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

When I visit schools – usually primary schools – I always get asked what is the best thing about being a bishop. I usually say: it’s this! Visiting schools. And I mean it. I genuinely think that teachers do one of the most important jobs in any society and we should value them accordingly.

The main thing about teaching is that, obviously, it is really about learning. We give our children into the hands of other adults for hours every day and expect them to be nurtured – body, mind and spirit. Because teaching is not about force-feeding information into soon-to-be economically-active receptacles, but, rather, about curating character, shaping a world view, forming a mind, opening up the world, stimulating curiosity. And this can only happen if children learn to learn.

At a time of uncertainty on just about every front, I think it is wise to stop and think about what education is and what it is for. Questions about teachers’ pay and conditions are not to be confused with the deeper questions of what they are actually doing and what the rest of us expect of them. As I hinted earlier, a society that sees the economy as an end (rather than a means to an end – human flourishing) will never value the intangible work of shaping personality, character and community.

I come from a tradition that sees children as more than potential workers. Jesus warned against offering a stone to a child who asks for bread. Three thousand years ago the Hebrews placed priority on teaching your children from a very early age – but as part of a community that shared a view of love and justice and mercy that was rooted in a memory of humility.

It’s easy to say, isn’t it? But, any child who listens to the news can be forgiven for being fearful of a secure future. A Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, came up with a striking description of this fragility when he wrote of “the solidarity of the shaken”. Teachers are also part of this solidarity, and bring to their task all the same uncertainties everyone else feels. But, the children we entrust to them can only find security if the wider society sees them as vital human beings and not just potential commodities – shapers of human futures rather than cogs in a merely economic wheel.

And that’s why I am gripped by the value placed on children in the scriptures I read. It’s also why I think teachers do important work on behalf of the rest of us.

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

I was struck in the last few days by the coincidence of two events. First, the remarkable news from Germany about the rumbling of a far right plot to oust the German government and return to a pre-war state. The second was hearing that the last of the Dambusters has died and listening to his firsthand account of the bombing raid in May 1943.

Both of these reports provoke a challenging question: how does our telling of history shape our perceptions about who we are?

In one sense, it is surprising that we are surprised by the organised plot in Germany involving the Reichsbürger movement. The far right have not exactly been asleep, and political movements building on conspiracy theories are not a phenomenon confined to only one country. But, when choosing which ‘state’ in their romantic history to go back to, how and why did they choose the Reich? I guess the answer lurks somewhere in the mists of trying to recreate a lost world which they think justifies their values and grievances about today’s world.

Reporting on the Dambusters raid rightly praised the courage and ingenuity of the bombers, but made little mention of the human consequences. It is hard to look through the eyes of those on the receiving end and listen to the story that they might tell of the same event.

We all do this to some extent or other. As a Christian I read scriptures that tell a particular story from particular perspectives and I have to do the hard work – easily avoided – of wrestling with how to handle it as “the Word of the Lord”. This, of course, involves struggling with it – not just forcing it through the prism of my prejudices today in order to make me feel justified or godly or even right.

For example, I see myself reflected in the story of the exodus where a people, liberated from four hundred years of captivity and slavery in a strange land, start complaining – within weeks – about the menu and mutter that maybe Egypt wasn’t so bad after all. Anyway, fantasies of an idealised golden future, fossilised in a past myth, always hit against reality. Later readers are also invited to wrestle with how this story was experienced by those who were on the receiving end of the new world.

In other words, both individuals and communities – entire countries and continents – look for the narrative that makes sense of now, or, at least, of what they would prefer ‘now’ to be. 

The stories we choose to tell about ourselves must be open to scrutiny and challenge. Partial truths have consequences and damage everyone.

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

Recently my daughter gave birth eleven weeks prematurely. Both mum and baby are doing well. Then, last Sunday afternoon my mother died at 90, with all five of her children around the bed in the home she had lived in since getting married in 1955.

I had just returned from meetings in Estonia, where locals spoke about the threat from Russia and their perceptions of the invasion of Ukraine. For me, there was the whole of life, contracted to a birth, a death, and everything uncertain in between.

The evening of my mum’s death I was surprised to recall a Bill Viola video installation at Tate Modern when I was living in London. Created in 1992, it was called Nantes Triptych. The screen on the left recorded the last thirty minutes of a woman in labour. The screen on the right displayed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life; the screen in the middle showed a humanoid form swimming through the mysterious course of life, accompanied by sounds of the two women labouring towards a beginning and an ending.

The installation was intended to be lived with for thirty minutes. While I was in there I was the only person who stood from beginning to end as people walked in and out. I have often wondered what that was about. Was it, for example, that we are bad at contemplating the pains of birth and death? Or that the life in-between is complicated enough without having to think about it’s meaning? Or something else?

I was once asked, in the wake of some violent global tragedy, what happens when we die. I helpfully said, “I don’t care.” She responded: “Given your job, (I was Bishop of Croydon at the time) don’t you think you should?” Well, I think now as I did then that we need to keep it simple. So, I said that Christian hope is rooted in the person of the God who raised Christ from the dead – not in some formula for working out what happens next. But, death – not a vague ‘passing’ – is not to be avoided as if it marks the end of everything. The first truth of human existence, made in the image of God, is that we shall die. How we get there matters.

My mother did not rage against the dying of the light, but, rather, saw it as a welcome next step on the journey. She went gently into that good night and confidently.

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

Some years ago on a visit to the United States, I drove from the Gulf Coast down through Florida. A massively destructive hurricane had powered its way through this part of the state only a few months before and we drove for fifty miles through utter devastation. For miles on end every tree had been snapped like a pencil, leaving the tops pointing into the earth and creating triangles of dense wood. Towns and settlements stood abandoned, leaving shattered wooden houses derelict against the now quiet sky.

Hearing of Hurricane Ian has brought it all back to mind. Solid looking buildings in permanently inhabited communities get boarded up in an attempt to withstand the torment. But, ultimately, weather will not and cannot be tamed. In the end, we are at the mercy of the elements.

The problem is that, unlike most people who live in vulnerable parts of the globe, some of us have got used to thinking we can control the world and our life. Dangers simply have to be managed in order to maintain what we dare to call ‘normality’.

But, if we learn one lesson from the Covid pandemic and the obvious effects of climate change, it surely must be that (a) human beings need to learn a bit of humility about their fragility, and (b) respect for the creation might just relativise our collective hubris. I guess humility emerges from realism and a proper acknowledgement of our human contingency.

This goes to the heart of one reason I am a Christian. Acceptance of my and our collective need of grace and one another means that arrogance and pride can be put to one side. My personal self-fulfilment might not be the ultimate goal in life, after all. Facing mortality compels me to face this fragility – not with misery, but rather with liberation. Equally so when we face the current threats caused by energy, money and violent conflict.

Fatalistic escapism? I don’t think so. Knowing our need and accepting the fragility of the world can in fact drive us to what I would call incarnational commitment. That is, a commitment to get stuck into living in the world as it is, loving our neighbour as ourselves, shaping a better and more just common future, but without any sense of entitlement to security.

How we respond to the challenges of the coming months and years – which most of us can’t control – will tell us what we really believe and whom we truly love. For Jesus, loving one’s neighbour was not a suggestion – it was a command.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, guest-edited by footballer Raheem Sterling on themes of education and social mobility.

The American poet Robert Frost wrote: “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” I know what he means. I remember turning 40 and realising that my life was probably half way through; today my elder son is 40 and I look back with amazement at what has happened, what choices we all made, what experiences we shared, what relationships we forged.

Frankly, I think we did a good job: despite being born in Cheltenham and living around the country, he has always been a passionate Liverpool fan. What more could I want?

Well, quite a lot actually. To go back to Robert Frost, I remember looking at a baby and realising the responsibility asleep in my arms. And the uncertainty about what might lie ahead of him – not just in the choices we and he would make as he grew up, but also what might happen in the world that couldn’t be controlled but would shape or constrain those choices.

While celebrating Christmas over the last few days I was conscious of the fact that the baby of Bethlehem grew up into an argumentative boy who clearly learned by debating and questioning. The boy grew into the man who learned his trade before hitting the political arena and eventually getting nailed to a cross.

Growing up – and letting our own children grow up – is a nerve wracking business. We can’t control what will happen to the children we love. We do our best … and face our failures … recognising that this is a pattern they might also one day repeat. But, if uncertainty is the name of the game, then society has to give all children the best start, the best example, the best opportunity.

Which means what? Especially as no child can grow in isolation from other children, whatever their background.

Well, along with guest editor Raheem Sterling this morning, we might start with education and opportunity. The Germans have two words for it: ‘Erziehung’ has to do with nurture and learning, ‘Ausbildung’ is all about training for a skill. And both are valuable. Of course, at the heart of both lies a person – the roots of whom need to be watered by more than mere information or ‘knowledge’ – if they are to develop wisdom and character.

And this means enabling young minds to roam widely, dig deeply, face unwelcome challenges and hard questions. As Aristotle noted: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Or, as the Book of Proverbs puts it: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding.” (3:13)

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the morning after the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris:

Why is it that the same words spoken by two different people can have such a different effect.

For example, listen to me read Shakespeare … and then listen to an actor use the same words. It’s the same with liturgy: one person grabs the attention of a congregation and they go through the words to a different place; someone else does it and it’s like having the telephone directory read out.

I say this because yesterday’s inauguration ceremony in Washington was pregnant with resonant language. For example, that we should be judged not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example. A truism? Maybe. But, the words create a space, suggesting a first word and not the final nail in a dogma. There is room to explore – as my own imagination did during the ceremony.

“Here we stand”, said the President. And I thought of Martin Luther, standing in front of the emperor five hundred years ago and articulating that all-too-human predicament: I hold to this conviction, but with vulnerability before the potential cost. We heard of St Augustine, often maligned as the original sinner when it comes to sex, but who couldn’t escape the depths of love and grace and mercy. We heard Amazing Grace – a familiar hymn which is dragged from the depths of a complex and conflicted man (John Newton) who knew that when all is stripped away, we are left with a human fragility that knows its need of unmerited generosity and mercy. As Jesus told his friends prior to his own death: if you are to live and give grace, you need first to recognise your own need of it and receive it.

The thing about yesterday was that, whether spoken or accompanied by music, words have the power to transcend mere pragmatism – policies and how to enact them in legislation, for instance; they inspire the imagination. This is language that resonates, that is spacious, that lifts our eyes and hearts to perceive an experience that might hitherto have eluded us.

I think this is what was being addressed yesterday. Not the language of settling scores. Not an articulation of pride or self-consciousness. Not an expression of dry dogma. But, as Amanda Gorman illustrated, a poetry that clears a way for hope.

Surely it’s the poets who penetrate the jungle of defended argument and debate. For the poet uses words to shine light from a different angle, surprising the imagination, subverting expectation, and opening our eyes to a new possibility.

In silent vigil for those who have died of Covid, Joe Biden said: “To heal, we must remember.” I would add: “ To heal, we must be surprised by subversive words of love.”

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

I was once in the foreign ministry of another country asking hard questions of the deputy foreign minister. He was a little evasive and so we pushed harder on how a particularly challenging situation might be addressed, if not resolved. Eventually, he stood up, banged his fist on the table and said: “Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But, it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.”

Fair point, I thought.

And it’s not a bad image to hold onto during the current uncertainties. It is hard to spot the light when the bends shorten our vision.

But, today we celebrate the birthday – and, with remarkable symmetry, the death day – of someone who looked at his ‘now’ with a vision that has spanned centuries. William Shakespeare developed characters who couldn’t always see around the next bend or whose light turned out to be a source of violence rather than illumination. Think, for example, of Macbeth whose “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself” blinds him to the tragedy he has already set in train.

But, Shakespeare was a genius at imparting wisdom subversively. He never dumps moralising aphorisms on his audience. Rather, he lets the drama roll on, the language surprise, and the characters reflect back to the audience the truths about human nature and society that sometimes are uncomfortable to acknowledge. And he often does this while making us laugh.

Which makes Shakespeare a man for the moment. Steeped in the language of the Bible, he delved into the messy realities of human motivation and choices. His characters are never one-dimensional. And they pose questions four hundred years later that are pertinent as we look now to the post-pandemic future. Which motivations are noble and need to be held onto as we shape a different future? How, as the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures illustrates, might we as a society not lose sight of the gains and gifts this crisis has offered: togetherness, social solidarity, care for the marginalised, self-sacrifice, valuing people and jobs differently?

None of this is abstract. It invites a conversation – an argument, even – about how we want to be. I remember a business leader once telling me that the most important person in his business was the cleaner who had his office ready for him every morning. I asked if the cleaner’s remuneration reflected this value, but got no answer.

So, as some parts of the world now enter the maelstrom of infection and others think about emerging from the worst experience, the light at the end of the tunnel invites both hopefulness and realism about the nature of the task ahead.

We never walk alone. One of the things discovered by many people in the recent strange weeks of Covid-19 lockdown is that we have the time and space for a new questioning.

Four resources might help us along the way. We can look at them in the company of others who might be wanting to do their own ‘walk to Emmaus’. This isn’t just for Christians; it is for the curious. And it doesn’t predetermine an outcome. That’s the point.

The first is Francis Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic – a race through the emotional appeal of Christianity. Funny, sweary, intelligent and passionate – it can be read alongside other resources of apologetics.

Secondly, Tom Holland’s brilliant account of the way Christianity has shaped the world and much that we take for granted in our now-secular culture: Dominion. It is surprising, erudite, but genuinely unputdownable.

Thirdly, Rhidian Brook’s new collection of Thought for the Day scripts: Godbothering. I do Thought for the Day (on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) from time to time – I am doing next Friday – and I know how tricky it is. I read Rhidian’s scripts and wonder why I can’t write like he does. Beautiful use of language, vivid storytelling and imagery, imaginative theological reflection on the stuff of life. No wonder he is a novelist and screenwriter.

Fourthly, a book of sermons. I have a problem with books of sermons: preaching is an event – you have to be there; context and audience matter. Reading them later, almost as a flat script rather than a spoken event, can render them interesting-but-dull. Not when the preacher is Mark Oakley. His recent collection of sermons, The Way of the Heart, demonstrates the power of language beautifully and powerfully deployed. Moving, challenging, arresting – I wanted to stop in every paragraph and meditate on the way the words go deep. This is a wonderful book and a challenge to all preachers.

Of course, there are many more resources. But, that’s a start. Readable, accessible books for helping us on the journey from Easter.

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

I live not far from Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters. The youngest, Anne, was born two hundred years ago today. One line from her writing stands out for me: “He who does not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose” – which is a bit more poetic than “Get stuck in, whatever the cost.”

This is the sort of notion that hit me when I was out in Sudan last year, speaking at a diplomatic conference on freedom of religion and belief at a time of protest and instability there. Meeting with protesters, academics and lawyers, it became clear that they held a variety of views on how a future Sudanese society should be shaped. They were united in wanting freedom and justice, but that unity got thorny when conversation got onto detail and process.

Of course, the other thing they had in common was a willingness to put their body and life where their opinions and convictions lay. So many of the Sudanese people I knew there shared this understanding: that opinion has to be backed up with action, and action might incur a cost.

After this week in Khartoum I went to Jena in Germany. On arrival I was asked to take part in the dedication of a memorial to the young German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald Concentration Camp near Weimar. Bonhoeffer was hanged a month before the end of the war. For him, theology was not a matter of an internal world of vague spirituality; rather, it involved discerning the character and call of God in the real world of the Third Reich and then committing himself to its consequences. Put crudely, if human beings are made in the image of God, then destroying them is not on.

It is this element of commitment that appears to be absent from much of what passes for debate in the ‘any dream will do’ generation. The vision I have for people and society must demand of me the sort of action and commitment that must in turn cost something.

When I read the gospels, this screams out of every text. It’s why the child Jesus argues with the theologians in the Temple; why he stands silently in front of Pontius Pilate, questioning who is actually being judged and where power really lies; why he never sweetens the vocational pill, but tells people that if they do choose to come and walk with him, then they’ll probably share his fate. No illusion, fantasy or seduction – just reality. Don’t crave the rose if you aren’t prepared first to grasp the thorn.

It seems to me that today every opinion is valid. But, I suggest, the only ones worth taking seriously are those that cost.

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

Being in the public eye is clearly often a very uncomfortable experience, unimaginable by those who haven’t experienced it. Watching the storm raging around you – everyone having an opinion on your appearance, behaviour, person and value – can be debilitating even for the most experienced and hard-bitten individual. You feel powerless to correct misinformation or misjudgments.

There’s a bit in the 1989 film Jesus of Montreal where a beautiful young model is told by her director ex-boyfriend: “You are just a piece of meat; that’s all you’ll ever be.” Well, you don’t have to be a sex object to feel that you are dehumanised by the opinions and judgements of those who would shrink from subjecting themselves to the same.

It seems to me that one of the most common human predilections is to turn other human beings into commodities. It happens when groups of people – classes, races, communities, for example – are categorised, generalised, then lumped together for condemnation. It happens when sympathy and empathy are thrown to the wind as individuals are turned into objects for other people’s entertainment in a discipline-free arena of social judgmentalism.

The rights and wrongs of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to take back control of their sovereignty, so to speak, clearly has a public interest element to it – simply by virtue of their identity and contingent responsibilities. But, there is also a deeper matter of their basic humanity. Whatever the wider considerations, this is still a young family concerned about protecting themselves.

It does seem odd to me that in a culture which venerates individual autonomy – shape your own destiny – a young couple who seek to do just that, and take responsibility for themselves then face a barrage of criticism. Or is it a case of ‘one rule for them and another for the rest of us’?

One of the shocking things about Jesus is that, in a culture that saw human life as cheap, he saw it differently. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged before him in order to test his legal purity. It ends well for the woman, but not for those who came to throw stones at her, but are embarrassed by their own failures. In story after story in the gospels it is the self-righteous judges who prove to be expert at missing the point. Stone throwing is not for grown-ups with humility or self-awareness.

However this current royal ruction plays out, the young family at the heart of it remain human beings, making hard decisions in a complex world in which their identity and status make them subject to the judgment of the rest of us. I don’t have to throw stones; I can choose to walk away.