I am currently in Sri Lanka with our diocesan link bishop. I hadn't realised when we arrived yesterday in an almighty thunderstorm that this might be the mood left behind in England by the letter from bishops to the Prime Minister about refugees.

The storm is predictable, though some of the response by the commentariat is disappointingly knee-jerk.

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon?

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Our job is not to be popular or to go with the flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument (that I can only witness from a vast distance and with intermittent wifi) should be on the plight of refugees (see previous posts and my article in the Yorkshire Post) and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Colombo yesterday, Kandy today. Tomorrow we move on to the north and Jaffna. Much of the conversation revolves around the recently ended civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

The photo above is of the notice on our hotel window in Kandy. It doesn't spell out whether it is addressed to the guests or simply alerting us to an animal problem.

 

I am about to leave New York City having attended the second meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The acronym IPPFoRB might need a bit of attention…

Convened last year by a small group of parliamentarians from the UK (Baroness Elizabeth Berridge), Norway, Brazil, Germany and Canada, this event brought together a hundred parliamentarians from fifty countries and from every continent – including from Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The Church of England was involved in planning and running the event.

Not only was there informed and passionate discussion of the challenges in many parts of the world – including the naming and numbering of the persecution of Christians – but there was also the telling of stories from particular countries. This was a remarkable meeting, in the shadow of the United Nations and ahead of the meeting shortly of the General Assembly, of politicians (largely) who recognise the challenges across the globe.

Underlying the discourse lies two tough questions that go to the heart of a world that privileges rights: who, and according to which criteria, arbitrates between competing rights? Who, and according to which criteria, establishes the hierarchies of rights and freedoms? So, which takes precedence when freedom of expression collides with freedom of religion or belief? For some people this is an interesting – if challenging – conundrum; for others, it is a daily matter of life and death. There is a lot of work to do on this, and this coalition of parliamentarians from around the globe has engagaed with it with some energy.

There is too much to report here, but reports and the text of the Resolution will be posted on the website in due course. I tweeted through the main session yesterday, so have a look at my timeline to get a taste.

 

Well, that's the sort of title to set the cat among the pigeons.

It sometimes seems impossible to have an intelligent, informed and adult conversation about Europe, it's future and its value. A bit like mentioning immigration in the British press. It could be thought that this isn't the best time to be opening a new conversation about Europe: the news is dominated by the refugee and migrant crisis across the continent, and views vary about what should be done.

But, a new blog – Reimagining Europe – has been launched this week precisely in order to open a different sort of conversation. A wide range of contributors from across the spectrum of opinion has been invited to write. The idea is that people can listen and contribute to a debate that needs to be had. Whatever the future holds and whatever shape Europe takes politically, we will still have to live together in a common continent.

So, this is the church's invitation to a better conversation. Set up by the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, it is a case of the churches creating a new space for another dialogue. I hope it will get around some of the polemical polarisation we have become used to (and weary of) when the question of Europe is posed. As we approach the referendum in due course, this blog should prove useful.

 

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

Recently I was in Stuttgart and took part in a two-hour discussion with the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. The theme of the event – which took place before more than ten thousand people – focused on a question: is the world spinning out of control?

It's a good question, isn't it? Austerity at home and protests on the streets; financial and economic brinksmanship in Greece – with the implications for the rest of Europe of a Grexit; the continuing brutality of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; Ukraine and the confidence of a re-energised Russia; political instability and the threat of climate change. And that's just a sample from today's headlines.

The German Foreign Minister began by saying that the world has never been in such a dangerous place. Kofi Annan claimed that, actually, the world has never been safer. But, both went on to remind the audience of how the world was in the first half of the twentieth century, and only then compare with today.

I listened to this exchange and concluded that they were both right. It depends on your perspective. Only seventy years ago the world buried tens of millions of people who had died as the result of world war. Of course, this had been the second of these: we hadn't actually learned from the so-called 'war to end all wars' just a couple of decades before. I remember, as a small child, the Cuba missile crisis and the pervasive mood of fear. The Cold War itself, with the threat of nuclear annihilation, has also been quickly forgotten.

It seems to me that every generation thinks it might be the last. That the crises and challenges of today are the ultimate ones. That things have never been so bad. A bit like crime statistics: even if the figures go down, people for some reason still feel the fear. There are, of course, other examples.

Well, if you look at what fills the headlines and our screens, the world is in a pretty bad way. And it isn't hard to fuel the fear. But, hope has always defied this sort of thing. The Jews in exile in the eighth and sixth centuries BC faced the horrors of dislocation and alienation, but their poets fired their imaginations, helping them see beyond their immediate experience to what could one day come to be. Christian hope is rooted not in a simple reaction to the present challenges, but in being grasped by a vision of a different way – and then committing oneself to making it happen. The Christian vision of the Kingdom of God involves neither naïveté nor fantasy, but committed hope.

Perhaps what we need today is fewer analysts and commentators, and more poets: holding out a vision that fires the imagination and won't let us go.

As always these days, I am slightly behind on the news response front.

It seems that the Church of England is apologising for having urged – in the recent Bishops' Pastoral Letter – that no one should be paid less than the living wage. The Church itself is accused of 'hypocrisy' (how original…) as examples have been found where churches are advertising posts that do not pay the living wage.

For once, I don't think we should be apologising. To do so is to accept the premise that the Church is telling the rest of the country what to do – “preaching” is the word usually applied to anything we say or do.

But, I just want to put the obvious question: to whom was the Bishops' Pastoral Letter addressed?

The last time I looked, the church (and its thousands of separate charities that are individually responsible for “practising what it preaches”) was part of the world it is addressing. In fact, as the question assumes, it addresses itself first. The Letter was addressed to us.

 

Happy New Year!

I hope.

Here are some (unedited) preliminary thoughts on Day One.

Of course, for most people on the planet it promises to be no more happy than the last year. The horrors of persecution of minorities – especially Christians – on some parts of the planet show no sign of abating; and some countries in the sophisticated liberal west show no sign of offering hospitality to those doing the suffering.

In the UK we face a general election within a few months. The political parties still dance to a first-past-the-post tune when the reality of political allegiance sounds a coalition melody. Unlike other European countries which shape their rhetoric and policy making around coalition inevitabilities, our parties will play an unconvincing game of macho posturing before then having to “do a Lib-Dem” later in May. How many elections might it take before the realities impinge on the rhetoric and the electorate begins to be treated as intelligent (as well as politico-media literate).

The big challenges ahead include: the role of xenophobia or racism in the general election; whether hospitality is offered to refugees and asylum-seekers from places where loss and suffering have become intolerable; public ethics are to be shaped by more than populism.

At the root of all this lies a fundamental question – one that should be put to every candidate in the May election: “What is your theological anthropology?” OK, not in those words. Try: “What is a human person? Why does a human person matter? How do you know?”

These aren’t merely academic philosophical questions. They go to the heart of that from which all policy commitments will follow. For example, if we state that every human being has value (and rights – although the possession of rights cannot be simply derived from existence), how does that shape our policy with regard to letting Africans drown in the Mediterranean Sea, Yezidis freeze on a mountain, Christians get butchered in Syria, or wealth lie in the hands a handful of people in the rich world. I think we will find that policy is disconnected from stated anthropology – or that the stated anthropology is assumed rather than argued for.

This isn’t easy stuff. A Christian anthropology begins in an acceptance that each human person is made in the image of God. Everything stems from that. It goes on to face the reality of human failure (‘sin’) and the power of redemption. This is why Christian hope is not rooted in wishful thinking or a rootless optimism in the progress of human nature, but in the person of God who refuses to let violence, death and destruction have the last word. You may disagree with this anthropology, but at least it is clear why a Christian thinks people matter. And this stuff isn’t easy because, having taken this on board, we still have to work out in an imperfect world how to establish in a contested political space policies that might command support as well as compromise.

It seems that, despite the evidence of the centuries, there is still a widespread assumption that human beings are on an upward trajectory that will eventually lead to world peace. Hegel’s dialectic is somewhat attractive as a descriptor of historical development, but it still assumes that there is an end-point at which the dialectic ceases and we remain static in a state of wonderfulness. On what basis does this assumption rest other than wishful thinking or a blind prejudice that persists in the face of all the evidence? Christians prefer ‘hope’ to optimism.

So, the election campaign ahead of us will be challenging – for a host of reasons. Fundamental questions need to be asked about the anthropologies and moral bases of political judgement and policy – rather than us settling for the usual suspects playing the usual games and indulging in the usual point-scoring rhetoric that is demonstrably leaving most of the electorate cold.

In the context of these macro questions and challenges other realities have to be addressed in 2015. Top of my list is the fact that 2015 is the first full year of life for the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales. This time last year we still had four months to go before the Appointed Day (the day – Easter Day – when the three historic dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield would cease to exist and the single new diocese would begin life). We still did not know who would be the first diocesan bishop of Leeds – and I didn’t know if I would have any job in the Church of England after Easter. The future was full of uncertainties.

We go into 2015 with a full team of bishops and a clearer administration. The clergy and churches have been remarkable in continuing their mission in parishes and institutions amid so much continuing uncertainty about future shape and direction. We have begun to grasp nettles – and to identify which nettles need to be grasped, and by whom and when. We now face a year of establishing new governance and structures, focusing on evangelism, nurture and growth, whilst taking seriously our responsibility to serve our local communities in all their diverse complexions. The priority of the poor stands at the heart of all this.

However, the press of priorities has itself to be prioritised. We have to hold our nerve and retain our discipline as we tackle each element of diocesan life, vision, purpose and means in turn. We have to be systematic. We will make mistakes in all this, but they will be honest mistakes. And I am confident that we can renew our confidence, build our capacity (and face the cost of doing so) and ‘inspire by being inspired’ as we shape our future.

So, I look forward to 2015 with hope, faith and realism. No romanticism or vague aspirational optimism. My guess is that it will be a complex year, and that prioritising will not be easy at any level for society, politics or church. But, we can go for it with a theological anthropology that provides parameters within which to live: that the God who has made us in his image sets us free from fear, compels us to love our neighbour as ourself, promises us nothing other than a cross for doing so, and captures our imagination with a vision that takes the world seriously (what Christmas is all about – God opting in to it) whilst placing it into the context of eternity (where death is refused the final word).

It's interesting to watch the political parties responding like headless chickens to the Euro-elections. Short-term reaction again, or taking a long-term view of future threats and opportunities? I guess time will tell.

What interests me in all this is less the dramatic interpretations of the immediate and more the question that lies at the heart of the current debate: what sort of Europe do we wish to create?

Go to young countries like Kazakhstan and you can't help but be struck by the constructive optimism of young people. Yes, there are problems and there are serious questions about power and corruption; but the young people believe they are building something better than what they had in the past. Come back to Europe and it feels like we are tired, cynical and trying to justify hanging on to something we have inherited.

And this has less to do with European institutions than it does with a European narrative of identity and purpose. We can easily re-shape institutions without properly addressing the core question of meaning. Who and what is Europe for?

I was interested in Archbishop Cranmer's piece on Europe. He claims that the bishops of the Church of England are uncritical europhiles. He further claims that they/we accept Europe as it is. Neither is actually true.

I have written before about the need for a new guiding narrative in Europe if a younger generation is to be engaged in any way. I made this point at a round table discussion with Herman van Rompuy in Brussels a couple of years ago. I made it again at a meeting of the House of Bishops recently. I continue to ask how we can establish a process that explores a new narrative without getting bogged down in arguments about institutions alone.

The House of Bishops Europe Panel, of which I have been a member, was not set up to defend the European Union. It was set up to take seriously the nature of European identity, and to consider our European ecumenical relationships in the light of wider European political and cultural contexts.

And here lies a further challenge. The post-war ecumenical project arose from the blood of European conflict and the resolve to establish relationships that would make war impossible in the future. It mirrored (and sometimes led) the political drive towards closer relationships. But, just as the ecumenical generation is ageing, so is the generation of those who grew up with the political project.

Both need a new narrative – one that can be created by and engage the imagination of my children's generation and younger. Only then will they know what they are building, and why. Creating something generates energy and vision; hanging on to something inherited does not necessarily do the same job.

That's the challenge. I am interested to explore how we begin that sort of conversation – one that goes beyond, and is not captivated by, the institutions that should reflect our purpose.

 

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