944136BD-7FC6-490E-8C9A-8A1AFEC2DF5COn 16 November I will be doing a gig at a pub in Pontefract with the acclaimed author of a new book on Bob Dylan. Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind fills in all the gaps around Dylan’s three-year three-album Gospel phase. It is detailed, but without ever losing the thread of what was going on for Dylan and those around him at the time.

What comes out of the book very strongly is the discrepancy between the quality of Dylan’s music and the blind prejudice of critics in the media to take it seriously. This prejudice had little or nothing to do with music and everything to do with religion.

What are we to make of music journalists who decline to take seriously the musical or lyrical integrity of their subject simply because they happen not to agree with the musician’s experience or worldview? I found this element of the book (with some faded memories of the time and the three albums: Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) intriguing as well as shocking.

However, the phenomenon itself continues to have relevance. When university students decide to no-platform someone because they don’t agree with their stance on a particular matter, aren’t they simply prioritising their own prejudices over those of the person now barred from speaking? On what basis – intellectually or morally?

OK, the leap from Dylan in 1979-81 to free speech debates in 2017 is a bit of a big one. But, is it not surely incumbent on students and journalists to have an open (not empty) mind, to enjoy the adventure of provocative new thoughts/ideas, and to identify their own prejudices with the honesty they expect from everyone else?

And before anyone suggests that a Christian like me has no leg to stand on, let me just say this: (a) almost every act of Anglican worship begins with a collective “I seriously get stuff wrong” moment – no room for self-righteous arrogance here; (b) curiosity is the key to enjoying life, the universe and everything; and, (c) certainties should always be subject to challenge – as (I think) CS Lewis put it, “if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity”.

No fear there. (more…)

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the third and final Diocesan Synod of this new diocese held in Harrogate on Saturday 18 July 2015:

This is clearly a week for endings. On Monday evening the General Synod finished its quinquennial stretch with some sense of relief that at least one of the divisive issues of the last couple of decades has now been resolved and we can move on. Today we conclude the triennial life of this Diocesan Synod. When you were elected to this synod you lived in one diocese; today you complete it in a different one.

Both synods have seen times of uncertainty, and members have had to show some vision, commitment and courage in sticking with it while the world changed around us. Therefore, I want to begin this address by thanking you and paying tribute to the maturity, wisdom and commitment you have shown during a process that has been unprecedented in the life of the Church of England. Yes, the uncertainty continues in respect of lots of areas of diocesan life, and many of those working for the diocese continue to do their work as best they can as we systematically work through setting up the structures and processes of the new diocese. Thank you for sticking with it. If the first Diocesan Synod felt like bringing three foreign bodies together, I think most people would agree that we have moved very quickly to feeling and behaving like a single synod for a single diocese.

At a time like this, when we recognise how far we still have to go, it is wise to see how far we have come. In just around one year we have appointed two new area bishops, a registrar, a chancellor, joint diocesan secretaries, a Diocesan Director of Education, a revived suffragan bishop, and adviser for church growth … and are about to appoint a Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations, and two new archdeacons. The area deans and lay chairs have taken on new responsibilities as we look at the purpose and shape of deaneries. This Synod has agreed a new form of governance, and reviews of many areas of work are well underway. And through all this we have kept the life and witness of our parishes and institutions going – in some places seeing genuine growth and renewing of vision and energy for the good news of Jesus Christ.

There are those who think we should be moving more quickly. Some of us doing the moving would agree. But, reality always compromises vision and the best strategic planning. No surprise, then, that today we will spend some time considering how we move forward together, developing, owning, articulating and implementing a vision that might shape how we shape the diocese for the future. I am pleased that Canon Paul Hackwood will bring to us an informed outside view (and critique) as we turn our minds – and our common mind – to this task.

In order to get us moving on this during the last year, I articulated the vision for the church as follows: “We want to be a vibrant diocese, with confident clergy enabling confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales”. It is a remarkably unremarkable statement – and hardly novel. In fact, if Fresh Expressions is de rigeur in the church at the moment, this is a classic stale expression of church. The problem is this: the vocation of the church has never changed since it began. Its context never stands still, but, in one sense, the vision or vocation of church has and does. Put simply, the logic of it sounds something like this: the vocation of God’s people was always to give their life in order that the world might see who God is and what God is about; this vocation was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus then commits this vocation to his body – the church – and judges the church by whether or not ( or, to what extent) we look like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. The rest is detail.

The statement of vision I articulated earlier derives from this simple understanding.

A vibrant diocese is one that vibrates. That is, it is sensitive to the breathing of the Holy Spirit – as it is to the movement in the world and cultures around it. If we want to be vibrant, then we must refrain from rigidity and allow ourselves to bend in the wind that God blows.

Confident clergy are vital. But, confidence is rooted in all sorts of things: in the Gospel itself and the inescapable (and often inconvenient) call of God; in the vocation of the Christian church, and in the particular vocation of the Church of England; in knowing that the church they serve will take them seriously and enable them to fulfil their ministry as best as possible, bringing both encouragement and challenge, freedom and discipline. This means that decisions we make about IME, CME, professional as well as theological development, pastoral support and clarity of expectation are important and need to be got right.

If our clergy are confident, they will be better able to fulfil their primary tasks of leading people and communities in prayer and worship, learning and nurture (to maturity), evangelism and outreach. If they are excited about the Bible and the life of the Spirit, then so shall they be able to encourage others. We can only inspire if we are first being inspired. Now, this is not to say that lay people are exclusively dependent on clergy for their spiritual and Christian nurture and confidence. But, it is to say that those whom we train, pay and support to minister as clergy have a particular responsibility to build the people of God as described in the Ordinal. They must be encouraged and enabled to do so. Yet, responsibility for our own discipleship lies with each of us, lay and ordained, and we cannot blame others when we get it wrong.

So, we need Christians – both lay and ordained – who are confident in God and the content of the Christian faith, confident in the church and the distinctive vocation of the Church of England, confident in the contexts in which God has put us. If our diocesan priorities need to be reordered, then this fundamental vocation must lie at the heart of them. There is no point us banging on about needing to reach out into our communities in service if we end up closing churches and having no confident Christians in our parishes to do the outreach anyway. It is not a question of ‘either-or’, but there is a contingency here that cannot be avoided.

We hear a lot in the church about how we must live out the Gospel in our lives, but shouldn’t worry too much about using words. For the record, St Francis did not tell his monks to “preach the Gospel; use words if you have to”. If he had said it, he would be wrong. We use language for everything all the time; why go quiet when it comes to the faith? What happened to Paul’s injunction to have “a reason for the hope that is within you”? I think the reason many Christians – and many Anglicans – are quiet or hesitant or lack confidence – is that they do not know the Scriptures, have not been helped to think coherently about why they believe what they believe, and have never been given the space to rehearse what such articulation of their faith sounds like. It is hard to argue in the pub if you haven’t tried it out in the church or house group. We must equip each other to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales – but, first, we need to experience it, know it and understand it.

Words and life cannot be separated. But, we have an urgent need to build up Christians in the faith so that they are theologically confident (at whatever level) to be Christian in the world we live in. This is an urgent task, and there is a plethora of resources available to help us in it.

Well, I can hear the objections even while I speak: for example, there are many other priorities and this is inward looking. No, it is not. The reason we will address the scandal of poverty this morning is not because we have some assumed political or ideological urge to do so, but because Christian theology, derived from the prophetic witness we read in the Scriptures, compels us to see people as made in the image of God and, therefore, of infinite value. Our economic and political priorities must derive from this theological anthropology. What is a human being? What is a human society? And how do we order our common life in ways that demonstrate that we believe what we say we believe?

Christians will come to different conclusions about how the scandal of poverty should be addressed. But, we cannot do or say nothing about the realities we see in too many of our parishes each day. If you haven’t done so before, I commend the book of Amos as a primer in such matters.

So, this last synod of the triennium has seen us transition into a new diocese. It gives us an opportunity to reappraise who and how we are. It allows us an opportunity to step back and think differently about why we do what we do in the ways that we do it. It invites us to renew our common vision for the present and future. As we thank God and one another for our life as an aggregate synod thus far, we pray to God and encourage one another as we shape the life of our diocese through the synod to be elected. May God bless us as we seek, in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, to enable the people among whom we live to experience and know the love and mercy of the Father – seen in the life and witness of the people who dare to bear his name and heard in the words of those who sing to his tune.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:21)

I know it sounds weird, but I always have this feeling as 31 December motors on towards midnight that we have climbed a long, high ladder… only to fall off and have to start again on the bottom rung. So, 2012 ends as 2013 appears over the horizon. The Sound of Music is on the telly, Harry Hill's Livin' the Dreem is on my lap, the world continues, but some things never change.

The Bradford Telegraph & Argus, our excellent local paper, consistently gets one thing wrong. The proposals that three dioceses in West Yorkshire should be dissolved and a single, new diocese created in 2013 presents a fantastic and creative opportunity to re-imagine and re-shape the Church of England's mission in this part of the country. Yet, despite numerous explanations and careful use of language, the T&A persists in stating that “Bradford will be subsumed into the Diocese of Leeds” and that the Bishop of Bradford will “lose his job”. This just feeds the local prejudices about Leeds and misrepresents what is proposed.

First, there is no 'Diocese of Leeds' into which the Diocese of Bradford can be 'subsumed'. Secondly, the proposal sees the dissolution of three dioceses: Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds – all three on the same terms. Thirdly, a completely new Diocese of Leeds – to be known as the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales – would then be created: a new entity and not a simple 'merger' or 'amalgamation' of three. Fourthly, I won't “lose my job”; rather, the post of (Diocesan) Bishop of Bradford would go, paving the way for a more focused (Area) Bishop of Bradford to be appointed. What happens to me is irrelevant to this; the Church is not to be held hostage to the role, 'career prospects' or security of bishops when re-shaping its organisation and ministry.

Right, got that out of my system. It isn't that hard to grasp, is it?

Anyway, 2013 remains as unknown and unpredictable as every other year, every other month, very other day in history. We live as if the past was ordered and coherent when, in fact, it never has been. We largely make it up as we go along. Assumptions that everything should continue as before should by now be seen to be a fantasy. The banking crisis caused the disappearance of pensions that people had paid into for decades; jobs with 'tenure' simply disappeared in a moment; business that looked permanent simply broke down. A contingent world inhabited by mortal human beings can change in an instant.

I am not being miserable or encouraging short-termism here. I am simply commending a reality check on our perspectives and expectations.

So, 2013 beckons. As poverty worsens and the government seems increasingly impervious to an understanding (I am avoiding the 'soft' word empathy) of how most people live, the gambling industry grows in ubiquity by the day. Might there just be the merest hint of a link between increasing poverty and the desperate illusion of instant unearned financial salvation… even against both all the odds and all experience? The new year holds no prospects of an Olympics or a Diamond Jubilee – although the prospect of Liverpool re-building under Brendan Rodgers keeps some of us going with some degree of optimism – and there doesn't seem to be a prospect of any repeat of the national celebration we saw in 2012.

What does lie ahead? Continuing inhumanity in Syria, endless suffering of Christian communities in places like Nigeria and Pakistan, relentless tribal conflict hiding behind identities labeled by race, religion or political creed. Economic austerity at home will bring challenges that can only be ignored by wilful blindness. The world will continue to face new challenges and opportunities – as it has done in every other generation. With a bit of humility, a developing sense of history (and what can be learned from it), some creative ambition and a renewed love of God and neighbour, we might just face some of these challenges with renewed ambition, creative imagination, generous humility and solidarity.

And what does the Christian gospel offer? I suggest the following:

1. Hope – rooted in a community of ordinary people who have been grasped by a refusal to consent to the assumption that death, violence and destruction have the final word in this world: God does, and it sounds something like 'resurrection'.

2. Commitment – followers of Jesus (however often we fail) cannot do other than get stuck in to the real world we inhabit: the good news is that God has, in Christ, opted into the contingent, contradictory and vulnerable messiness of the world… and refused to exempt himself from it. Christians inescapably commit themselves not only to worship and the building of the church, but to sacrificial service of their local community and the wider world.

3. Confidence – even when ridiculed or lazily dismissed by the effortlessly superior commentariat: the Christian church doesn't confuse repeated mantras of 'weakness' or 'irrelevance' with 'reality'. Whatever else happens, we won't either give up or go away. Confidence is not arrogance – it is grounded in reality coloured by hope.

So, having long ago rejected inventing soon-to-be-moved-on-from New Year Resolutions, I face the new year with the words of some largely anonymous Palestinians from two millennia ago. Mark 10 contrasts the blindness of those close to Jesus (James and John, in particular, who think godliness is all about personal status and security) with the vision of a blind man, Bartimaeus. The former see it as their job to keep Jesus from being disturbed or distracted – away from people like Bartimaeus; but, Jesus confounds their narrow little world and tells them to bring the blind man to him. So, they go to him… and these are the words that hang in my consciousness at a time of uncertainty:

Take heart, get up, he is calling you.

In other words: be encouraged and stop colluding with the fatalism and defeatism hanging in the air; don't be bound by the miserable prejudices of those who see themselves as the guardians of mercy. Now, get up, do something about it: faith is never merely notional, but has to be worked out and lived in choices and priorities and action. And don't think this is for others: he is inescapably calling me/us/you to commitment to this community of motivated people who dance to a different tune in this world – a tune that is an echo of another world.

Happy new year!

(And now back to the Sound of Music…)


Last week I interviewed fourteen ordinands prior to their ordination as priest (yesterday evening) or deacon (this morning) in Bradford Cathedral. Since Thursday they have been on retreat at the gorgeous Parcevall Hall.

One of the questions I asked them (apart from: “Why should we ordain you?”) was how they might summarise the gospel – or the biblical story – in a single sentence. It wasn't easy. But, I still remain convinced that if the church and its ministers are to communicate into a sound bite and visual culture, we must work harder at the words we use – especially when put on the spot by people who have no idea about Christian faith (even if they think they do).

One good one came after some discussion and is the sort of line that opens up, rather than shutting down, further inquisition: “You can't pin God down… but we did nail him.”

I still come back to something I once said on the radio when unexpectedly asked what was the point of the church. I simply blagged: “The job of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.”

I am open to other creative suggestions! But the point is that we need to work hard at finding and shaping language, then using it repeatedly to see how it works and if it resonates.

In similar vein, I was watching a DVD of a film about the great Leonard Cohen – my daughter and son-in-law gave it to me recently. Towards the end Cohen said with a smile: “For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone, but I acted generously and no one found me out.”



One of the things that I find most challenging about the Gospels is that they drive a coach and horses through easy assumptions about God and those who take God seriously. It’s no wonder that some Christians find Paul easier to handle (he develops arguments) than Jesus (he gives pictures).

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that we should read Paul in the light of the Gospels and not the other way round. Discuss…

Anyway, one of the glaring features of the Gospels is the way the religious leaders (usually for very good reasons) see themselves as the gatekeepers of (a) the truth and (b) access to the community that claims that truth. They end up crucifying Jesus. Clearly, one of the things that rubbed them up was Jesus being a bit unclear about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ of what we might call ‘church’ but Jesus called ‘kingdom’ (or, the place where he is ‘present’).

For example, he tells a story that says we should stop worrying so much about our own ecclesiastical purity and let the weeds grow along with the wheat – he’ll sort it all out later. In another story he encourages outrageous waste of seed – the sower is to chuck it everywhere and be surprised by what takes root where. In another image, gifts given by God are not to be preserved in isolated purity, but risked out there in the big bad world where they might even get lost or perverted. I could go on…

This might seem an odd thing to think about when Liverpool have just this very afternoon shown great humility in losing at home to Spurs. (And writing this is not a form of distraction therapy. Honest.) But, it was sparked by an excellent sermon in Bradford Cathedral this morning by the excellent Dean, David Ison. Maybe this is blatantly obvious to everyone else in Christendom, but … a gate is not the same as a gatekeeper.

Jesus described himself in John’s Gospel as ‘the gate’ through which the sheep enter. A gatekeeper usually sees it as his (or her) job to keep people out – discriminating, sifting, excluding those who aren’t fit or won’t fit. A ‘gate’ doesn’t engage in such activity.

Now, I don’t for one minute think this means that anything goes (the charge usually levelled at anyone who is less worried about their own purity than opening the gate to as many people as are willing to go through it). But, it does put a question mark over how we see the church and the role of those of us committed to building, growing, defending or maintaining the church.

For myself, I am less worried about the purity of those who go through the gate and more concerned to open the gate of the Kingdom of God (that is, into the presence of the God we see in Jesus) to as many people as possible. (After all, they let me in…) It seems to me that Jesus said it was his job then to sort out later the mess that might ensue. In other words, we religious professionals need to keep a check on our protective and defensive instincts and make sure we don’t lose sight of what we are here for in the first place: to open the gate to God’s presence where his love, mercy, generosity might be experienced in a community whose experience this is.

A hallmark of the first Pentecost community of Christians was their ‘glad and generous hearts’. It is pretty obvious that this isn’t always the rumour about the church outside the church. But, it would be a good one to develop.

I don’t often post notes of churchy stuff I have been doing. But this last week has been full of it: three-day Southwark Bishop’s Staff Residential followed by a horrendous journey up north to address the National Deaneries Conference at Swanwick last night. I managed to fit in the Chris Evans Show (with the very nice Richard Madeley) in the morning before heading out of the Smoke.

The address last night was aimed at helping those involved in the ‘local’ structures of the Church to keep their focus on (a) who and what the Church is there for, (b) whom the ‘structures’ are supposed to serve, and (c) where the heart of the Kingdom (presence) of God is to be found. Basically, it looked something like this:

  • Structures of themselves achieve and change nothing. It is the people who work them who make a difference… or hide behind the structures as a form of self-justifying ‘distraction therapy’.
  • There are two approaches to ‘law’ in the life of the Church: (a) ask what the law allows us to do, or (b) ask what we want to achieve and then work out how to make the law allow us to get there. One approach is creative; the other is defensive.
  • Fiddling with church structures (size of deaneries, for example) can be like painting the pipes on the Pompidou Centre without asking if the air is actually flowing through them…
  • So, why do we have deaneries? What are they for? Who are they for? We have to go back to the fundamental vocation of the Church – which I simplify as: ‘to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God’. This picks up on Moltmann’s intriguing:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

The bible is full of humour and seriousness in its warnings to us about losing track of our fundamental vocation and purpose:

  • Israel (the people of God), called to show the world who and how God is, mistakes responsibility (to give up its life) for privilege (look at us, we are special). The prophets call them back to their vocation (see the Servant Songs of Isaiah). Jesus fulfils what was always the calling of Israel – then charges his people to ‘be him’ in their world.
  • Jonah is classic: shown the generosity of God (grace), he does not want to extend this to people he doesn’t like (Ninevites). It’s all about grace and generosity and God’s faithfulness even where we are miserable.
  • James & John constantly misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s Kingdom, but he doesn’t despair of them. (I made a case for their father, Zebedee, being a better model of discipleship than the two brothers.)
  • The guys on the Emmaus Road are met by a risen Jesus who walks alongside them, starts with questions (not statements), meets them where they are, then re-tells their story in a new way – one which makes their hearts burn within them. Their worldview had no place for a dead messiah; Jesus re-shaped it and they saw the difference.
  • Jesus was essentially Anglican. Clergy and parishes are thrown together by geographical proximity (deaneries) and their witness is how they get on together despite their differences of culture, style, language or theology. This reflects the disciples in the Gospels: Jesus does the calling, they do the following… together. They don’t get a veto on who else Jesus calls.

This all leads to a question of how we identify the purpose of deaneries and structures as servants of the Gospel and not masters of the message/life. Mark 1:14-15 sums up the ‘good news of God’ as: (a) God is present even while the Romans (i.e. all the messiness, oppression, unresolved stuff of life and the world) remain. God is not simply to be found where everything is resolved and made nice. Read the Gospels! (b) Dare we look at God (and his presence/activity) differently in order to see (God, the world and us) differently in order to think differently in order to live differently?

These questions will help us better focus on how we run our deaneries and to what end. They will also raise questions about whether we have the right people leading our deaneries.

I should have finished with encouragement from the slow-witted friends of Jesus when (in Mark 10) they were instructed to bring the blind man Bartimaeus to Jesus (rather than see their mission being to protect Jesus…):

Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.

Still reflecting on engagement with the media, I am also thinking about Berlin.

I’m reading Francis Wheen‘s brilliant new book, Strange Days Indeed – a romp through the 1970s, the decade of my teenage formation. This was the height of the Cold War and the time I was beginning to learn about German politics and the division of Europe. I still regret that, having studied German politics seriously at university and having lived and worked as a technical translator in (West) Germany, I never made it to Berlin while the Wall was up. But, at the beginning of January I will be spending four days there with my youngest son who is studying history and politics at university. (I notice he seems to have nicked from home some of my books on German history/politics and Berlin…)

The reason for this rambling introduction will become clear in a moment when I pull some threads of thought together. But, the thinking really began last week when I read Evelyn Waugh‘s novel about Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. In this book (which a friend lent me – I had never heard of it before) Helena questions the Imperial Wall that Rome was building to keep out the barbarians. Questioning the defensive assumptions being made by the Roman powers, she asks:

Instead of the barbarians breaking in, might the City one day break out?

This reminded me of a conversation on a farm near Gweru in Central Zimbabwe. The cattle dip was standing unused and we, the English visitors, were interested to know why. The problem seemed to be that even if the cattle were dipped, they then got undipped cattle from neighbouring farms coming in and contaminating all the others. So, they were waiting until they had the money to build a fence that would keep out the potentially diseased cattle and protect their own.

One of our number (a Zimbabwean expat) suggested a solution: ‘Why don’t you invite all the neighbouring cattle owners to bring their cattle through the dip, charge them a small sum – and thereby you keep all the local cattle healthy, you make a bit of an income from dipping the neighbours’ cattle and you avoid the unnecessary expense of the fence?’ Everyone wins. This suggestion met with astonished staring. But, it was the off-the-wall sort of insight that was needed.

Helena was not interested in defence and protection, but in getting the ‘good stuff’ out there in order to make the barbarian world better. If the Gweru cattle farmers could think about positive engagement with the local/wider world, they would get their protection as a by-product. The German Democratic Republic was bound to fail because walls designed to keep people in (protection of sorts) never work. Israelis and Palestinians might also need to recognise that security requires the interests of both parties to be secured – or at least brought into the equation.

Jacques Ellul, a French theologian and jurist wrote a book in 1962 called The Meaning of the City. In it he questions the significance in Genesis 4 of the murderer Cain’s decision (having been expelled from ‘home’) to settle in the Land of Nod, build a city and call it Enoch. His conclusion is that all human beings, caught in the great expanse of human meaninglessness, build walls around themselves and their immediate relationships and worldview, thus giving them a ‘place’ in the universe by which other people and things have a sense of significance or proportion. The question he raises (which I have addressed in a couple of my own books, principally Hungry for Hope?) has to do with what happens when the walls – designed to protect – get breached and we are faced with a choice: (a) re-build the wall, but even thicker this time so that it won’t get breached again and our ‘world’ can remain undisturbed, or (b) poke our heads out and see what the bigger (and potentially scarier) world outside actually looks like? Of course, the ‘scarier’ world might, in fact, hold wonders and glories and opportunities hitherto never imagined…

For me all this comes together in the fact that the Jesus of the Gospels seemed to spend his time angering and frustrating the purists who saw their duty to God consisting in keeping the protective walls strong. Eventually they crucified him. Instead, however, Jesus seemed to think he should contaminate the ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ world with grace and love and generosity and mercy and joy and hope and goodness.

In relation to the media and the Church’s enagagement with the public discourse, I think this says that we should be unafraid of getting outside the walls and contaminating the world with the goodness and grace and mercy of God – even if we get roughed up along the way by both sides, those who think we’ve sold out from our own ‘camp’ and those who think we are intruding on territory that does not belong to us.

It’s a messy business, but I/we need the imagination, guts and sense of adventure to not retreat into ‘safe’ territory (whihc, of course, never is safe), but run all the risks of getting out there and facing the uncertainties of what might lie in wait for us. And, if we are going to do it, we had better enjoy the experience.

I was out this morning doing a Confirmation Service at St John, Shirley, and will be out again this evening at a village called Woodmansterne. The Gospel reading for the day is the latter part of John 2 and I tried in the sermon to explain how John’s Gospel works. I did so by explaining how, when you think you’ve got God and the Bible in your grasp, they have a knack of slicing through your defences like Gerrard past Vidic. Just when you think everything is settled, something gets lobbed over your head… as Van der Sar found out when Dossena volleyed neatly into the net for Liverpool’s fourth goal against Manchester United yesterday. And sometimes, even when you know you’ve been found out, you still hold to your original thesis (like Alex Ferguson calling his guys ‘the better team’ after a 4-1 home defeat to the team you resent most) because letting go of it would simply be too threatening.

5757510GYI0000531890.jpgIn his book Flat Earth News Nick Davies writes about a study of how reporters tried to cover a story of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. They could not get it published for eighteen months until pictures emerged from Abu Ghraib. The primary story related to some research following up an official announcement that a prisoner had died in custody because he had a weak heart. His death certificate, once tracked down, gave his cause of death as ‘homicide’. The story was filed in February 2003, ‘but the New York Times would not run it.’

No one seems quite sure why the story couldn’t get printed, but Davies comments that ‘the most senior people on the paper insisted that it was improbable’ – that ‘the story didn’t fit the running narrative of the US as a force for good’ (p. 148). In other words, the mental wallpaper of the people in charge did not have a pattern for this possibility, so it got filtered out. If the fact didn’t fit the worldview, it was the fact that had to change (or, at least, get parked out of view for a while).

I think this is what happens to us when we read the Bible – especially when we take it with the utmost seriousness and see it as ‘God’s Word’. We read the particular texts through a particular hermeneutical filter and then try to make sense of all the pieces insofar as they fit into that framework. The problem, however, is that the frameworks never quite work and we find ourselves ‘blanking’ the bits that don’t fit the picture we have been given. We can’t let God be horrible in the same way that Ferguson can’t let Liverpool be a better team than his.

the-holy-bibleThis is where the dominant narrative (or metanarrative) comes in. In my view (and I put this forward for argument) the ‘big picture’ needs to be kept open and big and under scrutiny. That’s why a credo such as that by David Jenkins is helpful in keeping the broad framework simple enough for the complicated stuff to fit it: ‘God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope.’ Defending at all costs the filter through which I read the text is an action based on fear: fear that if one card is removed, the whole building will collapse. I think we should lose the fear and trust in the God the Bible speaks about – whose presence is to be seen ultimately on a cross.

I realise this also is too brief and the bald statements are open to argument. But, unless we are prepared to risk our ‘reading’ of Scripture by looking at it from other perspectives, it will always be a closed book of static dogmas based on stories that (unlike every other story in the world) allow for only a single interpretation or narration.

Which brings me back to the assertion that if God has indeed chosen to speak through texts, he must have known how texts work and intended for us to explore them accordingly. That’s what makes reading the Bible such an unendingly fascinating and challenging task: there is always the possibility of learning something new that subverts what I had previously thought was fixed. It is one’s openness to that possibility that makes reading the Bible something to be commended.