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

The Power of Words

“Actions speak louder than words”. I hear that quite a lot; but, although I know what is meant, I think it is wrong. To speak is to act. Language is performative – it does something, changes something. For example, it is the speaking of the vows in a wedding that makes the marriage.

The story goes that St Francis of Assisi told his friars to “Go out and preach the Gospel; use words, if you have to.” Well… if he did actually say it, was he right? We use words all the time to think and speak and make sense of the world; so, language matters – words matter. They do something. The fourth Gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the word…”. Go back to Genesis and the word is: “Let there be.”

A few weeks ago I convened an online conference led by scientists for a couple of hundred clergy about the current pandemic. We started off asking why we use particular metaphors as a lens through which to see or think about what is happening. In brief, why is it that in the UK we use language of conflict and combat – fighting, struggling, defeating, cowering, bravery, and so on – whereas in Germany, for example, they seem to have used imagery of “damming a flood” – particularly pertinent at the moment? An enemy is personalised, a flood isn’t.

We normally just accept the language presented as the frame through which we then interpret what is going on. But, like cancer and serious illness, words of combat and fight might not be the best. If your loved one dies, have they been defeated? Were they not up to it? You see what I mean? Words are never neutral and always carry consequences – think of the impact of blessing or cursing. They also have limits.

One of the metaphors I take from my reading of the Bible is that of “running the race that is before you” – and not just because the Olympics are on in Japan. This image insists on agency, seeing value in how I live and behave in whatever circumstances I find myself. Yet, racing conjures up different notions: a sprint is pure competition; a relay involves both competitiveness and cooperation.

At the heart of all this is an appreciation that we cannot control – or win – everything. Coming full circle, words matter because they unconsciously shape how we see and look and think and act. The question I am left with is: do I pay enough attention to the words and metaphors I use – and the way they shape the world?

This is the text of my sermon in Ripon Cathedral this morning as the light streamed in.

Don’t tell me of a faith that fears
To face the world around
Don’t dull my mind with easy thoughts
of grace without a ground.

[Chorus]
I need to know that God is real!
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world, including me!

Don’t speak of piety and prayers
Absolved from human need;
Don’t talk of spirit without flesh
Like harvest without seed.

Don’t sate my soul with common sense
Distilled from ages past
Inept for those who fear the world’s
about to breathe its last.

Don’t set the cross before my eyes
unless you tell the truth
of how the Lord, who finds the lost,
was often found uncouth.

So let the Gospel come alive
in actions plain to see
in imitation of the one
whose love extends to me. (John Bell, The Sorrow)

“Whose love extends to me.”

One of the really intriguing things about the story told through the sixty six books of the Bible is that people keep having their name changed. Note: they don’t change their own name; their name is changed for them – and apparently without the courtesy of asking them first. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; Simon becomes Peter (the Rock) – although the granite he assumes is meant turns out to be a leaking limestone; Saul becomes Paul.

Names matter. They are not simply a moniker or a label. They say something about the nature of the person. Or, in these cases, the nature God sees in them … despite the evidence to the watching world around them.

Take Simon who becomes Peter, for instance. He’s the one who constantly misunderstands Jesus, but, still pledges undying allegiance to his friend … just hours before denying even knowing him when asked by a young girl in a garden. It is this Peter who deserts Jesus at the point when his need is greatest and his loneliness most powerful: on the cross. This Peter returns to the old life, fishing on the familiar lake in Galilee, the hill country of the north which was home until the carpenter’s son drew him into a whole new world just a couple of years before. And it is this Peter who has the most beautiful and excruciating conversation with the risen Jesus at his old workplace, the beach, in which his failure is laid bare … before he is restored by love that suffers no illusions.

This same Peter, the one who ran away and who doesn’t seem to “get it”, we read later is out on the streets risking life and limb while telling anyone who would listen that his friend had been executed, was truly dead, but now was alive. Not resuscitated. Not recovered from a bad swoon or fainting fit. Not popping back to life like some magic trick. But, raised to new life by the God about whom many were sceptical.

In our reading from Acts 10:34-43 we find this same Peter having undergone in the preceding verses a radical conversion. Put simply, his assumptions about who God is for were turned upside down. To misuse a different image, a stone had been rolled away and now he could see that God could not be trapped by human limitation or prejudice. I think he might have appreciate the lines from the Welsh poet RS Thomas (I quoted in a Thought for the Day on Radio 4 on Good Friday):

History showed us he was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

The implications of the resurrection gradually shook Peter’s view of God and re-shaped his love for people. And here he is, speaking boldly in public about the resurrection of a dead man. Even mockery or ridicule won’t stop him now.

As Tomáš Halík, the Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of sociology in Prague, says in a newly-published sermon for Easter Day in lockdown (The Time of Empty Churches, available only in Czech and German at the moment): “We believers have no monopoly over Christ”. In other words, not even we can trap him within the limitations of our own pieties, prejudices or prayers. The resurrection whispers that God is free, that death does not have the last word after all, that Jesus will not be trapped in a place of decay behind a stone that won’t be rolled away.

But, it’s not just name changes that matter in the Scriptures. Names themselves are significant. As Mary Magdalene found out in the garden on Easter morning.

Let’s have a look at John 20.

In John’s Gospel light and darkness are very significant. John asks us to pay attention to light and darkness as we encounter the people who met Jesus along the way. Here, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb “while it was still dark”. She expects to find a corpse and is shocked to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. In John’s account she is alone, so runs to tell the men – including Peter – that someone has done something with the body. The implication of verse 2 – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” – is that the authorities have, for their own ends and purposes, removed the body.

Confusion, bewilderment, fear. Not joy, excitement, understanding.

Then, after the men have seen for themselves (because women’s witness statements didn’t count until verified by a man) and returned to their homes, Mary weeps and cannot leave this place of poignant mystery. When asked “Why are you weeping?”, she reprises verse 2: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

And it is here – right here in the place of bereavement and inexplicable loss – that the risen Jesus comes to her. He doesn’t wait for her to get her act together and approach him; he comes to her. Mary, thinking he might be one of them, asks him to tell her where the body is to be found. And here we have the beauty, the simplicity, the directness of the mention of a name: “Mary.”

It was this that dispelled the darkness and opened her eyes. Jesus, the same but different, knows her by name. And in this gentle naming of her, in her place of despair, she knows that she is loved.

That is the Easter story. And it is this that the Christian Church is called to live out in whatever context or society we find ourselves living.

But, the story doesn’t end there. Her instinct is to grab Jesus, to hold onto him, to not let him go again. And Jesus won’t let her. There can be no bolder statement that we cannot possess Jesus. We cannot trap him within our own needs or wants. We cannot mould him to suit our political or ideological preferences or passions. If he won’t be contained by the grave, then he is unlikely to be constrained by my desires, comforts or conveniences.

I don’t know where all of us stand today in relation to the world’s suffering or the imminence of death and loss. But, I do know that the encounter between Mary and the risen Christ fills the world with hope and light. We might feel that we only ever come to him in the darkness, where we are confused or afraid or suspicious; and that’s OK. We might approach this Easter Day with tears and weeping, feeling lost or bereft – for whatever reason. We might feel the absence of God or the fragility of faith. And if we do so, sharing what a Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka called ‘the solidarity of the broken’, then we will not be ashamed to hear the questions put to Mary: “Why are you weeping?” and “For whom are you looking?”

Why? Because when we have let down the defences and faced the powerful reality of loss and fear, then we are able to hear the whispering of our name by the one who knows us inside out and loves us to death and beyond. He is not the disinterested judge who looks for our faults or inadequacies, but, rather, the Wounded Healer who holds out hands with holes in them and speaks our name into the silence of the place of darkness.

That, I think, is why we can rejoice. No bland escapism or romantic attachment to a comfort blanket of faith. Rather, the courage to be exposed to the searching love of the crucified and risen Lord who cannot be surprised by us or by anything the world can throw at him. This is the liberating power of Easter and resurrection: we look for God, for hope, for deep meaning in life and society … and we end up discovering that God has already found us … and spoken our name.

This is no faith that “fears to face the world around”, or “dulls my mind with easy thoughts of grace without a ground.”

I want to conclude with a verse from another song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday and in Wakefield Cathedral last night at the Easter Vigil. It takes seriously the reality of the world and our experience; but it looks to the future,  changed by life’s experiences – a pandemic and all that has happened in the last year, for example – and beckons God’s people, the followers of this same Jesus, to be surprised by joy:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the basic text of my Maundy Thursday sermon in Bradford Cathedral and streamed for the clergy and lay ministers of the Diocese of Leeds:

“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

We do not lose heart. Good for Paul.

But, what if we do? What if mood or circumstance or experience close down our horizons and dim the lights of love and vocation? What if the exigencies of the last year have ground us down and diluted our confidence? What if we are no longer sure how to do our ministry when the ground has moved and the familiar ways don’t work any longer?

Do we carry on pretending, in the hope that things will improve? Or that my mood will change when the sun comes out and the trees begin to blossom? Or that God will do a miracle and transform my personality and make everything OK again? (I remember when I was younger thinking that this is exactly what God had done to me; but, it turned out to be the steroids.)

Well, I recently had a conversation with someone I hadn’t met before who challenged my contention that what we need in these strange and testing times is hope and not optimism. Optimism assumes that things will get better – often despite all the evidence; whereas hope draws us through the reality, however good or bad that might actually prove to be. I think the challenge was around whether that hope ought to be showing a bit more brightness (optimism) – an upbeat vision for the future. I will return to this shortly, but it is a challenge I have thought about a lot since the conversation.

Because I think this goes to the heart of where we are as a church – and as clergy and lay leaders – emerging from a dreadful year of lockdowns, isolation, tragedies and loss. Without warning, we have had to adapt practices, invent new rituals, create community using unfamiliar media, try to shape a changed workload – especially when the normal means for exercising pastoral care have collapsed. It has reminded me of my feeling as a parish priest that if I were to have a slogan or motto, if would be in three-foot high letters around my study wall and would say – confidently – “Everything you do is wrong!”

I wasn’t being miserable. It’s just that if I visited one person, then I wasn’t visiting a couple of hundred others, and, to someone’s mind, I will have made the wrong choice. In ministry we get used to having to set priorities in pastoral care that might always prove to be the wrong ones. But, we get on with the job anyway, despite a lack of certainty regarding our choices.

And this last year has demanded of our churches and ministers an exhausting willingness to change, innovate, limit and expand – and all without any certainty that we are, in fact, getting it right.

Did some of us feel overwhelmed by the new demands? Yes. Did others among us look at our neighbour’s creative enthusiasms and feel inadequate (not least, technologically)? Certainly. Did some use lockdowns as an excuse for laziness? Possibly. Did others become manically activist and hide the fear behind new initiatives or organisation? Probably. Did some feel paralysed by insecurity or dread of being seen to fail? Inevitably. And did some look at their neighbour’s weakness and compare themselves accordingly? Maybe.

And that is all OK. If that complex of reactions is the reality, then that’s what we will deal with. But, how might we think about all this on this day, as we sit with Jesus and his friends as they rehearse their foundational story and celebrate the liberation of his people in the Exodus? How are we to think about our re-commitment to our vows as ordained clergy or our commissioning as lay leaders and disciples of this same Jesus?

(I am conscious today that we celebrate this service in communion with our sisters and brothers in very different contexts across the globe, particularly in Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the USA, Germany and Sweden. The contexts might differ, but the commitment is the same.)

Luke 22:24-30

Jesus has come with his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. Their minds are full of hope that the liberation of God’s people, celebrated in this meal, might now – this year – be incarnated afresh as Jesus leads the expulsion of the Roman blasphemers, heralding the return of God among them. They have been praying for several hundred years for this moment, repeatedly being let down by would-be messiahs who promised much, but always delivered only disillusionment. Yet, now, what Jesus had spoken of as the “Kingdom of God” was imminent – something to be anticipated and celebrated. Spirits are high.

Yet, here, in this upper room, Jesus is surrounded by people who have missed the point and argue about their status. For one of them, Judas, Jesus is not going about things in the right way and his hand is going to have to be forced. No doubting Judas’s passion for the kingdom of God or his personal commitment to seeing it realised. Another of them has a self-image that is illusory and deceptive: Peter might think he is made of granite, but will soon discover that his rock is actually leaky limestone.

Betrayal, denial, illusion, optimism. All are there in that room.

It’s the loneliness of Jesus that gets me.

Yet, what Jesus does is take a longer-term view. He re-frames the story of Israel’s liberation, knowing that his friends don’t quite get it. Broken bread and wine outpoured will one day make a different sense for them, but not just now. Jesus isn’t trapped in the ‘now’ to the extent that he can’t see the way forward. He knows also that things said and done now will, when circumstances have changed, complete a picture. A bit like when you look at one of those 3-D images that look like a mess until your eyes re-focus and you suddenly see the dinosaur looking out at you.

In other words, and translating this to our context, being a minister or leader in the name and image of the Christ whose name we bear means seeing beyond the moment, looking into an uncertain future, but knowing that re-telling the story, re-framing the narrative, adding different colours to the picture, might only make sense later. Our job is to look further and deeper and to tell the truth that goes beyond fear.

Terry Eagleton, the Roman Catholic Marxist philosopher, literary theorist and theologian, in his book Hope Without Optimism glosses St Augustine as follows: “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith.” (p.41)

You see the point? We articulate hope because we love the people we serve, and we do all this in faith because the world is uncertain and people are a mystery.

At this Passover meal Jesus strips everything back to its essentials, conscious of the contradictions and limitations of the people with him, then goes out to pray as events take their tragic course. Which suggests that our task is also to articulate the heart of the gospel, expose ourselves I prayer to the God who has no illusions about the nature of the rock from which we are hewn, and then face events with faith and love and courage. Even with hope.

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:12

This is why Paul can confidently urge the Christians in Corinth to hold mercy and encouragement together. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” We will not be discouraged because each of us knows that our ministry is rooted in the mercy of the God who knows us, and that this mercy has to be experienced before it can be shared.

And what is this ministry of which Paul writes so passionately? Well, he speaks in chapter 2 of “proclaiming the good news of Christ.” He goes on to tell us that we are the “aroma of Christ to God”. We are a “letter, to be known and read by all” – “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit”. (3:6)

This vocation has not changed from Corinth to now. Paul writes passionately about his sufferings and chides the Corinthians for their fickleness, desertion and easy distraction. In other words, he walks in the shoes of the Jesus he serves … in being surrounded by people like you and me and Judas and Peter and all the rest of them. His world is one of uncertainty and fear. His own mortality was ever before him and he demonstrates in this painful letter the real impact on himself of the pressure to adapt, innovate, move on and drive mission, despite the poverty of the tools he had to implement his task.

Does this sound familiar? It should do.

As Paul goes on to note, the treasure of the glory of God is contained in clay jars. After this last year we need no reminder of our limitations and fragilities. But, we also find ourselves re-orientated towards the glory rather than the clay. We fix our eyes on the glory of God and the promise of the good news of Jesus Christ, empowered by that same Spirit that breathes and blows through the chaos of creation bringing order and life.

As spring has brought sunshine and warmth, and as restrictions have been relaxed and people congregated in parks to leave their rubbish in heaps, people in our communities are grasping at optimism and cheerfulness. The vaccines are working their scientific magic and people are booking holidays in the summer. The world feels a bit brighter and shouldn’t we all be joining in and talking it up?

Well, maybe. But, for us as clergy and lay leaders – all of us followers of the Jesus who went to a cross and bore the wound marks in his resurrected body – we are called to a deeper task: to be both realistic and hopeful, courageous and cautious, and to navigate the changing territory with faith, hope and love. If everything opens up, we will not aim simply to go back to how it was in early 2020; and if we face further lockdowns, we won’t be knocked off course, but will adapt again. For our vocation is not to tick boxes or hibernate until the ‘normal’ resumes, but, rather, to navigate reality and create new norms – ones of faith and hope and love … whatever the circumstances that shape our every day.

I guess that what I am commending is what Walter Brueggemann calls “a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways”. (Virus as a Summons to Faith) Freshly faithful among a people whose strength lies in what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called “the solidarity of the broken”.

This is why we now need to open our churches and consider how they can be a locus of hope and joy for our communities, not just our congregations. The need for joyful evangelism has never been greater. One day soon we shall be able to sing again; and when we do, we need to offer vocabularies for all the questions, lamentations, hopes and fears, aspirations and meditations that lead us to open our hearts and voices to the God of mercy who has engaged us in this ministry.

Thank you for all your service in the last year. Thank you for being colleagues and not competitors – the very message Jesus was trying to get through the skulls of his friends. Thank you for your patience and longsuffering. Thank you for ordering pastoral care and for kindling the flames of theological and spiritual hope. Thank you for praying when words have failed; for burying the dead when you couldn’t do justice to the bereaved; for living with criticism and a sense of failure, but with conviction and determination. Thank you for keeping people connected, for sacrificing much in order to love your neighbour through this curse of a public health disaster. Thank you for holding out a confident joy in times of stress and struggle.

We are not out of the woods yet. When we do finally emerge, the world – and the church – will be different. And this is a glorious opportunity to take stock, let go, newly embrace, innovate, negotiate, navigate and shape a different future. This is our vocation now, and we are in it together. No shame, no fear.

For “since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or, as John Bell put it in a song I quoted at this service in 2019 – the last time we met together in one place:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the text of a Presidential Address I gave to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning via Zoom.

Eighteenth Diocesan Synod, Saturday 13 March 2021

Sometimes there is no ending. We are just left hanging there, wondering what happens next and who might be responsible for deciding.

Think of Jonah who tries to run from a God in whom he believes, but whom he also resents for maintaining an inconvenient generosity towards dodgy people. The prophet, in hiding from the God who calls him to a personally uncomfortable ministry, finds himself vomited onto a beach and into a reluctant agreement to obey the call to preach repentance and mercy to a recalcitrant people in Nineveh. He does the bare minimum and retreats from the market square to lick his spiritual wounds while, to his horror, the people actually do repent and change their ways. Why can’t God be more like him and feel justified venom towards the sinning people? Why can’t God be just and consistent and blow these people away? (Echoes of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son?)

He finds himself taking shelter under a tree … which God then causes to shrivel and die, exposing Jonah to the wild sun. Why, asks God, should I not also be free to forgive and set free the people I love anyway? It is about grace. And Jonah the prophet doesn’t like grace when applied to the wrong people – though he wants it for himself.

And then the story ends. What did Jonah do next? What happened – did he get converted? We don’t know. Some biblical academics have suggested that the ending is missing. I tend to agree with the scholars who have concluded that the story deliberately ends there – leaving the reader hanging – because it compels us to use our own imagination and see whether the ending we imagine (or would like) is faithful to the character of Jonah or the character of God.

We could look elsewhere in the Bible and find other cases of (what I sadly might call) endinglessness. Poor Moses, having endured the miserable behaviour and ingratitude of his own liberated people, meets his own end on the edge of getting his reward – leading the people into the Land of Promise. Jeremiah, faithful despite his own misery, disappears into exile and silence. The ending of Mark’s gospel is, according to some scholars, missing. People bump into and glance off Jesus, and we don’t know what happened next: did the rich young man ever come back and say, “OK, I’ve got rid of my securities; now can I come with you?”

But, the people of God, who have been grasped by grace and captured by love, are not dependent on the endings or the ends being tied up. We can live with uncertainty and without fear in the conviction that an ending is the gateway to a new beginning. As Easter will demonstrate, the death and loss of Good Friday do not spell the end of the story; but, Sunday won’t come before we have walked through Friday and the emptiness of Saturday. And that means leaving stuff behind.

Now, this is supposed to be a presidential address to a synod, not a sermon. But, the business of our agenda today, as we deliberate together in grace and love, avoiding either nostalgia or wishful thinking, has to be rooted in a biblical theology that helps us imagine our own future. And that means taking seriously the context in which we meet and do our work together.

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, decades before any pandemic erupted on the world, encouraged the church to be bold in rejecting the dominant narratives of what he calls the empire – those assumptions that explain why the world is the way it appears to be, and insists that everybody thinks the same way. He urges Christians to “re-describe reality” in order for us then to re-orientate towards a different future. That is to say, we don’t accept that today is the end or that death and fear have the last word in this world. We refuse to accept that people are economic cogs whose major function is to consume material stuff in the hope of clouding out the questions about meaning and value. We decline the pressure to think that competition over vaccines is either noble or good. What does “world-beating” imply?

In other words, we are called back to discover the grace of God amid the moral and material complexities of being human in today’s world. Like Jesus looking out from his cross, we look reality in the eye and don’t claim any exemption from the cost of grace and love. We certainly don’t look out in order to claim ownership of the territory from the one on that cross who is there precisely for having given up claims in the interests of love.

This morning we will spend time asking about our experience of a year of lockdowns and pandemic. We will have an opportunity to speak and think honestly about what that experience (and how we think about it) has – or ought to – change us. In his excellent little book Virus as a Summons to Faith Brueggemann writes of Jeremiah: “… the prophetic promise does not intend a return to ‘the good old days’ or a restoration of a previous … arrangement … [It] rather intends a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways.”

In other words, as we confer together the question we face is this: are we open to a future – and an ordering of that future – in which our relationship with one another in the Body of Christ is the holding context and content, and not a fixation on our pet securities, nostalgias or inherited models? Freshly faithful.

Therefore, we join together in considering our future, cognisant of our faithfulness to the past and the biblical narrative of courageous leaving and journeying. The biblical story has not changed, but we might gain fresh insight from our new experience. As I wrote to the clergy at the beginning of the first lockdown last year, having our diaries destroyed has allowed us to inhabit something of the normal life of people in some of our partner/link dioceses in places like Sudan, Tanzania and Pakistan. So, what can we learn? How can we change?

Or, in the quadrant of questions I suggested as a simple framework for planning ahead post-pandemic, (a) what have we lost that needs to stay lost? (b) what has been lost that we need to regain? (c) what have we gained that was OK for this time, but needs to be lost? (d) what have we gained that must be retained and built upon if we are to be freshly faithful?

Across the Diocese of Leeds we will have different perspectives and have enjoyed or endured varying experiences during the last year. But, we now find ourselves moving towards a re-emergence and an honest evaluation of how we might be in and for the future. And we do this not with fear, but with hope, determination and generosity. The pandemic is not the end. The challenge to our churches, not least financially, is not the end. The loss of some familiar routines or practices is not the end. As I have said many times, you can’t argue with reality. But, we needn’t be cowed by reality. Because, as Brueggemann says, we are called to reframe reality – to find ways and words to tell a different story, to read our present circumstances differently, through the eyes of a God who is faithful. Working hard at this will help us in our own churches and communities to live, worship and serve as people of hope and people of joy.

Joy? Really? Yes, unequivocally. Because Christians are not surprised by fear or mortality or uncertainty. They are the raw stuff of Christian living and thinking and praying. For our trust is in the person of a faithful God, not in the outworking of a formula or a convenient bargain with God that ensures our own security.

Our diocese has a strategy derived from three one-word values. Loving Living Learning is not a trite slogan designed to make us feel better. But, our deliberations need to be infused with love (for God, the Gospel, and the creation that is loved by God); with an incarnational commitment to the world as it is, but drawn by a vision (of the Kingdom of God) that comes to us from the resurrection future; with the humility that comes from recognising our fallibility, failings and blindnesses, and sees learning as a virtue and not a weakness.

And what might this look like if we embody these three values? Well, when we come to think about the post-COVID future, we will do so with mercy, humility and love. When we consider the well-being of clergy (which is not in contradistinction to the well-being of lay people), we will look with generosity and hope and not be defensive about where we might have mixed experiences of them. Matters pertaining to the DAC and quinquennial inspections bring these values down to concrete reality: how do we steward the resources God has given us? However we feel about the hard questions of sexuality and identity, will we approach LLF with the humility that allows us to encounter others, listen genuinely, learn from … even if we don’t agree with the conclusions others draw?

It’s a bit like when people say “I love everyone” or “I love the whole world”, but really struggle to love the awkward so-and-so next to me. I call us back to a simple truth: that Jesus did the calling of his disciples and their witness was to follow Jesus together despite their differences of personality, experience and vision. No one was given a veto over who else Jesus could invite on the journey. One of the glories and gifts of Anglicanism is the fact that we are thrown together with other Anglicans, regardless of whether I approve of them or not. That is what deanery synods and clergy chapters are for.

I need to conclude. The days ahead are full of opportunities, some of which we wouldn’t have invited and which we don’t welcome. But, they are the gift we are given, however uncomfortable. The days ahead are full of challenge. But, when has the church (or the human race in any generation) not faced unprecedented challenges? The days ahead are full of promise – the promise of God to be faithful (the “steadfast love” that Brueggemann translates as “tenacious solidarity”) as we seek to be faithful to our vocation as a church in and for England.

I do not know what the future holds. But, I do know we can face it together as the gift that God has given for this generation. We can be confident with humility, creative with fidelity to our story, and merciful as we make decisions of which we might be unsure. In the end, we seek to be the people who answer the prayer we say every day: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

Amen. Let’s get to it.

13 March 2021

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.