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

When I was just twenty years old I worked in France for six months. This allowed me to become the only bishop I know who’s been arrested for busking on the Paris Metro. I don’t think it was the singing or guitar playing that was bad; it was just that I didn’t know you had to have a licence. To cut a long story short, I talked my way out of it … and even got to keep the money.

At the point the police stopped me I was doing a John Lennon song from the  ‘Imagine’ album. When my father heard this he responded not to my predicament, but merely observed of John Lennon that you can’t get good fruit from a bad tree. I even took him seriously at the time.

But, of course, this is nonsense. Yesterday I listened to Mozart – evidently a bit of a moral nightmare, but who wrote some of the most sublimely Christian music. Nick Cave, in his marvellous book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, written with Sean O’Hagan, emerges from the shattering death of his young son to wrestle hauntingly with mortality, God and meaning.

What holds these two musicians together is the recognition that human beings are complicated, that mortality is fundamental, and that everyone is messy.

Which comes as a relief for many of us. One of the things Jesus does in the gospels is gently explode assumptions of self-sufficency, self-righteousness and self-purity – especially sacrificing other people on the altar of my cleanliness. It is the unlikely people – who know their own weaknesses and failure and don’t need to have their wounds salted – who find liberation and new life, not those who want to hold other people to standards they can’t keep themselves.

It seems to me that it is experience of the rough side of life that strips us of illusions, but also relieves us of the need to pretend to be right all the time. And I worry about the people who get put on pedestals – sometimes involuntarily – but whose feet of clay will one day be revealed … leaving them rubbished and others disappointed.

There is a massive danger in creating or sustaining a culture in which we set certain people up as heroes, only to wait for the time we can knock them down as failures. This might make me feel better – or morally superior even – but humility is surely the key to compassion: the recognition that, in biblical language, “we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”.

Yet, rather than piling on some neurosis, and like confronting mortality, this can actually be the beginning of freedom.

Monogamy is not the first word that comes to mind when the name Leonard Cohen is heard. He was, to say the least, a bit of a lad.

I have just finished Sylvie Simmons' excellent and very readable biography of the great poet and musician. She quotes the Guardian's Robin Denselow describing Cohen's London gigs on his first European tour as being about “self-obsession, cynicism, non-communication; it is two strangers frantically making love in a shadowy hotel bedroom.” Perhaps this observation was more prescient than the critic knew at the time.

Leonard went through women like the London to Edinburgh train goes through stations. He was insatiable. And the tortuous process of writing, thinking and – eventually – performing accompanied his relationships with a self-referential singlemindedness that is both impressive and shocking. His approach to sex is as hard to admire as his stamina is hard to ignore.

But, as with many great artists, it is out of the flawed humanity, this wrestling with spirituality and sensuality, that their pips get squeezed and the fruit is pressed out.

Or is it?

What is clear with Leonard Cohen is that not once does he dissemble, lie or pretend to be what he is not. Selfish and self-interested he might be (although the way he fulfils his responsibilities towards his children is honourable and his generosity to friends and disadvantaged people – see the stuff about his gigs in mental institutions in Europe – remarkable), but he is not a hypocrite. His walking out on commitments to women seems to me to be deplorable, but none of his women seems to be surprised.

What I found moving about his 'pension restoration' world tour in 2008 was that here was a man of 75 who is now at peace with himself. Maybe, as George Melly once observed with evident relief and gratitude, age silences the torment of a rampant and enslaving libido. Cohen performs with humour, generosity, humility and wonderful skill – at ease with himself and the musicians who bring his music to life.

When I once expressed my admiration for Cohen in a blog post, I got a blasting response to the effect that he is simply a shameful louche. All I can say is: so was Mozart, but I haven't heard anyone suggest his liturgical settings should not be used in church.

Cohen comes over as a remarkable artist and a man whose suffering and searching has lasted a life time, leaving in his wake as many casualties as credits. But, I guess, like the older men in John 8, who, having demanded that the woman caught in adultery be stoned (and not in the sense that Cohen regularly got stoned), began to leave first, those of us who have lived longer recognise our own catalogue of failings and should be less swift to judge. Cohen, at least, is relentlessly honest.

So, now I am on to Christopher Browning's 'Ordinary Men' – another shocking exploration of the human condition and our easy acquaintance with avoidable cruelty. More anon.


Bradford Cathedral Choir sang Mozart’s Coronation Mass on Christmas Morning and it was brilliant. You can’t hear music like that ‘live’ and not find your soul taken up, shaken around and given a taste of something bigger than ‘here and now’.

Which was an interesting experience, given that I had been saying at various Christmas events that Christmas is all about (a) God coming into the ‘here and now’ (as it is and not as it should be), and (b) setting the ‘here and now’ in the context of ‘eternity’ (as God sees it and wills it to be). As I suggested to the choir afterwards, Mozart is a classic example of someone who was deeply conflicted, morally inconsistent, and yet whom God touched and from whom such sublime music came. Somehow we have to hold together the hope with the reality, the messiness with the vision.

Archbishop Cranmer is always worth reading. Yet, I feel he slightly missed the point in his Christmas post (entitled Christmas concerns: a pope, a queen, and a couple of archbishops). Cranmer was looking for Christmas joy, found it in the Queen’s address, but couldn’t detect it in the words of the Pope, the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster. He begins with:

Having trawled through the Christmas messages of leading Church figures, there was only one glimmer of light; only one person used the occasion of the birth of the Son of God to communicate joy to the world. And it wasn’t a cleric in a pulpit.

He concludes (before showing a video of the Queen’s speech) with:

There was only one Church leader who spoke inspirationally of courage and hope; only one who used the occasion to speak of the importance of family, friends and the indomitable human spirit. Only one who spoke of the gospel of forgiveness, the uniqueness of Jesus the Saviour, the love of God through Christ our Lord:…

Funnily enough – and, obviously, before I had read Cranmer’s complaint – I asked in my own Christmas Day sermon whether the Archbishop and the Pope were being miserably negative and should cheer up a bit… or whether Christmas joy actually has to begin with the particular context. After all, hope is not the same as wishful thinking, vision is not the same as fantasy, and joy is not the same as escapist indifference. I contended (I think) that Christmas can be happy precisely because it calls us into the celebration of a God who comes among us, right where we are and as we are, saying, “I am on your side – I am for you as well as with you.” Joy comes from the hope evoked by (even small numbers of) people who are captivated by this understanding of God’s generous surprise and then living together in generous ways that look to the interests of their neighbours – even those neighbours who are complete strangers.

The problem for archbishops and bishops is that our roots are deeply planted in the real lives of real people in real communities in real places. Perhaps we see too much of the fear, the hopelessness and the ‘reality’ of too many people’s lives and cannot dismiss those when trying to articulate a Christmas hope that is not just wishful thinking or disincarnated fantasy. Maybe we find it hard to get the balance of the message quite right. That is for others to judge.

However, I take Cranmer’s point. And, as we now continue to work out how our churches are going to support the increasing numbers of families using food banks, how we shall care for people displaced from their homes because of changes in the benefits system (a reality I am merely noting without comment here), how we shall square a gospel of joyful freedom and abundant life with the reality we encounter every day, how we shall face the challenges by global political, financial, economic, ecological uncertainty, etc., I shall also take seriously Cranmer’s challenge to keep the focus on a gospel of hope.

I hope there was joy at Christmas in Bradford. At least, that’s what I was encouraging. And the sort of joy that then spills over into generosity and incarnational care for people like the shepherds outside Bethlehem who were the utterly surprised first visitors to the newly-born Christ.

(And, having seen the shameful – but not entirely original – footage of ‘rival priests’ (!) fighting in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, I simply offer the following picture – although I have no idea where it came from and cannot attribute it.)