Being in a place of scarcity and threat compels us to look through different eyes at our own situation and life. Gaining a first-hand acquaintance with the church in Sudan last week (as I had previously done for eleven years with the church in Zimbabwe) shone a different light not only on who we are as an Anglican church in West Yorkshire, but also how we are in our attempt to fulfil our unique calling.

Add to that a reading of Walter Brueggemann's excellent book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination and the choice before the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield takes on a different (and more radical) complexion. On 2 March the three diocesan synods will vote on whether or not to choose dissolution and the creation of a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. During the last two years we have lived with uncertainty as, first, the initial proposals were debated; second, the amended draft scheme was debated; then, third, the final scheme was presented for acceptance or rejection.

So far, no problem. The whole world lives with uncertainty and sometimes the Church needs to grow up and get real when faced with challenges or bewilderments. Uncertainty is one of the facts of life and we, of all people, should learn to live confidently with it. However, how the process has been handled during the last two years raises some important questions that precede the detailed matters of the scheme's content: they have to do with identity, vocation and vision.

Identity

Who is the church? The church must take as its narrative the sweep of the biblical story, read in the light of its experience throughout history. What we learn is that the church's institutional shape must serve its vocation and not have its vocation shaped by its inherited institutional form(s). If the church aims “to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God” – and to do this by learning the (constantly changing, moving) 'languages' of a culture that never stands still, then it must constantly be willing to sacrifice its inheritance for the sake of its mission. Indeed, this was the motivation behind the creation by the Church of England of new dioceses in the twentieth century, aimed at re-shaping the church to serve new urban communities that hadn't really been there a century before.

The proposals for West Yorkshire do the same for the twenty first century, both responding to the changes in demography, culture and communications and anticipating further changes in the century to come. It would be interesting to see what arguments were used at the time when Wakefield and Bradford were established as separate dioceses by those who thought the change would be negative, retrograde, trendy, unnecessary, unmissional, and so on. I guess they would represent a re-run of some of the 'denial rhetoric' that is being articulated now.

However, these proposals invite the Church of England in West Yorkshire (and beyond – because this could still be put to the General Synod for acceptance even if one of our dioceses votes against it on 2 March), for the first time in several generations, to do what the Church of England used to do in re-shaping itself for the sake of its declared mission.

Vocation

Who is the church for? The church's vocation is a tough one: it essentially asks us to be 'prophetic', not only in word, but in action. By 'prophetic' I mean offering the world the possibility of a different way of seeing and being… even while the old world continues and appears dominant. This is the invitation of the Old Testament prophets: to see a new world whilst the current reality was exile under a powerful empire. Not only do the prophets speak truth about now, but they use language to fire a daring imagination about a different future… a future rooted in hope. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus poses the same challenge: you can't see how the pure God can come among you again while the unholy pagans (the Roman occupying forces) remain in your land, compromising your worship and blaspheming your faith; but, dare you 'repent' (literally, 'change your mind' – see through a re-ground lens) and begin to live now as if God were present, contaminating the unholy with grace rather than being afraid of being contaminated by the bad stuff? (This is what is going on in Mark's summary of Jesus's message, mission and ministry in Mark 1:14-15.)

Walter Brueggemann draws attention to this when he writes:

… prophetic preaching is the enactment of hope in contexts of loss and grief. It is the declaration that God can enact a novum in our very midst, even when we judge that to be impossible. (P.110)

More suggestively, perhaps, he goes on (p.130f) to expose the discrepancy between what we Christians say and sing, and how we then handle prophetic demands:

There is a tacit yearning in the church for the prophetic. And so the church sings about the prophetic with some vigor… The church sings that way with hope, all the while, in practice, mostly resisting anything prophetic and really wanting no more than a status quo pastorate or priesthood, mostly wanting apostolic faith that “tells” but does not summon too much.

In other words, we don't walk the talk. In relation to West Yorkshire all parties have agreed, articulated and rehearsed the view that change needs to happen and that we cannot just continue blindly into the future. Yet, when specific change is proposed – based on thorough consultation, research and testing alternatives – some of us resist even using our imagination to see how 'a different way' might potentially look, were we to have some courage as well as convictions. What lies before us is not simply a choice about specific proposals for a single diocese, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a challenge to the integrity of our vocation as a church. Given that so-called 'alternatives' have come too late in the process, been simple reactions to specific points that, once addressed and answered (see the 'threat' to funding three cathedrals, for example), are held onto regardless or quietly dismissed in the search for another objection.

Vision

I understand what lies behind the fear of change, loss and uncertainty. (After all, if this scheme goes through, I become the first diocesan bishop to be made redundant – a prospect I don't relish, but for which I am prepared.) But, this is what the church is called to model in every generation – for our rootedness is fundamentally not in our institutional shape (as if this were directly established by God in creation), but in our courageous and prophetic faithfulness to the mission God has entrusted to us.

I will come back again to some of the specifics involved in the proposals, but for now the big question has to do with something deeper, more integral to our identity and vocation, more theological and attitudinal. A new single diocese would bring huge challenges and opportunities. There will be errors, mismanagements and failures. Risk will be felt acutely. Structures – existing or potential – achieve nothing of themselves; all depends on how people lead, work them and creatively attend to their potential as media (parameters) for enabling the vocation to be fulfilled.

I think I am not alone in Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds in wanting our decision to be driven by courage, vision, creative commitment, vocational conviction and missional invitation. We must not fail the church and the wider world by being driven by denial, fear, resentment, protectionism or self-interest.

More anon.

Back in 2007 I took a group of twenty to Central Zimbabwe for two weeks. The day after we arrived we walked to a farm and saw with our own eyes the desert that had once been a thriving and fertile farm. It has to be remembered that this was a time when the Zimbabwean economy was in free-fall and inflation at a mere 10,000%. We experienced constant power cuts, water stoppages and harassment from Zanu PF’s dodgy police.

While walking around the arid farm, and wondering how on earth a future might be shaped out of this disaster – the breadbasket of Africa become the basket case of Africa – my misery was interrupted by something easily missed and apparently trivial. It was a single rose, about twelve inches high, planted and watered in a small hole in the dry soil. It looked feeble and misplaced – almost futile. But, as everything else seemed to be closing down and smelling of death, here was a prophetic symbol of hope. It seemed to be saying that the is a future – that there is more to reality than what appears as the immediate evidence of your eyes. It was placing a question mark over the dominant gloom, whispering a new melody over the grinding music of doom.

In my presidential address to the Bradford Diocesan Synod this morning I called for our diocese to be ambitious and prophetic and I said it like this:

We should be ambitious. We should be confident about our vocation and the God who gives us it.
In all these matters we are being invited to be prophetic. I know the word is over-used. (I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that when people ask him to be prophetic, what they really mean is: ‘Say loudly what I want to hear you say!’) But, to be prophetic in the biblical tradition is to catch a glimpse behind the curtain of our time and place – a glimpse of the glory of the God who, in the face of our pessimism and gloom, always whispers words such as ‘resurrection’, ‘renewal, or (in Walter Brueggemann’s memorable phrase) ‘newness after loss’. Being prophetic is to plant a seed when everyone else tells us the ground is dried up. It is to build a house when everybody else is demolishing and leaving. It is to sing a song when everybody else has gone silent. It is to build a boat when there isn’t any water… yet.
It is to be a sign of hope – assuming a future. As Rowan Williams says of Dostoyevsky, there is never a final word in the conversation; there is always more to be said. Just as there is nothing new under the sun, there is never an ‘end’ in the economy of a God for whom even death doesn’t finish everything off.

The Occupy movement does not have a monopoly on prophetic action. Every action, word or symbol that defies ‘endings’ by holding out even a tiny promise of a new beginning – a future beyond the loss – is prophetic. And hopeful.

Berliner DomI have just launched myself into a series of five conferences (one ended today) which will keep me away until 2 October – though I hope to keep blogging. I leave early tomorrow morning for Rome and then Blackburn (!) followed by Kassel (Germany) – and end up preaching in Berlin Cathedral before returning for the final blast at Swanwick. Roll on October…

At the residential conference which ended today the recently-retired Bishop of Thetford, David Atkinson, shared his great wisdom with his usual quietly-spoken humility. While answering a question about the most pressing agenda for the Church of England at the moment, one of the things he identified was climate change. I have to confess that I am a bit worried about ‘climate fatigue’ setting in – there is so much being said and written about it that I think many people are beginning to glaze over instead of waking up. I hope I am wrong.

What woke me up was David asking: ‘Will we let future generations speak to us?’ In other words, will we have the imaginative courage to hear the blessings or cursings of our children’s and their children’s generations as they suffer the consequences of our refusal to change our costly lifestyle? Will we simply bequeathe to them a broken world with a broken climate because we are too greedy and selfish to hear their cry?

This struck me because it reminded me of a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

An older version of this formed the title of a remarkable book I read years ago when studying German political history – particularly about the failure of the Church in relation to the Jews during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s: ‘Open thy mouth for the dumb.’ It is a potent demand.

Auschwitz gateThe prophetic challenge has always been that people who bear God’s name should see through God’s eyes and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. I have always simply assumed this could refer to those who have no voice in contemporary affairs – the poor and the marginalised. It had never occurred to me that it could be a challenge to listen to the voices of those as yet unborn who will one day – long after we have moved on – pay the price for our greed and complacency.

This also resonates with Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s understanding of the resurrection as the ‘proleptic invasion of the end in the present’. Big words, but a simple concept: the resurrection of Jesus by God is the ‘end’ being brought forward into ‘now’ and enabling us to live now in the light of the end. So, Christians live in the here-and-now in the light of having seen the promised end – resurrection. And this actually goes to the heart of Christian hope. For Christian hope is not wishful thinking and does not lie in an anticipated series of events taking place (all that ‘End Times’ nonsense from the USA). Rather, it lies in the person of God who raised Christ from the dead and thus invaded the now with his final word. We trust in God, not in heaven.

Now, I cite this bit of theology because there are those who think the climate change stuff needn’t bother us on the grounds that God will soon intervene and bring it all to a glorious end anyway. And it is precisely this sort of stupid theology that needs to be firmly knocked on the head.

earth_mainThe prophetic challenge mentioned earlier has always been dismissed by those who spiritualise themselves out of responsibility. But the simple equation cannot be avoided: our faith in God (as well as our theology) can only be seen in how we live now in the light of the future. And that means that our ethics now must be shaped by our imaginative and informed understanding of what future generations might be saying to us if only they could speak for themselves and if only we could hear them.