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.

 

When you have grown up with a particular framework for understanding the world and theology, it is not a simple task to listen through different ears to a different vocabulary. But, this is, in fact, what Jesus asked his friends and enemies to do – just read the gospels and this is the story: who dared to listen and look at God, the world and us through a different lens, and who could only try to shut out the heresy?

The Bradford Diocesan Clergy Conference began today at Swanwick in Derbyshire. I guess it's one of those things – like preaching – where you just have to be there to 'get it'. We began with an utterly human session with David Runcorn on 'keeping faith in a time of change'. Then we had a first session with Diarmuid O'Murchu on the developing cosmological context of human spirituality. It is in this context that we explored the implications of human belonging to the interconnected web of relationship with people, creation and the cosmos.

What struck me while listening to this was the clash of vocabulary for articulating theologically why the world is the way it is and how we are to understand it and God. If we are locked into a closed system in which theology encourages orientation towards 'other world' salvation, the talk of an open system of engagement with the created order 'now' seems odd. Or just wrong. If we have grown used to thinking in terms of particular doctrines, then all this cosmological stuff just sounds like New Age nonsense.

But the reason for having this on our programme is simply to challenge (or encourage?) us as clergy to think outside our conventional linguistic and theologically conceptual frameworks about the usual stuff: human meaning, life on the planet, spirituality that is engaged with reality and not just an escape from it, the moral claims of responsible living as beings in community in an interdependent cosmos.

It is far better to listen to stuff that challenges our preconceptions than simply to hear what confirms our assumed frameworks and makes us feel comfortable. After all, part of the role of clergy is to stir other people up into hearing the Gospel differently, listening through different ears, looking though different eyes, and catching glimpses of God's glory that would remain hidden if we only ever look through familiar lenses.

We are at the beginning. There is more to come. But, someone has to do the hard work of trying to find a vocabulary for relating the varying disciplines of science, social observation, anthropology, philosophy and theology to each other in a way that encourages intelligibility. We have to work at this; it is not easy. But, it is interesting to consider how much is to do with difference in 'content' (understanding of God and the world) as opposed to difference in 'language' for trying to express what is essentially always incomplete and mysterious.

As I discovered while working for the British Government thirty years ago (as a linguist at GCHQ), theology has to address and cope with the massive complexity of the real world – and that needs to be expanded to include the totality of the real cosmos.