This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which dementia was one of the themes chosen by guest editor Carey Mulligan:

When I was a Vicar in Leicestershire I was constantly surprised by visits to elderly people who suffered from some form of dementia. Now usually silent, play a harvest hymn or sing a Christmas carol and they would join in. I well remember the agony of a wife no longer recognised by her husband, and her bemusement when he broke his silence and started singing.

With dementia it seems as if the person we love has entered a different world, and it is those who remember all too well who feel the deep sense of loss and bereavement.

Some things go very deep. And when all else has become submerged into a different sort of consciousness, a vestige of deeper identity sometimes survives. Is it just the poetry? Or the tune? Or what?
These are not insignificant questions for anyone coping consciously with the onset of their own dementia or the almost-disappearance of someone they have loved for decades. When our memory has gone, who are we? And, I might add, why do we still matter?

Memory is so important to our sense of who we are that the loss of it is always going to be grievous. So, there are two responses that I as a Christian would venture in the face of this experience.
First, the creation narratives in Genesis (which address ‘why’ questions and not ‘how’ questions) state simply that human beings are made in the image of God. All Christian ethics emerge from this. That is why every human being is ultimately valuable, worth loving and capable of redemption. So, losing my own sense of identity does not reduce my intrinsic worth. If I forget God, God does not forget me. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it to a people who feared for their future, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Secondly, the liturgical shaping of the year by festivals like Christmas is designed to instil deep within us – from cradle to grave – a sense of individual and communal identity. The people of Israel entering the land of promise were required to tell stories that would be handed down the generations, accompanied by simple rituals involving stuff and action – no disembodied spirituality here. This ensured that the memory was formed and recalled. It was also so that people inhabited the memory of who they were and where they had come from; it wasn’t just that life rolled on in some formless way without the waymarkers of identity.

Dementia raises big questions. But, maybe the carols get sung by the silent because they grew up hearing, telling and living the narrative of God who never forgets his people. In an age when so many rituals and the repetition of stories are losing their grip, this faces us with the question of what will form our generation’s children and root their sense of meaning and value.

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.


Well, we didn't see that one coming, did we? The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to rethink who he actually is. As was revealed in the Daily Telegraph last night, his father turns out not to be his biological father after all, and his real father was another man with an 'interesting' life.

The Archbishop has demonstrated once again why he is the right man for the job. Look at his statement. Not a shred of self-pity or any attempt to use this news for some politico-emotional gain. His identity is secure in being known and loved by God (and I had no idea this was coming when I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning and quoted the same Psalm) – in being “in Christ”. No excuses rooted in genetics – no loss of perspective, given the recognition that people have to deal with such news every day (and worse). His senses of humour and irony have not gone – his security as a person remains intact. His theology is big enough to cope with challenge.

It is also worth remarking that Charles Moore's handling of both the investigation and the reporting of the result have been a model of good journalism. There was no sensationalism and no prurience – just clear, sensitive and humane observation on response to reality. It is very impressive and clearly a model of how journalism can work in the public interest with the parties being observed.

But, it is unfortunate for the Prime Minister that this revelation has coincided with a torrid week for David Cameron and his family. The truth about his benefits from offshore investments has had to be dragged out of him. Today even he admits it could have been handled better. And the political hounds are in pursuit.

It is not hard to recognise the case against David Cameron in his apparent obfuscation while in a public office that has demanded transparency from others. And he would certainly not be surprised to see people like me adding to the pain.

But, I feel sympathy for him. He is a human being and he has a family. He has always known who his father is. And this week the human being has been in tension with the public being in a world in which there is little room (or sympathy) for both. How do you cope with trying to protect your memory of your own father when it is under attack – not for its own sake, but because of who the son is and what he does for a living?

Now, I realise that people will respond that he chose to be in office and has to take what goes with it. I get that completely. Then they will argue that hypocrisy is unacceptable in public office, and, again, I will agree (even if even those who complain about the hypocrisy of others ignore their own hypocrisies). Next they will claim that this is bigger than just one prime minister or one politician, and that this is just one obvious symptom of a deeper and wider systemic corruption – one inherent to the unjust world in which we live. And I will nod to that one, too. And, just to be clear, I think the whole “offshore tax avoidance or money laundering” thing is scandalous and wrong.

But, I also see a man trying to not have his dad rubbished in public in a way that dehumanises.

OK, David Cameron deserves the scrutiny and some criticism. But, let's not forget the man behind the office (even if we insist on reminding him and his government of the human faces and vulnerabilities subject to some of the ideological policies that shape their lives and relationships and memories).

The Archbishop of Canterbury now has to consider his shaping of the memory of two men: the one he thought was his father and the man who he now knows is his father. The Prime Minister has to hold on to the memory of his father while abstracting himself from that in order to do the moral politics his office demands. I sympathise with both men.


Yesterday I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I grabbed it as we were leaving the house at 4am on Friday, an afterthought of nostalgia.

The copy I have still contained within it the notes I made in November 1976 when studying the text in my first term at university on a course called 'European Literature and Thought'. My handwriting has not improved.

Conrad's character sails into the heart of darkness – the Belgian Congo as it was only being discovered, but already being exploited – and encounters the darkness of the human heart. And, meeting Kurtz, he observes:

Everything belonged to him – but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. (p.70)

That's always the big question, isn't it? Not what I have grasped, but what has grasped me. Not what I think I have possessed, but what has possessed me.

And it doesn't only apply to the dark stuff. It is the same with grace and love and mercy and generosity. Is my grasp of them more or less important than their grasp of me? Or us?

It was this ultimate clarity that caused Kurtz to utter his final words: “The horror! The horror!” But, it doesn't have to end like that.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today I read John Williams's novel Stoner. Highly hyped, it is the sort of thing I would usually avoid. But, it is beautiful and sad and true. Here we encounter a life lived in relative obscurity, but it is a life ordinarily lived. And, again, it speaks of loss and love and a beautifully expressed account of an inability to articulate what matters when it really matters. Life disappoints, relationships imprison and illusions are maintained.

It doesn't have to be this way; but, it often is. And anyone who engages in pastoral ministry knows it all too well.

(I don't just read miserable books on holiday. Next up is Alan Johnson's This Boy. Please tell me it is cheerful…)


One of the benefits of having a bit of a break is that when the tiredness wears off, you get the space to reflect on the past and think things through more clearly than is possible in the cauldron of immediate demand.

But, this also has a worrying, if not slightly depressing, element. I keep remembering things I have done and (more embarrasingly) said that I wish I hadn’t. I wonder how many people I have needlessly offended during my half-century of life. I wonder how often I have been misunderstood because of what I have said or done. And I cringe at things that probably now stick to any memory of me held by people who were on the wrong end of my opinions, judgements or statements. Like the shark in Jaws emerging when you least expect it to (ignore the give-away drumbeat), these memories pop up above the surface and cause me to wince.

However, this only demonstrates that growing up can’t be done without the growing up. The mistakes are what we learn from – and we also gradually learn that we can’t fix everything we have ever got wrong. Yet, recognising the failures at least maintains a degree of humility. Being human means an awful lot of looking back and wincing.

It is this ‘being human’ stuff that’s bothering me during my ‘reflective’ time. Take a couple of examples:

  • Obama makes his first State of the Union address amid the opprobrium of those who know they could do his job better. Critics – some of whom have done nothing for the ‘common good’ other than take other people apart – scream how disappointed they are in him, how all the hopes of a year ago have been dashed.

One year. In the context of eternity that is not… er … a long time. People make unrealistic demands of leaders, then pull them down when they fail in one or two areas. Some of the hopes put into Obama were stupidly unrealistic and he was bound to disappoint before he even started.

  • Inequality between the richest and poorest has grown in the UK in the last forty years. The Tories scorn Labour’s record of the last 13 years, ignoring that the ratio went from 3-4 under Thatcher and the Tories. Harriet Harman went on BBC Radio 4 and made a statement of the blindingly obvious, but ignored by politicians and media: it takes generations to change cultures and behaviours, not a year or two within an electoral cycle that demands short-term gains for political advantage.

Harman is right. Such initiatives as Sure Start have made a massive difference to many children and families, but the benefits will not be seen until the behavioural expectations have run through a generation or two. The problem of getting a young man into meaningful employment when he is the third or fourth generation of unemployed men in his family circle is not one that is merely practical: it means changing a mindset of both community and individual over a long period of time.

This is not a party-political point; rather, it is an expression of frustration that our politics don’t encourage generational policy-making or long-term thinking because the electorate will want instant results and the popular media will encourage them to expect them. And then we are surprised or offended when we find our political leaders apparently making decisions for reasons of political expediency rather than the effective achievement of long-term goals (that might take three, four or even five electoral terms to even begin to work through). Instead, we rubbish those we don’t like, set ourselves up as the competent alternative, then prepare our excuses in advance when the ‘real world’  hits us.

Which is probably why so many people are sceptical of the competence or integrity of all politicians. The so-called ‘democratic deficit’ is more complex than we sometimes like to admit.

What is really scary, however, is the dehumanising of the people involved in politics and public life. Which, perhaps surprisingly, brings us to Brangelina.

I don’t know Brad Pitt and I don’t fancy Angelina Jolie. But I do know that they are married and have six children in their care. Yet international sport dictates that every detail of their private life and marital strife is available for public consumption and entertainment. And all this probably puts more pressure on the marriage.

It appears that we will only be satisfied when the marriage breaks up, Brad goes back to Jen (!), the kids grow up needing psychotherapy (but at least will be able to make a career from telling their story to the world) and we can all pass judgement on the people involved. Then we can move on to the next celebrity disaster and exploit our self-righteous voyeurism again – a sort of anaesthetic against dealing with our own human weaknesses, perhaps?

Call me naive, but I wonder about the human beings caught up in all this. I wonder about the dehumanising abuse we heap on those we can blame for whatever it is we don’t like about our lives or the world we live in. We can project our nastiness onto those we know cannot hit back.

I look back with horror on the cringy things I have said and done throughout my life. And that is only the things I do remember – there is probably much I have forgotten. But I thank God for those who let me make mistakes and forgave me, knowing that you have to take a long-term view and allow people the freedom – the space – to grow up and change and re-shape… and not be nailed to a reputation that belongs to the past.

I think it was Jesus who said that we can only expect forgiveness if we first forgive. And I guess we can only expect kindness and generosity if first we practise the discipline of being kind, generous and spacious to those we know to be failing. If we want a humane society, shouldn’t we first be prepared to live humanely?

Another year, another decade. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, it’s freezing cold and it might just be the beginning of Liverpool’s long post-Christmas unbeaten run to fourth place in the Premier League. (Well, I can dream…)

I was thinking yesterday about the past and the year to come and my mind turned to Dostoyevsky. This doesn’t happen often. I once told the Archbishop of Canterbury that I found Dostoyevsky boring and long-winded, only for Rowan to tell me that he was about to write a  book about the great writer. I decided that I should be a bit more intelligent next time we spoke about Russian literature and began to read all Dostoyevsky’s books. I am now on the The Brothers Karamazov – then I will read Rowan’s book on Dostoyevsky…

Near the beginning of The Brothers Karamazov there is an encounter in a monastery between the Elder (Starets) and a woman. The woman bewails her lack of faith and, in response, the Elder tells her of an intelligent and elderly man who once said the following to him:

I love mankind, … but I marvel at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons. In my dreams I would often arrive at fervent plans of devotion to mankind and might very possibly have gone to the Cross for human beings, had that been suddenly required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else, and this I know from experience. No sooner is that someone else close to me than his personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom. In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings… To compensate for this, however, it has always happened that the more I have hated human beings in particular, the more ardent has become my love for mankind in general.

Human history tells us that the old man was not alone. It is always easier to love in general and to hate in categories than to work these out with individuals. Read the Gospels, however, and Jesus seems to bring these together: loving humanity in general whilst making that love real for individuals. (That love also brought hard challenge for the haters and he paid the price for exercising a strong love.)

As I look to the year ahead – with all its uncertainties and unknowns, its threats and its promises – I think I want to work at bringing the general and the particular closer together: both personally and in the life of the Church. I am conscious of a million failures (often evident in this rather fallible blog), but the challenge is there for me and the Church.

Perhaps in the Church we can stop speaking of people in categories (‘gays’ are the obvious example) and have our easy generalities subjected to the sometimes embarrassing particularities that challenge our prejudices and self-defences.

A happy new year for me will be one in which I make some progress along the general-particular spectrum – one in which other people come to be judged less by my own imbalances and more by grace.