So, the new year has begun. In with a bang, or with a whimper of fear and hesitation?

I was reminded this morning (while preparing for a radio interview) of the entry for New Year’s Day 1917 in the diary of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” Well, the Somme might have been appalling, but the Russian Revolution was to take the lives of Nicholas and his family (and, consequently and ultimately, millions of others) less than a year after writing his diary.

Wishful thinking is not the same as hope. Hope – which has to be vested in a vision – commits the hopeful to work towards the fulfilment of that vision. Hope has little to do with optimism: whereas optimism looks for the bright side in what happens, hope looks reality in the eye and is not diminished when that reality renders optimism as fantasy.

2017 will see the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the quincentenary of the Reformation. Both revolutions set Europe and the world ablaze. The language of freedom and a new world order exploded as an old order was challenged and assumptions (about why the world is the way it is) were questioned. And they remain pertinent as we move from 2016 into 2017.

2016 saw the rocking of an established order as the UK voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. Further elections in France and Germany in 2017 have the potential to further reshape Europe and the international relationships that have held the world together since the Second World War. ‘Populism’ is the word of the day – either an accolade or a term of derision, depending on whether you approve of the what the populace asked for. Whatever the choice, we face two questions: (a) 2016 showed us how easy it is to bring down; 2017 will show us whether we know how to build up. (b) we are where we are (regardless of how we got here), so how can we commit to shaping the future rather than bemoaning the past?

Photo-20161129151817817.jpgIt takes centuries to build a culture and a community; it takes minutes to destroy it. Look at Aleppo. If the commentariat is correct in judging that Brexit and Trump represent a rejection of ‘establishment’ and ‘elites’ (that is, we know what we are against), then what are we for? Put to one side the worrying irony that the articulators and leaders of the anti-establishment and anti-elitist movements are themselves the epitome of establishment and elitism, we have to ask what we wish to replace the current establishment with. My guess is that those who found common cause in ‘breaking down’ will struggle to find common cause in what they wish to see ‘built up’.

I come back to the distinction between wishful thinking and hope – the former leaving it to others to shape (as it is easier constantly to criticise and pick holes in those who try to bring about change) whilst the latter invest themselves sacrificially in making a positive difference even where this might be diminished or rejected. This is why, following Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified for it, Christians are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

We do not know what 2017 will bring. We can fear for a (worryingly narcissistic) Trump presidency and we can come to terms with the sheer complexity of what Brexit might turn out to look like (with “the best deal” not being achievable?), but, ultimately, we will have to face the consequences of the decisions we have made whilst committing ourselves to shaping a common future in which the poor and marginalised are not left behind. Brexit is usually defined in terms of economics, trade and finance; it has to be about people, society, values and the common good of the whole nation.

We don’t know how the future might look. We do not know whether further Aleppos will curse our global humanity in 2017 – or whether revolutions might come where they have not come before. We cannot be sure what the impact of Trumpian protectionism and disregard for the environment will be. We must join in the argument as adults who take responsibility, even when the decisions do not go their way.

A reading of history makes clear that ‘now’ is never ultimate. Tomorrow will come. We must, as a people of hope, live in the reality of the day, learning from the past but drawn by a vision for and from the future, committed to shaping and not just complaining. “The Word became flesh (and dwelled among us)”, wrote John in the prologue of his gospel; our words will become flesh – one way or another – and we must take responsibility for them. Then we must use them to shape a vision that captures the imagination
and is not swayed by events, fears, conflict or destruction.

It is not enough to know what we are against, and to be angry about it; we must know what we are for, and commit ourselves to making it happen. Building up is always harder than breaking down.

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I am currently at Hope University, Liverpool, for the first clergy conference of the Diocese of Leeds. Nearly 400 clergy have crossed the Pennines, beginning yesterday with input from me (setting the scene: a theology of hope, an anthropology of hope, a hopeful ecclesiology, and a hopeful missiology) and the Dean of Salisbury, June Osborne. Ignore the 'ologies' – we were basically looking at what it is (or should be) that fires and shapes us as a church. June did a brilliant job of opening up challenging thoughts about how the church negotiates its own missional agenda in a world that is going through a serious and far-reaching paradigm shift.

Today we have the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, leading us in a Bible study – tomorrow we have the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool doing similar.

It is a funny feeling for me being back where I grew up, where my parents and other family members still live, and on a site where I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. The university is excellent and we could not have chosen a better conference venue.

This morning we have two presentations on the theme of 'Science, the Cosmos and Human Meaning'. Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson will then follow up their presentations with a conversation mediated by me. After lunch there will be a question and answer session with the two scientists.

Why do this? I want us to model how to have a serious and respectful conversation, listening to the generous clarity of Brian Cox as he engages with theologian and astrophysicist David Wilkinson. I want us as clergy to step out from our territory and catch a glimpse of some of the debates going on around us – perhaps even prompting us to re-think how we engage as clergy and churches with the agendas set by the world beyond our walls and our own preoccupations.

We'll see. A report will emerge on the diocesan website (and, depending on time) maybe here later.

 

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate. It comes in the wake of the atrocity in Nice and the failure of an attempted military coup in Turkey last night.

Earlier this week the bishops met for our monthly meeting at Hollin House. We always begin with a Eucharist, have breakfast, then do Bible study together before attending to the business before us. Obviously, we have a rota for leading the Bible study, and this week it was the turn of Bishop Toby, just a few days before he will be leaving for a visit to Sudan representing the Archbishop of Canterbury – of which more later.

Bishop Toby took us to Jeremiah 32 and the iconic story of prophetic hope: Jeremiah buys a field at Anathoth. Nothing odd about that? Just a wily old man playing the Ancient Near East version of the Stock Exchange? No. Jeremiah buys his field, places both the sealed and unsealed deeds in an earthenware jar, then has it buried in the field. Why? Because this looks like an absurd investment and Jeremiah looks mad.

The context is this. Society – and what we today might refer to as political and economic life – is about to fall apart. The Empire is closing in and the future looks bleak. Horizons have narrowed and people are looking increasingly short-term. They are, to reverse a phrase I often use of Easter, being driven by fear and not drawn by hope. And it is now that Jeremiah buys a field and hides the deeds and, in this quiet prophetic act, votes for hope. The end might be nigh, but the prophet catches a glimpse of a new future and, when others look down, he dares to invest in that future. Now is not the end.

This seems to me to be very apposite at a time when we live with huge uncertainties in both nation and church. Whether you voted Remain or Leave in the recent EU Referendum is not the point. We are where we are and we must take responsibility for the future and our shaping of it. It is infantile to sit on the sidelines, sure of superior wisdom, sniping at those working for the future and taking no responsibility for it. And Christians in particular are called, whatever the circumstances, to voice hope, live hope, and illustrate hope. (I am not sure now is the best time to buy a field and bury the deeds, but you get the point.)

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann is well worth going to for biblical and theological insights into the role and language of God's people at times of pressure or exile. One of his books is called 'Hopeful Imagination'; another 'The `Practice of Prophetic Imagination'. A third, with the subtitle 'Listening to Prophetic Voices', is titled 'Texts that Linger, Words that Explode'. These titles by themselves sum up the vocation of God's people, whether three thousand years ago at Anathoth or here in England in the twenty first century: to be a people of hope, drawn by a hope that comes to us from the future (and in which light we now live), articulating and giving a vocabulary for hope, acting and living hopefully at the heart of a society that is too easily driven by fear.

It will come as no surprise to you that I am particularly keen on how we articulate Christian hope, even where it looks absurd, even where it defies the evidence of “now” with the promise of “then”. What Brueggemann is asking us to do is to use words and actions to capture the imagination of a people so that they look beyond the immediate crises and dangers to a future that only God knows. Whether, despite our faithfulness and fidelity, and like Jeremiah the miserable but hopeful prophet, we head off into exile and the loss of everything that gives our life meaning – with all the sense of loss and betrayal and despair that involves – or life goes well and we prosper like never before, our vocation will be the same: to speak and live hopefully, holding out to people locked into “now” the possibility of God's future.

Now, I have taken some time on this at the beginning of this address because we need as a diocese and a synod of that diocese to root our deliberations in a theology that is strong enough to bear the weight of uncertainty. Theology is never merely academic, though we honour those whose academic attentions enlighten the rest of us. The point here, however, is that we need to sharpen more than our intellects, and have our imagination captured by the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who, as Matthew tells us, is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

So, whether we are happy with Brexit or not, whether we are fearful of the future or not, whether we are obsessed with particular hobby horses or relatively indifferent to matters that are deemed crucial by other people, we are called to hold the detail – the particular – in the light of the broader and longer-term vision. Will our debates and deliberations today demonstrate that our imagination has been captured by a prophetic vision? Or will we just go away satisfied that we have done some business?

Today we address some very important matters. What are our responsibilities towards those who, regardless of their own views and commitments, take up arms to defend us – even when our politicians demand that they serve in conflicts with which they do not agree? More particularly, what are our responsibilities to serve them once they have left the armed forces, but are themselves left with traumas, memories, disabilities or broken relationships? It can be tempting to think that this applies to areas around Catterick, but not, perhaps, to places where the Forces are not immediately located. Yet, it is highly probable that there are ex-servicemen and women in almost every parish in our diocese. How should we care for them as our response to them having fulfilled their part in serving to defend us?

Of course, for the church in every parish to offer such care to those in need (when they need such care) we need the church to be there in the first place. We know many parishes in both urban and rural areas face challenges in relation to the maintenance or development of buildings. In the next few years the number of stipendiary clergy available to lead our parishes will reduce. The models we have employed for several generations or more will no longer work – and we must address this in the years ahead. But, what is fundamental to any approach to deployment of ministries is the cash to fund it all. To put it crudely: if we don't want it, we won't pay for it; and if we don't pay for it, we won't have it. The parish share goes to paying our clergy: if it doesn't come in, it can't go out.

So, today, after much detailed work and revision, having worked through a number of options and gone through the implications of each, we must decide whether or not to approve a new Parish Share system for our diocese. Three old systems could not simply be combined – and the creation of our diocese allowed for a new consideration of many options best fitted for this new entity going forward. What is clear in any such proposal is that not everybody will be happy. This is reality. But, if I dare invoke the prophetic imagination mentioned earlier, does what is proposed allow us to move to the next stage of our diocesan life and mission? That is the question.

However, the church, however it is funded, and the ministry, however it is shaped and ordered, is whistling into the wind if it speaks and acts as if in some spiritual isolation unit, accountable only to itself. Our biblical theology begins with creation and ends with new creation. The future of the earth is a matter of massive import when most of the world's scientists are clear about the impact of human behaviour on the climate. Some of our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion have got rather tired of disputes about sex when their habitat is disappearing, their economies are collapsing and their future is in serious doubt.

Too big to get our heads around? Tempting, isn't it? But, we must be a responsible people who do our bit of Anathoth not only to invest in a future, but to shape ourselves accordingly. So, we will consider a Green Energy Saving Scheme, and we need to see in our decision where the prophetic language and action lie. Remember, the 'prophetic' is not the same as 'fantasy'.

But, whatever we do has to be paid for. I want to pay serious tribute to colleagues who have slaved over financial matters during the last two and a bit years since we were born as a diocese. It has been difficult bringing three systems together and trying to forge a meaningful future with numbers that were accounted for differently in historic dioceses. As I have constantly reiterated, we are on track to start 2017 with our structural foundation in place and with clarity about the resources at our disposal. We ended 2014 legal, operational and viable – which was not a forgone conclusion. We spent 2015 keeping the show on the road while reviewing all aspects of diocesan ministry and mission, aiming to propose a new shape for a new diocese. This process has not been easy for those whose jobs or roles were caught up in the seemingly endless, but unavoidable, uncertainty. This year we have been starting the processes of re-shaping, building on our new governance structures and developing our vision for prioritising our mission across the diocese and episcopal areas. We are nearly there, but the debates we have today, and the decisions we make, will allow us to be clear about where we start from on 1 January 2017. We will move into the new diocesan office in late September, bringing our administration under a single roof for the first time.

I pay tribute to all in this diocese who have worked so hard to get us to the starting blocks – a task and challenge for which we should all be grateful. But, 2017 does see us at the beginning and not the end. Personally, I will feel able to look up and out in a way that has not been possible thus far because of the sheer volume of work needed to get the foundation established upon which the rest of the building might be erected in the future. So, 2017 sees us clear about who we are – the Diocese of Leeds -, how we are shaped, what resources we have decided to apply to our mission, and how all this shall be funded and administered most effectively. But, that only means that we can then turn our attention to bedding it all in, inviting the scrutiny we require, looking to the medium-term, looking seriously and radically at how we wish to deploy our clergy and lay ministers in the future, constantly re-assessing our priorities and behaviours, not confusing ends with means, and ensuring that at every level of the diocese's life we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear or particular interest.

So, I want to conclude by drawing us back to the wider context in which we do our particular business today. As I said at the beginning, Bishop Toby will soon leave for Sudan to take part in an ACC consultation about whether Sudan should form a Province of the Anglican Communion separate from South Sudan. Currently there is one church across two countries, and South Sudan is collapsing into conflict. Our partnership link is with the five dioceses of Sudan where the church is coping with almost insurmountable demands to cope with refugees, feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the naked. We will be involved in any future support for our sister church in Sudan … where the challenges are beyond enormous. As we do our business today, conscious of our responsibility towards refugees here (and we will debate a very practical response to this later), we send Bishop Toby to give our love to Archbishop Ezekiel and his colleagues, to promise our prayer and support, and to take with him our gratitude for our partnership in the Gospel.

Now, let us turn to business, but with a prophetic imagination that dares us to shape our thinking, our listening, our speaking and our hearing in a way that might be described as godly.

Turkey is not nice just now. And Nice is not how it sounds to English ears.

This is not facetious. The terrorist atrocity in Nice last night and the military coup in Turkey tonight are phenomena that should not surprise us. Look back in history and things constantly change. We just happen to find the latest revolution in world affairs the most frightening.

Which is not to minimise what is going on. It is simp,y to recognise that terror is always there. That regimes are regularly challenged or overthrown.

But, it is also to recognise that, notwithstanding the rejection of this by the Brexiters in recent weeks, the post-war peace in Europe is not to be taken for granted. Civilisation is fragile. Democracy is thin. What takes decades or centuries to build up can be demolished in minutes.

I tweeted earlier that we should not be driven by fear, but drawn by hope. For Christians this means not guaranteeing circumstances of comfort or convenience, but, whatever our circumstances, living now in the light of a hope that comes to us from the future: resurrection and new creation.

To be drawn by hope is simply to live now in the light of what is to come, and not to be fearful. This is not fantasy or wishful thinking. It is a deliberate choice to dance to a different tune – to march to a different beat. And it means not being afraid.

 

This is the text of the morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2:

I think I'm probably not alone in having from time to time a song going round my head that I can't shake off. Not that I want to, particularly, but it can sometimes be a distraction when you're supposed to be concentrating on something else and the song keeps interrupting.

The one that's buzzing through my consciousness this week sounds a bit twee, but it isn't really. It's a Bruce Cockburn song called 'Don't forget about delight'. Basically, it recognises that the world we live in is complicated, that the news crowding in on us from all sides is usually bad, that the world can often look a bit bleak. But, says the poet, don't forget about delight.

It seems to me that this is a necessary reminder, a timely prompt. To use a different metaphor, the darkest night can be illuminated by the faintest light. Or, as someone else put it, don't just curse the darkness – light a flame.

I picked up a book recently called Hope without Optimism. It's written by Terry Eagleton and makes an important distinction. Optimism is, in one sense, wishful thinking – a belief that things will get better. Hope goes deeper and is more realistic. Hope doesn't depend on a set of circumstances working out, but keeps us constant whatever the circumstances life throws at us. That's why Christian hope is rooted in the character and person of God, not in a formula for a successful life.

So, I go along with both Bruce Cockburn and Terry Eagleton – the poet and the professor. When the darkness crowds in I need to remember not to forget about delight. When the news is dominated by fear and cruelty, I must spot where love and light burn through and refuse to be extinguished. When horizons begin to narrow, I can open my eyes to the rich possibilities that lie ahead – even if hidden at the moment.

So, hopeful rather than optimistic. And, whatever else happens, never forgetting about delight. And I am quite happy for such a song to haunt my memory and imagination, making me restless for the light.

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It doesn't seem that long since we were doing this last year: looking back at the old and wondering what the new year will hold. Many people in my part of the world will be hoping for better weather and, if that fails, at least better flood defences. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was surely right when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Well, looking forwards tells me that in Europe 2016 won’t be boring. Among other things, we’ll commemorate the centenary of the Somme – where a whole generation of young men (vast numbers from northern towns and cities) was sacrificed on the altar of violence. Then there’s the likely referendum on membership of the European Union which should remind us of where the drive for union began a century ago. And let's not forget the European football Championships in the summer – where we can only hope the goals go in the right direction.

Tomorrow is always an unknown country. This month the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in London and make decisions about how to belong together in the future. The divisions are no secret. The outcome is, obviously, unknown. What is certain, however, is that the future might not look exactly like the past.

Now, that’s a bit of a truism. But, every human community has to comprehend difference of opinion and competing priorities. Yes, we can walk away from the discomfort of conflict; or, we can face reality and harness it for honest conversation. Difference matters.

Later this month I will be visiting Anglicans in Tanzania where our diocesan partnership links are strong. We have equally strong links with Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the United States. What these relationships do is compel Christians in very different contexts and with vastly different histories and cultures to look through the eyes of the other and feel through the skin of the other. What we take for granted when we talk about God, the world and us gets challenged by looking through the eyes of a very different people. This also means exposing our own prejudices and discovering just how much of our theology turns out actually to be cultural assumption.

So, difference is integral to all human life. We either face it hopefully … or we simply wish it away. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking; hope refuses to let go in the face of even fierce discomfort.

Writing about the prophets, one Old Testament theologian titled a book 'Texts that linger, words that explode'. Well, maybe relationships sometimes explode, but words have a habit of hanging around – the conversation always has further to go. The texts that linger form a conversation that can’t be silenced.

A hopeful 2016 is one that faces reality and keeps talking.

This is the text of the sermon preached on BBC Radio 4 at Ripon Cathedral in the Christmas Day service at 9am:

It was only very recently that I heard about the tradition at Ripon Cathedral of giving out apples at the end of the Christmas service. I bet the kids can't wait for Easter when they'll get chocolate instead.

I'm now wondering what hidden traditions the other two cathedrals in this diocese have stored up for today. But, given all the traditions that accompany Christmas, at least Ripon still has the power to surprise. Apples on Christmas Day. Really.

Yet, this is what Christmas is supposed to do to us: surprise us … with the presence of God – what John in our gospel reading calls “his glory” – where we least expect it. After all, the people we read about in the original nativity stories had been longing for this – to know that they had not been abandoned, and that God would be among them again. Decades of military occupation by the Roman imperial forces had driven deep the stain of humiliation – the Creator of the Universe apparently defeated by the pagan gods of power and caprice. Where was God to be found when all the evidence of experience and our eyes tells us that he is not here … where we are?

Well, there is a theme running through the biblical story, and it isn't particularly comfortable. For people who think that God is only present where everything is sorted, every problem resolved, every indicator positive, Christmas becomes the epitome of embarrassment. For here, in the birth of the baby in Bethlehem, we are dared to look differently … and see God among us while everything in life remains a mess. The Romans are still here, still fleecing the people, still crucifying the protestors. Life is cheap. And pagan victory is rubbed in the faces of the poor, deluded people who keep hope alive in the face of 'reality'.

But, the people among whom God comes in Jesus of Nazareth are invited to re-think reality – not to be optimists, just hoping everything will somehow get better for them, but hopers who see through the transience of today's powers to the haunting shadow of God's smile: I am for you – Emmanuel, I am with you. Not to make everything nice and tidy. Not to take you out of the world's mess. But, to come to you and stay with you – right where you are, whatever happens, however long history takes.

And this is what goes to the heart of Christmas. God appears not to invade the present in a display of power and glory, but to be born as each of us has been born, and to slip into a tired, complicated, threatening and unsuspecting world at a particular time and in a particular place. No God of generalities or airy-fairy spirituality here – just one who gets stuck in, is down to earth, and who opts in to all that the real world is, and does not exempt himself from it. For those whose world has changed at Kellingley Colliery last week and the Redcar steel industry in recent months, this is particularly relevant where practical hope has to be encouraged and nurtured in the months and years ahead.

Let's just pause for a moment and think about who it was who got invited to the first viewing of the scrap of humanity lying in the feeding trough in that obscure town in that obscure part of the ancient empire. Shepherds are workers, doing their stuff out on the hills, minding their own business, expecting nothing. Yet, they, the religious outsiders, are first to get a Christmas surprise. Later – probably several years later – it is pagan astrologers who come in from the cold in search of something they probably expected to find somewhere more interesting or significant. Again, outsiders to the religious establishment of the time.

It's as if we are being surprised by a God who somehow climbs around the secure walls of our expectations and slips through our prejudices – especially the prejudices about God favouring either our pet religious projects or our self-condemning hesitations about our own worthiness. No, here we hear God whispering about a new way, meeting us where we are, but opening our eyes to a glimpse of living in a new world right in the heart of this world – opening our ears to the haunting echo of a different melody, a rhythm that invites a different dance.

That's what was happening in Bethlehem that night. And that is what we are celebrating this morning. Not just the warm familiarity of a myth that makes us feel better, or the reminder of a fantasy that temporarily anaesthetises us from the horrors and uncertainties of our complicated lives. But, the invasion in the present – as it is – of a new and surprisingly realistic hope.

In fact, the invitation of Christmas might be summed up as this: we need no longer be driven by fear, but can be drawn by hope.

Why? Well, simply because the hope we will glimpse in Jesus as he grows from the baby of Bethlehem to the man of Calvary is one that is shaped not by some formula for self-improvement, nor some political or military project for sorting out the “wrong sorts of people”; rather, it is rooted in the person of God whose face we will see in Jesus and in whose person we will be dared to trust.

Drawn by hope, not driven by fear. In this world, but not of it. Down to earth, but not bound by earth. Invited not to escape from the real world, but, trusting in the faithfulness of God, to plunge ourselves into the depths of the real world as it is now.

So, today we should be tempted – not by apples, perhaps; that one didn't end so well, after all, did it? – to be surprised by the smile of God in the midst of experience. To see in this baby the seed of an inconceivable fruitfulness – that even in and through us, where we are , how we are, as we are, God might give birth to a tiny glimpse of that light that no darkness can extinguish.

A happy Christmas, indeed.