd wanted blood.

In other words, hand washing hasn’t had a great press, has it?

Well, as things seem to be closing down again in pandemic Britain, hands are making a big new appearance. Our hands hold a key to learning to live with a virus that isn’t going to go away – how we behave is literally in our hands; I am responsible for how I decide to love my neighbour by being responsible for their safety. Secondly, washing my hands might seem insignificant, but it isn’t. It’s the small steps that make the biggest difference.

As a Christian, of course, hands make another appearance in my memory. And, for me, this is the answer to both Lady Macbeth and Pontius Pilate. When the friends of Jesus meet him after the resurrection, he shows them his hands and, shockingly, they still have the wound marks of crucifixion. He is not ashamed to show the world the marks of loss and hurt and pain. And healing does not simply wipe away the wounds – the scars remain.

So, today I want to put my hands up. No need to hide the pain or the failures. How I love my neighbour actually lies in my hands.

 

 

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Diocese of Leeds Diocesan Synod on Zoom on Saturday 26 September 2020:

We meet today in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We always do. But, today we meet in what is for us unprecedented circumstances. I don’t need to rehearse the pandemic-induced challenges and realities now upon us. I don’t need to draw attention to how this has been handled and communicated or the frustrations evident in both church and society with this situation. What I do want to say right at the outset is that feelings of frustration, regret, disappointment, incompetence to face the challenges, fear for the future, and so on are all perfectly natural, appropriate and understandable. No one should feel alone in this; no one should feel ashamed.

But, that is not the whole story. The current pandemic confronts us – individuals and society – with reality, a reality we can easily discount in what we have come to regard (perhaps somewhat nostalgically) as normal times. This reality provokes fear, but compels Christians to face up to what we really believe about life, death, mortality, morality and meaning. We speak about death and resurrection; now we are faced with questions about these that should not be ducked. There is nothing about COVID-19 that can be called good or a gift; but the phenomenon itself invites us to think deeply about what Christian hope is all about.

I remember doing some bishops’ leadership training in Cambridge and asking our guide in the lunch queue how working with bishops compares with the school’s usual clients – CEOs, chairmen of major companies, business leaders. He said: “There are two things they won’t talk about: failure and death.” “That’s funny,” I replied: “that’s where we start.” The beginning of Christian theology is to be found in coming to terms with what it means to be a mortal human being, made in the image of God, who will be subject to all the contingencies of temporal life and who will one day die.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome two thousand years ago he wasn’t offering spiritualised musings to people living in some mystical nirvana, dissociated from the real world. The Roman Empire was brutal and life was cheap – power was everything. These Christians knew that merely being Christian was tantamount to signing their own death warrant. Saying that Jesus is Lord was saying that Caesar is not – and they knew what this sort of political sedition would lead to. No romance – just brute reality. What would we do?

And as we now head towards Advent and Christmas we have a glorious opportunity to reflect deeply on what it meant for God to opt into just this sort of world in Jesus of Nazareth: no game-playing, no illusions, no wishful thinking, no feeble optimism (that all would turn out well). For Christian theology is clear: those who bear the name of this Christ are called to live in the world as he did – loving, living, learning; committed to the world as it is, but drawn by the hope for what it might become – the Kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters, this is what our Scriptures teach us, but which we now read through a different – more urgent and pressing – lens. Life is inherently uncertain; that is what we are called to be faithful in. To return to Paul: when he writes to these persecuted Christians that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, he is staring our reality in the eyes. Do we believe it.

Now, this is not a sermon. It is, however, important to locate our work today in a context and a theology. Clergy and lay people together, we are called to work out what it is to be faithfully Christian in these times and not simply to regret that things are changing. Faith, hope and love are to be the colours of our complexion. And love, we read, overcomes fear.

The Church of England is looking seriously at how we should re-shape for a different future. The Archbishop of York chairs a ‘Vision and Strategy Group’; I chair a Governance Review Group; the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich chairs a ‘Transforming Effectiveness Group; the Bishop of London chairs the ‘Emergence Group’; and now the Bishop of Ely is to chair a group looking at the future of dioceses and the role of bishops in a changed church. This is not a case of avoidance therapy by setting up committees in the long grass. Rather, they are bold, determined and radical in their intent. We also face the challenge of complexity in it all, and need to keep our work as thorough and simple as possible in order to navigate this unknown territory which we now traverse – knowing where we have come from, but unsure where we are heading towards or what the future might look like. But, we are shaping it anyway and not just sitting waiting for circumstances to do their best or worst.

The question is: when the world has taken a challenging turn and past certainties or assumptions have begun to die, how are we to be the church God calls us to be for the future? And I am not worried. We will face the hard questions with faith, hope and love. We will love, live and learn. We will mess some of it up and get some things wrong. But, we will attend to the challenge anyway.

The Diocese of Leeds is well set to do this with confidence. We will face hard questions about finance, resourcing, church buildings, people, places and how we set our priorities. But, if this sounds familiar, it should do. This is what we have been doing for the last decade when we were given a scheme to dissolve three dioceses and create a new one. Those of us who went through the experience have no illusions about some of the challenges and obstacles we faced, especially during the last six and a half years since we began. And we have shown a resilience and determination in doing so that demonstrates that we have the gifts God has given us already – and we can approach the future with uncertainty, confidence, adventure, curiosity, hope, faith and courage. That, in fact, has always been the vocation of God’s people. This territory might be new and immediate for us, but it is not new for humanity or the Christian Church.

So, we need to come to our agenda today with a sense of realistic imagination and hopeful vision. As I have said to colleagues in the last few months, you can’t argue with reality. So, let’s embrace it and see where we get to. It will be rocky, but it will still be a road.

Our new Diocesan Secretary has joined us in the most extraordinary and challenging circumstances, and we welcome him to his first Synod today. We will be looking at finance, deanery representation, annual reports and the budget – all in the light of the pandemic and its impact on our churches as well wider society. Although budgets are currently works of the imagination, we need to plan and do our work with seriousness and generosity, not least to those having to grapple with detail on our behalf … even when the ground never stands still under our feet. We will do some reordering of committees in order to respond to experience of the governance we set up six years ago. And we will look at lay discipleship and the Rhythm of Life.

Now, someone will ask if this is not all a bit inward looking at a point when the outside world is in a bit of a crisis. It isn’t, if it is seen as a means rather than an end. Having missed two synods in 2020, we have some housekeeping work we have to do. But, it is all done in order to set us free to fulfil our vocation and promote our agreed strategy as a diocese. We need to keep that perspective clear as we move through our agenda.

This address is shorter than normal as our meeting on screen is harder to manage than usual. I am sure you won’t complain about relative brevity. So, I want to conclude by taking us back to the point of it all. We are called in the name of Christ to love, live and learn together in order that across our communities we can reach out with faith, humility and boldness … in order that the love and mercy of God can be seen and heard and felt and embraced by those we are called to serve. That is why we do today what we will do. Given the constraints of the technology, please be patient, forbearing of one another, generous of spirit and hopeful in all we say and do together.

Today is Trinity Sunday in the church’s calendar – part of Christians’ journey through the year, giving shape to the narrative of God’s engagement with people.

The Trinity is not merely a theological conundrum, dreamed up by weirdos for people with an interest in mathematical paradoxes, but rather relates to the whole of God and our common life in church and society. To put it simply (which, of course, begs a whole load of other questions), the mutuality of relationship between God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit depicts what has been referred to elsewhere as a network of mutual obligations that bind them together in a single, common life.

Mutuality is essential to our common life in the church. Why do we in the Church of England begin every act of worship with some form of repentance – holding up our hands and admitting publicly to hypocrisy, weakness and failure as individuals and as a community? Because we assume this relationship of obligation and compensation, and recognise that it imposes upon us responsibilities from which we cannot duck. We bring different gifts and contribute our unique limitations, too; but, together, we somehow hold together and serve the world we are in.

So far, so good. But, what does this say to a society that widely considers theological ideas to be esoteric, but of only private application to those who choose to be interested?

Without getting too complicated, I think the answer begins here. Human society in a contingent world can only thrive if the networks of mutual obligation are (a) recognised and (b) seen to transcend my individual preferences, needs and desires. The rest of the church’s year involves wrestling with the implications of this – not just for the church, but also for our public and political life nationally, and for the good of the world beyond our shores. That’s why we work through the Bible, being confronted by the difficult and discomfiting bits as well as those that reassure or comfort.

It is appropriate, then, to conclude this brief piece with an appreciation of a man who has challenged and encouraged both church and society to examine our assumptions and blind spots, to live out our common mutuality, and to live better together. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who retires today has inspired people to think bigger, to be encountered by the love and call of God, to take responsibility for our common political and ethical life, and to work hard for a better and more humane world. His personality, character and conviction will be missed – although I doubt it is about to disappear from our public life. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude and, as he would particularly want to affirm, give glory to God for all he has been and done in the name of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

It feels like we are living between times again. Lockdown is giving way to an easing of restrictions – now thrown into chaos by the hypocritical shambles of Dominic Cummings’ breaching of the instructions given to the whole country (and the government’s defence of him). Enough on that for now.

Christians always live in what we might call ‘in-between times’. There is always a ‘not yet’ element to whatever is happening in the world. What is surprising is that people should still be surprised that provisionality is always the name of the game for mortal human beings living in a material and contingent world.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day – Jesus leaves his friends to get on with the job. It’s as if he tells them it’s time to get out of the audience and onto the stage, or out of the stands and onto the pitch. They have watched and listened to him during these last couple of years,  it now comes the time for commitment to the cause. It involves conscious choice.

If you read the narratives, these were a people whose lives were in turmoil. Having put their hope in Jesus being the one to liberate them, they then watched him bleed into the dirt of Golgotha, their faith draining away with it. Then they start experiencing his presence again in various ways, discovering that they can no longer hold onto him or possess him – and certainly not appropriate him for their own sense of security or prosperity. Then, just as they are getting their heads around that one, he takes them up a mountain and leaves them.

Now, if I was one of them, I might be justified in thinking that the promised Holy Spirit would come immediately and empower me/us to do what Jesus told us to get on with. No chance. There’s now another wait (and we don’t know how long this might be, if ever). So, we have to learn to let him go, live with ourselves and each other, wondering how we are supposed to do what he left us with.

Pentecost will come. The friends of Jesus will be empowered to speak of the Jesus revolution in ways that everyone can understand. But, for now, they have to live with the double-whammy of (a) having been given a commission whilst (b) living with complete uncertainty about the future.

We don’t know what the future will look like for our society, our economy, our politics, our church. But, we do know that we are called to be creative, bold and adventurous. Will we make mistakes, misunderstand the calling, head in the wrong direction at the wrong time? Probably. But, Jesus in the gospels shows little surprise when his friends mess it up. What we can’t do is just go back to the fishing grounds of the old certainties.

Ascensiontide – between Ascension and Pentecost – asks us if we are up for it? Before we know what’s coming.

Lockdown means working back through the films I thought we’d seen often enough. The other impetus is that we have a young Austrian student friend living with us and most of these films are new to her.

Last night I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so we watched Shadowlands, the beautiful film about CS Lewis and his relationship with Joy Davidman. I am not an easily weepy man, but the final scenes have me blaming the hay fever again.

The story shows how a cerebral man, an intellectual apologist for Christian faith, comes up against experience and finds that tidy rationality – even in matters of faith – is inadequate when confronted by love and pain and loss and uncontrollable grief. The unarticulated inhibitors of emotional freedom, displaced into the secondhand living-through-literature (which is not to diminish it), slowly dissolve into helpless exposure of weakness and need. Lewis finds that he has been found by love.

We know from what followed that Lewis’s apologetics were humanised – fired in the fulcrum of loss. A Grief Observed remains one of the most beautiful accounts of the power of grief and the uncontrollable experience of powerless submission to raw truth.

A bit like coronavirus, grief can’t be “fixed”or “defeated” or “controlled” – it has to be lived with and gone through and accommodated. And at the end of it all lies what Christians call grace – being found by love.

Lockdown is a challenge. But, for me it also allows space for some conversations that might usually get squeezed between meetings and then forgotten.

Yesterday I had two. Both ran around how the current situation impacts us now and might do in the future. My question (or one of them, at least) is this: when life and its routines are disrupted or taken away, which wells do we draw from to sustain life and meaning? While everything changes above the surface and the shape of the future is uncertain, can we locate the underground streams that keep flowing anyway?

There is probably a better way of putting this. But, in a really stimulating conversation with a BBC friend yesterday morning we were wondering if this crisis has revealed the shallowness of many of our cultural or personal wells. It’s a question, not a statement.

For me, as a Christian, the wells – the underground streams – go back a very long way. The creation narratives in Genesis speak of order being brought out of chaos. The Exodus has a people’s settled world being ruptured and them being driven out of the familiar into the strangeness of a desert where they had to lose before they could gain – to lament the loss of a world before being in a position to reorientate towards a different future in a different place. (It took forty years.) Later the people get exiled from the land of promise (twice, in fact – in the eighth and sixth centuries BC) and take time to live with their loss … before settling in the strange land … and then, generations later, having to leave again. They return ‘home’, but discover that home is no longer what they remembered.

I could go on. The Christian tradition lives and feeds from these narratives of leaving and moving and settling only to be disrupted and moved again. And this experience is rooted in an acceptance of mortality and contingency and what goes with the freedom of living in a material world.

But, we don’t usually transition straight from one world to another. We have to stay with the loss, lamenting what has been lost, grieving for a world (or way of life) now gone. People will take a shorter or longer time to live with this. There will be anger, powerlessness and disorientation. And while this is going on some people will accept the new reality and start orientating towards creating a new world.

So, what are the narratives or assumptions that keep us nourished while all this goes on around and above us?

Christian faith does not assume a life (or world)of continuous security and familiarity. It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, provisionality, interruption and leavings. But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings – the leavings open a door to arrivals that could not have been experienced otherwise. In other words, the loss can be seen as a gift – what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

So, as I have suggested to clergy in the Diocese of Leeds, we might be helped in articulating this by asking four questions: (a) what have I/we lost that we need to regain in the weeks and months ahead? (b) what have we lost that needs to remain lost – left behind in another country? (c) what have I/we gained that we need to retain in the future? (d) what have we gained recently that was useful for this season but needs to be lost if we are to move forward?

We might feel sometimes that we don’t have much to go on. The photo below is one I took on a visit to a farm in Gweru, Zimbabwe, back in 2007. During a drought and amid economic collapse, someone had planted a rose in arid ground and watered it each day. It was a prophetic challenge to the desert; it was an act of hope, of prophetic imagination. Today is not the end.

You have to watch it to the end.

 

I never met the great Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, but I did go to his funeral in 2003. I had just been ordained as a bishop (of Croydon) in May and he died on 4 August. I was asked to attend his funeral, probably because I was one of the few bishops available in London and not on holiday somewhere remote. It was a very long service on a very hot day, but I learned a lot and it was an honour to be there.

I had read some of Metropolitan Anthony’s writings, especially on prayer. I don’t have a great for epic quotes – and quickly forget what some books have to say, even when I have only just finished them – but, the line I never forgot was this:

To pluck a flower means to take possession of it, and it also means to kill it…

This is the sort of paradox that runs through real life and makes everything we do somehow ambiguous. I can’t look at flower arrangements now without thinking of this (and hay fever).

In these strange days of lockdown and questioning, it might just offer some encouragement to those who struggle with the feeling of helplessness. When we are used to endless activity, maybe confusing this with virtue, it is easy to ask what value I have to offer when I can’t do what I normally do. For clergy this can be particularly challenging – needing to let old patterns of pastoral care and teaching die (for a time?) before we can orientate towards creating something new that is untested and feels less incarnational, perhaps.

Plucking a flower kills the flower, cutting off its lifeblood and turning into a possession for my limited and temporary pleasure. It has become a utility rather than a living thing. And we are taught that commodifying living things is not something of which to be proud – especially when it involves killing them. But, we still do it. And one could argue that we cannot live without doing it. Even beauty cannot be cost-free.

This illustrates the messiness of the world and what it means to live in it. The biblical narrative tells us that God is no stranger to this sort of paradox. Not only are the Psalms riddled with expressions of bewilderment, exuberance and lament at the difficulty of all this, but the Jesus bit is all about God opting into the whole business of living with contradiction and not exempting himself from it.

Sometimes we just have to learn to live with it. To stop trying to resolve every conundrum. To be patient with those who are slower to fix or accommodate to it. To recognise the call to humility that (to mix my metaphors) swimming in this mortal pool inevitably provokes.

No wonder, as the apostle Paul acknowledged, that “the whole creation groans in anticipation” of the fulfilment of all things while the ‘not yet’ persists.

They say that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t true. In the same way, if a story sounds simple, it probably shouldn’t be trusted.

At the moment we are being presented every day with narratives about how the government is handling the coronavirus pandemic and its mitigation. The attempt to make control seem achievable and solutions seem almost within reach has the potential, however, to lead to later corrections and amendments – which then have the effect of reducing confidence because it all sounds too chaotic.

One example: why announce that a plane is bringing a huge volume of PPE back from Turkey when we discover hours later that (a) it hasn’t even taken off yet, (b) hasn’t got permission from the Turks yet, and (c) isn’t likely to bring enough supplies back anyway?

This isn’t to question individual decisions at a difficult time (although the post-pandemic reviews – especially comparisons with countries like Germany – will be challenging), but to question behaviours and narratives.

The best book I have read about Brexit is not basically about Brexit. It is by David Reynolds and is called Island Stories. What he does is take the historic mantra, repeated by Brexiteers, of “our island story”, which tries to reduce the story of Great Britain and Ireland to a simple and glorious character reference: in May 1940 we stood alone and defeated tyranny – that is who we [English] are. Reynolds’ book recognises that our history is a complex of narratives, even if complexity is not what people want to hear when asked to leave or remain in the EU. So, he looks at the historical streams that have led to the Britain we have now, examining among other things Britishness, Empire, Europe and so on.

Even though Brexit is now “done” (really?), this book tells how we became who we are as island nations. Only by acknowledging the complexities can we ever hope to deal with reality (rather than just rhetoric). So, it shines a bit of a light on the self-identification that seems to guide much of our current political activity and language – principally the need to reinforce the notion of British exceptionalism.

A quick final thought about how this relates to reading of narratives. I never tire of reading the biblical narratives. One reason is that they compel the reader to use some imagination in wondering how the stories might have been told by others involved in the events: the Egyptians caught out in the exodus; the Babylonians who benefited from exile and empire; the people Jesus met whose encounters are brief. For example, did the rich young man ever come back to see Jesus again after he had been told to give away his wealth, learn real dependence and only then go with Jesus and his friends?

Narratives always need to be interrogated. Not to do so is not to take them seriously.