Happy New Year!
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).