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

It's been an interesting couple of weeks, hasn't it? I never thought I'd be interested in people riding bikes around a track, but I got drawn into the Rio velodrome. There is a massive upsurge in pride in the flag the athletes carry, even if some of the national anthems do go on a bit.

Maybe it was while the world's attention was on Rio that a North Korean diplomat chose to shine a different light on national pride by defecting to South Korea last week. Later described as “human scum” by his old regime, Thae Young Ho had managed to escape with his family from the North Korean embassy in Watford before his defection had been noticed by his erstwhile masters.

This is interesting stuff. At the same time I saw this in the news I also heard about a guy who couldn't get into his national Olympic team, so joined that of a different country.

So, where does loyalty lie? And what, when we celebrate loyalty to Great Britain in Rio, does that loyalty actually mean?

The reality is that most of us live for most of the time with multiple loyalties. Just watch the battle on social media between Lancashire and Yorkshire over which county has done better than the other in Brazil. When does loyalty to Yorkshire trump fidelity to the nation? Or when does my commitment to my family or myself take priority over that devoted to the wider community? I come from Liverpool, but live in Yorkshire – I just have to deal with it. But, there is a serious point about where we draw the lines and where the lines need to be crossed.

The truth is that we live all the time with a complex hierarchy of loyalties: to oneself, to family, to community, to religion, to nation and to the world. The North Korean defector clearly decided that the balance of these priorities had changed. Yet, his experience also illustrates that in real life we sometimes have to live for a time with commitments that are conflicted – or that, for various pragmatic reasons, we hold a line with our voice when our head and our heart have moved elsewhere.

I have been wondering how to express this, and kept coming back to the lawyers trying to compromise Jesus over the conflict between his commitment to Israel and that demanded from the Roman Empire in the form of taxes. His reply: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's” was not a cop-out. It crystallised the conundrum. It made clear that those who claim a commitment to God in any way have to evidence that commitment in the choices they make and the ethical priorities they live to.

So, within the hierarchy of loyalties, raising a flag actually raises as many questions as it answers.

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post, published here today and anticipating a conference at York St John University next week – the Inaugural Global Congress on Sport and Christianity:

It took me a while to work out just why my GP advised me to give up playing squash at the age of 42. I thought he was concerned about the impact of the sport on my heart; I actually think it was because I was beating him too often.

Nothing has ever taken the place of football or squash. One a team sport (in which my dreams outran my abilities); the other a singles competition (in which I just ran about a lot). I have tried running, but get bored. I went to the gym for several years, but got bored. I bought a rowing machine, but damaged my shoulder and couldn't use it. And I am saying nothing about Body Pump…

This is probably not the right time to be exercising the ghosts of fitness past – while at the time of writing the football season is kicking off and the Olympics are racing on. Visions of athletic perfection have me reaching for another beer while urging them on to ever greater physical and mental achievement. When I met Mo Farah in a BBC Radio 2 studio in July I had to resist asking him if he needed a good meal.

There was a time when I would have thought about sport simply in terms of individual prowess – of individual training, personal discipline and physical endurance. Contrary to many popular views of what it is to be a human being, we are actually a trinity of body, mind and spirit – all held in an inextricable unity.

Despite the deeply ingrained assumption in Greek thinking that body, mind and spirit can operate independently of each other, they all actually belong in a single unity. This is why it is such a nonsense to think that the great favourite watchword of postmodern individualism, 'spirituality', leads to the uncritical conclusion that religion or spiritual life should be shoved into a corner marked 'private' and kept in the dark (where it can't impinge on public life or threaten any disturbance to the social, economic or political status quo).

Which brings us back to sport.

Thinking today about sport has pushed me in a slightly broader direction. Biblical writers encourage Christians to be as disciplined in their discipleship of Jesus as athletes are in their singleminded training regimes – keeping their eye fixed on the ultimate goal and not the immediate pain or privations. But, the Christian vision also goes deeper. If you can't divide the body from the mind or spirit, then you can't separate the essence or importance of sport from the fabric of the rest of social life.

Society demands order. To put a long argument very briefly, social order needs white lines on a pitch in the same way as a game of tennis cannot be played on a moor. The particular rules might vary from game to game. The shape and nature of a pitch might look different depending on the nature of the sport being played: a football pitch looks different from a 110 metre hurdles track. But, what both require is parameters within which a game can be played and in which creativity can be deployed in the playing of it. What you can't have is a measurable game played by individuals who make up their own rules as they go or decide when and where they wish the white lines to be placed.

I realise this sounds obvious. But, we live in a culture where it is often assumed that any opinion is valid, any individual choice is equally apt, any personal preference is acceptable – regardless of the impact of these on the wider social order (or what is often called the common good). The point here is to assert that the white lines on the pitch are not constraints imposed in order to limit freedoms, but precisely the means of enabling a creative game to be played in the first place. If you don't believe me, ask Andy Murray to play a Wimbledon final in the middle of Roundhay Park or above the rocks on Ilkley Moor.

This is what I mean when I suggest that the power and fascination of sport transcends mere competition or competitiveness. It certainly transcends the power of celebrity from which it currently seems to take its financial fuel. The shaping and dynamics of sport – both individual and team – reflect deeply the fabric of human being and human society: we need order, common constraints, the creative opportunities that these parameters enable, and the commonly respected commitments that creating such a life acknowledges.

I see a Christian vision for society being reflected in the phenomenon of sport, in which mutual competitiveness aims at pushing the limits of both spectacle and potential whilst illustrating the necessary effectiveness of working with each other and for each other for a common goal. Both require the development of character and virtue as the end to which the training is merely the means. This is why drug abuse should be inherently shameful – shame not simply being an effect of having been found out.

Clearly, more can be said. But, as we sit in front of the telly, reaching for the beer and crisps, 'encouraging' the athletes to “run faster”, we might just consider what sport tells us not only about ourselves, but about our common life as a society – and what it is ultimately for.


Monday saw the annual Sandford St Martin awards ceremony for religious broadcasting. Lambeth Palace is a wonderful venue for this prestigious event and a large audience of programme makers, commissioners, presenters and others saw the best in religious broadcasting recognised.

The term 'religious' is a difficult one – and one that produces in some people a blanking reflex. Yet, as I have argued before, broadcast media need to take religion seriously – not for propaganda or naive evangelistic reasons, but because religion is a phenomenon that needs to be understood, explored, interpreted and explained if we are to defy mutual incomprehension and comprehend why people live as they do. Like it or not, religion shapes and motivates individuals, communities and societies.

So, this year's awards – the judging panels were chaired by art critic Brian Sewell and (ordained) veteran radio presenter Cindy Kent – dug deep into what makes for excellent programme making that does the above. The Trust also gave a personal award to retiring Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks and a new Trustees Award to Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

Full details can be found here. The Guardian reported here, the Independent here, the Tablet here and Ariel here.


Mention the word 'race' at the moment and all eyes turn to the Olympics in London. But, it is another form of race that preoccupies my mind today.

Yesterday the parents of Shafilea Ahmed were jailed for life for murdering their own daughter who had – by her westernised independence – offended their cultural and community sensibilities. The case has been well publicised and I don't need to go into detail here.

However, there is a very good and clear response to some of the issues raised by Sara Khan in the Guardian this morning. She might also have questioned whether the inhibition of social and health services to protect and advocate for vulnerable arises not from misguided racism, but rather from cultural ignorance and fear of 'getting it wrong'.

Yes, this is sensitive stuff. Muslim leaders in Bradford have no truck with religious or 'cultural' excuses for criminal or violent behaviour. No question – and I know because we speak openly, frankly and without inhibition about these and other matters. And it is not simply about race.

Today the English Defence League is due to demonstrate in West Yorkshire – Keighley, to be precise – and at the same time demonstrate its crassly simplistic (and selectively perverse) focus on missing the point. It is right that people should protest about the horror that is sex-grooming of vulnerable young girls. It is barely believable that men can do this in the first place and it demands condemnation and punishment. But – and this is the brutal point – it is not primarily a racial issue.

Sex-grooming of vulnerable girls is a male issue, not a race issue. It is an Asian male problem and it is a Muslim male issue… because it is a generic male issue. When white Anglo-Saxon men commit these crimes we don't write off 'white' 'non-Muslim' 'non-Asian' cultures as being inherently corrupt or dangerous. If this is an Asian problem, it is only so because it is a male problem. Of course, there will be factors peculiar to Asian culture and the Asian community – just as there will be factors unique to the phenomenon in other cultural communities – and these need to be addressed. But, to target Asians is misguided, to say the least.

In a conversation recently my Muslim interlocutors acknowledged straight up the fact that “this is our problem”; but, we followed this up with the recognition that it is also OUR problem. If the problem of such appalling criminality is to be properly addressed, we need to recognise the 'maleness' of the phenomenon and not simply target religious or cultural scapegoats whilst quietly ignoring the facts or the cultural ubiquity of the behaviour.

The best way to handle the EDL is simply to ignore them and not honour their case with attention.

Encouraged by the news this morning that the great BBC comedy series Rev is to have a third coming (in 2014), it seems unremarkable that it is such an account of ordinary life that struck such a chord with people. It is funny because it is real.

Yet, we are in the midst of that great celebration of extraordinary prowess and achievement that is the 2012 Olympics in London (and elsewhere). Every minute of the day we witness the best, the most powerful, the most excellent, the strongest, the most enduring, the most courageous. Sitting in the chair with a beer can’t help but make us feel a bit weak and feeble. A bit silly, really, as to compare oneself (in my case a 54 year old bloke who is off to the osteopath again in an hour) with the most physically fit and trained athletes of a generation is ridiculous. I wouldn’t dare to wear lycra – even for a laugh.

Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence, then, that the running down of workload for the ‘summer’ month is allowing the space to read a few books that have been sitting on my desk for months – or that one of them is about ordinariness in Ordinary Time.

Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary is the latest publication by Dr Paula Gooder. Anything by Paula is worth getting and reading. She is one of those rare people who can do the academic stuff – and comfortably use the academic language – and also communicate with us ordinary mortals in ways that fire the mind and spirit. Not surprising, then, that she is in heavy demand as a speaker and lecturer around the world.

Everyday God simply reflects on biblical passages and episodes to draw out the importance and facility of living in the moment, embracing the ordinary, and not missing the obvious whilst searching for the spectacular. Paula points out early in the book the need to find (and work at) a rhythm for ordinary life – a way of shaping life rather than simply drifting through it. She writes (p.9):

The challenge for each one of us is to find a rhythm that works with our personality, our home life and our working pattern… When you have found the rhythm that works for you and you have done it for long enough, then the rhythm carries you… It is a little like steering into the current of a river. Once there the rhythm does the rest, pulling you closer and deeper into the presence of God. The problem is getting into the rhythm in the first place. It takes discipline, practice and sometimes pure grim determination to get over the hump of boredom, distraction and busyness into the rhythm beyond.

She goes on in the book to illustrate what it looks like to ‘see differently’, recognising that familiar biblical passages can be read afresh in ways that encourage and not simply challenge. The structure is simple and clear: ‘Ordinary people’, ‘Ordinary God’, ‘Living extraordinary ordinary lives’.

This is the third in a series of books that take us through the rhythm of the year: The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent and This Risen Existence: The Spirit of Easter are also excellent.

Here is a photo from last week of a young friend from Austria standing beside a road sign in Liverpool last week.

Penny Lane is famous the world over because the Beatles sang about it. But, when I was a kid, it was the place we went to the barber’s or the shops. The ordinary became the extraordinary. And, despite the Beatles tours, it still is a place ordinary people go to the bank, the barber’s, the shops… and engage in the stuff of ordinary life.

Why start with this? Partly because it formed the starting point for my book Finding Faith: Stories of music and life – in which I try to write about life and God and the world in ways ordinary people can understand. In other words, I am not writing for academics or people familiar with church. Secondly, however, is the reminder that there are two ways of addressing human questions: one is to start with God or the Bible or texts and go from them to our experience, the other is to start with human experience and then relate it to the other things. The former is OK for people already ‘in the club’, or who ‘speak the language’; the latter is where most people naturally start – with the experience they have, the questions they face, the life they live.

(In writing this I am reminded of my initial attempts as a vicar to write baptism preparation materials for our baptism preparation teams to use with the parents of those wanting their children baptised. The first materials failed – they began with biblical texts and were largely alien to those unfamiliar with them. I re-wrote them, with each session beginning with the experience of the parents, and then finding a biblical story or analogy that provided a vocabulary to express – or a framework in which to play around with – God, the world and us.)

Having watched the remarkable, soulful, poignant, funny, colourful, magnificent triumph that was last night’s Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (our Austrian friend was there), I turned to a book by Rosemary Lain-Priestley which she had kindly sent me, and which is called Does My Soul Look Big in This? I have a problem with books that look as if they will indulge in introspective narcissism and the title and cover didn’t encourage me. The reality was different.

Rosemary Lain-Priestley is a well-known broadcaster and writer, and I know her as a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust which I currently chair. She begins where people are, uses her own experience as a springboard for ruminations on spiritual development that is rooted in the real stuff of life, relationships and society. Taking the whole person seriously, she muses around the things of life that make or break us, that build or demolish us. She starts with real human experiences, real questions, then digs down a bit and rummages around what is thrown up. She draws on biblical (and other) stories to illustrate or amplify, often bringing to life images that had become over-familiar.

En route she quotes from people like Richard Rohr, Andrew Rumsey, Purple Ronnie and others. She considers what feeds the soul when we endure or enjoy experiences such as change, loneliness, depression, pilgrimage, joy, connectedness and gift. It brought to my mind people such as Mike Riddell and evoked Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. Like Danny Boyle’s Olympic representation of Britain, it is self-deprecating and humane throughout.

Written by a woman, most illustrations are self-consciously female. But, as a bloke, it is always vital to be compelled (or invited) to look through the lens of someone ‘not like me’. The Church of England gets a kicking I would want to argue with, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I would commend the book to anyone – it offers a recognition of common experience and invitingly suggests a way of living in and from that experience.