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.

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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.

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning. (Disclaimer: I wrote it last night at Berlin Tegel and Amsterdam Schipol airports on my way home from an academic conference in Wittenberg, Germany.)

I returned late last night from Wittenberg in Germany. I was there to present a paper at a conference on Faith, Theology and the Church (from Tuesday to Thursday) and then record a programme for BBC Radio 4 on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having launched the Reformation jubilee last October, preaching in the Augustinerklosterkirche in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, it was a privilege to end the year in Wittenberg where it all kicked off. As everyone knows, 31 October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day when Luther is alleged to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche, thus challenging the Pope and the Church to address some serious concerns about both theology and the practices of the church.

Many of the stories of Luther’s words and deeds are now of dubious provenance. There is no record of him having told the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “here I stand; I can do no other”. (Which hasn’t deterred sock manufacturers from producing huge numbers of their products with the phrase added. I might bear the weight of one’s foot, but it doesn’t seem to bear the weight of history. In fact, there is no evidence that he did actually nail his 95 Theses to the church door – something impossible now because the doors are made of bronze.

Martin Luther’s tomb

But, why let facts get in the way of a good story. Whatever the details of who did what and when, we do know for certain that Luther took his life in his hands when he dared to suggest that the grace of God is there for everyone and cannot be bought – even in the good cause of building St Peter’s in Rome. Fear of the consequences of death were trounced by the mercy of God.

Sitting in the Schloßkirche yesterday morning, looking at Luther’s tomb, I was very conscious that we can’t always control the consequences of the decisions we make. The monk of Erfurt changed the world in ways he could never have imagined when he found Paul’s letter to the Romans opening his heart and mind to the riches of God’s unmerited love. Not only a revolution in the church, but political ructions, too, that too often led to bloodshed on a huge scale. I wonder what he would have made of it today, if he had known what he was about to unleash.

This is not insignificant for us here in the Diocese of Leeds. After giving my paper at the conference on Thursday, I took part in a panel discussion with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the head of the Protestant Church in Germany (the EKD),where both the divisions and affinities of ecumenical relationships were visible. As the church faces big challenges in British and wider European cultures, the need for Christians to prioritise their common baptismal discipleship over their denominational commitments becomes more urgent.

On of the watchwords of the Reformation traditions is ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ – the Church needing constantly to be being renewed and reformed. Nothing stands still in this world. And the church can be no exception. Change is here to stay.

It would be ludicrously absurd to compare the changes our diocese has gone through in the last three and a half years with the enormity of the Reformation, but we need no telling that change brings pain as well as opening up new opportunities for those who are unafraid to explore them. And not every outcome can be predicted. As Luther found out – and it caused him a whole new set of griefs and concerns – there is the small matter of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Our diocese continues to change as we move on from the initial phase of our creation from 2014 to 2016. We are now functioning as a single diocese with a single administration, and we are now clear about where we are in terms of shaping support for clergy and parishes as they ‘do’ our mission and ministry locally. But, this has all taken place at a time when the church across the country is facing a hefty drop in the number of stipendiary ordained people during the next fifteen years. This inevitably means that we will need to re-shape not only where we deploy our clergy, but the nature of the role, too. A priest cannot do in six parishes what he or she did in one. And we cannot put clergy into jobs that are not do-able.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. We do so in the face of financial challenges, too, but our primary focus has to be on what sort of ministry and mission we can provide within the constraints over which we do not have complete (or any) control. Now, is this a cause for fear or concern? Well, yes and no. We need to be concerned enough to tackle the challenges head on and pay attention to the detail – understanding the cost of growth as well as the benefits. But, we need not fear. We are engaged in God’s mission, and must never lose track of the bigger picture of God’s transforming grace, his call to keep moving – with him – and to be faithful to him and each other.

Clearly, if our models of ministry are to change, then they will involve re-focusing the attention of clergy and reimagining the role of lay people. Now, let’s get away from some of the moany stuff we keep hearing. Clergy exist for the sake of the laity, not the other way around. That will not change, but, the way we do ministry and mission will look different in the future. This is not about power or rights or means of self-fulfilment; rather, it is about identifying the gifts and vocation of all baptised people, developing and deploying those gifts for the sake of the church … which exists for the sake of the world.

But, the primary calling of lay people is not to do stuff in and for the church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ out there in the world. One of the recognised challenges of the church in more recent years has been that lay vocation has too often focused on lay ministries in the church – largely liturgical or pastoral. This is something we need to tackle as we move into the future. Discipleship first.

To this end we are holding a Lay Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 9 June 2018. More details will be forthcoming soon, but planning is well underway under the guidance of Andrew Norman and Hayley Matthews. This is intended to help us re-frame our strategy for lay discipleship and ministry into the future – although this will be a matter of process rather than event.

Nothing of what we do can be done in isolation. On today’s agenda this Synod will address several matters that, together, help us discipline our development and mission. Asking the General Synod to change the name of the See of Richmond to Kirkstall is not a whim or a bit of ecclesiastical fancy; no, it is to enable those outside the church in the Leeds Episcopal Area (particularly) to identify with the area bishop and our church structure. People assume Richmond is up north and can’t see why the Bishop of Richmond is bothered with the city of Leeds. For the sake of our ongoing mission we need to change this. More later, but I want at this point simply to locate this agenda item in our wider missional context.

A communications strategy for the diocese is not incidental. If we can’t communicate effectively in the world in which we now live, then we might as well just tend a long decline. We cannot address the lack of children and young people in our churches without engaging with social media and a way of relating/communicating that is a million miles away from what I grew up with. Do we have the courage to grasp this nettle and learn a new language of evangelism and pastoral care? That is the question – along with: are we willing to put resources into making effective communications and changing the rumour about God and the church?

Rules about synod elections and sizes of synods might not be the stuff of romance, but they matter. It is vital that our synods – at every level – should drive and enhance our mission … and for that we need people – in the right numbers and variety – who are caught up by a vision of the kingdom of God that grabs popular attention, awakens curiosity, draws people in from being met outside on their territory and in their terms. Are we up for this? It isn’t easy, and it will mean sacrifice; but, we need younger energy and vision to challenge us and drag us into new ways of being a renewed and reformed church in this part of Yorkshire.

Again, this is not for the sake of the church’s organisation or own well-being. Yorkshire faces massive challenges in the wake of Brexit (however that might ultimately look…), but also in terms of its own political organisation. Westminster seems to have a view of how Yorkshire might be governed in the future (under its devolution proposals), but how do we want to help drive this for the sake of the common good of the people of Yorkshire? Do we want to be stuck in the past, with old enmities and thinking within old white lines, or can we be bold about developing a vision of and strategy for a Yorkshire that makes the most of the Northern Powerhouse – whatever that means?

What I am driving at here is that we should not be a church that merely responds to the initiatives of others, but be creative ourselves at fostering debate and proposition that, rooted in our traditions, offers a refreshed view of future potential.

Of course, this is all stuff and nonsense if we would prefer to just keep turning the handle. In the diocese we have proved that, even where we might have differing degrees of affection for the diocese we have shaped, we can commit ourselves to it as mature adults who follow Jesus Christ.

At this point I want to pay special thanks to the Dean of Wakefield, Jonathan Greener, who will leave the diocese in November and be installed as Dean of Exeter. Jonathan vigorously opposed the creation of the new diocese, but, since its creation, has been an excellent friend and colleague, a creative and imaginative shaper of new things (three cathedrals and three deans in a single diocese), and a brave contributor to all we have done. We owe him a huge debt. Personally, I will miss him, his wisdom and advice, even his humour. But, we wish him God’s richest blessing and the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts as he and Pamela move into a not-unchallenging situation in Exeter. They go with our love, gratitude and prayers.

So, let me conclude where we began – with Martin Luther. While sitting with three young Germans in the very room in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, around the table where he and his friends argued about theology, politics, beer and bodily functions (I kid you not), having our own feisty debate about the meaning of Luther’s theology now, we felt close to the heart of passion: the passion that is courageous, contagious, irritating, maybe even hopeful – maybe even the passion for Jesus Christ, his grace and mercy, his call to us and his friends to love one another as he loves us.

This is the text of this morning’s Presidential Address at the Ninth Diocesan Synod of the Diocese of Leeds.

All bets are off.

Not so long ago the UK had elected a stronger government that decided to hold an unlosable referendum on our place in the European Union. Brexit came as a surprise even to many who wanted it. The Prime Minister resigned as the country wondered what lay ahead. The Americans elected Donald Trump – a business man who had no experience of (or apparent interest in) public service or political office – and he has torn up the rule book on international diplomacy, the dignity of high office and truth-telling. Despite fears to the contrary, France voted against the Far Right, and Germany looks to be re-strengthening its affection for Mutti Merkel – despite the immigration crisis that appeared at one point to threaten her future. And Theresa May called an unlosable election in order to strengthen her hand in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, even though the clock had already started ticking.

But, we woke on Friday morning to a world in which all the certainties of the previous months had been overturned. We now have little idea of how we shall negotiate Brexit or how, in the light of this, we will be negotiated with.

Now, I don’t set this out briefly here in order to depress you, but, rather, to make a very obvious and simple point. There is no ‘normal’. The world changes every day, and we need to face the choices and challenges particular to our current circumstances. One hundred years ago the world was fighting a brutal war that nobody wanted and few thought likely only weeks before it ignited.

We need to live with humility in the face of what might be possible – as what might be possible does not always coincide with what we might find desirable or convenient.

I find this particularly pertinent in the wake of an experience during the last few weeks. I was in Germany for celebrations and commemorations of the launch of the Reformation 500 years ago. The Kirchentag brought together tens of thousands of people to Berlin and Wittenberg where Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche. I began preaching in Halle in the marketplace outside the church where Handel learned to play the organ. We went on from there to Jena, which is where Hegel taught, and Schiller met Goethe. From Jena to Berlin to preside at the Meissen Eucharist in the Gedächtnis-Kirche which was the scene of an Islamist atrocity last year. Then we went to Wittenberg for the grand finale.

This might sound like a tourist guide. But, just think about what the people there have lived through during my – and your – lifetime. A divided Germany in a divided Europe in a bipolar world dominated by US capitalism. Now a world in which the capitalist powers are turning out to be China, India and Brazil. America has gone mad and turned inward, Europe is open, but threatened, migration has changed everything, stability has become a fantasy for most people, and the future looks fragile and uncertain.

When Martin Luther was getting cross with the Pope and exploiting the latest communications technology to change the world, anti-semitism was acceptable and rife. Blood was shed easily, and the populations of Europe knew that life could often be short and brutal. Since his time, the world has endured revolutions, rapid technological progress, the elimination of many diseases, the expansion of lifespan and expectations, the exploitation by empires of huge numbers of people, the generation and abolition of slavery (except in the manufacture of modern clothing and sex-trafficking), the mechanisation of war and the sophistication of mass slaughter, globalisation and anti-globalisation, the sexual revolution, and so on and so on. And terrorism: the singular persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the indiscriminate violence against ordinary people on our own streets, the targeting of young people at a pop concert. And the prospect of more to come because we cannot control the world or people intent on murder.

Every generation wakes up to the realisation that change is a constant. And, as we are seeing at the moment, the constant repetition of mantras about “stability” or “certainty” do not automatically translate into the imaginative consciousness of achievable vision.

And this is where we are. Change is here to stay whether we like it or not. The only question has to do with our faithfulness in engaging with and shaping it as followers of Jesus Christ who calls us to repent: to change the way we look in order to change the way we see in order to change the way we think in order to change the way we live. To be a follower of Jesus involves a sitting loose to some certainties or expectations, and being willing to face the world as it is (or as it is becoming) and not as we would prefer it to be.

For example, and as I expressed in London this week, we cannot rewrite the history of this Diocese of Leeds in the light of what we have either done, failed to do or had done to us. We are very conscious of where we might have been dealt a stronger hand in the management of change or the realistic resourcing of it. There are many lessons to be learned from our experience – both within the diocese and across the Church of England – and the various reviews that will be conducted should help the Church better shape itself for the future. However, we are where we are, and cannot go back. Indeed, we are where we are because so many people – clergy and lay – across the diocese had the vision, courage and sheer northern nerve to give it a good, strong go. I believe we have been faithful to the call God has given us at this time and in this place.

Look at the agenda before us today and you will see that the challenges we face are not insignificant. The motion before the Synod relating to our Diocesan Environment Policy is important because it calls us to take seriously the call of God to nurture the earth and its people. This hasn’t been dreamed up by some trendy conspiracy theorist in order to tick a box. We are not the President of America. Rather, how we tackle our responsibilities for the environment is a massive element of the expression of our responsibility under God for the world we say is his and the people he loves to death and beyond. Loving our neighbour does not stop at stocking the food bank.

This is not necessarily comfortable stuff for everyone. It is hard to contemplate changes in lifestyle or spending. But, repentance is double-barrelled: it is a positive thing that leads us to embrace something, not simply let something go.

If we want to dig a little deeper into why our use of the earth’s resources matters, then we just have to listen to our brothers and sisters in link dioceses who pay the price for our preferences. Tanzania and Sudan face environmental challenges that are real. Sri Lanka does not see the eco-challenge as a merely interesting academic theory to be discussed, but lives with the changing weather patterns and their consequences, needing little persuasion about the state of the world and its resources. I will say something brief later in our agenda about the visit of our link bishops back in April.

And this brings us to a wider question of resourcing. During the last three years or so we have worked hard together to identify, articulate and develop a vision that is gospel-shaped. We have not dreamed it up. We have derived it from the Scriptures and from the faith that draws us and shapes us as followers of Jesus. We have kept it simple: Confident Christians; Growing Churches; Transforming Communities. It is infused with values of Loving Living Learning. I believe these words characterise our approach to all we have done as a diocese during the demanding years since we began – opening up our imagination and not closing it down by promising panacaeas or guarantees.

But, vision has to be resourced by a strategy and that strategy has to be funded. In a conversation in the Church Commissioners office in London earlier this week I suggested that our diocese is really only six months old. It is only since January this year that we have been able to function properly as a single entity with single systems and fully integrated data. So, we are at the beginning, not the end. And, this being the case, we now have to pay attention to the future resourcing of our vision.

As you will see from the papers, we face a challenge to finance what we currently do. We are not paying our way, and there is no magic money tree (!) hidden away somewhere for us to pluck its fruit. Our parish share income does not cover what we have. However, there are two things to be said about this in the light of the journey we are on.

First, you cannot set up a new entity at the same time as slashing its costs and its primary people. During the last six or seven years of uncertainty and then transition we did not look to cut clergy posts. This would have damaged morale and was not an option in the circumstances in which we found ourselves. So, broadly speaking, we maintained the numbers. But, we did this knowing that the number of stipendiary clergy available for deployment across the country is going to dip considerably in the next ten years – by between 25-40%. So, although not primarily driven by finance, we are going to have to start looking more radically at pastoral organisation, clergy deployment, training options, licensed and other lay ministry development, and new models of resourcing our churches. This has an impact on identification, discernment, selection and training of clergy and lay people. It all has to be rooted in discipleship rather than curatorship.

We can either dribble into this gradually, or we do the hard work now of looking at future shaping and resourcing of ministry and begin to work it out now. The Bishop’s Strategy Group has started to work at this, whilst the area bishops and archdeacons (in conjunction with their episcopal area colleagues) are doing what I call baseline studies to see how we might need to adapt appropriately and wisely to a cut of, for example, 10%, 20%, 30% or 40% of stipendiary clergy. Of course, this raises the question of what we expect clergy to do in what arrangements and with what resource in terms of people, buildings and finance.

I said there were two things to be said here. The second is this: we should not have a problem in paying for what we say we believe about the church’s mission and ministry. Levels of giving are not as high in the Church of England as they are in many other denominations. What this means is quite simple: if we say we believe it and claim to want it, then we shall pay for it; if we don’t want it, we won’t pay for it, and we won’t have it. In the future we can only have what we are willing to resource.

Now, to go back to my first point, we have frontloaded the diocese in terms of our offering to parishes, clergy and other ministers. We have appointed people to drive and support creative ministry and mission across this diverse diocese, and we need to give them time to make a difference. I know there are dioceses that prefer to have high-profile campaigns and inspirational slogans; we have chosen to attend to the basic structures and people of our diocese in order to hold our nerve and aim at a longer-term strategic growth dynamic that has a chance of working. Put simply, we need to make new disciples of Jesus Christ who then take the mission and ministry of the gospel into the next generation and beyond. And they need to be inspired – not impressed – by us, our discipleship, our vision, our courage, our commitment and joy.

And all this will be reviewed as we go through the next three years and beyond.

So, as we do our work today, I trust we will do so in the name of Christ who calls us first to repent, to walk together, to discern together the will and ways of God who calls us. May we be faithful. And, in keeping some proper sense of perspective on time, may we recall the words of Martin Luther who famously said: “Long is not eternal.” (Lang ist nicht ewig.)