This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod which was, for the second time, conducted online.

One of the most beautiful cities in the world is Vienna. It is one of those places that echoes the heights of human culture and the depths of human misery. One of the things I was keen to see on my first visit there several years ago was the Holocaust memorial by Rachel Whiteread in the Judenplatz. It is really powerful: a large white inverted library with doors that don’t open – suggestive of books that had been burned by the Nazis and the attempt to extinguish the stories of people, 65,000 of them Austrian Jews who perished in the concentration camps. It is known as the ‘Nameless Library’.

What struck me when I visited a couple of years ago was that, standing about ten metres in front of it on the square, is a statue of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the German writer, philosopher and thinker who died in 1781 and is regarded as a giant of the Enlightenment. Given Lessing’s powerful influence on German culture, not least education, and standing between the statue and the memorial, I found myself asking how on earth a country and a culture can descend so quickly – within a few generations – from Enlightenment to Holocaust.

Now, this might seem like a weird way into an address to a diocesan synod in Leeds in 2020. But, it isn’t. We live at a time of massive challenge in which all the assumptions of progress, democracy, patriotism, the common good, and so on, are being thrown up in the air. We do not know how they will land. I grew up in a world that was determined never again to allow genocide – but look what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda. The post-war generation built nations and societies that assumed progress – that the world could only get better; that human beings had evolved through the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century and there was to be no going back; that the conventions of public discourse could only get better.

Well, I give you climate change. I add in Donald Trump and the direct and deliberate undermining of confidence in democratic norms and processes; we don’t yet know the end of the US election story. Or the coronavirus pandemic that has thrown the world into disarray, exposing inequalities and inconsistencies across the globe, but also close to home. Or the hit to the economy of a convergence between the pandemic and the ending of the Brexit transition next month. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh might seem small and distant, but so did Serbia in 1914.

Nothing is for ever. Nothing can be taken for granted. Norms are only norms for as long as they are normal (as opposed to extraordinary). We have no idea what tomorrow will bring; but, we do know that empires and ‘norms’ that take centuries to build can be demolished in weeks. We are not in control of everything.

And this is the context in which we meet as a synod today. We are in a second lockdown and are promised a vaccine soon; yet, we have been promised many things that have not been delivered. Our politics – at home and abroad – are being questioned everywhere, and going back to where we were fifty or thirty or even ten years ago is simply a nostalgic fantasy.

So, what does the church have to say in this context? The church that has been hit by two reports on its handling of sexual abuse in recent months? A church that has been forced by government to close its buildings for worship, rendering its ability to thrive and be properly resourced into the future at best questionable? A church that has just launched a process of addressing questions of love, faith, relationships and identity in Living in Love and Faith?

Let me briefly address each of these in turn.

I welcome the IICSA report and the light it throws onto how the Church of England has addressed abuse in and through the church. Light always exposes reality, and you can’t argue with reality. I am confident that we have a very good and experienced safeguarding team at the heart of this diocese, driving processes and systems that are strong. There is much further to go in offering care and redress to survivors of abuse – nationally – and we are alive to that. Bishop Jonathan leads for the bishops nationally in safeguarding matters and is making a significant difference. I will simply say, in the light of IICSA and the Whitsey Report, that many of the recommendations are already embedded in our systems here. For example, I always take the advice and leading of our Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers who, already, function as ‘officers’ in such matters.

The church, via the bishops, continues to question the rationale behind the closure of churches for worship in the latest lockdown. Closure of buildings does not close the church, but it changes it. We do not know what local church worship, attendance, and so on, will look like in the years to come. We know it will not look like it did a year ago. We can either mourn the loss of what was familiar, or we take responsibility for shaping what might become. As I said earlier, you can’t argue with reality, and lockdown has made immediate a number of challenges we had assumed might be addressed over time.

So, we have not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to be creative and bold and humble as we seek primarily not to recover a form of church life, but to renew the content of that life – our worship of God, our growth as followers of Jesus Christ, and our sacrificial service for our communities in the name of Christ. In short, we will discover whether we believe all this stuff about good news, death and resurrection, self-sacrifice, and Christian truth.

In other words, the situations that gave rise to the writing of the New Testament letters become more identifiable to us in our current situation. We are invited to read Scripture differently now. We can enter imaginatively into the minds of biblical writers because the precarious contingency of their situations is one into which we now have experienced a glimpse. And this, I suggest, is a gift. It reminds us of what we in England have too quickly forgotten: that life is fragile, social order is not a given, and control of the world is actually an illusion born of hubris.

Living in Love and Faith is not incidental to this. There has been a suggestion that the church is dragging its feet in questions of sexual identity because of its contentious or controversial nature. The opposite is true. This is the most significant and serious work done by any church anywhere and it has been published now – later than planned because of the impact on everything of the pandemic – in order to prevent further delay. It opens up a process for encounter with people, not just debate about a topic. I encourage you to look at the materials on the website and to engage with us as we roll out a programme of consultation during 2021-22. Bishop Helen-Ann is leading on this (as she is also part of the national ‘Next Steps’ group with the Bishop of London and others). Bishop Toby was part of the national group that has led on the process thus far.

Identity is not just a matter for people who like that sort of thing. If we are to value human beings as made in the image of God, then we have some complex and challenging – as well as engaging and potentially joyful – work to do. And we need to approach it with open hearts and generous minds.

So, today we have a varied agenda, set in the context I have described just now. Some items look more interesting than others and some are what we might call ‘housekeeping’ – how we order our common life and decision-making. We will consider the well-being of clergy, but recognise that this is not to downplay the well-being of lay people. We will discuss what a ‘re-imagining of ministry’ might look like in the months and years to come, but remembering that any ministry involves all people of all abilities and gifts. We will take seriously the life of the diocese as it is, and we will grow our confidence in its future.

Is that a rash thing to say, given the uncertainties with which we live? No, it isn’t. Our confidence is in the God who calls us, in the Jesus Christ whose church we are, and in the power of the Holy Spirit who constantly drives us out of what is familiar into the places of challenge where life is to be found. The risen Christ keeps telling his friends not to be afraid; we need to hear that clearly. We are called to be the church (and the Church of England with its unique vocation) now; it is no accident that we are here and called for just such a time as this. And we need to build one another up in faith as we venture into the uncertain world of 2021 and beyond. We are called to be faithful, even if some of what we attempt fails. We are called to do our business with faith, hope and – not least – charity.

There are many examples of individuals and churches fulfilling that calling over recent months in the way they have supported both their communities and the work of the church. We have seen parishes across the diocese respond graciously and sacrificially to the financial challenge that was laid out at our last Synod. Since then we have also benefited from the generosity of the national church who have given us the £1m we asked for to help the pressure on our finances. We have also received much generosity from individuals and parishes and I want to express my and our gratitude. We are not out of the woods and there is much to do, but we are moving in the right way and in the right direction.

To conclude. I began with reference to Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz in Vienna. We cannot know what the future holds, but we can so live now that when people in the future look back at how we handled this present world, they give thanks for our courage and wisdom … and don’t simply spot the things we failed to grasp out of fear or familiarity. I trust we will be a blessing to the next generation and not a curse.

As we approach Advent and an unusual Christmas, a changed shape to our collective worship and outreach does not impede in any way the shining hope of God’s presence in the world – even in the cry of a tiny babe (as Bruce Cockburn put it). Our gospel – of light shining in the darkness – is rich and is for today. Comfort and joy are what we have to offer, albeit in a variety of creative ways this year.

We turn to our business in this light and in this spirit. May God bless us in our deliberations together for the sake of his kingdom.

One week on from the General Synod's vote on women bishops and the story has fallen off the radar of most of the media. The sound and fury has moved on – for the time being, at least – to the next batch of 'stories'.

Here in Vienna I have been asked by people from all faiths and from all over the globe about what happened. I have been rather surprised by the sympathy offered! It has also offered an opportunity to try to explain how the Church of England works – not easy in any language. But, even here it was a matter of curiosity rather than concern or passion. (Although two people from two different countries asked what credibility our politicians have when they couldn't manage to reform the House of Lords – i.e. themselves – and have questionable electoral democratic legitimacy… which I thought was interesting.)

The big story occupying the media mind now is the publication of the Leveson report on Thursday. As with the announcement of the name of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and with the General Synod's vote on women bishops, we can't imply wait for a fact to be revealed; no, we fill our time and energy with speculation, pre-judgement and attempts to head off outcomes that might just make us feel a bit wobbly. Patience is not a virtue valued by a 24 hour media monster hungry for any sort of feeding.

Well, I couldn't find any mention (in my cursory digital search of the UK media) of the good news that last night saw leading Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus from across the globe sitting together at the launch of a new International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. Religion is frequently portrayed as the source of a host of problems in the world; images of genuinely warm relations between religious leaders clearly isn't news. It doesn't fit the 'conflict narrative'.

Yet, last night was genuinely remarkable – even to veterans of the international interfaith circus. At the Hofburg we listened to sharp speeches by (among others) the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria; the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, the President of the Muslim World League, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Secretary General of the United Nations. They didn't duck the challenges and they mostly said something worth listening to.

It is easy to take for granted a warm handshake between a Saudi minister, a Chief Rabbi and a Cardinal, but just a few years ago such an image would have been unthinkable.

Now it isn't even worthy of a mention in the news.

I am not moaning about this – just pointing it out as a phenomenon. If anything, I guess I think we just ought to be a little more media literate – just as some of us wish the media were a little more religion literate. So, when Leveson reports on Thursday we should be a little cautious about the special pleading of the press when they find their integrity questioned and their trustworthiness doubted. The preemptive strikes are almost embarrassing – best satirised in Roy Greenslade's Guardian column today.

An intelligent debate about press freedom (and associated matters) would be really welcome. But, I am not holding my breath. Too much self-interest, too much self-protection, too much special pleading – not unique to the press, but powerful factors nonetheless.

Oh well. I'll just get back to good news stories about religious harmony and cooperation. This morning I had breakfast with a Jewish academic, a Muslim statesman and a Shinto priest. How weird is that?

Back to Blighty tomorrow.

 

I was just asked on camera in Vienna why interreligious dialogue matters. I am here for the launch of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue here. There has been some controversy about the 'hypocrisy' of the Saudis establishing this Centre (in conjunction with the government of Spain and Austria), but the choice is simple: stand outside and shout about the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, or get engaged and thereby encourage the journey towards openness that some elements are progressing (and not in a vacuum).

Interestingly, this criticism is being articulated in the opening seminars this morning. The session I am sitting in (on conflict resolution) is being chaired by a rabbi. The speakers include both male and female Saudi intellectuals who are addressing the difficulties of dialogue – especially in contexts where some loud voices find dialogue to be both threatening and undesirable. So, those engaged in promoting dialogue are, not surprisingly, sensitive to ignorant observations from those outside who are driven by lazy stereotype as well as (implicit or explicit) threats from inside.

The level of presentation and discussion here is remarkable. There are guests from all over the world and from all the main faiths and other agencies/NGOs committed to interreligious and intercultural dialogue, conflict resolution and education.

Anyway, more anon. However, my response on camera earlier was simple: the alternative to dialogue is monologue. Monologues can make the speakers feel they have said something – even if no one has listened or heard. Dialogue starts with listening – to the 'language' understood by the interlocutor, paying attention to the world (and world view) of the interlocutor, subjecting your own theological or philosophical presuppositions (and lived experience) to perusal through the lens of the other.

OK, I put it more simply and directly than that. But, the point is clear. Dialogue shouldn't need to be defended; it might sometimes be risky, but it is fundamentally a no-brainer.

Or, as I said when preaching at Christ Church, Vienna, yesterday morning, the journey is as important as the destination. We certainly won't reach the destination unless and until we have embarked on the journey. I know it is a bit trite, but you can't steer a stationary car.