One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.

 

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I have just got back from the first ever clergy conference in the Diocese of Leeds. We met at Liverpool Hope University – a place to which I used to deliver the newspapers when I was a kid. I grew up half a mile away.

It went remarkably well. The last few years have not been easy as we dissolved three dioceses at Easter 2014 and worked to keep everything going while creating something new. This conference was a turning point and felt like a celebration.

However, it wasn't just the atmosphere that did it. The speakers excelled. The particular highlight for most of us was yesterday's presentations and conversations by Professor Brian Cox and Professor David Wilkinson on 'Science, the cosmos and human meaning'. Their presentations were superb, clear, stretching and totally engaging. The enthusiasm for science was palpable, but also held in a rooted sense of curiosity and wonder. I am not sure we all understood all the equations, but we were able to span the enormity of the universe (and multiverses) whilst earthing the whole thing in questions of meaning, existence, faith and the possibilities of God.

What was great was the mutual respect and serious engagement between Brian Cox and David Wilkinson as I moderated a conversation between them following their presentations. After lunch (and a million requests for selfies and autographs – not mine, obviously) we had an hour of questions, observations and conversation that ranged widely and really intelligently. The standing ovation for our guests was richly deserved.

This offered a model for how serious engagement can take place where difference is respected. Our public discourse – especially our political and media discourse – in the UK is not great at the moment. See the whole Brexit business, if you don't believe me. There is clearly a need for more attention to be paid to modelling good conversation on contentious issues… and, especially, where prejudices about the conflict between science and religion too often polarise positions before arguments have even been articulated, let alone listened to or heard.

Brian Cox is doing a tour. Book now.

 

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post, published here today and anticipating a conference at York St John University next week – the Inaugural Global Congress on Sport and Christianity:

It took me a while to work out just why my GP advised me to give up playing squash at the age of 42. I thought he was concerned about the impact of the sport on my heart; I actually think it was because I was beating him too often.

Nothing has ever taken the place of football or squash. One a team sport (in which my dreams outran my abilities); the other a singles competition (in which I just ran about a lot). I have tried running, but get bored. I went to the gym for several years, but got bored. I bought a rowing machine, but damaged my shoulder and couldn't use it. And I am saying nothing about Body Pump…

This is probably not the right time to be exercising the ghosts of fitness past – while at the time of writing the football season is kicking off and the Olympics are racing on. Visions of athletic perfection have me reaching for another beer while urging them on to ever greater physical and mental achievement. When I met Mo Farah in a BBC Radio 2 studio in July I had to resist asking him if he needed a good meal.

There was a time when I would have thought about sport simply in terms of individual prowess – of individual training, personal discipline and physical endurance. Contrary to many popular views of what it is to be a human being, we are actually a trinity of body, mind and spirit – all held in an inextricable unity.

Despite the deeply ingrained assumption in Greek thinking that body, mind and spirit can operate independently of each other, they all actually belong in a single unity. This is why it is such a nonsense to think that the great favourite watchword of postmodern individualism, 'spirituality', leads to the uncritical conclusion that religion or spiritual life should be shoved into a corner marked 'private' and kept in the dark (where it can't impinge on public life or threaten any disturbance to the social, economic or political status quo).

Which brings us back to sport.

Thinking today about sport has pushed me in a slightly broader direction. Biblical writers encourage Christians to be as disciplined in their discipleship of Jesus as athletes are in their singleminded training regimes – keeping their eye fixed on the ultimate goal and not the immediate pain or privations. But, the Christian vision also goes deeper. If you can't divide the body from the mind or spirit, then you can't separate the essence or importance of sport from the fabric of the rest of social life.

Society demands order. To put a long argument very briefly, social order needs white lines on a pitch in the same way as a game of tennis cannot be played on a moor. The particular rules might vary from game to game. The shape and nature of a pitch might look different depending on the nature of the sport being played: a football pitch looks different from a 110 metre hurdles track. But, what both require is parameters within which a game can be played and in which creativity can be deployed in the playing of it. What you can't have is a measurable game played by individuals who make up their own rules as they go or decide when and where they wish the white lines to be placed.

I realise this sounds obvious. But, we live in a culture where it is often assumed that any opinion is valid, any individual choice is equally apt, any personal preference is acceptable – regardless of the impact of these on the wider social order (or what is often called the common good). The point here is to assert that the white lines on the pitch are not constraints imposed in order to limit freedoms, but precisely the means of enabling a creative game to be played in the first place. If you don't believe me, ask Andy Murray to play a Wimbledon final in the middle of Roundhay Park or above the rocks on Ilkley Moor.

This is what I mean when I suggest that the power and fascination of sport transcends mere competition or competitiveness. It certainly transcends the power of celebrity from which it currently seems to take its financial fuel. The shaping and dynamics of sport – both individual and team – reflect deeply the fabric of human being and human society: we need order, common constraints, the creative opportunities that these parameters enable, and the commonly respected commitments that creating such a life acknowledges.

I see a Christian vision for society being reflected in the phenomenon of sport, in which mutual competitiveness aims at pushing the limits of both spectacle and potential whilst illustrating the necessary effectiveness of working with each other and for each other for a common goal. Both require the development of character and virtue as the end to which the training is merely the means. This is why drug abuse should be inherently shameful – shame not simply being an effect of having been found out.

Clearly, more can be said. But, as we sit in front of the telly, reaching for the beer and crisps, 'encouraging' the athletes to “run faster”, we might just consider what sport tells us not only about ourselves, but about our common life as a society – and what it is ultimately for.

 

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate. It comes in the wake of the atrocity in Nice and the failure of an attempted military coup in Turkey last night.

Earlier this week the bishops met for our monthly meeting at Hollin House. We always begin with a Eucharist, have breakfast, then do Bible study together before attending to the business before us. Obviously, we have a rota for leading the Bible study, and this week it was the turn of Bishop Toby, just a few days before he will be leaving for a visit to Sudan representing the Archbishop of Canterbury – of which more later.

Bishop Toby took us to Jeremiah 32 and the iconic story of prophetic hope: Jeremiah buys a field at Anathoth. Nothing odd about that? Just a wily old man playing the Ancient Near East version of the Stock Exchange? No. Jeremiah buys his field, places both the sealed and unsealed deeds in an earthenware jar, then has it buried in the field. Why? Because this looks like an absurd investment and Jeremiah looks mad.

The context is this. Society – and what we today might refer to as political and economic life – is about to fall apart. The Empire is closing in and the future looks bleak. Horizons have narrowed and people are looking increasingly short-term. They are, to reverse a phrase I often use of Easter, being driven by fear and not drawn by hope. And it is now that Jeremiah buys a field and hides the deeds and, in this quiet prophetic act, votes for hope. The end might be nigh, but the prophet catches a glimpse of a new future and, when others look down, he dares to invest in that future. Now is not the end.

This seems to me to be very apposite at a time when we live with huge uncertainties in both nation and church. Whether you voted Remain or Leave in the recent EU Referendum is not the point. We are where we are and we must take responsibility for the future and our shaping of it. It is infantile to sit on the sidelines, sure of superior wisdom, sniping at those working for the future and taking no responsibility for it. And Christians in particular are called, whatever the circumstances, to voice hope, live hope, and illustrate hope. (I am not sure now is the best time to buy a field and bury the deeds, but you get the point.)

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann is well worth going to for biblical and theological insights into the role and language of God's people at times of pressure or exile. One of his books is called 'Hopeful Imagination'; another 'The `Practice of Prophetic Imagination'. A third, with the subtitle 'Listening to Prophetic Voices', is titled 'Texts that Linger, Words that Explode'. These titles by themselves sum up the vocation of God's people, whether three thousand years ago at Anathoth or here in England in the twenty first century: to be a people of hope, drawn by a hope that comes to us from the future (and in which light we now live), articulating and giving a vocabulary for hope, acting and living hopefully at the heart of a society that is too easily driven by fear.

It will come as no surprise to you that I am particularly keen on how we articulate Christian hope, even where it looks absurd, even where it defies the evidence of “now” with the promise of “then”. What Brueggemann is asking us to do is to use words and actions to capture the imagination of a people so that they look beyond the immediate crises and dangers to a future that only God knows. Whether, despite our faithfulness and fidelity, and like Jeremiah the miserable but hopeful prophet, we head off into exile and the loss of everything that gives our life meaning – with all the sense of loss and betrayal and despair that involves – or life goes well and we prosper like never before, our vocation will be the same: to speak and live hopefully, holding out to people locked into “now” the possibility of God's future.

Now, I have taken some time on this at the beginning of this address because we need as a diocese and a synod of that diocese to root our deliberations in a theology that is strong enough to bear the weight of uncertainty. Theology is never merely academic, though we honour those whose academic attentions enlighten the rest of us. The point here, however, is that we need to sharpen more than our intellects, and have our imagination captured by the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who, as Matthew tells us, is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

So, whether we are happy with Brexit or not, whether we are fearful of the future or not, whether we are obsessed with particular hobby horses or relatively indifferent to matters that are deemed crucial by other people, we are called to hold the detail – the particular – in the light of the broader and longer-term vision. Will our debates and deliberations today demonstrate that our imagination has been captured by a prophetic vision? Or will we just go away satisfied that we have done some business?

Today we address some very important matters. What are our responsibilities towards those who, regardless of their own views and commitments, take up arms to defend us – even when our politicians demand that they serve in conflicts with which they do not agree? More particularly, what are our responsibilities to serve them once they have left the armed forces, but are themselves left with traumas, memories, disabilities or broken relationships? It can be tempting to think that this applies to areas around Catterick, but not, perhaps, to places where the Forces are not immediately located. Yet, it is highly probable that there are ex-servicemen and women in almost every parish in our diocese. How should we care for them as our response to them having fulfilled their part in serving to defend us?

Of course, for the church in every parish to offer such care to those in need (when they need such care) we need the church to be there in the first place. We know many parishes in both urban and rural areas face challenges in relation to the maintenance or development of buildings. In the next few years the number of stipendiary clergy available to lead our parishes will reduce. The models we have employed for several generations or more will no longer work – and we must address this in the years ahead. But, what is fundamental to any approach to deployment of ministries is the cash to fund it all. To put it crudely: if we don't want it, we won't pay for it; and if we don't pay for it, we won't have it. The parish share goes to paying our clergy: if it doesn't come in, it can't go out.

So, today, after much detailed work and revision, having worked through a number of options and gone through the implications of each, we must decide whether or not to approve a new Parish Share system for our diocese. Three old systems could not simply be combined – and the creation of our diocese allowed for a new consideration of many options best fitted for this new entity going forward. What is clear in any such proposal is that not everybody will be happy. This is reality. But, if I dare invoke the prophetic imagination mentioned earlier, does what is proposed allow us to move to the next stage of our diocesan life and mission? That is the question.

However, the church, however it is funded, and the ministry, however it is shaped and ordered, is whistling into the wind if it speaks and acts as if in some spiritual isolation unit, accountable only to itself. Our biblical theology begins with creation and ends with new creation. The future of the earth is a matter of massive import when most of the world's scientists are clear about the impact of human behaviour on the climate. Some of our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion have got rather tired of disputes about sex when their habitat is disappearing, their economies are collapsing and their future is in serious doubt.

Too big to get our heads around? Tempting, isn't it? But, we must be a responsible people who do our bit of Anathoth not only to invest in a future, but to shape ourselves accordingly. So, we will consider a Green Energy Saving Scheme, and we need to see in our decision where the prophetic language and action lie. Remember, the 'prophetic' is not the same as 'fantasy'.

But, whatever we do has to be paid for. I want to pay serious tribute to colleagues who have slaved over financial matters during the last two and a bit years since we were born as a diocese. It has been difficult bringing three systems together and trying to forge a meaningful future with numbers that were accounted for differently in historic dioceses. As I have constantly reiterated, we are on track to start 2017 with our structural foundation in place and with clarity about the resources at our disposal. We ended 2014 legal, operational and viable – which was not a forgone conclusion. We spent 2015 keeping the show on the road while reviewing all aspects of diocesan ministry and mission, aiming to propose a new shape for a new diocese. This process has not been easy for those whose jobs or roles were caught up in the seemingly endless, but unavoidable, uncertainty. This year we have been starting the processes of re-shaping, building on our new governance structures and developing our vision for prioritising our mission across the diocese and episcopal areas. We are nearly there, but the debates we have today, and the decisions we make, will allow us to be clear about where we start from on 1 January 2017. We will move into the new diocesan office in late September, bringing our administration under a single roof for the first time.

I pay tribute to all in this diocese who have worked so hard to get us to the starting blocks – a task and challenge for which we should all be grateful. But, 2017 does see us at the beginning and not the end. Personally, I will feel able to look up and out in a way that has not been possible thus far because of the sheer volume of work needed to get the foundation established upon which the rest of the building might be erected in the future. So, 2017 sees us clear about who we are – the Diocese of Leeds -, how we are shaped, what resources we have decided to apply to our mission, and how all this shall be funded and administered most effectively. But, that only means that we can then turn our attention to bedding it all in, inviting the scrutiny we require, looking to the medium-term, looking seriously and radically at how we wish to deploy our clergy and lay ministers in the future, constantly re-assessing our priorities and behaviours, not confusing ends with means, and ensuring that at every level of the diocese's life we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear or particular interest.

So, I want to conclude by drawing us back to the wider context in which we do our particular business today. As I said at the beginning, Bishop Toby will soon leave for Sudan to take part in an ACC consultation about whether Sudan should form a Province of the Anglican Communion separate from South Sudan. Currently there is one church across two countries, and South Sudan is collapsing into conflict. Our partnership link is with the five dioceses of Sudan where the church is coping with almost insurmountable demands to cope with refugees, feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the naked. We will be involved in any future support for our sister church in Sudan … where the challenges are beyond enormous. As we do our business today, conscious of our responsibility towards refugees here (and we will debate a very practical response to this later), we send Bishop Toby to give our love to Archbishop Ezekiel and his colleagues, to promise our prayer and support, and to take with him our gratitude for our partnership in the Gospel.

Now, let us turn to business, but with a prophetic imagination that dares us to shape our thinking, our listening, our speaking and our hearing in a way that might be described as godly.

So, we are now a couple of days on from the EU Referendum in the UK. We have no credible government leadership. Her Majesty's Opposition is falling apart and incapable of offering any leadership or alternative vision. Those who led the campaign to leave the EU are conspicuous by their absence – not unreasonably as – a point made loudly during the campaign – they had no power or authority to do anything once the vote had been taken. Although run like a general election campaign, Leavers had no responsibility to plan, no authority to promise anything (including how much might be committed to the NHS), and no accountability for doing anything once the vote was over.

Therefore, their absence or silence is entirely reasonable.

What is unreasonable, however, is the absence of any government planning for what a Brexit vote might mean. Our political life has become reactively tactical rather than strategically prepared. I guess it just proves that everyone (including most Leavers) assumed that we would remain in the EU, but the protest would have been heard. It is the government's responsibility to plan for all eventualities, but it isn't easy to see who is now driving the bus.

Two points as we live through the chaos. First, the fact of present uncertainty is not the major issue. Life is always uncertain; major national decisions – including general elections – inevitably cause uncertainty. That so many people seem to have believed the claims that everything would now be rosy and that a free UK would lead the world from this small island says something about our internal national fantasies. The chaos will last for some time; some believe it is worth the cost.

Secondly, we always have to shape life in the light of unexpected turns of events. What the Germans, among others, are now telling us is that decisions have consequences and those who make them must take responsibility for those decisions. That is what we call “being grown up”. So, we need to get on with it – whoever the “we” is in the midst of the unforgivable political power vacuum we now inhabit.

And the petition for a second referendum will not work. Would the same plea from the Brexiters have been accepted, had the vote gone the other way by the same margin? The best hope would be for David Cameron to call a general election now and allow the matter to be resolved in the place where power and responsibility (to say nothing about authority and accountability) are directly affected by that vote. I won't hold my breath. In the meantime, of course, the Europeans we have dismissed, derided, abused and mocked in our public discourse will feel no need to be nice to us in what lies ahead.

Now, what do Christians do in all this? Well, as in church this morning in Ilkley, we pray. We make the space for all-comers to hold together in a common space where different views and emotions are strongly held. We can provide a space where the nerve can be held while the political vacuum persists. And – the real power of this – it can be done locally, at every level and in every place. Nothing magic; just space for people to stick with this one for a while.

After all, we are realists. Our foundation narrative reaches back 3,000 years to a people who, led from oppression and captivity in Egypt (in the narrative metaphor used by one or two Brexiters during the campaign), did not drop straight into the land flowing with milk and honey. First they spent forty years in the desert while a generation of romanticisers and fantasists died off; then there was a fair amount of violence before they began to prosper in their land. As Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama urges in his book 'Three Mile and Hour God', the temptation to rush out of the desert is dangerous; we have to have the courage to stay there, to live with it while we go through the process – which we know from history – cannot be rushed.

As the prophets of the Old Testament teach us, when empires die and tactical alliances implode, the thing to do in the desert is to keep alive the songs of 'home' – to hold out a vision of a better way … and a way of living through this present reality with hope, imagination and commitment.

Lamentable though it is, we are where we are. What matters now is how we shape the vision for what we want to become … and devise the strategy for getting there.

So, the people of the UK have spoken. But, what they have said is unclear. Nevertheless, the outcome is more than clear. We must now shape the future and not simply waste our time complaining about it.

What is powerfully clear also is that we now have a rudderless government trying to forge a path it doesn't believe in towards a destiny it cannot – despite the rhetoric – control. We will need to watch carefully the consequences of our collective decision, recognising that not all consequences will be intended, convenient or controllable. There are dangers as the whole of Europe faces a radical reshaping, with some of the most powerfully motivated people having the most dubious and dangerous motivations. Fragmentation is possible.

No doubt, in the days, weeks and months ahead, there will plenty of “what if?” moments. But, those who voted to remain in the EU cannot simply sit sniping from the sidelines, suggesting that all consequences were predictable and that those who voted to leave the EU must take sole responsibility for what now follows. We are all responsible for taking responsibility and shaping what we want to become. Those of us who believed we should remain in the EU must not become victims.

Reconciliation is a word that is easy to speak and hard to bring about. It cannot be enforced and it cannot be regarded as cheap and easy. Today we have a bitterly divided country, with fear and resentment bubbling on the surface and feeding on the uncertainty. The churches can provide space for those on both sides of the divide to recover the humanity of the public discourse, to recognise and articulate a common vision for the common good, to incarnate the sort of solidarity we cannot yet imagine.

And we can pray: pray that, in the words of Paul to the Christians in Rome, all of us might be transformed by the renewing of our mind in order that we might together discern the good and perfect will of God for ourselves and his world.

The work begins now. We have no idea where it will lead.

But, then, we are no strangers to faith.

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

Today is not just Election Day – in the Christian calendar it is also Ascension Day. This is the day when, according to the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, the risen Jesus ended forty days with his friends by being taken from their sight on a mountain top.

Whereas most people have some idea about what Christmas and Easter are – perhaps even Pentecost – Ascension Day tends to get overlooked… even by many Christians. I guess this might be because this isn't the easiest event to explain – packed with theology rather than aerodynamics.

Seen from the perspective of his followers, it was yet another twist in the tale. They had spent a couple of years with Jesus of Nazareth, daring to believe the world could be different and that he would be the one to lead them to freedom from Roman military occupation. They had pinned on him their hopes for a brighter future, free from oppression and humiliation.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, they saw this man from the hill country up north dying on a Roman gallows: victim rather than victor. Several days later his friends, whose hopes and longings lay bleeding in the dirt of Calvary, found he was with them again – the same but different. They kept having strange encounters with him, questioning what this was all about.

But, with the Ascension they lost him again. And it was now up to them to work out what this all meant for them and their community for the future. Clearly, he trusted them to get on with the job for him. And the church that grew from here was a movement shaped by people who knew that the world was now a different place.

No lovely 'happily ever after' end to a sanitised story, but a harsh dose of realism for people who now faced the same challenges of living truthfully in a world of death and threat and suffering.

So, today's not a day for working out the mechanics of the Ascension, but for wrestling with its meaning. A day for letting go of the simple faith – for growing up and taking responsibility for where we go from here. No fantasy here, no romanticism, no pretending that things are better (or worse) than they are, no false hopes, no illusions, no empty promises about a glorious future or how long that future might last for them.

And that's Ascension Day. And it might just shine a light on some of the issues of the day – even suddenly deciding to support Leicester City (despite Richard III being a York City fan – obviously). It's about not being a victim of other people's decisions, but, grasping your own future with both hands, taking responsibility. Or, as Jesus didn't quite put it: “onward and upward!”