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.

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

In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.

My experience reminded me of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: don't even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Well, because, he says, you can't understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture – and to do that you have to know something of (or, better, 'inhabit') the language. After all, language goes deep and some things can't be translated; they have to be intuited.

Well, I don't speak Swahili, but this is partly what was going on for me in Tanzania: not everyone sees the world as I do. For example, how are we to understand the significance of the first meeting in a thousand years between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow last week? Seen through an English lens, it might look merely odd. Seen through the eyes of a people whose religious memory goes deeper into centuries of division, and it will resonate more profoundly.

Or, politically, where the resurgence of Putin's Russia appears threatening in the West, but has a different complexion when seen by Russians whose recent history of collapse has been crying out for re-empowerment. Tensions over Syria, for example, have to be seen through Russian eyes, not just our own, if we are to see more clearly what is going on there.

None of this is new. Listening to Tanzanians describing their experience of life and loss, I could not help but look through their eyes at my own. And this exposes the limitations of my own imagination and understanding of the world – even my world. My mind was being changed.

This is what is referred to in the Bible as 'repentance' – the freedom to change one's mind – or, to put it more visually, to re-grind the lens behind the eyes that shapes the way we see God, the world and us.

It is no surprise, then, that for Christians this period of Lent is intended partly to clear away the stuff that stops us repenting. It creates the space in which we can once again, in humility, submit our perceptions, our convictions and our prejudices to the searching eye of love and justice and mercy and generosity. Or, for Christians like me, to have the courage not just to give up chocolate for a few weeks, but to dare to look and see differently that with which we had become comfortable or familiar.

 

When Paul Simon put out the epic Graceland, one of the most evocative lyrics on the album referred to “under an African sky”. I didn't really understand why an African sky should be any different from any other sky. (There speaks a British city man.)

On my first trip to Africa – to Zimbabwe for a diocesan partnership link visit – I was overwhelmed by the sky at night. Under total darkness – no light pollution out in the bush – the sky appeared to be in 3D: billions of stars filled the night sky, shooting stars appearing and expiring in seconds. It was breathtaking. On one subsequent visit a group of us lay outside on the grass just staring at the sky for ages, silent contemplation squeezing out the distractions of talk and 'stuff'.

Africa is gorgeous. It can also be infuriating. On a diocesan link visit to Tanzania wifi has been mostly non-existent. So, for those of us intending to communicate the experience more widely, we have had to leave the iPad unopened while we immersed ourselves in the experiences and conversations of the moment. In its own way it is very therapeutic.

We have come with a group of thirteen. The historic Diocese of Wakefield had a longstanding and very well developed link with the Diocese of Mara in northern Tanzania. Mara then divided in 2010 and two new dioceses were formed: Rorya and Tarime. We are visiting all three. Now, as part of the Diocese of Leeds (known as West Yorkshire and the Dales – not easy for all Tanzanians to pronounce), Tanzania is one link among several: Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (formed with the historic Diocese of Bradford) and Sri Lanka (with the historic Diocese of Ripon & Leeds). There are also smaller, more specific links with Skara in Sweden and the Kirchenkreis Erfurt in Germany.

Here in Tanzania we have visited people, projects, churches and schools. There are some inspiring people here, and they are doing some remarkable things. From the building of schools to the creation of vocational training centres to help girls avoid FGM and early marriage, the church serves its wider community with commitment, sacrifice and courage. One or two places we have visited are like the Wild West – frontier places that do not look immediately promising for the church.

The church here is growing. Yet, I find myself increasingly annoyed by much of what I have heard over the years that contrasts the church in the UK with the church in Africa (as if 'Africa' was a single entity anyway). For example, here in Tanzania the church is planting churches and congregations where none has ever existed before. They might start a congregation under a tree, but they soon move towards building a church building. In fact, one dynamic bishop went as far as to say that the church grows once there is a building. At the same time as in England there seems to be a rush to get rid of buildings on the basis that they put people off…

Now, this sounds like England over a hundred years ago. The Victorians planted churches and erected buildings where none had existed before and the church grew in many dimensions. But, the church in England – especially one that organises by territorial missional obligation … such as the Church of England – now finds itself in a different culture that holds a different memory about the church and which sees the now redundant buildings as a sign of decline. Yet, many of our buildings are worn out, in the wrong place for today's world or capable only of static worship and use.

In other words, as a bishop said to me yesterday, the African church will probably one day (in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years) face the same situation the English church attends to today. Which means that we English should stop romanticising the African church and recognise that we have to find English ways of growing the church (taking a longer-term view) and not make the simplistic assumption that if we only copied the African church all would be well. There is no simple equation. Technique will never trump inspiration by the Spirit of God.

I always come away from churches in Africa – in Zimbabwe, Sudan and now Tanzania – inspired and energised. But, I never come away thinking there is some simple equation that can be applied in Leeds just because it works in Musoma or Tarime. What gets fired up is the imagination to look afresh at the context in Leeds and, having stepped back, to reimagine how the priorities in Leeds might now be addressed.

Now for the market – after a week of intensive engagement and travel, today is the closest we will get to a day off. Tomorrow I preach in Musoma Cathedral.That said, however, respite from the cold, wet and miserable English winter doesn't half help that imagination get stimulated.

 

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.