This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning. (Disclaimer: I wrote it last night at Berlin Tegel and Amsterdam Schipol airports on my way home from an academic conference in Wittenberg, Germany.)

I returned late last night from Wittenberg in Germany. I was there to present a paper at a conference on Faith, Theology and the Church (from Tuesday to Thursday) and then record a programme for BBC Radio 4 on Martin Luther and the Reformation. Having launched the Reformation jubilee last October, preaching in the Augustinerklosterkirche in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, it was a privilege to end the year in Wittenberg where it all kicked off. As everyone knows, 31 October 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the day when Luther is alleged to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche, thus challenging the Pope and the Church to address some serious concerns about both theology and the practices of the church.

Many of the stories of Luther’s words and deeds are now of dubious provenance. There is no record of him having told the Emperor at the Diet of Worms: “here I stand; I can do no other”. (Which hasn’t deterred sock manufacturers from producing huge numbers of their products with the phrase added. I might bear the weight of one’s foot, but it doesn’t seem to bear the weight of history. In fact, there is no evidence that he did actually nail his 95 Theses to the church door – something impossible now because the doors are made of bronze.

Martin Luther’s tomb

But, why let facts get in the way of a good story. Whatever the details of who did what and when, we do know for certain that Luther took his life in his hands when he dared to suggest that the grace of God is there for everyone and cannot be bought – even in the good cause of building St Peter’s in Rome. Fear of the consequences of death were trounced by the mercy of God.

Sitting in the Schloßkirche yesterday morning, looking at Luther’s tomb, I was very conscious that we can’t always control the consequences of the decisions we make. The monk of Erfurt changed the world in ways he could never have imagined when he found Paul’s letter to the Romans opening his heart and mind to the riches of God’s unmerited love. Not only a revolution in the church, but political ructions, too, that too often led to bloodshed on a huge scale. I wonder what he would have made of it today, if he had known what he was about to unleash.

This is not insignificant for us here in the Diocese of Leeds. After giving my paper at the conference on Thursday, I took part in a panel discussion with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin and the head of the Protestant Church in Germany (the EKD),where both the divisions and affinities of ecumenical relationships were visible. As the church faces big challenges in British and wider European cultures, the need for Christians to prioritise their common baptismal discipleship over their denominational commitments becomes more urgent.

On of the watchwords of the Reformation traditions is ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ – the Church needing constantly to be being renewed and reformed. Nothing stands still in this world. And the church can be no exception. Change is here to stay.

It would be ludicrously absurd to compare the changes our diocese has gone through in the last three and a half years with the enormity of the Reformation, but we need no telling that change brings pain as well as opening up new opportunities for those who are unafraid to explore them. And not every outcome can be predicted. As Luther found out – and it caused him a whole new set of griefs and concerns – there is the small matter of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Our diocese continues to change as we move on from the initial phase of our creation from 2014 to 2016. We are now functioning as a single diocese with a single administration, and we are now clear about where we are in terms of shaping support for clergy and parishes as they ‘do’ our mission and ministry locally. But, this has all taken place at a time when the church across the country is facing a hefty drop in the number of stipendiary ordained people during the next fifteen years. This inevitably means that we will need to re-shape not only where we deploy our clergy, but the nature of the role, too. A priest cannot do in six parishes what he or she did in one. And we cannot put clergy into jobs that are not do-able.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do in the next few years. We do so in the face of financial challenges, too, but our primary focus has to be on what sort of ministry and mission we can provide within the constraints over which we do not have complete (or any) control. Now, is this a cause for fear or concern? Well, yes and no. We need to be concerned enough to tackle the challenges head on and pay attention to the detail – understanding the cost of growth as well as the benefits. But, we need not fear. We are engaged in God’s mission, and must never lose track of the bigger picture of God’s transforming grace, his call to keep moving – with him – and to be faithful to him and each other.

Clearly, if our models of ministry are to change, then they will involve re-focusing the attention of clergy and reimagining the role of lay people. Now, let’s get away from some of the moany stuff we keep hearing. Clergy exist for the sake of the laity, not the other way around. That will not change, but, the way we do ministry and mission will look different in the future. This is not about power or rights or means of self-fulfilment; rather, it is about identifying the gifts and vocation of all baptised people, developing and deploying those gifts for the sake of the church … which exists for the sake of the world.

But, the primary calling of lay people is not to do stuff in and for the church, but to be disciples of Jesus Christ out there in the world. One of the recognised challenges of the church in more recent years has been that lay vocation has too often focused on lay ministries in the church – largely liturgical or pastoral. This is something we need to tackle as we move into the future. Discipleship first.

To this end we are holding a Lay Conference in Harrogate on Saturday 9 June 2018. More details will be forthcoming soon, but planning is well underway under the guidance of Andrew Norman and Hayley Matthews. This is intended to help us re-frame our strategy for lay discipleship and ministry into the future – although this will be a matter of process rather than event.

Nothing of what we do can be done in isolation. On today’s agenda this Synod will address several matters that, together, help us discipline our development and mission. Asking the General Synod to change the name of the See of Richmond to Kirkstall is not a whim or a bit of ecclesiastical fancy; no, it is to enable those outside the church in the Leeds Episcopal Area (particularly) to identify with the area bishop and our church structure. People assume Richmond is up north and can’t see why the Bishop of Richmond is bothered with the city of Leeds. For the sake of our ongoing mission we need to change this. More later, but I want at this point simply to locate this agenda item in our wider missional context.

A communications strategy for the diocese is not incidental. If we can’t communicate effectively in the world in which we now live, then we might as well just tend a long decline. We cannot address the lack of children and young people in our churches without engaging with social media and a way of relating/communicating that is a million miles away from what I grew up with. Do we have the courage to grasp this nettle and learn a new language of evangelism and pastoral care? That is the question – along with: are we willing to put resources into making effective communications and changing the rumour about God and the church?

Rules about synod elections and sizes of synods might not be the stuff of romance, but they matter. It is vital that our synods – at every level – should drive and enhance our mission … and for that we need people – in the right numbers and variety – who are caught up by a vision of the kingdom of God that grabs popular attention, awakens curiosity, draws people in from being met outside on their territory and in their terms. Are we up for this? It isn’t easy, and it will mean sacrifice; but, we need younger energy and vision to challenge us and drag us into new ways of being a renewed and reformed church in this part of Yorkshire.

Again, this is not for the sake of the church’s organisation or own well-being. Yorkshire faces massive challenges in the wake of Brexit (however that might ultimately look…), but also in terms of its own political organisation. Westminster seems to have a view of how Yorkshire might be governed in the future (under its devolution proposals), but how do we want to help drive this for the sake of the common good of the people of Yorkshire? Do we want to be stuck in the past, with old enmities and thinking within old white lines, or can we be bold about developing a vision of and strategy for a Yorkshire that makes the most of the Northern Powerhouse – whatever that means?

What I am driving at here is that we should not be a church that merely responds to the initiatives of others, but be creative ourselves at fostering debate and proposition that, rooted in our traditions, offers a refreshed view of future potential.

Of course, this is all stuff and nonsense if we would prefer to just keep turning the handle. In the diocese we have proved that, even where we might have differing degrees of affection for the diocese we have shaped, we can commit ourselves to it as mature adults who follow Jesus Christ.

At this point I want to pay special thanks to the Dean of Wakefield, Jonathan Greener, who will leave the diocese in November and be installed as Dean of Exeter. Jonathan vigorously opposed the creation of the new diocese, but, since its creation, has been an excellent friend and colleague, a creative and imaginative shaper of new things (three cathedrals and three deans in a single diocese), and a brave contributor to all we have done. We owe him a huge debt. Personally, I will miss him, his wisdom and advice, even his humour. But, we wish him God’s richest blessing and the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts as he and Pamela move into a not-unchallenging situation in Exeter. They go with our love, gratitude and prayers.

So, let me conclude where we began – with Martin Luther. While sitting with three young Germans in the very room in Luther’s house in Wittenberg, around the table where he and his friends argued about theology, politics, beer and bodily functions (I kid you not), having our own feisty debate about the meaning of Luther’s theology now, we felt close to the heart of passion: the passion that is courageous, contagious, irritating, maybe even hopeful – maybe even the passion for Jesus Christ, his grace and mercy, his call to us and his friends to love one another as he loves us.

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

The first time I went into the Foreign Office in London I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of murals depicting renowned military victories of the British Empire – scenes that now provoke embarrassment or shame even though they belong to their time and to a particular colonial narrative of national identity.

How do we deal honestly with conflicted histories?

Well, this is a question that is dividing America as pressure grows to remove statues of Confederate leaders who 150 years ago fought a civil war over the rights to enslave other human beings. And the problem is this: how are we to remember the past with honesty and courage, not celebrating, but remembering and learning?

This is not a new problem. Walk around some German cities and you find yourself treading on small brass plates set in the pavement, recording the names and dates of Jews who had lived there before being deported and exterminated. More powerful than some huge memorial covered in names, these so-called ‘stumbling blocks’ (Stolpersteine) have a massive impact as you realise that they are everywhere.

In fact, Germany has form here. Look up beneath the roof outside the east end of the Stadtkirche in Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and you see a mediaeval engraving of a Jew being baited in a pig sty. Exposed during restoration after German reunification, rather than put it in a museum or cover it up, they shone a light from a memorial placed beneath it to the fallen Jews of Wittenberg during the Holocaust.
Somehow this faces the horrors of the past in a way that draws a line to the present and educates those whose memory doesn’t stretch that far back.

The German approach is partly informed by its Christian culture which itself is shaped by Jewish notions of memory. To re-member means, literally, to put back together the elements of a story in a way that is healthy and true. The people of Israel, having been liberated from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt and 40 years in a desert (allowing the romanticises of history to die off), prepare to enter the land of promise. And they are warned: as time goes by you will quickly forget that once you were slaves. Then you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you forget this, you will one day lose everything.

So, they shaped the year around rituals and festivals that even today re-tell that story and militate against cultural or religious amnesia.

Maybe this offers a clue not only to Americans wondering what to do with statues of Confederates, but also to the rest of us who have to wrestle with ambiguous or shameful histories. Face it, but with the humility that remembers rightly. Not “forgive and forget”, but “remember and forgive”.

This is the text of this morning’s Presidential Address at the Ninth Diocesan Synod of the Diocese of Leeds.

All bets are off.

Not so long ago the UK had elected a stronger government that decided to hold an unlosable referendum on our place in the European Union. Brexit came as a surprise even to many who wanted it. The Prime Minister resigned as the country wondered what lay ahead. The Americans elected Donald Trump – a business man who had no experience of (or apparent interest in) public service or political office – and he has torn up the rule book on international diplomacy, the dignity of high office and truth-telling. Despite fears to the contrary, France voted against the Far Right, and Germany looks to be re-strengthening its affection for Mutti Merkel – despite the immigration crisis that appeared at one point to threaten her future. And Theresa May called an unlosable election in order to strengthen her hand in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, even though the clock had already started ticking.

But, we woke on Friday morning to a world in which all the certainties of the previous months had been overturned. We now have little idea of how we shall negotiate Brexit or how, in the light of this, we will be negotiated with.

Now, I don’t set this out briefly here in order to depress you, but, rather, to make a very obvious and simple point. There is no ‘normal’. The world changes every day, and we need to face the choices and challenges particular to our current circumstances. One hundred years ago the world was fighting a brutal war that nobody wanted and few thought likely only weeks before it ignited.

We need to live with humility in the face of what might be possible – as what might be possible does not always coincide with what we might find desirable or convenient.

I find this particularly pertinent in the wake of an experience during the last few weeks. I was in Germany for celebrations and commemorations of the launch of the Reformation 500 years ago. The Kirchentag brought together tens of thousands of people to Berlin and Wittenberg where Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche. I began preaching in Halle in the marketplace outside the church where Handel learned to play the organ. We went on from there to Jena, which is where Hegel taught, and Schiller met Goethe. From Jena to Berlin to preside at the Meissen Eucharist in the Gedächtnis-Kirche which was the scene of an Islamist atrocity last year. Then we went to Wittenberg for the grand finale.

This might sound like a tourist guide. But, just think about what the people there have lived through during my – and your – lifetime. A divided Germany in a divided Europe in a bipolar world dominated by US capitalism. Now a world in which the capitalist powers are turning out to be China, India and Brazil. America has gone mad and turned inward, Europe is open, but threatened, migration has changed everything, stability has become a fantasy for most people, and the future looks fragile and uncertain.

When Martin Luther was getting cross with the Pope and exploiting the latest communications technology to change the world, anti-semitism was acceptable and rife. Blood was shed easily, and the populations of Europe knew that life could often be short and brutal. Since his time, the world has endured revolutions, rapid technological progress, the elimination of many diseases, the expansion of lifespan and expectations, the exploitation by empires of huge numbers of people, the generation and abolition of slavery (except in the manufacture of modern clothing and sex-trafficking), the mechanisation of war and the sophistication of mass slaughter, globalisation and anti-globalisation, the sexual revolution, and so on and so on. And terrorism: the singular persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the indiscriminate violence against ordinary people on our own streets, the targeting of young people at a pop concert. And the prospect of more to come because we cannot control the world or people intent on murder.

Every generation wakes up to the realisation that change is a constant. And, as we are seeing at the moment, the constant repetition of mantras about “stability” or “certainty” do not automatically translate into the imaginative consciousness of achievable vision.

And this is where we are. Change is here to stay whether we like it or not. The only question has to do with our faithfulness in engaging with and shaping it as followers of Jesus Christ who calls us to repent: to change the way we look in order to change the way we see in order to change the way we think in order to change the way we live. To be a follower of Jesus involves a sitting loose to some certainties or expectations, and being willing to face the world as it is (or as it is becoming) and not as we would prefer it to be.

For example, and as I expressed in London this week, we cannot rewrite the history of this Diocese of Leeds in the light of what we have either done, failed to do or had done to us. We are very conscious of where we might have been dealt a stronger hand in the management of change or the realistic resourcing of it. There are many lessons to be learned from our experience – both within the diocese and across the Church of England – and the various reviews that will be conducted should help the Church better shape itself for the future. However, we are where we are, and cannot go back. Indeed, we are where we are because so many people – clergy and lay – across the diocese had the vision, courage and sheer northern nerve to give it a good, strong go. I believe we have been faithful to the call God has given us at this time and in this place.

Look at the agenda before us today and you will see that the challenges we face are not insignificant. The motion before the Synod relating to our Diocesan Environment Policy is important because it calls us to take seriously the call of God to nurture the earth and its people. This hasn’t been dreamed up by some trendy conspiracy theorist in order to tick a box. We are not the President of America. Rather, how we tackle our responsibilities for the environment is a massive element of the expression of our responsibility under God for the world we say is his and the people he loves to death and beyond. Loving our neighbour does not stop at stocking the food bank.

This is not necessarily comfortable stuff for everyone. It is hard to contemplate changes in lifestyle or spending. But, repentance is double-barrelled: it is a positive thing that leads us to embrace something, not simply let something go.

If we want to dig a little deeper into why our use of the earth’s resources matters, then we just have to listen to our brothers and sisters in link dioceses who pay the price for our preferences. Tanzania and Sudan face environmental challenges that are real. Sri Lanka does not see the eco-challenge as a merely interesting academic theory to be discussed, but lives with the changing weather patterns and their consequences, needing little persuasion about the state of the world and its resources. I will say something brief later in our agenda about the visit of our link bishops back in April.

And this brings us to a wider question of resourcing. During the last three years or so we have worked hard together to identify, articulate and develop a vision that is gospel-shaped. We have not dreamed it up. We have derived it from the Scriptures and from the faith that draws us and shapes us as followers of Jesus. We have kept it simple: Confident Christians; Growing Churches; Transforming Communities. It is infused with values of Loving Living Learning. I believe these words characterise our approach to all we have done as a diocese during the demanding years since we began – opening up our imagination and not closing it down by promising panacaeas or guarantees.

But, vision has to be resourced by a strategy and that strategy has to be funded. In a conversation in the Church Commissioners office in London earlier this week I suggested that our diocese is really only six months old. It is only since January this year that we have been able to function properly as a single entity with single systems and fully integrated data. So, we are at the beginning, not the end. And, this being the case, we now have to pay attention to the future resourcing of our vision.

As you will see from the papers, we face a challenge to finance what we currently do. We are not paying our way, and there is no magic money tree (!) hidden away somewhere for us to pluck its fruit. Our parish share income does not cover what we have. However, there are two things to be said about this in the light of the journey we are on.

First, you cannot set up a new entity at the same time as slashing its costs and its primary people. During the last six or seven years of uncertainty and then transition we did not look to cut clergy posts. This would have damaged morale and was not an option in the circumstances in which we found ourselves. So, broadly speaking, we maintained the numbers. But, we did this knowing that the number of stipendiary clergy available for deployment across the country is going to dip considerably in the next ten years – by between 25-40%. So, although not primarily driven by finance, we are going to have to start looking more radically at pastoral organisation, clergy deployment, training options, licensed and other lay ministry development, and new models of resourcing our churches. This has an impact on identification, discernment, selection and training of clergy and lay people. It all has to be rooted in discipleship rather than curatorship.

We can either dribble into this gradually, or we do the hard work now of looking at future shaping and resourcing of ministry and begin to work it out now. The Bishop’s Strategy Group has started to work at this, whilst the area bishops and archdeacons (in conjunction with their episcopal area colleagues) are doing what I call baseline studies to see how we might need to adapt appropriately and wisely to a cut of, for example, 10%, 20%, 30% or 40% of stipendiary clergy. Of course, this raises the question of what we expect clergy to do in what arrangements and with what resource in terms of people, buildings and finance.

I said there were two things to be said here. The second is this: we should not have a problem in paying for what we say we believe about the church’s mission and ministry. Levels of giving are not as high in the Church of England as they are in many other denominations. What this means is quite simple: if we say we believe it and claim to want it, then we shall pay for it; if we don’t want it, we won’t pay for it, and we won’t have it. In the future we can only have what we are willing to resource.

Now, to go back to my first point, we have frontloaded the diocese in terms of our offering to parishes, clergy and other ministers. We have appointed people to drive and support creative ministry and mission across this diverse diocese, and we need to give them time to make a difference. I know there are dioceses that prefer to have high-profile campaigns and inspirational slogans; we have chosen to attend to the basic structures and people of our diocese in order to hold our nerve and aim at a longer-term strategic growth dynamic that has a chance of working. Put simply, we need to make new disciples of Jesus Christ who then take the mission and ministry of the gospel into the next generation and beyond. And they need to be inspired – not impressed – by us, our discipleship, our vision, our courage, our commitment and joy.

And all this will be reviewed as we go through the next three years and beyond.

So, as we do our work today, I trust we will do so in the name of Christ who calls us first to repent, to walk together, to discern together the will and ways of God who calls us. May we be faithful. And, in keeping some proper sense of perspective on time, may we recall the words of Martin Luther who famously said: “Long is not eternal.” (Lang ist nicht ewig.)

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

I have just got back from ten days in Germany. The first half was work – speaking engagements in Halle, Jena and Berlin; the second bit was holiday with friends. Now, I know this wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun, but one of the best bits was a tour of the German Foreign Ministry – used to be Hitler’s bank, then became the HQ of the East German ruling party. History haunts the corridors here.

But, the absolute best bit of the trip was a Bible exhibition in Wittenberg. Yes – a Bible exhibition in Wittenberg.

Wittenberg is where 500 years ago an angry monk got fed up and started a row with the Pope. Martin Luther triggered the Reformation, and the Reformation changed Europe and the world for ever. So, last weekend 100,000 people came together in a field outside the town to celebrate under the blazing sun.

While there we popped into the exhibition where, among other things, we saw Elvis Presley’s Bible. In fact, two of them. In one of them he has written against the note of his mother’s death: “I love you Mama.”

Now, Elvis recorded a lot of Gospel music, but it’s hard to know how he related what he read and believed to how he lived. I sympathise with him, and no one should stand in judgment. And we should remember that, 61 years ago yesterday when he introduced his new single Hound Dog on the Milton Berle Show and shocked the world by wiggling his hips, he probably wasn’t thinking about world revolution. Yet, he changed music for ever, didn’t he?

Now, Martin Luther and Elvis Presley are not equals in what they achieved, but they both knew about what Christians call grace. Both show that the world can be changed by ordinary people who take the risk of doing something extraordinary – usually without calculating the cost or the consequences. Both men were conflicted – a bit of a mess in many ways. Which makes them just like you and me.

You can see why Elvis called his home Graceland, can’t you? Maybe ‘Love me tender’ was a plea. Hounded by the dogs of other people’s demands on him, he still, ultimately, found himself in the same place as Martin Luther… and me: all shook up by mercy.

This year’s Kirchentag ended yesterday as tens of thousands of people got fried under the sun at Martin Luther’s Wittenberg.

I am staying on for a further week in Berlin (with my wife and friends who live here). So, today we went to visit the house where the infamous Wannsee Conference was held on 20 January 1942 – the meeting of Nazi leaders where they formulated the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ (die Endlösung zur jüdischen Frage).

It is a beautiful and peaceful place. One of the Nazi leaders present went by the name of Dr Martin Luther. Irony was not something with which the Nazis were familiar or comfortable.

The theme of the Kirchentag was the words of the slave woman Hagar, mother of Ishmael, spoken in the desolation of the desert, having been banished by her husband’s wife: “You see me”.

The Wannsee Conference is what happens when people think they are not seen – that they are unaccountable and can get away with murder. Literally.

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address at the Leeds Diocesan Synod:

The fifth of November. The day we remember how we used to burn Roman Catholics in this country.

Last Monday I preached in the church where Martin Luther became and served as a monk. The Augustinerkloster in Erfurt looks today much like it did when Luther prostrated himself before the altar and took his vows. I was there with a group from this diocese, having been invited to preach on the 499th anniversary of Luther (allegedly) nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg. Last Monday kicked off the year of celebration and commemoration of the Reformation and will conclude on 31 October 2017.

The Reformation divided Europe and changed the world for ever. Yet, when the German monk decided to challenge what he saw as ecclesiastical perversions of the gospel and church order he did not intend to create a new church. He wanted to heal the church and return it to its proper form and role. Yet, he discovered quickly that it is easier to set off destructive events than it is to stop or control them. The Law of Unintended Consequences led to civil uprisings, religiously-inspired violence, civil war and political settlements that exist to this day in Germany. The Reformation marks the recovery of the primacy of God’s grace as revealed in Scripture; yet, it also calls to memory some dreadful passions, all-too-human rejections of grace, and Christians who could no longer see each other as belonging to the same church.

The legacy was the rise of the Enlightenment partly as a reaction against religious power and the violence of the Thirty Years War. It is significant that in Germany the Reformation Jubilee is being marked by a huge degree of ecumenical partnership, with the Pope even launching the year in Sweden last weekend. It has taken 500 years and we are not there yet. It is easy to divide – hard to reconcile. And yet we are a church fired by a gospel of reconciliation, committed to a ministry of reconciliation, needing to be very careful that the decisions we make do not deny that gospel or ministry itself.

I mention this this morning for several reasons. First, because our diocesan link with Erfurt is one we wish to strengthen. In the light of Brexit, our European links take on an even greater importance. Secondly, and as I said in my sermon in Erfurt, we need to learn our history and learn from it. If we do not know where we have come from, then we cannot know who we are. Thirdly, our reading of Reformation history should provoke in us a humility that comes from recognising that we are firmly placed in this world while being fired by a vision of another world, but that our this-worldliness can easily lead us to behave in ways that deny the nature of the Christ we are called (by the Apostle Paul) to imitate.

However, my other reason for starting with the Reformation and last week’s Erfurt visit is that every generation faces its unique challenges and choices. One of the challenges we face in the UK in 2016 is the slow corruption of our public and political discourse. It is not coincidental that the former Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, a committed Roman Catholic now running media in New York, has just published a book titled ‘Enough Said’ in which he – correctly and possibly prophetically in my view – names the currents of bile, destructiveness and dehumanising contempt that colours the public discourse in Britain, across Europe and in the United States. I offer you Brexit, migration and the US Presidential election.

Like charity, let’s start at home. Whether you voted in the June Referendum to remain in or leave the European Union, the fact is that the vote went the way of Brexit. Not overwhelmingly – we now live in a very divided country. The referendum, however, was advisory and did not legally or constitutionally bind the government (or Parliament) to deliver on the decision – this in contrast to the AV referendum that was binding. Hence, the legal clarification sought this week in the High Court was entirely reasonable and, it could be argued, entirely necessary. The question of who, in a representative parliamentary democracy and following a non-binding referendum, has the right to trigger negotiations that then lead inexorably to a radically different constitutional settlement, is a very important one.

The courts ruled this week, and immediately allowed an appeal by the government to the Supreme Court. That is how the rule of law, based on an independent judiciary, is supposed to work in the sort of parliamentary democracy we rightly celebrate and value in this country. The rule of law should never be taken for granted. It is hard won and can be very easily lost.

So, even if you think Brexit is the right move for Britain and you want to see it happen quickly, you should be very alarmed at newspapers referring to judges as “enemies of the people”. Several newspapers suggested yesterday that we should get rid of judges who don’t do what certain politicians want and replace them with ones they do. Now, does that sound familiar? And do you spot the serious risk to the rule of law. And isn’t this precisely the sort of sovereignty that Brexit was supposed to guarantee to the UK in the first place?

As racism, intolerance and violence increase across Europe, it is probably just as well we can look to the Land of the Free to keep us sane and safe, isn’t it? Oh. So, even there we see the final throes of a presidential election that has been reduced to an abusive slanging match that is hardly going to commend ‘democracy’ to those countries and people we so often think should be compelled to enjoy it.

But, it is the threat to the public conversation that is so dangerous and potentially poisonous. How we speak to, with and about one another matters far more than we might wish to think. Christians must speak differently, refuse to collude with or be corrupted by what is swilling around in the media and on social media, and hold to account those who threaten the nature of our discourse by what they choose to say or print.

When we accept our judges being labelled “enemies of the people” for doing their job, then we will be inviting the Law of Unintended Consequences to apply – where civil society is corrupted bit by bit by bit because we can’t be bothered to contest it. Europe has been here before.

Now, you might be feeling a little morose at this point. You should be. However, as someone once said, “don’t shout at the darkness – light a candle”. How might we respond positively to this challenge?

Since this synod last met the clergy of the diocese – 400 of them – convened at Liverpool Hope University for the first clergy conference since we were created at Easter 2014. One of the highlights of the three-day event was a presentation and dialogue between Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on the theme Science, the Cosmos and Human Meaning. After each had presented – and boggled most of us with stuff we didn't always understand (but still tried to look as if we did) – I moderated a dialogue between them. Brian needs no introduction: an agnostic with a huge media as well as academic presence. David, a Methodist minister with experience of inner-city ministry in Liverpool and a gift for Radio 4's Thought for the Day, has doctorates in astrophysics and theology (which is a bit greedy) and is Principal of St John's College, Durham.

After lunch – which was dominated by students wanting selfies … not with me – clergy asked questions of both guests and the conversation continued. It was interesting, intelligent, informed, generous and completely riveting.

But, why did we do it?

One of the things Brian Cox is concerned about is how to bring public institutions and disciplines together to model how to have substantial conversations about things that matter and to offer an alternative to the appalling public – mainly political – discourse we are subjected to during these difficult and uncertain times. In fact, that is why I invited the two professors to come in the first place. Clergy, lay people, bishops, the church need to be engaged in cleaning up the nature of public debate, and one way to help do this is to model it. David Wilkinson and Brian Cox did this in relation to science, but in a way that took us beyond the sort of nonsense prejudicing and name-calling we see between fundamentalist religious people and fundamentalist atheists. Brian and David explored the differences between the ‘how’ questions and the ‘why’ questions of human existence.

We are now looking at how to take this forward. If you can get to any of Brian Cox’s live shows (currently touring the UK), do enjoy what this looks and sounds like. Here we see an agnostic and a Christian both begin in the same place: looking at the enormous beauty and complexity of the multiverse and wondering what matters in the life of it. It is not unusual to have a common existential or intellectual starting point.

(We are now looking at a Lay Conference one day in early 2018 – it has not proved possible to get a suitable day at a suitably large venue in 2017.)

So, today we as a synod continue to work at shaping the nature and mechanics of our internal discourse as a church. Standing Orders might not be words that float everybody’s boat, but they provide the parameters in which we can then conduct our internal synodical conversations and decision-making. How we speak with one another will say something about whether how we speak outside the church will have any credibility. We will discuss deaneries and deanery synods – again, not words that inspire martyrdom in the minds of many people. Yet, the purpose of deaneries and their synods is not simply to order the life of the church, but to set us free to pay attention to our mission of reconciliation in the world and how we go about it. Structures are there for a purpose, and the purpose is not simply to perpetuate a structure as an end in itself. We will look at the vital matter of education and what sort of people we want our children and young people to grow up to be. Education is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: nurturing good and godly human beings, neighbours, citizens, who live and work for the common good. Safeguarding is a vital part of our common duty to ensure that our churches are safe places for all people, especially children and vulnerable adults.

In other words, our agenda might look a little inward-focused at first glance. It isn’t. It is part of the work we still need to do in order to enable us to be the church our region needs us to be for the sake of God and his kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, I trust we will speak with one another in love, and speak of the church in love – offering mercy and generosity in the place of suspicion and mistrust. Together we can continue to shape a diocese – and its communication by word and deed – that reflects the nature of the Christ we serve and serves the world for whom we are called. Together we might pay attention to how our discourse might offer a different model to that which we see in parts of our media and our political world.

And let us remember that, as Martin Luther discovered in such a revolutionary way, in the end it is all about grace.

I am in Erfurt, Germany, to preach at the Reformation Day service in the Augustinerkirche where Martin Luther studied at the university and became a monk. Having arrived on Friday, we have had a packed programme, including a brilliant (though largely incomprehensible) concert in the Michaeliskirche last night – great guitar playing, especially), meetings with groups of people, a visit to a 'pilgrim church' at Schmira, a day in Weimar, and a visit to the former Stasi prison in the Andreasstraße in Erfurt today.

Yesterday was my first visit to Weimar. This is the place where in 1919 the constitution was drawn up that gave its name to the republic that was created in the humiliating aftermath of defeat in World War One. Yet it is also the place where Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Nietzsche spent their finest and most productive years. Here the culture of what became known as the Enlightenment flourished.

(An aside: one of the best stories we heard was of the pastor of the church in the centre where we attended the morning service. In the sacristy there is a portrait of him. His name was Wessel and he came from an upper-class line of distinguished clergy and military officers. When during the War the poor of Weimar couldn't afford a Christmas tree or presents for their children, he put a “tree for everyone” on the steps of the church and got gifts for the children of the town. He supported Hitler at the beginning, but gradually saw where it was all heading. He resisted and eventually was sent to Buchenwald. He survived only because Hitler pardoned him, leaving him to return to Weimar a da totally broken man. Why did Hitler pardon him? Because he was related to Horst Wessel, whose song – the Horst Wessel Lied – became almost the national anthem of the Nazis. Resistance was brutal and costly.)

The Enlightenment flourished partly as a reaction to the horrendous bloodshed in conflicts that were rooted in the sorts of religious and political power games that emanated from the Reformation. Never again should religion be allowed space in the political sphere: reason and rationality should thenceforth define genuine humanity and humanism. It is not hard to follow the logic and the sentiment. Speaking of Martin Luther today in the Augustinerkirche, there also had to be an acknowledgement of the less-than-gracious elements of his character, to say nothing of his appalling antisemitism. (Like his bowel problems, it got worse as he got older.)

Yet, getting rid of religion in favour of faith in rationalism did not quite go according to plan, did it.

The train from Erfurt to Weimar takes you past Buchenwald. Just around the corner from the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the theatre in Weimar is the hotel where Adolf Hitler was greeted by the idolatrous crowds that claimed the poets and Herder as their intellectual and cultural heritage.

My point is simple. The problem of the human bias to destructiveness is evidenced in religious conflict and the lust for power at any level. It is not cured by rationalism. How is that the culture, philosophy and idealism of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, etc. was so easily corrupted within a century or less by a populace drawn to populism, fascism and mass slaughter?

If the bloodbaths of religious wars in Europe led to a better way, then that better way also led to Buchenwald and the Stasi. Now listen to the rhetoric of the far right wing groups springing up in Germany and across Europe, blending the language of dehumanising hate under the guise of “cultural realism”.