I have just got back from the first ever clergy conference in the Diocese of Leeds. We met at Liverpool Hope University – a place to which I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. I grew up half a mile away.

It went remarkably well. The last few years have not been easy as we dissolved three dioceses at Easter 2014 and worked to keep everything going while creating something new. This conference was a turning point and felt like a celebration.

However, it wasn't just the atmosphere that did it. The speakers excelled. The particular highlight for most of us was yesterday's presentations and conversations by Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning'. Their presentations were superb, clear, stretching and totally engaging. The enthusiasm for science was palpable, but also held in a rooted sense of curiosity and wonder. I am not sure we all understood all the equations, but we were able to span the enormity of the universe (and multiverses) whilst earthing the whole thing in questions of meaning, existence, faith and the possibilities of God.

What was great was the mutual respect and serious engagement between Brian Cox and David Wilkinson as I moderated a conversation between them following their presentations. After lunch (and a million requests for selfies and autographs – not mine, obviously) we had an hour of questions, observations and conversation that ranged widely and really intelligently. The standing ovation for our guests was richly deserved.

This offered a model for how serious engagement can take place where difference is respected. Our public discourse – especially our political and media discourse – in the UK is not great at the moment. See the whole Brexit business, if you don't believe me. There is clearly a need for more attention to be paid to modelling good conversation on contentious issues… and, especially, where prejudices about the conflict between science and religion too often polarise positions before arguments have even been articulated, let alone listened to or heard.

Brian Cox is doing a tour. Book now.

 

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.