This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address at the first Diocesan Synod of the new triennium in the Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire & the Dales):

“As far as I am concerned, to die in Christ Jesus is better than to be king of earth's widest bounds.” So wrote Syrian-born Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr, at the beginning of the second century. And not a bad way to start this first synod of the new triennium on the day we remember the remarkable saint.

If nothing else, it focuses our mind on why we are here, begs us to keep our business in a true perspective, and invites us to remember, as Ignatius did in his powerful final letters to early Christian churches, to heed the injunction of Jesus himself: that if we do not love one another, we are whistling in the wind. (Which I cannot pretend to be an entirely accurate translation of the Aramaic.)

Ignatius was clearly no romantic. He pleads with his fellow Christians in Rome not to allow anyone to get in the way of his martyrdom. But, although often questioned, this was not some maniacal death-wish, but, rather, an urgent plea for clarity and not compromise in his living and his dying. Like the Apostle Paul, “for [him] to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

I have to admit, this feels a little glib when said by me – and probably by you. We do not face the lions of the Colosseum or the bloodthirst of the Roman powermongers who thought human life cheap enough to provide fodder for the entertainment of their bored souls.

Yet, for many Christians in the second decade of the twenty first century, this is precisely the choice they face. In countries like Syria and Iraq, where Christians have lived, prayed and served for centuries, it is entirely possible that the next decade (or sooner) will see them almost completely absent. Persecution of Christians is something our own politicians and media appear to find difficult even to mention by name – as if to do so would, rather than being truthful or factually accurate, be selective or intolerant of the suffering of others. Needless to say, this is utter nonsense.

But, it also reminds us that easy recourse to claims of persecution in this country is equally stupid. Ridicule or marginalisation – either deliberate or by cultural default – is not persecution. That is a word that should be reserved for our brothers and sisters who are being crucified, butchered, driven out, abused, dispossessed and rendered homeless and, sometimes, hopeless in a world of violence and misery.

Well, you might think this is a bit of a miserable way to begin a new synod in this diocese. You might even be right. But, my intention is to locate the experience of many Christians in the world against the backdrop of our experience and business today. Are we building a diocese and a church that has its priorities right – one that creates the spaces in which people can come to faith in Jesus Christ, be nurtured in the community of his people, serve the world around them with a wide vision of God's grace, and so order their lives that people might look at us and listen to us and recognise that for us “to live is Christ, to die is gain”?

This is a question that I live with every day. Whether conducting worship, preaching, enjoying meetings, ordering the life of a diocese-being-created, or praying and reading, this is the one that won't let me go. And I know I am not alone. Colleagues both lay and ordained are doing their work in the light of and under the shadow of that question, even if not all would frame it in the language I am using here. Given that we face a million distractions every day, we have to keep coming back to the fundamental questions of who we think we are and why we do what we do.

I well remember, with some personal embarrassment, asking the former Archbishop of Canterbury which great divine the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann was quoting in a lecture at Cambridge when he paused in his lecture and said, deeply and meaningfully: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” Rowan Williams looked sadly into my eyes and said, “I think he was quoting himself.” He was. Moltmann's autobiography was published just a week or two later and was given the English title of 'Broad Space'.

The wide space of our hope must be focused on the particular details of the choices we make.

Now, this pertains to the internal business of the diocese – for which this synod exists; but, it also applies to and shapes our response to the world in which we do our internal business. The budget for this diocese has to be debated in the context of a church that is reviewing how we might use our buildings in the future, how many clergy we can invest in (and how to train, equip and resource them for the task we decide we need them to do), how to shape our administration in the future, and how to nurture mature Christian disciples in West Yorkshire and the Dales. Yet, all of this will be debated in the light of an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants into Europe – a test of what we really mean by 'solidarity' and 'union'.

Last Thursday we held at Bradford Cathedral the first Diocesan Clergy Study Day since our diocese was born at Easter 2014. The Chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist District, Dr Roger Walton, led us in the morning thinking about discipleship. In the afternoon we were led by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, in thinking about a theology of place – coincidentally only two days after publication of the Church Buildings Review report by a committee that he chaired. These were not two separate and distinct topics. Rather, they hold together: discipleship is to be exercised by people who live in space and time, have bodies and use buildings. Discipleship, like worship, has to happen somewhere. And how we regard that 'somewhere' matters a great deal.

So, this is both the great opportunity and the great challenge we face in our diocese. How do we focus on evangelism, nurture, service and discipleship in a way that sees our buildings not as a burden, but as a resource? The answers are not easy, but the question must constantly be asked. In recent developments in the diocese this has been this has been central.

We have appointed two new archdeacons who will strengthen not only the leadership of the diocese, but also bring new capacity to supporting, encouraging, challenging and resourcing the parishes. I look forward to Beverley Mason and Andy Jolley beginning their new ministry towards the beginning of 2016, and am sure you will wish to encourage and support them as they embrace the changes in their own life and ministry and location. At this point I also wish to pay tribute to Archdeacon David Lee who stood down as Archdeacon of Bradford in the summer and who is conducting pilot studies on buildings review in the Bradford and Leeds Episcopal Areas. He will retire at the end of January 2016 and we will have an opportunity to thank him for his ministry during that month.

As you know, we have also finally bought a new office in central Leeds, only a five minute walk from the station. Bringing our administration under a single roof will bring enormous benefits as shape up to move in one direction and develop a common culture for the diocese. I pay tribute to those who have been involved in the often complex detail of searching for, identifying and finalising the purchase of this building – especially Ashley Ellis and Debbie Child and their colleagues, and members of the Diocesan Board of Finance.

We are making good progress. Consultations on a new parish share system are being conducted; reviews of training and communications have been completed – a review of mission activity is now being commenced. We are on track with our projected journey: by the end of 2014 to be legal, viable and operational – for which we owe a huge debt to the often unseen work of John Tuckett; by the end of 2015 to have reviewed the areas of diocesan life and mission and worked out options for shaping the diocese in the future; during 2016 to create the new shape, institute the new governance structures, set our direction, and agree how to finance it. From 2017 we should be up and running as a single diocese with the historic assumptions and ways of doing things united in a single system. This might not be the language that everyone will want to use, but it is the best I can offer at this stage.

I am personally very grateful to all of you for being willing to serve on this synod, bringing experience, perspective and commitment to the work of the diocese – constantly asking the fundamental questions, bearing one another in love (especially those charged with doing the detailed work behind the scenes), and praying for the mind of Christ in both what we do and say, and how we do and say it.

We will conclude our synod today by turning our eyes both outwards and inwards: outwards to the pressing needs of those – Christian, Muslim, Yezidi, Jewish, and those of no religious faith – who are being oppressed and driven out of their homelands. The plight of refugees is desperate. Yes, there might also be among them those who might ride on the back of genuine collective despair for their own individual interests and gain. But, the abuse by some should not blind us to the appalling choices faced by millions of people in this world. How we respond to their plight matters enormously. It is not a simple matter. As I wrote in the Yorkshire Post last month, we do need to engage both head and heart as we consider how to respond and at what level. Today we have an opportunity to share our wisdom on this, recognising that this is the beginning and not the end of this matter, and that the situation changes every day.

So, I commend the life of this synod in this triennium. Let us apply our best efforts to attending to the calling God has given. And not lose sight of the fundamental truth that our ministries derive from our discipleship, and that discipleship cannot be held distinct from the material stuff we live with and use.

To God be the glory. And to his people peace.

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

Whenever I hear the phrase 'Children in Need' I hear the echo of something Jesus said in the gospels. Surrounded by a load of adults – probably men – he became aware of a child and said those famous words: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” That's the old version – it actually means “let them come” -, but it's the one that has stuck for me.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that what he meant was that we should make the children suffer. Because it seems we do quite a good job of this in a variety of ways. If we didn't, then why is it necessary to have the Children in Need appeal every year?

I remember that story about Mahatma Gandhi coming to London for the first time. As he got to the bottom of the aircraft steps a journalist asked him what he thought of western civilisation. He replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

Now, he wasn't being miserable about it – he no doubt had that twinkle in his eye for which he was famed – but he did point up the question. Why, in this day and age, do so many children now live from foodbanks in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet?

Well, we can moan about it, or we can do something about it. The other striking thing about Jesus's teaching is the emphasis on generosity. Give it away. Don't be imprisoned by things and stuff, but love your neighbour and be generous. Hospitality runs through his life and teaching like Blackpool through a stick of rock.

If I was bidding for a juke box song this morning, I might be tempted to go for Graham Nash's 1970 song which not only tells parents to “teach your children well” – who can argue with that – but goes on to tell the children to “teach your parents well”. It's the grown-ups who need to learn, in the words of St Francis of Assisi, to give and not to count the cost.

This show raised three and a half million pounds last year. Surely there's more to spare this year?

Rome 2 026The Vatican Museums are brilliant, but deceptive. I don’t mean ‘deceptive’ in the sense that they are out to deceive you, of course. What I mean is that you get inside the building at the back of the Vatican City and a sign points to the Sistine Chapel (which was what I wanted to see). What it doesn’t really tell you is that you have to walk about ten miles through endless other galleries before you get to it. And once you are there, you are suffering from sensory overload – having had your eyes assaulted by classical riches on every surface of every room. It is wonderful, but overwhelming.

What struck me particularly on this journey (with aching feet) was the syncretism of so much of the religious art. I am sorry if this confirms my ignorance in the minds of the intelligentsia, but this stuff is not my forte. Biblical, Christian and classical mythological themes and characters are mixed up to such an extent that anyone coming to it cold could be forgiven for being somewhat confused.

The second striking thing (for me, at least) was the masculinity of the women in the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Everybody says Michelangelo ‘couldn’t do women’, but I hadn’t realised how true this is. It is as if he painted muscular blokes and then stuck odd-shaped breasts on their front. It is weird. Now, when I mentioned this to someone who knows more about such things than I do (which is not very hard…), he shrugged and suggested it was just one of those things – every genius has his weak spots. Well, I am not so sure. That is like suggesting that Mozart was a great musician, but that he could only read or write music in a few specific keys. It doesn’t add up.

I don’t go in for all the ‘da Vinci Code’ nonsense, but I am a bit perturbed by some aspects of what I saw in the Sistine Chapel.

  • Michelangelo could have painted women if he had wanted to: but he chose not to. Why?
  • Why is Satan showing us his bare bottom as he is being cast out of heaven?
  • And why does Adam have a belly-button?

I don’t want to push this too far, but the heart of the Vatican is full of naked flesh in very odd circumstances. And I wonder how that is dealt with theologically and ethically.

Rome 2 027

Perhaps the most shocking image for me was in the Constantine gallery – before getting to the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling has a powerful image of the shattered statue of the emperor lying in pieces on the floor while his place on the pedestal is taken by a crucified Christ. I understand this refers to the vision Constantine had prior to going into battle under the sign of the cross, but it left me disturbed for two reasons:

1. The power of God seen in Jesus Christ was not a simple substitute for political power as exercised by emperors and generals. The power of God in Christ is a scandal to the world of the military powermongers because it is apparently so weak: a man hanging on the gallows with his arms outstretched in welcome to whatever the world throws at him. This is an affront to power, not a substitute for it.

2. Yet it could also be seen as the ‘scandal of the cross’ standing in judgement over the broken transience of hubristic rulers.

It might be that I am confusing this crucified ‘Christ’ with the ‘Church’ here and not reading the ceiling properly. Whatever the case, there is something weird about the syncretism of the art overall and what some of it seems to be saying about God, the world and people.