I have not long got home from a tour of the cathedrals in Wakefield, Bradford and Ripon following the announcement this morning in Leeds of my nomination to be the first (Anglican) Bishop of Leeds for the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales – which will come into being on Easter Day. It has been a long day, and tomorrow will be similar as I go to visit the current diocesan offices in Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford.

I cannot count the number of text messages, tweets and emails that have poured in during the course of the day. When I was appointed to Bradford three years ago I replied to every individual message. I simply can't do it this time as the are hundreds of them and I don't know where to start. So, may I use this post to offer my deepest thanks to all who have been so generous and kind in their messages. I have felt encouraged and supported throughout the day and it makes the enormity of the task seem less daunting.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing is a point I made to several journalists: we have walked a tough path during the last three years in these three dioceses, but, the decision to create the new diocese made, people have shown great vision, maturity and grace in getting stuck in to shaping what is to come. It is hugely impressive. We met great enthusiasm and welcome in all three dioceses today and I cannot express deeply enough my gratitude.

Yes, the hard work lies ahead. The transition process is complex and demanding. Some direction needs to be set soon and, a priority once I take up office in June, will be to appoint two new area bishops for Bradford and Huddersfield. Several journalists asked me today if I would wait until a woman can be appointed – an obvious question just before the General Synod meets next week to take the matter forward. However, the need for us to get our episcopal team in place quickly means that we cannot wait as long as we would have to in order to be able to appoint a woman (should a woman be the best candidate for the post). Next time round, though…

Anyway, impressions of today can be seen here, here, here, here and here.

And now to start on the emails before tomorrow and, later in the afternoon, the resumption of my sabbatical.

 

So, this is the morning after the day before. The sun rose on the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield – as it did every day for the last century – and life carries on. (OK, maybe on some days the cloud just got lighter and the rain warmer…)

And there can surely be no sinister significance in the decision by the Synod being followed by Luis Suarez wanting to leave Liverpool and sell his soul elsewhere. Surely? (Minimum of £50million, please.)

Well, what is needed now is a clear timeline or framework of work for the next few months. We need to know when the 'appointed day' will be and then work back to timetable all the necessary, legal, financial, consultative and preparatory work in. The three dioceses need now to continue the conversations that have been going on for the last couple of years. It is an exciting time.

However, while the preparatory work is being done, there might be a short delay in communicating detailed timelines. We need to take a breath, keep doing our work of worship, mission and ministry in West Yorkshire and the Dales, and then – probably in the early autumn, if not sooner – give more definite and clear detail to our parishes and communities.

A key figure in all of this is the Programme Manager who has been working with us for eighteen months and discovering just how weird the polity and processes of the Church of England are. John Tuckett brings experience, wisdom, clarity, articulacy and excellent skills of communication, strategic thinking and attention to detail whilst holding the big picture. His contribution to getting us here has been appropriate (convening conversations, doing research, planning on our behalf, and always with the consent of the bishops). His contribution in the next phase of the process will be vital to the success of the scheme.

All three dioceses now have an answer to the unsettling question put by the Dioceses Commission three years ago. Wakefield, particularly, now needs space to face the new reality. The rest of us want to get on with it and to work closely with all three dioceses to create the new diocese and move things on. I am very confident this can be done.

It is a good day. Even if the Synod is now back onto internal electoral matters, something changed yesterday.

And Luis Suarez might stay at Anfield, after all.

Yesterday morning the General Synod of the Church of England determined to agree a way of opening the episcopate to women. Then, in the afternoon debate on reorganising the three West Yorkshire dioceses, the Synod showed vision and renewed confidence in agreeing to proposals to dissolve the Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds and create a new Diocese of Leeds (also to be known as West Yorkshire and the Dales).

I am not sure that the Synod quite realises what it has done.

In the morning we opened – after much hard work over the last few months – a will to find a different way of doing business in our attempt to hold together while making it possible for women to be bishops. This is really difficult. We have to find a way to allow the church to have women bishops while making provision for those who cannot agree to this (mainly for reasons of order rather than mysogeny). From the outside this looks like a no-brainer, but it is tortuously difficult in a church that bucks the cultural norm by trying to hold together rather than dividing in the interests of partisan purity. It is not easy, it it feels like we might just get there.

But, the vote to reorganise West Yorkshire and the Dales was a bit of a shock. There were some strong speeches, but in the end only six people voted against the motion. This is overwhelming – both shocking and hugely encouraging. The Synod caught the vision: the church must have the vision to change radically and take responsibility for changing itself in order better to fulfil its mission in the world. This vote has made it clear that we are up for big change and big challenge.

However, the Diocesan Synod had voted against this move. The Bishop of Wakefield spoke eloquently against it. Subsequent speeches – in which the objections were articulated and Wakefield's concerns clearly heard – led to an overwhelming vote for change.

Wakefield's concerns have been noted. They have also been articulated during the process by the other two dioceses. But, we are now in a new world. Maturity, Christian commitment and realism will compel us all to work together in order to make this transition a reality. I have no doubt that, despite positions held during the difficult last couple of years of uncertainty, the three dioceses will work together to make this new diocese come into being with the best possible chance of succeeding. We are mature Christians who put the interests of the wider world ahead of our own sentiments,

The future will be hard and complex. But, it also looks to be bright. Tonight the Church of England took change seriously.

This is the text of my speech to the General Synod on the proposals to dissolve the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield.

Chair, the Scheme before us today requires a definite decision that will bring an end to more than three years of uncertainty in the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield. I strongly urge the Synod to vote for it and to show both the realism and the vision that has been mostly evident up north.

When I was appointed Bishop of Bradford just over two years ago – the announcement came one week to the day after publication of the Dioceses Commission proposals – there was inevitably a degree of uncertainty in the diocese about the future. Several of my colleagues faced either an uncertain future or, in one case, definite redundancy. I want to pay tribute to my colleagues in Bradford for the professionalism, vision and holding together of big picture and detail as these two years of uncertainty have progressed. Whatever the outcome of this vote this afternoon, I want to place on record that it has been a privilege to serve with them. Personal insecurity has never impinged on the need for change for the sake of the Church of England's ability better to serve the part of the world committed to us.

If this Scheme goes through, I, along with the other Diocesan Bishops, will lose my job by dissolution of the post. So, I too face further uncertainty and this is not a comfortable place to be.

However, I strongly support the Scheme. It offers (a) the benefits of scale with the intimacy of locality in an episcopal area system (that, contrary to assertions in the press, is not being dismantled in other dioceses…); (b) the ability to make structure follow vision – something the church always calls for, but rarely delivers; and, (c) the freedom and opportunity for the Church of England in West Yorkshire and the Dales to address the needs of the region with coherence, informed intelligence and greater strategic wisdom.

The story of the Scriptures is one in which God invites his people to imagine a different world, a different way of being, and to defy present fears or insecurities with prophetic courage. The West Yorkshire process has taught us many things about how to and how not to manage change, but the process has fundamentally compelled us to engage in this imaginative prophetic task. We sometimes talk about change as a substitute for actually doing it. Here we have a bluff-calling opportunity to take responsibility for doing it.

As we know, structures, in and of themselves, will guarantee nothing. This Scheme creates a framework that will then depend on the real and actual creative will of its leadership and people to establish something new – and to manage the difficult process of making it happen across the piece. Yet, this is not new. Leadership is always dependent on the vision, will, pastoral commitment and strategic wisdom of those who implement change and innovation. Indeed, the collegiality set up by an area system would allow – and this is integral to mission – an episcopal team combining a diversity of gifts, leadership in episcopal areas closer to the ground, better pastoral care of clergy, more focused encouragement of and support for locally appropriate lay development, discipleship and evangelism.

It has been said that one diocese might be omitted from the Scheme on the grounds that the other two 'want to merge'. This oft-repeated claim completely misses the point and misrepresents the case. First, this is not a 'merger' – it is the dissolution of three dioceses and the creation of a new diocese. Secondly, Bradford and Ripon & Leeds do not wish to merge – they wish to answer the question put by the church and answered by the Dioceses Commission regarding a coherent ministry in and mission across West Yorkshire and the Dales. To leave one diocese out – which is not an option on the table anyway – would fail to answer the original question, would leave the dioceses with a further decade or more of uncertainty (because the question will not go away), and would demonstrate an inability on the part of the Church to effect change where the power to do so lies in its own hands.

During the process we have argued over specific elements of the draft and final schemes. None of us engaged in those debates has ended up with what we might see as the ideal. Not all my proposals have been agreed with. However, we must recognise that not to be agreed with is not the same as not having been listened to.

I love the Diocese of Bradford and feel a certain poignancy in recognising that there will also be a personal cost to the decision by the Synod this afternoon. But, I love the Diocese of Bradford enough to recognise that this Scheme offers more than could have been dreamed of several years ago: the freedom and responsibility to do something new and risky and visionary, taking the best of the old and setting it free in the shaping of the new. I believe that the Scheme offers the possibility, if we take responsibility for it, of a bright and engaging future for both church and our communities, and that West Yorkshire and the Dales will benefit from this change. If so, I believe the three existing dioceses will get down to the job of making it work well.

I hope the Synod will grasp this opportunity to say yes to shaping the future with confidence, faith, vision and courage.

This morning the Bradford Diocesan Synod – in a secret ballot – voted 90-4 in favour of the Dioceses Commission scheme to create a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. We had an excellent debate in which people were visionary, responsible, realistic and prophetic: it was inspiring to listen to. The negatives were aired alongside the positives, but courageous vision is how I would describe the vote.

Ripon & Leeds voted in favour. Wakefield voted against. Now it goes to the Archbishop of York for a decision as to whether the wider needs of the Church of England should demand that the changes be put to the General Synod anyway. They should.

Here is the text of my (so-called) Presidential Address to the Synod this morning:

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

One of the Old Testament pithy sayings I often quote is the line from Proverbs 29: “Without a vision the people perish”. The truth of the saying is not in doubt. Any group of people that has no vision toward which they live and work – and for which they might sacrifice much – will not survive for long. It is the common purpose – the commonly held sense of direction – that holds them faithful while all around them changes and threatens and wobbles.

No wonder, then, that a common vision is hard to hold on to and sometimes hard to identify in the first place. After all, a ‘vision’ can be made up of lots of fine-sounding words; but then more words have to be found – and agreed upon – that establish the strategy – the ‘how will we get there?’ stuff – for making the vision a reality. And there lies the real challenge. For any vision that can only be realized in the long term lies open to being thwarted by immediate or short-term realities that can easily distract from the agreed goal.

So, although we might all agree with the fine-sounding line from Proverbs, we then find ourselves in some difficulty trying to formulate precisely which vision and strategy should be adopted. In one sense, we need to be grasped by a vision – having our imagination and will captivated by it – rather than us simply trying to dredge one up.

This is pertinent when we look at the matters before us on our agenda today. What sometimes looks obvious and clear from a distance becomes more complex and demanding the closer we get to actually making a decision. But, let’s put the more ‘domestic’ matters in perspective before getting into the substance of the options before us.

A month ago I travelled to Sudan for my first visit to our link dioceses there. Linda and I spent just over a week meeting people and being introduced to the place, the people, the church, the history and the politics of the country. I posted eight blogs from Sudan while we were there, but tried to be careful about what I wrote and how I wrote it. As I learned from my decade-long links with Zimbabwe, it is all too easy to salve my western conscience by ‘speaking out’ about what is going on there, whilst thereby only making life even more difficult for those people who pay the price for my ‘prophetic’ utterances. Since returning, I have been clear that any response from me and us must be guided by those who will live with the consequences. Accordingly, I am in contact with Ezekiel, Bishop of Khartoum, about the daily realities, checking our perceptions with him, and being guided about what to do at this end. (And there was a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday this week, sponsored by Baroness Cox, into which our experience and analysis was fed via the Bishop of Exeter.)

What is increasingly apparent is that President Bashir’s government is engaged in ethnic cleansing of Africans. It is further clear that they want a single nation (Sudan) of a single race (Arabs) with a single language (Arabic) caught up in a single religion (Islam). Although complex, the direction – the ‘vision’, if you like – is clear; and it is not good for Africans – Muslim or Christian. We need to bear this in mind daily as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sudan, as we interpret the news we hear, as we consider how to respond, and as we continue to give of our wealth to house and feed those who have nothing.

Such support also comes form strange sources. I was speaking at an ecumenical conference in Hannover, Germany, a couple of weeks ago and agreed to stay on and preach at an international service on the Sunday morning. The organisers pressed me about where to direct the offering, which normally amounts to around €150 and in the end I suggested our Kadugli Appeal, which so far has raised around £100,000. The offering came to just short of €600 and will arrive in our accounts soon.

I tell you this partly to assure you that when I am on business away from Bradford, I am also working for Bradford and telling our story beyond our borders. The conference in Hannover was established by both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Hannover-Hildesheim region and attracted 1300 delegates to look seriously at how the church in Germany must change if it is to grow and reach a new generation. Fresh Expressions is something they have latched on to and they are keen to learn from the Church of England about our successes, our failures and our vision. Of course, listening through German ears compels me to examine the perspectives I have in England and in Bradford – which is never entirely comfortable, but does inform priorities and action.

(I will be in Germany again in May, along with some clergy and lay people form the Diocese of Bradford. The Kirchentag attracts around 120,000 ‘full-timers’ and a total of around 300,000 people over the four days. I will be doing various things, but my principle responsibility will be to preach at the outdoor closing service to a congregation of between 100-120,000 people. This will also be televised nationally on German TV. This is a privilege for an Englishman, great for the Church of England, and a shameless propagation of Bradford in Europe. Pray for me… and for those who have to decipher my German.)

I have been accompanying and observing the German Church’s reform process since 2007 when I was invited to the launch of the process in Wittenberg, birthplace of the Reformation in 1517. Although the cultures are different in many respects, watching the management of change in the EKD has been informative at a time when we are looking at significant change in the Church of England. I will refer here to two matters.

First, the matter of admitting women bishops to the episcopate. I don’t intend to rehearse here the events of July or November in the General Synod. Suffice it to say that anyone who comes up with a simple rationale for the failure of the legislation in the House of Laity has almost certainly got it wrong. The reasons for the failure are many and they are complicated – especially when you realize that it failed (in terms of votes) because enough people who want women bishops didn’t want them in the manner prescribed by that form of legislation. Vision and means again.

Since November facilitated conversations have been going on between different parties and the House of Bishops discussed these developments at our meeting in early February. Several options emerged and these will be worked on to see if there might be sufficient support for a form of legislation to be recommended by the House of Bishops in May for initial debate at the General Synod in York in July.

It is less clear to me than it is to others that this will happen. The current mantra is ‘simplicity with security’, which, it seems to me, ignores the fact that the search for ‘security’ militates against ‘simplicity’ – which is how we got to where we were in November in the first place. Anyway, an enormous amount of work is going on in order to see if a way forward can be found informally that will subsequently bear the weight of any legislation that might follow. Watch this space.

But, if agreeing on how to have women bishops is tough, we in West Yorkshire and the Dales face a challenge much closer to home. I hope to speak to this in the debate later, but will only do so if the points I wish to make have not already been made by others.

The challenge before us looks simple: we all agree we need to change, but what that change should look like – and how it should be brought about – is not obvious to everyone. The Dioceses Commission did not dream up their proposals because they had nothing better to do with their time or imagination. Look at the numbers for the three dioceses and, whatever the rhetoric from some quarters, they are, broadly speaking, heading south. If the proposals for a single diocese with an area system do not offer better mission and growth potential, then it should be obvious that current arrangements do not offer an alternative. One way or another there has to be change in the way we organize, ‘do church’ and reach out in this part of the world.

The problem comes, of course, when we ask what that change should look like. That will be the matter debated later. The Bishop’s Council has agreed that we vote in a secret ballot in order to ensure that everyone is free to make their own mind up. The method for doing so will be outlined immediately prior to the debate. Please note that our vote today is in principle – and although a considerable amount of coordinated work has gone on within and between the three dioceses already in order to flesh out realities and potentials, costs and benefits, making any changed arrangement a reality will depend solely on the will, determination, imagination and vision of those involved.

So, if you vote for this scheme, you commit to taking responsibility for making change work; if, however, you vote against, you need to ask yourself what you are, in fact, now voting for. No structure, old or new, will of itself deliver anything. Today is a challenge to our vision for the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales, our courage in facing change, our faith in God and one another, and our realism about the challenge before us.

The writer of the proverb I cited earlier got it right: without a vision the people perish. (Although ‘perishing’ can take many forms…) But, to confound Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, not ‘any dream will do’. Our vision must be faithful and bold, realistic and achievable, godly and honourable. However we vote – and you do not need to be reminded here of my support for the scheme, especially as I am probably one of the few to have worked an effective area scheme (Southwark/Croydon) – we need to do so prayerfully, with confidence and with a clear recognition that the status quo is not an option, that we will direct change or it will drive us.

As Joshua heard before entering new and unknown territory: “Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you.”

Following on from my last post – which was sparked by a visit to Sudan and the reading of Walter Brueggemann (again) – it is important to move on from the phenomenon of how we face potential change to addressing the content of those changes. Objections to change often appear in two forms: (a) a natural, but false, comparison between the status quo (arrived at after years of development) and the potential birth of something new (which, by definition, can only be imagined or envisaged) arising from it; and (b) a natural and right caution that we should never engage in change for the mere sake of change itself.

Since coming to Bradford in May 2011 I have deliberately not instigated any great change. I might be wrong, but it seemed silly to initiate necessary change in some areas when a greater, more wholesale, change might be coming down the line with the Dioceses Commission proposals – if agreed in March 2013 – kicking in relatively soon. So, I have paid attention to structural clarity, missional encouragement and confidence building among clergy and lay people. I cannot be the judge of whether that policy has been effective or not. Nevertheless, the point is that I do not believe in wasting time changing things that do not need to be changed. I seriously resist that old recourse of fantasists or the fearful: to avoid the serious challenge by simply re-engineering or re-ordering the furniture. At the heart of any change worth doing lies the fundamental question of vision: what is the end that this means is intended to achieve?

So, objections to the scheme before us are not trivial and, indeed, are necessary if we are to effectively (but realistically) stress-test the proposals for an alternative way of being. That is to say, any proposals for change need to be poked, pulled, prodded and stretched in order to identify where they are sound, where they lack, or where they open up potential that cannot yet be measured. Yet, going back to the point of my last post on this, objection should always be on the basis of an imaginative engagement with the proposals and not simply a reactive resistance arising from pique or fear.

A number of objections to the Dioceses Scheme are obvious and I will look at some of them in turn here.

'Big is not always beautiful'

The objection is that a larger diocese must be remote, unwieldy and unfamiliar – a far cry from the 'family-like' nature of the existing three smaller dioceses. Well, yes, a large diocese does feel different and brings certain challenges (as well as opportunities) not faced by smaller ones. But, sometimes big is beautiful – in the sense that it provides a wider canvas on which to paint a bigger picture.

I think I am the only senior staff member of any of the three dioceses who has direct and long experience of such a large diocese working with an area system. I spent eleven years in the Diocese of Southwark, three as Archdeacon of Lambeth and eight as (area) Bishop of Croydon. I learned a huge amount about communication, coherence, 'brand identification', structural identity and effective use of resources. The particular model of an area system worked well, but was under constant review – as will any shape emerging, if approved, in West Yorkshire and the Dales.

The suggestion that the current scheme should put in place a structure that must work completely on day one and be guaranteed to remain successfully intact for the next ten years is a complete nonsense: any shape devised will need to be re-thought as time goes by and as change happens around us. What we have to focus on is the potential of a larger diocese, broken down into an area system, to enable a larger vision for the resourcing and encouragement of parish mission and ministry, better development potential for clergy, a more coherent engagement with the area covered by the new diocese (civic, political, social, economic, etc.), and clear profiling of the Church of England in its unique vocation (working with ecumenical partners, who, incidentally, support this scheme).

Ecclesiology and area bishops

The scheme proposes a diocesan bishop (who would also be the Area Bishop of Leeds – a mistake, in my view) and four other area bishops (Bradford, Ripon, Wakefield and Huddersfield). How would the diocesan bishop know and be known by the people in his parishes?

Well, that is an interesting one. Of course, it begs the question how well known are the diocesan bishops by the parishes in the existing dioceses – and the judges of this should not be the diocesan bishops themselves! If I have 165 churches in around 130 parishes and aim to be in at least one of them every week,… work it out. Yet, we speak of 'knowing' and 'being known'. We need a bit of realism here: the diocesan bishop needs to 'order' the diocese in such a way that (a) clergy are properly appointed and pastorally resourced – and let's not romanticise the limitations of that, (b) communicate effectively with all parts of the diocese, using all the resources available judiciously and adventurously, (c) be out and about in the parishes and institutions – listening, learning, questioning, encouraging, challenging, articulating the good news and inspiring (which comes down to more than just role, office and structure). This involves systematic and realistic prioritising – nothing new there, then.

Currently, the diocesan bishop cannot be everywhere and, so, exercises his episkope through colleagues such as suffragan bishops (except in Bradford where I don't have one), archdeacons, area deans, diocesan secretaries, and so on. Indeed, the parish system assumes that a 'vicar' is exercising in the particular parish the ministry that belongs essentially to the bishop. So, how would the area system proposed be any different in kind?

In a larger diocese the ordering of these matters is done through having smaller episcopal areas, each led by an area bishop (who is as much a bishop as the diocesan bishop!) working with a cathedral dean/minster vicar and an archdeacon. If the right people are appointed to these posts (and the same question applies if we retain three dioceses), this offers clergy and parishes a strategic and pastoral leadership team that is closer to the ground, oversees a smaller territory and number, can apply itself to the particularities of that (more homogeneous) area, offer more accessible pastoral care of clergy, and inspire mission at a more local level. In practice, this means that one episcopal area might drive initiatives that would not be as applicable or effective in others… but would bring that experience and drive to the wider diocese. Such cross-fertilisation is challenging and inspiring when you work in such a context.

Of course, this allows a larger diocese to deploy people in areas who bring to the diocese as a whole their particular expertise – thus allowing the whole diocese to benefit from the particular spread of gifts and experience deployed in the areas.

There are two other elements of an area system that are worth mentioning: (a) area bishops are not automatically on the General Synod, are not in the House of Bishops, do not find themselves committed to work beyond the diocese in the same way as diocesan bishops, and, can, therefore, be more present in their area and diocese. In other words, the clergy and parishes get a better deal; (b) the bishops work as an episcopal team, ensuring both stronger mutual support/challenge and imposing a check on wild ideas, plans or judgements.

So, parishes and civic areas get two bishops: one local and one 'regional' who gain an intimate and informed understanding of life on the ground. One can be a check on the other.

Of course, as I keep saying, no structure of itself achieves anything; it all depends on how the structure is populated, led and exploited… and that comes down to the nature and abilities of the people you appoint to do it. Which, of course, is no different from the challenge we have if we remain as three separate dioceses.

Practicalities

That said, a large diocese (and before thinking this proposal is dangerously radical and untested, we need to look at the dioceses of London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Lichfield, Oxford… to name a few) means further to travel for diocesan meetings, and so on. Well, potentially, yes, of course it might. But this is hardly unique and is an odd objection. People are different – some won't travel more than to the next-door parish for a deanery meeting and others will travel further because they believe in the importance of what they are doing. There seems to be an assumption around that all diocesan meetings would be held in Leeds – but it is unclear where that assumption comes from. In other dioceses with area systems, 'central' meetings move around – partly in order to acquaint the decision-makers, both clergy and lay, of the nature of the parts of the whole diocese.

This of all other practical objections is the one that seems to me to be clutching at 'resistance straws'. How these things will work out will depend simply on the breadth of vision, sense of adventure, creative imagination and visionary energy of those who lead the new diocese. And that can't be laid down in detail before the thing comes to be.

Enough now. Change is inevitable. If the scheme does not go through, it will not be 'business as usual' in any of the three dioceses. And the (in some people's minds)'reserve option' of Bradford and Ripon& Leeds going ahead together without Wakefield is a non-starter – it does not answer in any way the question addressed by the Dioceses Commission in bringing their proposals in the first place. Going forward the questions will not go away and the need for change will not evaporate in a cloud of safety, imagined certainty or wishful thinking.

As I have kept saying, we either see ourselves as victims of change (compelled by the decisions of other people) or we shape our future by choosing change. And that means having the sort of courage to recognise that choosing anything new will bring problems, challenges, unforeseen difficulties and the perpetual pain of those people who look for opportunities to say “I told you so”. But, courageous leadership arising from vision has to be big enough to handle all that, bracket the personal stuff, press on, take responsibility… and take the incalculable risk of inspiring both church and society that we can do what Jesus always invited people to do: leave something behind in order to walk in a different direction in order to go somewhere unpredicted… and to do it all with some sense of adventure as well s attention to detail.

More anon.

Being in a place of scarcity and threat compels us to look through different eyes at our own situation and life. Gaining a first-hand acquaintance with the church in Sudan last week (as I had previously done for eleven years with the church in Zimbabwe) shone a different light not only on who we are as an Anglican church in West Yorkshire, but also how we are in our attempt to fulfil our unique calling.

Add to that a reading of Walter Brueggemann's excellent book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination and the choice before the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield takes on a different (and more radical) complexion. On 2 March the three diocesan synods will vote on whether or not to choose dissolution and the creation of a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. During the last two years we have lived with uncertainty as, first, the initial proposals were debated; second, the amended draft scheme was debated; then, third, the final scheme was presented for acceptance or rejection.

So far, no problem. The whole world lives with uncertainty and sometimes the Church needs to grow up and get real when faced with challenges or bewilderments. Uncertainty is one of the facts of life and we, of all people, should learn to live confidently with it. However, how the process has been handled during the last two years raises some important questions that precede the detailed matters of the scheme's content: they have to do with identity, vocation and vision.

Identity

Who is the church? The church must take as its narrative the sweep of the biblical story, read in the light of its experience throughout history. What we learn is that the church's institutional shape must serve its vocation and not have its vocation shaped by its inherited institutional form(s). If the church aims “to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God” – and to do this by learning the (constantly changing, moving) 'languages' of a culture that never stands still, then it must constantly be willing to sacrifice its inheritance for the sake of its mission. Indeed, this was the motivation behind the creation by the Church of England of new dioceses in the twentieth century, aimed at re-shaping the church to serve new urban communities that hadn't really been there a century before.

The proposals for West Yorkshire do the same for the twenty first century, both responding to the changes in demography, culture and communications and anticipating further changes in the century to come. It would be interesting to see what arguments were used at the time when Wakefield and Bradford were established as separate dioceses by those who thought the change would be negative, retrograde, trendy, unnecessary, unmissional, and so on. I guess they would represent a re-run of some of the 'denial rhetoric' that is being articulated now.

However, these proposals invite the Church of England in West Yorkshire (and beyond – because this could still be put to the General Synod for acceptance even if one of our dioceses votes against it on 2 March), for the first time in several generations, to do what the Church of England used to do in re-shaping itself for the sake of its declared mission.

Vocation

Who is the church for? The church's vocation is a tough one: it essentially asks us to be 'prophetic', not only in word, but in action. By 'prophetic' I mean offering the world the possibility of a different way of seeing and being… even while the old world continues and appears dominant. This is the invitation of the Old Testament prophets: to see a new world whilst the current reality was exile under a powerful empire. Not only do the prophets speak truth about now, but they use language to fire a daring imagination about a different future… a future rooted in hope. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus poses the same challenge: you can't see how the pure God can come among you again while the unholy pagans (the Roman occupying forces) remain in your land, compromising your worship and blaspheming your faith; but, dare you 'repent' (literally, 'change your mind' – see through a re-ground lens) and begin to live now as if God were present, contaminating the unholy with grace rather than being afraid of being contaminated by the bad stuff? (This is what is going on in Mark's summary of Jesus's message, mission and ministry in Mark 1:14-15.)

Walter Brueggemann draws attention to this when he writes:

… prophetic preaching is the enactment of hope in contexts of loss and grief. It is the declaration that God can enact a novum in our very midst, even when we judge that to be impossible. (P.110)

More suggestively, perhaps, he goes on (p.130f) to expose the discrepancy between what we Christians say and sing, and how we then handle prophetic demands:

There is a tacit yearning in the church for the prophetic. And so the church sings about the prophetic with some vigor… The church sings that way with hope, all the while, in practice, mostly resisting anything prophetic and really wanting no more than a status quo pastorate or priesthood, mostly wanting apostolic faith that “tells” but does not summon too much.

In other words, we don't walk the talk. In relation to West Yorkshire all parties have agreed, articulated and rehearsed the view that change needs to happen and that we cannot just continue blindly into the future. Yet, when specific change is proposed – based on thorough consultation, research and testing alternatives – some of us resist even using our imagination to see how 'a different way' might potentially look, were we to have some courage as well as convictions. What lies before us is not simply a choice about specific proposals for a single diocese, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a challenge to the integrity of our vocation as a church. Given that so-called 'alternatives' have come too late in the process, been simple reactions to specific points that, once addressed and answered (see the 'threat' to funding three cathedrals, for example), are held onto regardless or quietly dismissed in the search for another objection.

Vision

I understand what lies behind the fear of change, loss and uncertainty. (After all, if this scheme goes through, I become the first diocesan bishop to be made redundant – a prospect I don't relish, but for which I am prepared.) But, this is what the church is called to model in every generation – for our rootedness is fundamentally not in our institutional shape (as if this were directly established by God in creation), but in our courageous and prophetic faithfulness to the mission God has entrusted to us.

I will come back again to some of the specifics involved in the proposals, but for now the big question has to do with something deeper, more integral to our identity and vocation, more theological and attitudinal. A new single diocese would bring huge challenges and opportunities. There will be errors, mismanagements and failures. Risk will be felt acutely. Structures – existing or potential – achieve nothing of themselves; all depends on how people lead, work them and creatively attend to their potential as media (parameters) for enabling the vocation to be fulfilled.

I think I am not alone in Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds in wanting our decision to be driven by courage, vision, creative commitment, vocational conviction and missional invitation. We must not fail the church and the wider world by being driven by denial, fear, resentment, protectionism or self-interest.

More anon.