This 'away-from-home-and-reading' bit of my sabbatical is coming to an end. I haven't read as much as I had wanted to, but there is also a life to be lived (and football to be watched).

Before finishing with a couple of funny German satirical books, I spent the last couple of days reading Ben Quash's Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit. I am very glad I did.

Last year I asked Ben to be (Honorary) Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral and he agreed. He is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and was formerly Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Last summer I asked Ben to address my clergy on the subject of 'change' – given all the uncertainties about the future of the diocese in the light of proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for West Yorkshire & the Dales (which, as we know, is soon to be a reality). In the morning he presented some of the material that is now set out in this book. (In the afternoon we had Pastor Sebastian Feydt from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, to talk about radical change and its effects – he had experienced the changes in Germany from GDR to FRG at every level, including how such change affects or shapes your theology.)

If Ben had told me beforehand that he would begin with a brief study of modal auxiliaries in English language, I would probably have advised against it on the grounds that … er … it doesn't sound very … er … likely to enthral the busy clergy mind. It was absolutely riveting. Since then, I have waited for the book and for the time to read it properly – even though some bits made me feel a bit dim and slow.

I am not going to attempt to review it here. Suffice to say that this beautifully written book ranges through language, translation, art, poetry, the naming of cats, Bible, text, hermeneutics, history, philosophy, christology and pneumatology. And, yes, that was 'the naming of cats'. I rarely read a 'theology' from cover to cover, but I did this one. Basically, he wants the reader to see that the Holy Spirit breathes through the space that engages our imagination (in its proper meanings), re-lighting the past and shaping the future. En route he has important things to say or suggest about how the church is to handle new phenomena in the light of a proper reading of and handling of scripture – something pertinent to current ethical debates in and beyond the church.

I quote the opening of the first chapter on 'Historical finding':

The theology advanced in this book understands ongoing history as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to relate us to God in Christ, and it is energetically opposed to models of doctrine that assume for it any sort of ahistorical completeness; that assume it to be a set of securely held propositions from which all necessary implications for Christian belief and practice can then be deduced in any time and place. (p.1)

 

This is going to be a great week.

Not only do we hit 'the longest day' – 21 June, midsummer's day – when I and colleagues will spend the whole day from 5am to 10pm walking in the diocese, visiting places, doing meetings, taking part in the Grassington Festival and meeting loads of rural people, but we also have a Clergy Study Day on Wednesday on 'change'. In the morning we have Ben Quash (Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and Honorary Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral) leading us through 'a theology of change'; in the afternoon we have Sebastian Feydt (Pastor of the Frauenkirche in Dresden) telling his story of living through massive change between 1989 and today.

The Diocese of Bradford faces a decision by the General Synod on Monday 8 July on the proposals for dissolution of three dioceses and the creation of a new Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales. We have lived with this uncertainty about the future for the last three years or so. I was appointed as the Bishop over two years ago in order to take the diocese through this never-done-before process and build confidence for change. If the Synod votes against these proposals (which would be mad), we cannot go back to business as usual – there will still have to be change as we look to the future.

So, doing theology on Wednesday is intended to reinforce the theological framework in which and through which we see what is happening and shape our future with vision, courage and wisdom. Listening to a personal story of how a whole world (Communist East Germany) collapsed overnight and how individuals, churches and society coped with a whole new emerging world should (a) be dead interesting, (b) flesh out some of the theology we have been discussing, and (c) put diocesan reorganisation into some perspective.

Behind this lies a conviction that structures of themselves guarantee nothing; it is the imagination, vision, will and determination of people that effect change. And for this to happen we need to dare to think and see differently. Whatever decision the Synod makes in July, one thing is certain: mistakes will be made and elements of a new structure will be found wanting. The interesting bit, however, will be how those involved either engage with and own the 'new' or seek out the failings in order to say,”I told you so.”

Not for now, but there are some very interesting biblical associations with all of this.

 

The Archbishop of Canterbury got another Honorary Doctorate this evening. This time it was from King’s College London and he was given it after he had delivered a typically robust lecture on the ‘Big Society’ in a small and globalised world.

The lecture – entitled ‘Big Society, Small World’ – was the 2011 Commemoration Oration and pulled in a large and mixed audience. The guy next to me clearly had no interest in the lecture and, judging by his constantly turning head and distracted look, little comprehension of Rowan Williams’ argument.

I am not going to attempt to summarise Rowan’s argument – you have to read the text and concentrate. He does offer a sentence in his introduction which does the job, but it demands definition and explication… which is, of course, what the rest of the lecture does. He says:

A politics, national and international, of local co-operation and ‘mutualism’, rooted in a sense of political virtue and appealing to human empathy…

But, in it he raised some questions that go beyond the immediate ‘Big Society’ conundrum and challenge the way we see  and shape (wittingly or otherwise) society. Try these, for example:

  • We need to ask where power is located – where the levers of change and control lie in society. “And this in turn generates a crucial set of questions about political ethics or political virtue: if we need to explore where power lies, we need also to explore what we want power to do and why.  It is in this context that discussion has been developing about – for example – the proper definition of wealth and well-being, about individual and communal goals, about the sort of human character that is fostered by unregulated competition and a focus on individual achievement, and about where we derive robust ideas of the common good and the social compact.”
  • We need the language of character and of virtue; “and no amount of exhortation to pull our weight in society (big or otherwise) is any use without some thinking about what kind of people we are, want to be, and want others to be; what are the habits we want people to take for granted, what are the casual assumptions we’d like people to be working with?”
  • We allowed ‘freedom’ to be defined as “essentially a state in which you have the largest possible number of choices and no serious obstacles to realising any of them.  And politics has accordingly been driven more and more by the competition to offer a better range of choices…  But as our current debates seem to indicate, we have woken up to the fact that this produces a motivational deficit where the idea of the common good is concerned.”

We then get an exploration of empathy, character, human rights, civic responsibility, institutions, the humanities, localism, international development, micro-credit, farming in Zimbabwe, the proper role of the State and theology. It is dense and searching and deserves serious consideration. He concludes:

My concern is that we use this opportunity to the full – and particularly that we do not treat the enthusiasm around some sorts of localism simply as a vehicle for disparaging the state level of action to secure the vulnerable, nationally and internationally.  It is welcome that there is a concern to think about relocating power; but, as we have seen, for this to work well depends on being reasonably clear as to what you want power to do – which includes the ‘backwash effect’ of serious localism in re-energising national and international policy, to the extent that it is building real civic virtue.

This lecture seems to me to push the debate about the ‘Big Society’ in a direction that has theological and philosophical depth whilst identifying the key questions that demand intelligent answers if the ‘Big Society’ is to mean anything useful in reality.