This is the basic text of my sermon at this morning’s Chrism Eucharist in Ripon Cathedral:

Never ever take your vocation – to lay or ordained discipleship and ministry – for granted. For when you do, it will have become a private possession, a personal commodity, an exercise in vanity. The call of God is and has always been very clear: it is not primarily for me/us; rather, it is to me/us, but for the sake of the world and the church through whom the world is to be reached.

A sharp and sober way to begin a sermon on Maundy Thursday. And it might worry you that I have just spent a couple of months on sabbatical being miserable. But, far from the truth. Going away, looking at my own ministry and the vocation of the church for the sake of the world through the lens of other cultures and churches, taking the time away from the detail, tension and relentlessness of the last five years (or 32 years) afforded me the opportunity to take a big step back and think afresh. But, I have come back this week with a renewed conviction that vocation must never become about me, my gifts and weaknesses, my ministry, my needs – unless these are held in the clear conviction (in practice as well as theological or ecclesiological theory or aspiration) that the church and her ministers are called to lay down their life for the sake of the world.

Now, this might sound strange. The Jesus who calls us to be his body, the Jesus who tells his disciples that they will have to carry a cross – and, by implication, get nailed to it – if they want to follow him is the very same Jesus who, in John’s Gospel, promises “life in all its fulness”. So, what might this mean for us who gather today – bishops, priests, deacons, lay ministers, Christians seeking to be faithful to the call of God in a tough old world? I think our readings both give us a clue.

Isaiah 61:1-11

Why does Isaiah see the need to say what he does? Remember: Isaiah 1-39 is addressed to people who have lost the plot in relation to their vocation as God’s people and who are being warned of the consequences of living – unjustly – for their own interests. Chapters 40-55 are addressed to those who now suffer the exile promised in those earlier chapters: what does hope look like to generations of people for whom ‘home’ is neither here (Babylon) nor there (Zion)? Then chapters 56-66 address the people who have now come home, but face new questions they have never had to face before. If, for the exiles, the challenge is to keep alive – for a number of generations – the language of ‘home’ while in exile (at the same time as seeing the place of exile as‘home’), how do they now make sense of being ‘home’ which is now strange to them? The primary challenge facing them is two-fold: how to re-integrate with those who were not exiled and who probably see the returnees as ‘immigrants’? And, secondly, whether they should now seek to build a new home in continuity with the patterns and structures of the pre-exilic past or now create a new society (and shape of worship, etc.) that takes seriously the experience and learnings of exile … which, clearly, means not simply clinging to the ways of the past?

This is a choice every generation faces as they seek to be faithful to God’s call. The challenges of post-exilic Israel could not have been contemplated before, as they had not happened before. So, the questions were new, the challenge was new, and there was not a past to which they could simply return that might have been comfortable or safe. The new questions had to be faced, if these people were to be faithful to the God who had led them out of Egypt, into and through Babylon, and now brought them back to a home that was no longer home. Of course, ‘home’ had grown around it all sorts of mythologies and romanticisms; but, God’s people are called to be courageous realists who look to be faithful in the present – a present that has been re-shaped by experience and has inevitably to be re-thought theologically, culturally and behaviourally by people who dare to bear the name of this God who calls us forward and not backwards.

So, Isaiah goes to the heart of the vocation that had always been that of God’s people: to be the proclaimers, the organisers and the radical demonstrators of the character of the God they claim to serve. Hence, good news to those oppressed by the ways of the world, those imprisoned, pitied, mocked or marginalised by worlds in which empires set the terms and urge us to believe that “this is it for ever”. As an American in Orlando put it to me a couple of weeks ago: “There are wealthy people and there are poor people – that’s just the way it is. Millions have no health insurance, but that’s just the way it is.” He wasn’t applauding injustice; rather, he was simply stating that this is how the world is and he couldn’t see it changing.

Well, I agree with him. This is the way the world is. And I disagree with him: we must hold out, proclaim, work for and model a world that can be different. “For I the Lord love justice.” But, as we know from experience, even justice is not enough and not everybody benefits from justice. (Remember the Magnificat?)

Luke 4:16-21

Why, then, does Jesus choose this passage to read in the synagogue at the outset of his public ministry (according to Luke)? Each Gospel writer chooses a different way to do it, but, in common with the usual pattern of Roman biography, they each have the ‘hero’ of their story set out his stall at the beginning of the narrative of his public ministry.

According to Luke, then, Jesus goes to the synagogue – not to tell them off, not to castigate them for missing the point, not to deliberately alienate powerful people, but, rather, to read the scripture and relate it to now.

Remember, Jesus has just been led by the Spiritinto the desert where he had to face his own demons (as it were). What sort of messiah are you really to be? Drop the fantasies of self-sacrificial generosity that might crumble under pressure! Forget the aspirations for grandeur or the priority of your personal security and well-being! Surely, God is wet; it’s all about love and mercy and sentiment, isn’t it? Shape a comfortable gospel and then model it, Jesus!

Yet, here, where the Spirit has led him, Jesus faces the temptations he will face again in the couple of years ahead – ultimately in Gethsemane and on the cross. And, right here, in this place of abandonment, where he has been brought by the Spirit, he stares into the face of the truth about himself as a human being, seeking to be faithful to the Father, and refusing to deny the attractive power of prioritising himself and his own security. And let’s be honest, he does not know what this will mean in the months and years to come – what new challenges these denials and affirmations will lead him into for which there is no precedent and no easy answer to which to revert to.

So it is that, having faced all this, he stands up in the synagogue and reads from Isaiah 61. And, having done so, he tells the people there that this scripture is fulfilled – embodied, incarnated – in their sight, right there and then. And it went down well. They loved the beginning of the sermon. But, when he then read their tradition in a different way – illustrating how God is also the God of the outsiders – their mood changed and they tried to get rid of him.

I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He had faced in the desert the temptation of shaping good news around his own need for affirmation, and here he decided to tell the truth. He re-tells the story of God and his people in a different way, and it goes down badly. We will see this again at the end of Luke’s Gospel when, walking alongside the couple from Emmaus, he asks them what they are talking about and they tell him how events have confounded their theological hopes. Only once they have told their story in their way (and shown how the end doesn’t compute) does Jesus ask them if he can now re-tell it differently – with the demise of the messiah being essential rather than anomalous to the story of God’s salvation.

And, remember, it is later, after bread and wine have been blessed in their home and Jesus has disappeared from them, that they realise that their hearts burned within them while they walked with him on the road.

There is much that we can take from this. The courage to face the unique challenges today that our forebears never had to address. The imagination to hold together faithfulness to God’s call through history with the responsibility in faith to take responsibility for shaping the present and future. The essential, burning and urgent need for preachers to take the whole of Scripture seriously, teaching our people both Old and New Testaments, not ducking the hard bits, but enabling people to learn for themselves the story of God and his people and to find their place – consciously – in it. Therefore, to take seriously the responsibility we have accepted to preach imaginatively and fearlessly with a confident humility, and to teach the faith: deliberate and serious catechesis, serious preparation of baptism and confirmation candidates – doing what Paul, in Romans 12:1-2 describes as “being transformed by the renewing of our minds”.

But, all without fear and with imagination. As Rowan Williams puts it in his book on Dostoyevsky: “The credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow.” (p.10)

I believe this is urgent. Christian faith must not be reduced to merely a private security system – a sort of safe spirituality that tries to keep me going and fulfilled while the world around me can go to hell. We live in times when the need to challenge corrupt-but-dominant world views has never been greater in our lifetime. I know a German pastor who has exercised his ministry in East Berlin since before the Wall fell down. He is passionate –  a word I hate being trivialised into “quite interested or amused by” – about shaping the mindset of a generation of young people being drawn from disillusionment by the intellectual and practical attractions and certainties of neo-fascism, power, dignity and self-assurance. It is little surprise that Steve Bannon should point to the Pope as the enemy of his brand of utilitarian nationalism. Gerhard von Rad, Professor of Old Testament at the University in Jena during the Nazi years, was one of those who refused to bow the knee to fascism. He was one of those against whom more than four thousand Nazis demonstrated in the market square – theology being taken seriously.

Brothers and sisters, I am powerfully reminded this morning of our seriousness as a church, despite a million failures and inconsistencies, to be faithfully captured by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I find this service every year to be deeply moving – personally – as we together affirm again our vocation and our determination to be faithful to it. I have come back to the diocese with renewed admiration for you and a renewed love for our common task. Thank you for your ministry and discipleship.

As we move on through the betrayal of Thursday; the abandonment and denial, and death of all our fantasies about God, the world and ourselves on Friday; the emptiness of Saturday; the glorious irruption into the here and now of God’s promised future on Sunday; may we begin on Monday – following a long sleep – purposefully to proclaim, teach, reach out, live, commend, talk about, argue about, renew our own focus on the Gospel of the Jesus who took Isaiah seriously and shone light into darkness and trusted it would never be extinguished.

As John Bell put it in a song:

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 my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate this morning:

When we decided to create the Diocese of Leeds back in 2013/14, who’d have thought that before five years had passed the UK would be leaving the European Union, Donald Trump would be in the White House, the Far Right in both eastern and western Europe would be organising and mainstreaming language and ideas that previously had been kept under the counter (as it were)? (Or that Manchester United would be sinking?) Assumptions about the effortless and inevitable progress of liberal capitalism have been proven illusory, and we have been reminded once again that civilisation – however it is ordered politically – is fragile: we take order for granted at our peril.

Well, I thought I would begin on this cheerful note simply because it sets the context for the business of the church and this synod. The church does not float around in a context-free realm of spiritual isolation in which individuals pursue their personal and privatised piety as if disembodied from the real world. And Christians do not come to worship in church or to deliberate in a synod without being shaped mentally by what is going on around and among us. It is no wonder, then, that Christians are as in danger as anyone else of being driven by fear and anxiety at a time of considerable national and international uncertainty.

I am not sure anyone would put a bet on how Brexit will turn out by the end of March next year. But, whether you are an ardent Brexiteer or a die-hard Remainer, both the uncertainty of the situation and the bitterness of the public discourse in these matters will be of some concern. What is of most concern to me at this point is that argument about substance has been submerged under polarised sloganizing designed at a visceral level to diminish real engagement. However we got here, we are where we are; and simplistic categories – Leaver or Remainer – do not help us steer a common future of mutual respect.

As usual, the language is the give-away. If “the will of the people” is a vacuous and fatuous statement incapable of clear rational defence, then so is the term being used for a second referendum (which, in fact, would be a third referendum…), “the people’s vote”. I don’t think the last referendum enfranchised budgies or aliens. Language really does matter – what is not said as well as what is heard.

But, this is the Orwellian problem we now face – one that will not be solved by liberation from the shackles of Brussels or a return to the Remainer status quo. We now seem happy with the normalisation of lying and misrepresentation by politicians. Just one example from the last few days: Boris Johnson claims that the 1.3 million majority in the referendum was “the biggest majority in our history” – only for the BBC Reality Check Twitter site to reply that the majority in the referendum on joining the EEC in 1975 was 8.9 million.

The point is not the numbers; the point is the shameless lying that, on being exposed, never provokes an apology or retraction. We are getting used to this and learning afresh in the twenty-first century the lesson clearly not learned from the twentieth century that public lying, the categorising and demonisation of other people, and deliberate or careless representation of facts always have consequences – and those consequences are not normally positive. And none of this has to do whether the UK should leave or remain.

However, analysis and criticism are easy. The question we face as a church goes beyond Brexit and Trump and Orban and the far right demagogues bestriding Europe like some embarrassingly pathetic Colossus; it has to do with the need for some agents of reconciliation who have the courage simultaneously to be prophetic and generous. This goes beyond political affiliation or referendum preferences, beyond feelings about immigration and economics. This present context must push Christians back to asking fundamental questions of theology (who is God and what is God about?), anthropology (what is a human being and why do we matter?), sociology (what is a human community and how do we enable the ‘other’ to thrive?) and Christology (who and what are we for if we belong to Christ and are primarily called to resemble Christ?).

I never cease to be amazed by the self-giving commitment of our churches which, often in the face of their own resource challenges, offer food to hungry people, company to lonely people, hope to diminished people, care to abandoned people, and dignity to unvalued people. We now also face the challenge of how to broker conversations and relationships between people divided by sloganized politics, visceral rejection of those who differ, and sheer anger at uncertainty or helplessness in the face of uncontrollable powers. The national church is attending to this, and I will be taking part in an ecumenical colloquium at Lambeth Palace next month as we take counsel from partners at home and abroad. But, each church in each parish needs at the very least to ask what steps – simple and achievable – can be taken in the next few months to bring together what has been divided and begin a healing of what has been wounded. This is our mandate – a ministry of reconciliation between God and people and between people and other people. Regardless of the outcomes next March, the need in the months and years to come for common healing, common vision and common repentance will be demanding and urgent.

Against this backdrop we also do our synodical business today. Our diocesan strategy has been under development for some time in order to flesh out how our diocesan vision might look as we prioritise and make decisions. The vision is the goal; strategy is the plumbing that helps us get there. Vision can remain nebulous and imaginary unless someone does the hard work of asking (and answering) the questions how, when, by whom, how much, and so on. Following considerable road testing with groups, individuals, the Bishop’s Staff, the Diocesan Board, and many others, we bring the strategy to the Synod today. This is not an imposition on parishes or individuals; like our three simple values Loving Living Learning, this strategy invites parishes and churches to ask which elements of it might help them in their local ministry and mission as they, integral constituents of a diocese that has a responsibility to make the best of the resources of people, money and things available, seek to see the Kingdom come in our parts of Yorkshire. I look forward to good and constructive engagement with the strategy as we debate it later.

Yet, this in itself depends on the resources we are prepared to make available for the work of the Church of England in our parts of Yorkshire. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, once famously described a financial budget as “theology by numbers”. I think he was right. How we direct our finances tells the world what we really think matters – what we really believe about God, the world and ourselves as Christians. Money matters – as Jesus made clear when he pointed out that the contents of our heart will be exposed by the way we use our wallets. (He put it more elegantly than that, but the point is the same.) Or, as I put it at the excellent Lay Conference back in June this year: “If we believe it and want it, then we will pay for it; if we don’t believe it or want it, don’t pay for it and we won’t have it.” Brutal, but with the virtue of clarity.

Now, I am not naïve, and it is not as simple as that. Some people, some churches and some communities are getting poorer while others are getting richer. The Church of England takes responsibility for territory – a unique vocation in itself – and this imposes demands on our parishes that can weigh heavily. Yet, we believe in mutual resourcing according to ability and need. What generosity looks like will differ according to context and the discipleship of the people. But, we cannot avoid the hard task and challenge of deciding together how we shall aim to fund the ministry and mission entrusted to us here in the Diocese of Leeds.

This will be challenging. Significant strides have been made to reduce the deficit – this will be explained later. More will need to follow, if we are to afford what we say we want. While all the hard work is going on to work this out, please continue to pray for Debbie Child and Geoff Park in particular as they face the day-to-day hard work of bringing us into line and keeping us real. And pray for those who have asked for voluntary redundancy or who might face difficult decisions in the future as we seek to balance the books. Some have served for a long time and with great loyalty through great change; this is not an easy time, and we thank them for their service, and wish them well in their future.

So, before we proceed with this important business, I want to thank you for being willing to sit on this synod and bring your wisdom and experience to our deliberations for the next three years. When we established our new governance in 2014 the Synod was clear about maintaining a large membership of both clergy and lay people – options had been presented that would have created smaller bodies. However, there are now deaneries that are well underrepresented in both Houses, and we need to explore the reasons for this without jumping to conclusions. That said, we now have a smaller Synod, and I hope all members will feel able to contribute in the knowledge that opinions will be listened to and heard (if not always agreed with) with mutual respect and generosity. Sometimes a single voice might shine light on a matter that a couple of hundred others have not.

I also want to thank and congratulate our new chairs, Canon Sam Corley and Matthew Ambler. Please be kind to them as they get to grips with their new responsibilities – not least in chairing this Synod today. And, as in all things, let us do our business in the name of the Christ who gave himself for us, claims us for his own, and calls us to minister through the church for the sake of his world. May God bless us as we do our best for his sake.

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

13 October 2018

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

Thank you for making it through the weather this time! I am sorry we had to cancel the last Synod in March because of snow – a decision not taken lightly, especially as I had some good jokes in my Presidential Address for that meeting on St Patrick’s Day. (Why do people wear shamrocks on St Patrick’s Day? Because genuine rocks are too heavy! (Boom boom!))

Anyway, back to today and the weighty agenda upon which we are asked to deliberate together. In order to open our thinking, let me report briefly on a recent experience.

Two weeks ago I spent a week in Novi Sad in Serbia, leading the Anglican delegation to the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches – an event that takes place every five years. Novi Sad lies on the Danube, about an hour north of Belgrade, and became well known in western Europe during the NATO action in 1999 aimed at stopping the Balkan wars that involved the systematic slaughter of Muslims – you might remember the massacre of 7,000 Bosniak boys and men in July 1995.

The Conference (CEC) considered themes such as hospitality, justice, hope and witness. It is easy to discuss such themes if you all come from the same place and share certain fundamental assumptions about God, the world and events. Bring together nearly 500 people from a huge range of countries with their own histories, and from the ecclesiastical spectrum from Orthodox through Anglican and Methodist to serious Protestants, and the exercise becomes more challenging.

The main challenge came as we concluded the six days by agreeing a communique. The preamble to the communique suggested that there was some significance in the fact that we had met in a place where physical bridges had been destroyed in order to build new bridges between Christians of differing confessions. At this point an Orthodox metropolitan wanted to insert a direct reference to the fact that NATO had bombed the bridges of Novi Sad in an act of (unwarranted) aggression. Having listened to a range of one-way speeches by politicians and bishops about “NATO aggression” and the demand to restore territory to Serbia (meaning Kosovo), I was very uneasy about all this. The proposed amendment made a response essential.

The fact is this: the General Synod of the Church of England voted to back NATO action. Secondly, NATO didn’t bomb several bridges in Novi Sad because they had nothing better to do on a wet Wednesday afternoon. And there is a reason why Kosovans want to be independent of Serbia.

So, how can people involved be so blind to the events and motivations that led to NATO action?

The truth is that we all live within narrow lines of experience and understanding. The assumptions that shape our understanding of – that is, the way we see and think about – our world do not often get challenged. But, get a group of people whose experience is different and we might just begin to spot the weaknesses in our own position. You can’t guarantee it; sometimes it is just too costly to drop the ‘prejudices’, and we thus continue to push our case blind to the experience of others.

Well, last Sunday afternoon I installed Bishop Helen-Ann into Bradford Cathedral – two down, one to go (Wakefield next month) – the Old Testament reading came from Jeremiah 6:16-21 and began with these words: “Stand at a crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls.” The prophet goes on to challenge the people of God to listen to what they don’t want to hear, and to give heed to what they would prefer to ignore – even though disaster is coming and fear for their future security is growing.

Just as Novi Sad stands on the Danube at the crossroads of Europe and has historically paid the price for its location, so do we stand at a crossroads. Not just the Diocese of Leeds, but we as individual Christians called to be disciples of Jesus Christ in a world that is becoming less secure and more chaotic. Old ways are being challenged or even dismantled, and we cannot know what will follow. Even diplomacy has become undiplomatic in the hands of one or two world leaders. I need not refer more here to the chaos that is Brexit – whichever side of the debate you stand on.

But, we need to hear with clarity and courage the call of God to the prophet – and to us – to stand at the crossroads (a difficult and complicated place to stand) and listen for the voice of God … however uncomfortable that voice might be. One of the big questions that runs through the whole of the Bible is: dare we listen for the word of the Lord, or simply for reinforcement of our own view which we can then claim coincides with the word of the Lord? This is why repentance’ – metanoia, literally a changing of the mind – is the primary call by God to all people, but especially to those who claim his name.

We are no longer a new diocese. We are now a young diocese (though I hope we don’t dwell for long in the toddler stage … and the teenager phase promises to be interesting … or maybe we should not press the metaphor too far?). We have travelled a challenging road since Easter 2014, trying to listen for the ancient wisdom and to be faithful to the call of God to shape our common life and priorities according to his will and his way. 

This is why we held an excellent Lay Conference last Saturday in Harrogate. Clergy and laity, we are the Body of Christ, with a particular vocation as the Church of England in this part of the world – a vocation that involves, as it always has with people who follow the call of God, laying down our life, our preferences, our priorities, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The last four years have been about that mission, and it has not always been comfortable. However, it has been our vocation, and we have had to choose whether to bemoan it or join in and shape it. The Lay Conference felt like a significant milestone in our life and I wish to express my deep gratitude to all those who worked so hard to get us there and make it all happen.

As we have recognised in the past, clergy numbers are going to reduce in the years to come. Yet, it is not for this reason – a reaction to a clergy challenge – that we are highlighting in our emerging diocesan strategy the need to reimagine how clergy and lay must belong together, share in ministry and mission together, acknowledge both commonality and differentiation in calling and order. Clergy and lay together. As I always say to those shortly to be ordained: your ministry must derive from your discipleship, not the other way round. If our exercise of a particular ministry – clergy, Reader, churchwarden, and so on – is the sole expression of our discipleship, then we will not survive. Discipleship – following Jesus, come what may – must be the well from which the exercise of any ministry draws.

To this end, we have devised an online learning portal that invites clergy and lay people to take responsibility for their own discipleship, learning and growth. This was launched at the Lay Conference last Saturday, and you will have found the card with all the details about it on your seat today. Please take time to explore the portal – there is a huge range of training possibilities available to all. Whatever our strategy looks like, our intention as Anglican Christians in this part of Yorkshire must be clear and unambiguous: to enable us to recover and strengthen our confident commitment to discipleship, worship, witness and service.

Our strategy is not a means of increasing bureaucracy or finding things for diocesan officers to do with their time. It is not about dreaming up gimmicks that will turn the ship around when we already have the engineering in place and need to make sure the parts are properly oiled. It is not about a high-level board dictating to everyone else where our priorities should lie. It is about shaping the diocese, its support for parishes and its pastoral responsibility to be good stewards of people and things/money, in such a way as to prove sustainable in the years to come. It is about our witness and service of Christ – it is about God and the world, not essentially about our own satisfaction or sense of fulfilment.

This is not about a retreat into some privatised spirituality that aims to make us feel secure in the face of a frightening world. We must avoid colluding with some of the language and communication reflexes in increasingly common currency today that demonise or dehumanise other people, reducing them to commodities to be traded or categories to be dismissed. We must be a people unafraid to walk in the light, sharing the same uncertainties as everyone else, but knowing we are held onto by the God who walked the road to Calvary before leaving behind him the emptiness of a tomb. We, too, stand at a crossroads where difficult decisions must be taken – not least financial (and some of these will be demanding and painful). We do not stand alone.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann famously said: “God is our happiness; God is our torment; God is the wide space of our hope.” Faith does not let us escape; rather, faith holds us … whatever the circumstances we find ourselves facing (as individuals and as a church). “God is our happiness; God is our torment; God is the wide space of our hope.”

Well, at the heart of all I have said this morning lies the faithfulness of the God who calls us to follow him. It is trust in this faithfulness that allows us sometimes to take steps in new directions – not just as a diocese, but also as individuals. Today we welcome to her first Diocesan Synod Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley who has moved around the globe to assume her ministry here as Bishop of Ripon. Her feet are under the table, but it will take time for her to find her way – even if she already agrees with me that Beltex sheep are just plain ugly. Pray for her as she continues to settle in and gets to know the diocese, the episcopal area and the region. We welcome Geoff Park to the hard task of managing our finances and challenging as well as supporting our priorities. Pray for Debbie Child as she carries enormous responsibility as Diocesan Secretary following the departure of Ashley Ellis.

Much of our agenda as a Synod in the last four years or so has been getting our foundations dug and established, sometimes placing a focus on internal matters as a priority. In future, now we have done much of that hard work, our agenda can also develop in a more outward-looking direction, inviting us to learn, discuss, debate, resolve, and so on. I look forward to the parishes and deaneries working on more motions like the one today from Inner Bradford. Today’s agenda addresses the fraught world of education, poverty and evangelism. I am grateful to this Synod for all we have done together, and look forward to the election of a new Synod for the next triennium. The agenda should in future be more outward facing.

In the meantime, Synod, thank you for your patience, your prayers, your faithfulness and your hopefulness – probably sometimes against your better judgement or sentiment. We hold before us a vision of God’s ‘wide space of hope’ as we turn to our agenda and attempt to see our work and hear our words through the eyes and ears of the Christ who calls us.

This is the basic text of this morning’s sermon at Bradford Cathedral:

John 20:1-18

Do you realise that in the eyes of many, many people, by coming here this morning you are an April Fool? You are doing something ridiculous. Dead men do not rise from the dead – as the Guardian pointed out with great patronising cleverness on Friday. So, if you are here this morning celebrating Easter and the resurrection, then you are to be pitied by the commentariat and those who clearly know best.

I did an interview on BBC Radio Leeds this morning and the track played before I went on was Queen’s ‘It’s a kind of magic’. And I thought: “No, it’s not!” Easter is about plunging into the heart of human reality and resurrection is about the transformation of that reality, not some magical escape from it.

Did you know that one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion was found scratched on a wall in Rome, dating probably from the second century? It is shocking. A man with the head of a donkey is strapped and nailed to a cross; next to the cross is a very badly drawn little figure wearing the short tunic of a slave – with, scribbled above it, the words: “Alexamenos worshipping his god.” We don’t know who did this, but they were clearly poking fun at Alexamenos. After all, isn’t the god of a slave inevitably a failure? Isn’t it a feeble god who gets himself crucified by the powerful Roman Empire? Wasn’t Alexamenos deluded and a bit dim to worship a god who is so obviously not worthy of common devotion?

Seen on Twitter, but unattributed

The early Christians did not invent the crucifixion and resurrection in order to establish a new religion, nor did they wake up one day and think to themselves: “You know, let’s perpetrate a fraud on the world and see if it brings us safety, liberation and prosperity!” Rather, the first Christians were compelled to worship the crucified God because they could find no other response that did justice to the facts of their experience. Dead men don’t walk; but, all the Romans had to do was present the body and Christianity would have been as dead as Jesus on day one. Why didn’t they?

In the face of oppression, unspeakable violence and widespread ridicule, these early Christians knew somehow that if just this one man did walk again, then the world is changed for ever and this God is worth the world.

The bit I struggle with every Easter Day is … joy. Not because I am miserable or pessimistic or worn out from a long Lent and Holy Week, but because we jump too quickly from the pain of Good Friday’s world-shattering loss, through the emptiness of Saturday (when we wake to the reality that this loss was not an illusion or a nightmare from which we will come round), to the “happily ever after” resolution of the problem. Shouldn’t the resurrection fill us with confusion and fear rather than joy that the nasty stuff has been sorted out? Shouldn’t we respond to the cry of “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” with a resounding whimper of something like: “Stop mocking us – you can’t be serious.”?

Let me explain by reference to the text.

“The two disciples were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in … but he did not go in. … Simon Peter … went into the tomb. … Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed. … Then the disciples returned to their homes. (While Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.)”

This certainly has the ring of authenticity about it, doesn’t it? No great heroics here. No building up of the future hero of the faith – Peter himself – by having him grow spiritual muscles that he then flexes fearlessly in the face of a by now wondering world. No. Here we have these men greeting the resurrection with fear, bewilderment, maybe even silence, and then “they returned to their homes”. To do what? Read the paper? Have lunch? Just carry on?

Well, this is probably what I would have done. How do I make sense of what I have just witnessed? I need to think about it. For goodness sake, don’t breathe a word about this: we might get accused of nicking the body. It doesn’t make sense of the world as we know it … or of God as we think God should be.

Isn’t there something powerfully real here? People respond differently to the absence or appearance of Jesus in their life. The first disciple would only enter the tomb once someone else had done so – not exactly what today in the Church of England we would call ‘Pioneer Ministry’. Peter goes straight in, impetuous man that he has proved to be throughout the gospel accounts of him. The quicker disciple, we are told, “saw and believed”. We aren’t told what Peter thought … or believed. The story is only just beginning and this is not the problem-solving end of it all.

But, then, I have to ask the question that this text begs of us. Why do the men respond like this, but the woman stays there and ponders in her heart while weeping? She, too, is caught in the moment and yet, when presented with the same evidence as the men, responds so differently. This woman disciple, the subject of a new film in the cinemas now, acts with raw emotion and determined will. Whereas the men go home in silence, having seen the empty tomb, this woman – Mary of Magdala – the first-responder, as it were, has already returned home … not to silent and bewildered contemplation, but to tell others what she had seen. She didn’t wait until she understood it. She didn’t assume that she needed to get her theological ducks in a row before she could dare to tell anyone. She didn’t worry about being thought dim or ridiculous. She went and simply told the men what she had seen.

No wonder, then, that she is seen as the first evangelist of resurrection hope. No wonder that her first reaction to the fearful experience of the missing body was to tell and bring others to see what she had seen.

And isn’t this encouraging? We will all respond differently to the news of the resurrection of Jesus. Some will doubt and some will just drag others to have a look. Some will weep with emotion whilst others withdraw and try to work it out in their head. Some will draw all sorts of conclusions, but do so knowing that their conclusions are not conclusive and the story does not end here.

Yet, isn’t this all a little bit abstract? OK, we see how several friends of Jesus encountered the resurrection event two thousand years ago, but, … so what?

Well, today we might encounter the resurrection in a variety of ways. We might ponder the wonder of it all and find ourselves being transformed by the implications of it for our own life and values and behaviours. Or we might look at the historical evidence – of which there is plenty – and draw some conclusion on the basis of probability as to what happened … and how we must now respond. Or we might find ourselves overwhelmed emotionally at the realisation that, despite the ridicule of the clever world around us, the whole world is challenged and changed by the presence of a God who confounds – in real time and space – the ‘normality’ of a world too often coloured by violence, fear and chaos.

Of course, the resurrection is not just about individual discipleship of Jesus in a changed world. The resurrection and its impact on these first Christians was not a mere private pursuit of people who needed a crutch with which to limp through a hard life. The resurrection was what we might call ‘public truth’ from the word go. The Romans wouldn’t have been worried for one moment, would they, by a group of Northern peasants entertaining private religious devotions and devising cliquey rituals for celebrating their delusions? Of course, not. But, these followers of the crucified and risen Jesus proved difficult from the beginning because resurrection posed a fundamental challenge to the world order of their day. If Jesus is Lord – and resurrection as the ultimate defiance against imperial power, against the threat of violence and death, against a social order shaped to keep the mighty on their thrones (to steal a phrase from the Magnificat) actually happened – then the clear implication is that Caesar is not Lord. And if people start thinking that there is one more powerful than Caesar, to whom ultimate allegiance must be owed, where will it end? Clearly, this is subversive of natural order; clearly, this is fundamentally seditious and must, therefore, be stopped.

You can see the problem. But, Christian faith has to be subversive: subversive of narratives driven by fear and not drawn by hope; subversive of habits of worshipping the way the world is – with its global business and financial systems, powerful data companies, nasty ideologies, rogue military and paramilitary forces; subversive of any capitulation to fear or fatalism or resignation. Those who follow the risen Christ are free from these paralysing fears. The world does not have to be the way it is.

Did you know that one of the reasons the Romans found the early Christians offensive was that they kept looking after the poor, the vulnerable and the destitute? Not just their own Christian poor, vulnerable and destitute, but even those pagan Romans who had no Christian faith in the first place. This was the scandal: indiscriminate love; generous mercy; reckless compassion; a quiet but resolute challenge to the fundamental values – the basic understanding of why people do or don’t matter – of a society that is threatened by goodness.

This was – and remains – revolutionary. Christians, fired by resurrection hope, respond to the selfless love of God in Christ by imitating him – loving as he has loved us, giving ourselves as he has given himself to and for us. We are an Easter people who, like Mary and Peter and Thomas and all the others, will fail a million times and feel our bewilderment at being grasped by this love. Yet, like resurrection after death and loss and emptiness, we find that this is the love that will not let us go (even when we try to escape it for ourselves).

And this is the love – the love that will not let us go – that compels us to challenge any social order that kills and demeans and diminishes any people. Racism, antisemitism, imposed poverty, industries that enslave and drugs that steal people’s souls, politics that prioritise ideology over people and sacrifice truth on the altar of power. And that includes the church in which, historically, abuse has been allowed, the shame of which is being exposed in the light of day. A resurrection people will find themselves to look deeper, then whisper to a sceptical world: “That way lies darkness, emptiness and death; the way of Christ empties the tomb and opens the way to light and transformation.

Is this the day you peer into the tomb and decide to follow this Jesus? Is today the day you choose to walk the road of faith in defiance of the ‘evidence’ that might always wins? Is today the day you catch a glimpse of light scratching away at the darkness of your loss, and drawing you away from resignation towards hope? Is today, Easter Day, the day you decide the world does not have to stay the way it is … because God, having surprised earth with heaven by coming among us in the baby of Bethlehem, has not exempted himself from all that the world can throw at him (or us), but has drawn the sting of all deathliness and opened the gate of glory?

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we up for this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few weeks ago I interviewed author Clinton Heylin on his new book Trouble in Mind in which he recounts Bob Dylan’s Gospel years (1979-81). Dylan produced three albums of varying quality: Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love.

As we discovered, you can’t speak of Dylan without speaking of mortality, humanity and the stuff of life and death.

And bishops don’t spend all their time in church.

It has been announced this morning by 10 Downing Street that the new suffragan [area) Bishop of Ripon in the Diocese of Leeds is the Rt Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley.

Bishop Dr Hartley who is 44, is at present Bishop of Waikato in New Zealand, an office she has held since 2014. At the time she was the first woman priest ordained in the Church of England to become a bishop. She succeeds Bishop James Bell who retired earlier this year.

I am delighted to welcome Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley. She brings expertise as a theologian, and episcopal experience from the wider Anglican Communion. She will add great strengths to the leadership and ministry of this diocese.

She will be welcomed and installed in the diocese at Ripon Cathedral on February 4, 2018.

Helen-Ann was born in Edinburgh in 1973 and grew up in north-east England. She is the fourth generation of her family to be ordained, and was priested in 2005 in the Diocese of Oxford.

She worked as one of a team ministering to 12 rural parishes in Oxfordshire before being appointed as the Director of Biblical Studies and a lecturer in the New Testament at Ripon College Cuddesdon, near Oxford.

Helen-Ann, with her husband Myles who is a musician and church organist, went to New Zealand in 2010 to undertake research at St John’s College – and returned there in February 2011 to take up the position as Dean. In 2014 she became joint diocesan bishop of the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki, unique in the Anglican Communion with two equal bishops sharing jurisdiction across the whole of the diocese. The New Zealand diocese, like the Diocese of Leeds, is also unusual in having more than one cathedral.

Bishop Helen-Ann says she was surprised but excited to be invited to be the next Area Bishop of Ripon. “I am excited, delighted, surprised and deeply humbled by the call to take up the role of the Bishop of Ripon,” she says. “I look forward to getting my feet on the ground, listening and learning, and helping to root and grow the vision that Bishop Nick has for the Diocese of Leeds in the Ripon Episcopal Area. I rejoice in joining a dynamic episcopal team, and look forward immensely to working alongside my brother bishops.”

She added, “Both my husband Myles and I have firm roots in the north: Myles in Cumbria, and myself in the north-east. Returning to the north, and to the beautiful North Yorkshire Dales brings with it a deep sense of coming home, and I thank God for this call.”

Bishop Hartley also brings with her from New Zealand considerable experience of rural ministry in a Diocese that she says bears many similarities to the Ripon Episcopal Area. The Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki is large (18,000 square miles), and is sustained by the economies of farming, tertiary education, and tourism.

On the day of the announcement, November 9, Bishop Helen-Ann’s itinerary includes a visit to a farm near Skipton.

Bishop Helen-Ann said, “ I have witnessed the immense value of the role of churches in rural communities, and their often creative and innovative ways of responding to community needs, often in tough times when the dairy payout is poor or when drought or even too much rain cause great difficulties for farmers. With my feet on the ground, I have relished the opportunities to engage in God’s mission with all its joys and sorrows, amidst the praise and lament of life so eloquently expressed in the Psalms.”

With her background in theological education a particular focus for Bishop Helen-Ann has been encouraging and supporting of lay ministry and training. Looking for suitable discipleship courses for both urban and rural churches, she has developed a course of her own, Living Faith Today (known as LiFT).

Bishop Helen-Ann says another of her keen interests is Education. During her introduction to the Diocese on November 9 she also visits Richard Taylor Church of England Primary School in Harrogate meeting teachers and pupils. She said, “I have enjoyed supporting our Anglican schools, encouraging them in their work, and getting alongside the pupils and sharing in their lives (which has included activities like mountain biking and surfing [which I was not very good at!]). Sometimes all it takes is a mustard seed for the Kingdom of God to take hold.

“I hope that I have planted some seeds which in due course God will help flourish! It is wonderful that there will be a major Lay Conference in Harrogate in 2018, and I look forward to that important gathering.”

Bishop Helen-Ann added, “As I reflected on the call to this incredibly exciting role, some words of GK Chesterton came to mind: ‘There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place.’ I can’t wait to get to know the people and communities of the Ripon Area. I hope that you will pray for me in this time of transition, as I will continue to hold the Diocese and particularly the Ripon area in my prayers as we begin this new season together.”

We offer a very warm welcome to Bishop Helen-Ann as she looks to begin her ministry in this diocese. Please pray for her.