I am the bishop on duty in the House of Lords this week. This means leading prayers at the beginning of each day's business – today at 2.30pm. The business always kicks off with Oral Questions, the four on the order paper having been selected in a ballot.

One of the questions on Monday was asked by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the closures of regional museums, particularly in the North of England, and the impact of those closures on the United Kingdom's creative industry and on the educational services provided to local schools and colleges.

Answering for the Government (DCMS), the Earl of Courtown got in a muddle and then missed the point. My question was:

My Lords, if the rhetoric about the northern powerhouse is to have any reality behind it, it has to include access to culture and cultural developments. In the light of that, will the Minister give an assurance that the sword of Damocles hanging over the National Media Museum in Bradford might at last be lifted? Sometimes up there it feels as if London is saying, “Out, damned spot!”.

The Minister replied:

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate referred to the northern powerhouse. Perhaps I should add that DCMS is sponsoring loans to museums at 1,629 different venues. As far as Manchester in particular is concerned – (he was corrected by Lords who had accurately heard “Bradford”) – I beg your pardon; I thought that the right reverend Prelate referred to Manchester. I think that the right reverend Prelate was referring to the Royal Photographic Society collection, some of which has now been moved to London. That move has provided far better access to the collection because the Victoria and Albert Museum has committed to digitising the collection and thus make it more widely available.

Digitisation does not make the collection more widely available, if the originals (which is what people want to see) are in London. This plays into a wider perception that wide availability does not include the north of England.

The Minister was good enough to explain to me personally that he had not fully heard my question and, therefore, not answered it as well as he might.

Later Lord Grade, who chairs the body that runs the Science Museum group gave me a personal assurance that the National Media Museum is safe and in a good place.

It does, indeed.

Cutting services and access to things that make individuals and communities thrive runs the risk of saving money from one pocket while thereby ensuring that more will be paid out from the other pocket in order to address the consequences of the former.

I haven't been writing much lately. This is because I have been working morning, noon and night on other matters since returning from the Bermuda gig. These 'other matters' include: (a) following up observations on the need for excellent broadcasting that interprets the world and human experience through a religion-shaped lens; (b) convening a meeting of Muslim leaders to discuss serious questions arising around the sexual grooming phenomenon and its implications both locally and nationally (including challenging the elision ethnicity with religion); (c) spending a day in a rural deanery, discovering more about the effects of austerity and other pressures on rural communities and parishes; (d) attending a dinner aimed at raising awareness of the work of the Church Urban Fund in turning round the lives of troubled people; (e) convening a meeting between Christian leaders and civic leaders in Bradford, aiding mutual understanding of some of the remarkable work done under the radar in supporting people in tough communities; (f) visiting an excellent Cancer Support centre and hearing about the funding pressures on local charities; (g) meeting with a local councillor and the Child Poverty board in Bradford to discuss some of the heroic efforts to support children for whom austerity brings undeserved misery.

And all the time I was up to this stuff (these are just the highlights of a demanding couple of weeks) Bradford celebrated the nationally-televised Bollywood Carmen (capping some great and positive recent media coverage of the place) and faced a serious threat to the future of its National Media Museum.

Pic. BBC Radio Leeds

The cord that runs through all this has at least two threads: money and human need.

Wherever one stands on the government's welfare cuts, it is clear that the choice of what to cut is not neutral. Nor is it obvious. Billions can be magicked up to save the banks – whose culture seems not to have changed a great deal subsequently – but the poorest in our country must pay the highest price at every turn. Local authorities have had their budgets cut to the extent that, all the flesh having been cut away, there is only the bone to begin to hack into. Councillors have been in tears as they make decisions they know will damage children and families and vulnerable people.

Choices, as always, are rooted in ideological assumptions about who matters most in our society. It would be no different if another party were in power; but, it does no harm to state the truth about the ideological motives that always lie behind economic priorities.

Local evidence sees a huge increase in demand from food banks – including from the 'working poor'. We see increasing numbers of children and teenagers arriving at school in the morning without having eaten. Some schools are hiding the real costs of this because they feed their children from their base funding, thus reducing the funds available for 'education'. I discovered today that if an eligible student stays on in a school 6th form, he/she is eligible for free school meals; if he/she transfers to an FE college, this eligibility disappears – which clearly distorts access options and raises other questions. I also hadn't realised that whereas the benefits system is operated by the Department of Work and Pensions, the funding of free school meals to needy children is the responsibility of the Department for Education – which seems both odd and not-very-joined-up.

According to Investor Today child poverty costs the UK £29bn a year. In other words, what is saved on 'welfare' is paid out again in addressing the consequences of cuts on the very people affected. Is this not weird?

And this is where the threat to the future of the National Media Museum comes in.

Not only is this one of three national museums in the north of England (the Railway Museum in York and the Science Museum in Manchester being the other two), it also offers free access to people who are being deprived at every other turn, and stimulation/education in the vital areas of science, industry, communications and technology. The National Media Museum is unique; it is not a luxurious frippery riding on the back of a cultural surplus in the north of England. It is unique. It's loss would be a national cultural and educational loss, not just a loss to Bradford and its local economy.

This threat emphasises and fleshes out the growing north-south divide. Noting the growing economic divide, health inequalities and life expectancies between people living in the north and the south of England, the Archbishop of York has commented:

I was shocked to hear of the cuts that our museums are facing. It is simply incredible that we are now considering cutting back on funding which benefits the whole community – investment which not only helps to educate future generations, but which also gives them a sense of their cultural heritage and identity… We need to recognise that our cultural heritage is an important part of our country’s history. A country which forgets its heritage becomes senile.

Increasingly it seems there is a growing economic divide between the North and the South. Too often we are seeing communities across the North of England bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. We need to see a level playing field. Whether we are looking at transport investment, education, employment, health or about where our children and grandchildren learn about what made our cities the fantastic places they are today, we need to put wellbeing at the centre. Everyone deserves the opportunity to blossom and flourish, regardless of where they were born.

No wonder, then, that Bradford is campaigning hard to ensure the future of the National Media Museum here. This museum contributes £24m per annum to Bradford's economy, provides 103 full-time equivalent jobs, and generates Gross Value Added of around £3.7m. The city is the world's first UNESCO City of Film and a Producer City that makes science and technology the foundation of its future. Local businesses are committed to this development. Bradford contributes £8.3bn to the UK economy and this is expected to grow. It is also the youngest city in England outside London.

Is it remotely conceivable that serious consideration would be given to closing a London museum of national importance? Why, then, are northern museums considered an easier target?

This all hangs together. Ultimately the decisions taken will speak eloquently of our national communal priorities. These will betray our ideological as well as economic assumptions. And underneath it all will seethe a pile of questions about our anthropology, our fundamental philosophy of the common good, and the gap between our words of 'social solidarity' (for example, “we are all in it together”) and the reality we fear to face.

And, one way or another, it will cost us.

 

The work never ceases and the diary never slims. But, in the margins of all this there are some brilliant things going on.

Bradford might be at the heart of today’s news because of George Galloway’s (not exactly surprising) victory in yesterday’s by-election (and the inquiry by Labour should dig somewhat deeper than some of the analysis we heard today – if this was a protest vote, what was really being protested against?), but a couple of other remarkable events have also just taken place. They have brought exciting new life to the heart of a city that has some great good news stories to tell.

Yesterday saw the opening of the world’s first museum gallery dedicated to telling the story and exploring the cultural, social and technological impact of the Internet and the Web on the way we live. Life Online is the superb new addition to the already excellent National Media Museum in the centre of Bradford. It is the brainchild of the also excellent Director, Colin Philpott, who is soon to move out of his job and into pastures new.

This great event – marked by video greetings from people such as Sir Richard Branson – followed the opening of the amazing City Park in the centre of Bradford and close to the National Media Museum. Just look at this:

How can anyone not visit?

Anyway, back to the work…

1. Jamie Oliver is one of the top ten geniuses of our world. Die Zeit says so.

2. Our ethics are a mess. Prominent newspapers in Britain are proud to show Gadaffi’s dead head on the front pages along with a message of revenge? Which particular ethic are we trying to teach our children here?

3. We always knew he was an evil nutcase anyway – which was why we never did business with him. Obviously.

4. Bankrupt Greece is hanging on for an awful long time. Or, at least, being hung onto for reasons which are debatable.

5. It’s hard trying to work out what to do when anti-capitalists occupy the front of your cathedral.

6. The nights are fair drawing in.

7. The scandal of Hillsborough and the injustice to the bereaved looks soon to be illuminated. The truth will always out…

8. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just brilliant.

9. The National Media Museum in Bradford is wonderful and should be visited by everyone. Yes, everyone.

10. I can finally have a day off tomorrow.

 

It’s a bit weird being announced as the new bishop of a place. You get a day of full-on introductions to people and places, then come home and it’s as if nothing happened. As it will do for the next couple of months at least, life carries on – apart from answering hundreds of mostly positive emails, tweets and text messages, that is). And I’m still not sure if I’ll get out to Norbury this morning – the snow and ice are packed where I live in Croydon.

It’s a good parallel to the approach to Christmas itself. We read the Christmas stories as a great irruption into the life of the world – which in one sense it was; but, when you read the Gospels it is obvious that God came among us in Jesus in such a way that most of the world just didn’t notice. Life carried on: shepherds shepherding, kings plotting, babies being born and people running businesses. God comes into the ordinary where life just carries on. And it’s in the ordinary that God has a habit of sneaking up on us and surprising us – just when we thought it was safe to go out.

Another reason for musing on this is that some people clearly didn’t understand why we announced the new Bishop of Bradford at the National Media Museum rather than in a church or cathedral. I gather one or two of the photographers who covered the event were particularly bemused. Well, here’s why.

Context: Christmas is one week away. Christmas is about God coming into the heart of the world in all its messy complexity and contradiction. It is about God surprising his people by subverting their expectation: Messiah was supposed to come in clouds of glory to expel the oppressive Roman occupiers and restore his people’s freedom. instead, he comes as a baby and grows up to be one who challenges the expectation of a God whose sole job it is to solve human problems and make life OK for us. Read Mark 1 and Jesus himself asks people to dare to believe that God is present even while the problems persist (i.e. the blasphemous Roman occupation). This is God opting into the world’s messiness and not exempting himself from it.

Content: Christmas is the ultimate in communication. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’; the Word did not remain a good idea locked up beautifully in a place of worship. This is why the Church exists for the sake of the world and not vice versa. We see in Jesus who God is, what he is like and how he is. The photographers might prefer to visually reinforce the image (prejudice or stereotype?) of the bishop ‘doing church’, but we wanted to visually demonstrate that the church is placed right at the heart of the ‘world’ – the city or community – and is here to communicate something of who and how God is. We can’t be kept confined in our churches, however wonderful and important they might be.

The National Media Museum was ideal. First, it adjoins the tower block (Wardley House) where I spent several years studying modern languages at university in Bradford. Second, it overlooks the city and its townscape. Third, it focuses on communication – something that lies at the core of God’s activity and the Church’s vocation. Fourth, they were wonderfully welcoming and accommodating – as befits a place with great imagination and openness. Fifth, ordination didn’t enable me to bilocate; like Jesus, we have to be particular in being somewhere – which means we can’t be somewhere else. Later on, of course, we went to Skipton and had a welcome event in the church there (on a hill, overlooking the town and market, reminding us again that we always come out of church to face the reality and ordinariness of the world in which we are set.

Bradford Cathedral is clearly a much valued and respected place. The Dean is superb and I look forward very much to working with him and other excellent colleagues in building our worship life, creating communities of Christians who are open to the world, encouraging Christians to be confident about their Gospel being transformative, enabling churches to be places and communities of welcome and generosity, challenging where we become complacent and encouraging where we become downhearted. The Church needs to be built up – but as a means to a greater end and not simply as an end in itself.

I look forward with geat enthusiasm to getting to know at first hand the churches, parishes and people of the Diocese of Bradford. I also look forward to building good relations with the local media as we have a common vocation to tell stories and build a community. And I really look forward to spending time at the wonderful National Media Museum, reflecting on what we are here for and thinking about good communication of Good News.

I probably will have to find a better image than the one below (which provided the backdrop to the welcome event). I can feel a caption competition coming on…