At its creation at Easter 2014 the new Diocese of Leeds inherited a number of international partnership links. Three years into the new diocese, I invited our link bishops to visit this diocese for a week of retreat and conversation that might help us discern the potential (or otherwise) of our links.

Rather than repeat what I have written elsewhere, here are links to the various articles written for different audiences:

Although we originally didn’t intend to produce any statement at the end of our time together, we did agree a communique that read as follows:

Diocese of Leeds – Visit of Link Bishops, 2-10 April 2017

The Bishop of Leeds invited bishops from the international partnership links (inherited from the historic dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds) to convene in Passiontide at Parcevall Hall for a retreat.

The Archbishop of Khartoum (Sudan), the bishops of Mara (Tanzania), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Faisalabad (Pakistan), Southwestern Virginia (USA), Skara (Swedish Lutheran) and the Superintendent of Erfurt (Germany) spent five days with the Bishop of Leeds and the suffragan bishops of Bradford, Huddersfield, Richmond, Ripon and Wakefield.

In a context of prayer, worship and deep fellowship the bishops took time to explain the cultural, social and church/missional contexts in which they serve and the polities of those churches. This formed the bedrock of deeper exploration of biblical theology, hermeneutics, prayer, spirituality, discipleship and ethics as seen and understood in their particular context.

Recognition of the differences that threaten to divide Anglicans from one another sat within a deep commitment of mutual friendship, fellowship and love. Conversations were characterised by honesty, generosity, grace and genuine attentiveness.

Grateful for the hospitality during this retreat, and following discussion of how our partnerships might be renewed or further developed from here, the bishops resolved:

  • to recognise in one another a brother in Christ
  • to form a community of mutual loving, learning, support, encouragement and challenge
  • to pray for one another
  • to communicate regularly
  • to check with each other reports about developments in one another’s church before passing judgment or comment
  • to face honestly any future strains or challenges that threaten the unity of our church or the bonds of affection to which we are both called and committed
  • to set up conversations to explore the potential for optimising multilateral partnerships where possible.

The bishops further resolved to meet again in Leeds prior to the Lambeth Conference in 2020.

Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, Bishop of Leeds

Most Revd Ezekiel Kondo, Bishop of Khartoum, Sudan

Rt Revd Mark Bourlakas, Bishop of Southwestern Virginia, USA

Rt Revd Dhiloraj Canagasabey, Bishop of Colombo, Church of Ceylon, Sri Lanka

Rt Revd George Okoth, Bishop of Mara, Tanzania

Rt Revd John Samuel, Bishop of Faisalabad, Pakistan

Rt Revd Åke Bonnier, Bishop of Skara, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden

Rt Revd James Bell, Bishop of Ripon, Diocese of Leeds

Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs, Bishop of Huddersfield, Diocese of Leeds

Rt Revd Dr Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford, Diocese of Leeds

Rt Revd Tony Robinson, Bishop of Wakefield, Diocese of Leeds

Rt Revd Paul Slater, Bishop of Richmond, Diocese of Leeds

Senior Dr Matthias Rein, Superintendent of Kirchenkreis Erfurt, Landeskirche von Mitteldeutschland, Germany (Meissen)

10 April 2017

We finish tomorrow before visiting the Archbishop of Canterbury on Monday.

I don't have much time these days for doing the blog. All I manage to put up is scripts or journalism. I recently did a paper at a theological conference, but 5,000 words is too many for this medium.

Tomorrow I head off to Tanzania to visit one of our Anglican partnership links: three dioceses in the north. So, here's a quick blast on a theme.

Most Church of England dioceses have links with dioceses around the world (or the Anglican Communion for these purposes). My diocese comprises three historic English dioceses and each had long-established links: Bradford with Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (USA), Wakefield with Tanzania and Skara (Sweden), Ripon & Leeds with Sri Lanka.

All the richness and complexity of the Anglican Communion is there. In Sudan the church faces dreadful pressure because African Christians (as opposed to Arabic Muslims) are being persecuted and squeezed. The reasons are complicated, but the separation of South Sudan from Sudan (and consequent vindictiveness) has led to a ratcheting up of the pressure. Look back to the posts I wrote when visiting Sudan in January 2013.)

Tanzania faces political and economic difficulties, and bears the marks of many of the problems of Africa. It is also beautiful. The church is divided in one of the dioceses we shall be visiting.

I visited Sri Lanka (see posts here) in October 2014, learning a huge amount about the politics and tribal tensions that lay beneath the decades-long civil war. I also witnessed the unique contribution being made by the Anglican Church in promoting and working for reconciliation between scarred peoples. Rebuilding broken communities lies at the heart of the church's witness.

Southwestern Virginia is a beautiful part of America where the church gets stuck into witnessing within its particular culture. The relationship with South Sudan is about to be brought to a conclusion. The diocese is currently enjoying its annual Council. I have visited twice – the second time for the consecration of the new bishop Mark Bourlakas. (I sat next to Michael Curry, now the Presiding Bishop, during the service. When the choir sang Parry's 'I was glad' I pointed out that it had been written for a coronation in England – and thought the Americans had fought hard to get away from this stuff. Michael turned to me and said: “We won the War of Independence, but you won the culture wars.” Excellent.)

I visited Skara briefly in 2014 to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury and my diocese at the 1000th anniversary of the diocese. I also managed to do a speech made up of a considerable number of Abba lyrics. They laughed.

In my diocese we cover major cities, post-industrial towns, deeply rural communities. All of life is here.

In other words, bring this lot together and all the complexities of the modern world are there. Christians struggling with persecution and pressure, those at the heart of a beautiful country that has moved from colonialism to civil war and beyond. Scandinavia, the United States and England represent a spread of modern western liberal democracies where the church takes a number of different forms and is having to face challenges different from those in, for example, Africa.

What often surprises me is how surprised others are when they hear about the reality of being a Christian in England and the west. They see the Church of England and English society as it was seventy years ago.

Last week I had Skype conversations with the Bishop of Colombo (Sri Lanka), the Archbishop of Khartoum and the Bishop of Southwestern Virginia. In the next couple of days I will meet the Tanzanians. I have had email correspondence with the Bishop of Skara. Why? Because these links are more than simply institutional connections; we are friends and brothers, able to be honest and open with each other.

So, why write this now? Well, mainly because I am planning to bring the bishops together in 2017 to live, pray, talk and learn together.

This is what the Anglican Communion is all about. And it is never boring.

So, to Tanzania…

 

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

It doesn't seem that long since we were doing this last year: looking back at the old and wondering what the new year will hold. Many people in my part of the world will be hoping for better weather and, if that fails, at least better flood defences. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was surely right when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Well, looking forwards tells me that in Europe 2016 won’t be boring. Among other things, we’ll commemorate the centenary of the Somme – where a whole generation of young men (vast numbers from northern towns and cities) was sacrificed on the altar of violence. Then there’s the likely referendum on membership of the European Union which should remind us of where the drive for union began a century ago. And let's not forget the European football Championships in the summer – where we can only hope the goals go in the right direction.

Tomorrow is always an unknown country. This month the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in London and make decisions about how to belong together in the future. The divisions are no secret. The outcome is, obviously, unknown. What is certain, however, is that the future might not look exactly like the past.

Now, that’s a bit of a truism. But, every human community has to comprehend difference of opinion and competing priorities. Yes, we can walk away from the discomfort of conflict; or, we can face reality and harness it for honest conversation. Difference matters.

Later this month I will be visiting Anglicans in Tanzania where our diocesan partnership links are strong. We have equally strong links with Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the United States. What these relationships do is compel Christians in very different contexts and with vastly different histories and cultures to look through the eyes of the other and feel through the skin of the other. What we take for granted when we talk about God, the world and us gets challenged by looking through the eyes of a very different people. This also means exposing our own prejudices and discovering just how much of our theology turns out actually to be cultural assumption.

So, difference is integral to all human life. We either face it hopefully … or we simply wish it away. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking; hope refuses to let go in the face of even fierce discomfort.

Writing about the prophets, one Old Testament theologian titled a book 'Texts that linger, words that explode'. Well, maybe relationships sometimes explode, but words have a habit of hanging around – the conversation always has further to go. The texts that linger form a conversation that can’t be silenced.

A hopeful 2016 is one that faces reality and keeps talking.

I remember being in Indonesia in 1999 and failing to comprehend the rules of the road. The traffic looked chaotic. It was impossible to work out who had the right of way in which circumstances and where. But, the experience set me up well for being driven from south to north Sri Lanka, back again, then across into the mountainous country where I am writing this (at over 2,000 metres, the first place to have a heater in the room rather than air conditioning… and it is hammering down with warm rain).

Broadly speaking, today's western mind needs to know the rules, if only to know when they are being broken. Traffic feeding onto a roundabout from the right has right of way, and traffic waiting to drive onto the roundabout has to wait its turn.

Yet, here, as in Indonesia (and two memorable drives through Athens in the rush hour in a friend's car – which taught me how to pray better), the 'rules' are different. Yes, there are white lines, yellow lines, traffic lights and kerbs. But, there is little waiting, little respect for ideas such as those that dictate that “cars joining a major road from a side road should wait until they can safely do so without interfering with the traffic flow”. They just go. And, somehow, it seems to work. Nobody gets cross and we have seen only two minor accidents. The only rule seems to be: everyone on the road has as much right as I do to go where they want and when they want and how they want.

I guess this means that even the driving is based on relationship and not rule. You watch, you flash your lights, you beep your horn, and you go … and you somehow end up in the flow. Don't ask me about overtaking.

Talking here with the Bishop of Colombo about the Anglican Communion, it leaves me wondering if we have (at least) two conflicting assumptions about the 'rules' by which such a communion should be shaped. There are those who insist on the letter of every law being applied, and there are those who just, somehow, want to make it work – messy as it looks and is – and are less worried about the rules and more about the mutuality of the relationships.

Yes, I know this is neither deep nor original; but, it is what is wheeling its way around my mind while thinking and conversing about a range of matters to do with God, the Gospel, the Church and Christian mission in the world's we inhabit.

This afternoon we visited an old colonial church. The plaques on the walls reveal just how many people here died in their 20s and 30s. We then went on to visit a home for destitute children – up to 40 boys and girls from toddlers to almost 20. What struck us was the dedication of people who decide to do one thing with their life – giving it for the sake of such children. No concern for promotion or variation, no manoeuvring for the next job. Single-minded commitment to one thing and for life.

This isn't to be romanticised. Yet, here are children who would otherwise have no home and no experience of genuine and long-term love. The motivation seems to be simple: God, in Jesus Christ, invites us to share in his ministry of generous love, open service, unsentimental commitment and costly reconciliation. We can respond with realism and joy; or we can walk away.

It is a brilliant trip so far, and one that is giving to me far more than I can give in return. (Apart from the Delhi belly…)

 

We have just spent two days in the far north of Sri Lanka. This is where the civil war saw its bloody conclusions in Jaffna in 1995 and Kilinochchi only five years ago.

Having met a range of civic and Christian leaders in Jaffna and heard their stories, the tragedy of that civil war is etched in the ruins of homes and the lives that were torn apart in them. The scars of war cannot be avoided – the destruction and all it represents is there to see. And, as the Bishop of Colombo said, the enormity is hinted at when you walk into random ruins and find the remains of a child's doll. A family died there. Probably someone else's war.

This isn't the time or place to go into the nature of the conflict itself. But, the Church of Ceylon (which we are visiting for the first time) exercises its ministry of reconciliation in the conflicted context of the war's aftermath. And its stress is not on working for justice for one side or one community or one language/ethnic group; rather, its concern is to establish justice for all and bring healing to the whole country.

Like the church in most places, this work is done mostly on the quiet – often under the radar. Not all good and effective work is done through a microphone, but in the hidden business of bringing people together, creating the space for a different sort of conversation with a different sort of vocabulary.

I am only a few days into this visit – and have an explosion of images, sounds and stories in my mind – and will continue to think around it all. Today's judgments might well be challenged by tomorrow's experience or the weekend's encounters. So, I continue to listen and look and learn.

Yet, at the heart of it all is that universal conundrum that struggles to hold together the beauty and the violence of human beings, the glory and the evil of human passion, the power and weakness of hope in the face of destructiveness.

Given my connections with Germany and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, where Bell is seen as a hero, this is also the conundrum that emerges today from the announcement of Bishop George Bell's sexual abuse crime. Inexcusable and appalling – not only the abuse itself, but also the way it was ignored by the Church of England for so long – Bell's reputation is destroyed. But, what, then, do we do with the courage he showed during the Second World War in supporting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the resistance movement in and outside Germany itself, and questioning the moral basis of the Allied bombing of civilians in cities like Dresden?

I am not sure how we deal with this. Is it possible to damn the abusing bishop while admiring the courageous defender of the oppressed and the builder of peace?

How we answer this question will say something not just about Bell, but also about us.

And, like the survivors of the civil war in Sri Lanka, the survivor(s) of Bell's abuse, the effects of the crime cannot be expunged by some later compensation. We can only trust that truth is the path to peace.

 

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.