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

The Power of Words

“Actions speak louder than words”. I hear that quite a lot; but, although I know what is meant, I think it is wrong. To speak is to act. Language is performative – it does something, changes something. For example, it is the speaking of the vows in a wedding that makes the marriage.

The story goes that St Francis of Assisi told his friars to “Go out and preach the Gospel; use words, if you have to.” Well… if he did actually say it, was he right? We use words all the time to think and speak and make sense of the world; so, language matters – words matter. They do something. The fourth Gospel begins with: “In the beginning was the word…”. Go back to Genesis and the word is: “Let there be.”

A few weeks ago I convened an online conference led by scientists for a couple of hundred clergy about the current pandemic. We started off asking why we use particular metaphors as a lens through which to see or think about what is happening. In brief, why is it that in the UK we use language of conflict and combat – fighting, struggling, defeating, cowering, bravery, and so on – whereas in Germany, for example, they seem to have used imagery of “damming a flood” – particularly pertinent at the moment? An enemy is personalised, a flood isn’t.

We normally just accept the language presented as the frame through which we then interpret what is going on. But, like cancer and serious illness, words of combat and fight might not be the best. If your loved one dies, have they been defeated? Were they not up to it? You see what I mean? Words are never neutral and always carry consequences – think of the impact of blessing or cursing. They also have limits.

One of the metaphors I take from my reading of the Bible is that of “running the race that is before you” – and not just because the Olympics are on in Japan. This image insists on agency, seeing value in how I live and behave in whatever circumstances I find myself. Yet, racing conjures up different notions: a sprint is pure competition; a relay involves both competitiveness and cooperation.

At the heart of all this is an appreciation that we cannot control – or win – everything. Coming full circle, words matter because they unconsciously shape how we see and look and think and act. The question I am left with is: do I pay enough attention to the words and metaphors I use – and the way they shape the world?

This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Diocese of Leeds Diocesan Synod on Zoom on Saturday 26 September 2020:

We meet today in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We always do. But, today we meet in what is for us unprecedented circumstances. I don’t need to rehearse the pandemic-induced challenges and realities now upon us. I don’t need to draw attention to how this has been handled and communicated or the frustrations evident in both church and society with this situation. What I do want to say right at the outset is that feelings of frustration, regret, disappointment, incompetence to face the challenges, fear for the future, and so on are all perfectly natural, appropriate and understandable. No one should feel alone in this; no one should feel ashamed.

But, that is not the whole story. The current pandemic confronts us – individuals and society – with reality, a reality we can easily discount in what we have come to regard (perhaps somewhat nostalgically) as normal times. This reality provokes fear, but compels Christians to face up to what we really believe about life, death, mortality, morality and meaning. We speak about death and resurrection; now we are faced with questions about these that should not be ducked. There is nothing about COVID-19 that can be called good or a gift; but the phenomenon itself invites us to think deeply about what Christian hope is all about.

I remember doing some bishops’ leadership training in Cambridge and asking our guide in the lunch queue how working with bishops compares with the school’s usual clients – CEOs, chairmen of major companies, business leaders. He said: “There are two things they won’t talk about: failure and death.” “That’s funny,” I replied: “that’s where we start.” The beginning of Christian theology is to be found in coming to terms with what it means to be a mortal human being, made in the image of God, who will be subject to all the contingencies of temporal life and who will one day die.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome two thousand years ago he wasn’t offering spiritualised musings to people living in some mystical nirvana, dissociated from the real world. The Roman Empire was brutal and life was cheap – power was everything. These Christians knew that merely being Christian was tantamount to signing their own death warrant. Saying that Jesus is Lord was saying that Caesar is not – and they knew what this sort of political sedition would lead to. No romance – just brute reality. What would we do?

And as we now head towards Advent and Christmas we have a glorious opportunity to reflect deeply on what it meant for God to opt into just this sort of world in Jesus of Nazareth: no game-playing, no illusions, no wishful thinking, no feeble optimism (that all would turn out well). For Christian theology is clear: those who bear the name of this Christ are called to live in the world as he did – loving, living, learning; committed to the world as it is, but drawn by the hope for what it might become – the Kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters, this is what our Scriptures teach us, but which we now read through a different – more urgent and pressing – lens. Life is inherently uncertain; that is what we are called to be faithful in. To return to Paul: when he writes to these persecuted Christians that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, he is staring our reality in the eyes. Do we believe it.

Now, this is not a sermon. It is, however, important to locate our work today in a context and a theology. Clergy and lay people together, we are called to work out what it is to be faithfully Christian in these times and not simply to regret that things are changing. Faith, hope and love are to be the colours of our complexion. And love, we read, overcomes fear.

The Church of England is looking seriously at how we should re-shape for a different future. The Archbishop of York chairs a ‘Vision and Strategy Group’; I chair a Governance Review Group; the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich chairs a ‘Transforming Effectiveness Group; the Bishop of London chairs the ‘Emergence Group’; and now the Bishop of Ely is to chair a group looking at the future of dioceses and the role of bishops in a changed church. This is not a case of avoidance therapy by setting up committees in the long grass. Rather, they are bold, determined and radical in their intent. We also face the challenge of complexity in it all, and need to keep our work as thorough and simple as possible in order to navigate this unknown territory which we now traverse – knowing where we have come from, but unsure where we are heading towards or what the future might look like. But, we are shaping it anyway and not just sitting waiting for circumstances to do their best or worst.

The question is: when the world has taken a challenging turn and past certainties or assumptions have begun to die, how are we to be the church God calls us to be for the future? And I am not worried. We will face the hard questions with faith, hope and love. We will love, live and learn. We will mess some of it up and get some things wrong. But, we will attend to the challenge anyway.

The Diocese of Leeds is well set to do this with confidence. We will face hard questions about finance, resourcing, church buildings, people, places and how we set our priorities. But, if this sounds familiar, it should do. This is what we have been doing for the last decade when we were given a scheme to dissolve three dioceses and create a new one. Those of us who went through the experience have no illusions about some of the challenges and obstacles we faced, especially during the last six and a half years since we began. And we have shown a resilience and determination in doing so that demonstrates that we have the gifts God has given us already – and we can approach the future with uncertainty, confidence, adventure, curiosity, hope, faith and courage. That, in fact, has always been the vocation of God’s people. This territory might be new and immediate for us, but it is not new for humanity or the Christian Church.

So, we need to come to our agenda today with a sense of realistic imagination and hopeful vision. As I have said to colleagues in the last few months, you can’t argue with reality. So, let’s embrace it and see where we get to. It will be rocky, but it will still be a road.

Our new Diocesan Secretary has joined us in the most extraordinary and challenging circumstances, and we welcome him to his first Synod today. We will be looking at finance, deanery representation, annual reports and the budget – all in the light of the pandemic and its impact on our churches as well wider society. Although budgets are currently works of the imagination, we need to plan and do our work with seriousness and generosity, not least to those having to grapple with detail on our behalf … even when the ground never stands still under our feet. We will do some reordering of committees in order to respond to experience of the governance we set up six years ago. And we will look at lay discipleship and the Rhythm of Life.

Now, someone will ask if this is not all a bit inward looking at a point when the outside world is in a bit of a crisis. It isn’t, if it is seen as a means rather than an end. Having missed two synods in 2020, we have some housekeeping work we have to do. But, it is all done in order to set us free to fulfil our vocation and promote our agreed strategy as a diocese. We need to keep that perspective clear as we move through our agenda.

This address is shorter than normal as our meeting on screen is harder to manage than usual. I am sure you won’t complain about relative brevity. So, I want to conclude by taking us back to the point of it all. We are called in the name of Christ to love, live and learn together in order that across our communities we can reach out with faith, humility and boldness … in order that the love and mercy of God can be seen and heard and felt and embraced by those we are called to serve. That is why we do today what we will do. Given the constraints of the technology, please be patient, forbearing of one another, generous of spirit and hopeful in all we say and do together.