I led a clergy study day in Leeds this week on the theme 'Theology of Hope'. I wanted to help us think about our ministry in terms opened up by the theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Walter Brueggemann. Inevitably, I dropped in my concise summary of Christian motivation – that we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

Driving over to an event in Ben Rhydding (Ilkley) this afternoon, I heard a political commentator on BBC Radio 4 say that the current UK general election campaign is not about hope, but about fear. Which, incidentally, is what the bishops were drawing attention to (and warning about) in the pastoral letter we put out ahead of the campaign.

I didn't catch who the commentator was, but she is right. The rhetoric – amid the daily eclectic throwing out of new and disparate 'offers' in what sounds like a playground competition – represents not a proclamation of vision or an awakening of (prophetic) imagination, but a play on fear. It basically comes down to: vote for X and terrible things will happen to you; vote for me and you will be 'safe'. The politicians clearly think that we will vote out of self-interest to avoid negative terrors, rather than vote for a positive vision.

The trouble is: they are probably right. Sadly.

 

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… but you have to go though Friday first.

(In the absence of time to write anything fresh, here is the text of my March letter to the Diocese of Bradford.)

I read an article recently about how electronic communication is speeding up the world and making us more impatient. As the technology improves, so do connections run quicker and our tolerance of delay diminishes. I don’t know about you, but it sounds about right to me. It is hard to stop and wait and enjoy the gaps between words and activities.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgI say this because Lent is leading us slowly towards an ending that will, in turn, become a new beginning. Lent beckons us to stop, to slow down, to force ourselves to step off the treadmill and make space for reflection and self-examination. Attentive consideration of God, the world and ‘us’ opens up the slow possibilities of repentance (literally, a change of mind), renewal and hopeful living. It is an invitation that is easy to decline – after all, it will involve us in walking with Jesus and his friends (and enemies) to the rubbish dump where a cross haunts the horizon, awaiting its terrorised victim.

I grew up in a church community where it seemed we tried to get from Good Friday to Easter Sunday as quickly as possible. We celebrated the cross as God’s victory… instead of learning to live the story of God’s apparent failure or absence. We just couldn’t stay there as the world falls apart; nor could we live through the sheer emptiness of loss, bereavement and world-ending fear that is Saturday: the dead Jesus in the tomb and the world collapsed. No, we want to get to resurrection and make it all happy again. We escape the painful darkness and embrace the brightness of resurrection day.

But, this is problematic. If we don’t stay with Good Friday and live with the appalling emptiness of Saturday, then Easter itself will be meaningless. We are not supposed to just entertain ourselves theologically with Easter; no, we are supposed to live it, experience it, cry through it, search through it, long through it for hopeful resolution. And when Sunday comes we are to be surprised, bewildered, shocked even.

As a church we are called not only to live the story in our worship and contemplation, but also to use it as a lens for looking attentively at our society and world. The massive increase in food banks, the enormous injustices that are enshrined in our economic systems, the poverty that destroys the lives of ordinary people: all these things (and others) represent for those afflicted by them a long ‘day’ of crucifixion – a slow death of potential, health, esteem, hope. There are people in every parish who might find themselves here.

Berlin August 2010 027Yet, the Christian community is not simply to shout at the darkness or rage against the sinfulness of such a situation. No, we are called to speak the truth about the things that corrupt, that nail godliness to a cross, that destroy hope and potential; and then we are called to offer a glimpse of what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’. This means enabling people to be surprised by Sunday when Friday and Saturday seem so endless.

May your Easter be blessed as we celebrate the resurrection light that confounds the darkness and opens up new hope for God’s world. Let us together light a candle of resurrection in protest at the mock powerfulness of the dark… and then go where the light shines in order to make an Easter difference in the places where God calls us to stay awhile.

Being in a place of scarcity and threat compels us to look through different eyes at our own situation and life. Gaining a first-hand acquaintance with the church in Sudan last week (as I had previously done for eleven years with the church in Zimbabwe) shone a different light not only on who we are as an Anglican church in West Yorkshire, but also how we are in our attempt to fulfil our unique calling.

Add to that a reading of Walter Brueggemann's excellent book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination and the choice before the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield takes on a different (and more radical) complexion. On 2 March the three diocesan synods will vote on whether or not to choose dissolution and the creation of a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. During the last two years we have lived with uncertainty as, first, the initial proposals were debated; second, the amended draft scheme was debated; then, third, the final scheme was presented for acceptance or rejection.

So far, no problem. The whole world lives with uncertainty and sometimes the Church needs to grow up and get real when faced with challenges or bewilderments. Uncertainty is one of the facts of life and we, of all people, should learn to live confidently with it. However, how the process has been handled during the last two years raises some important questions that precede the detailed matters of the scheme's content: they have to do with identity, vocation and vision.

Identity

Who is the church? The church must take as its narrative the sweep of the biblical story, read in the light of its experience throughout history. What we learn is that the church's institutional shape must serve its vocation and not have its vocation shaped by its inherited institutional form(s). If the church aims “to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God” – and to do this by learning the (constantly changing, moving) 'languages' of a culture that never stands still, then it must constantly be willing to sacrifice its inheritance for the sake of its mission. Indeed, this was the motivation behind the creation by the Church of England of new dioceses in the twentieth century, aimed at re-shaping the church to serve new urban communities that hadn't really been there a century before.

The proposals for West Yorkshire do the same for the twenty first century, both responding to the changes in demography, culture and communications and anticipating further changes in the century to come. It would be interesting to see what arguments were used at the time when Wakefield and Bradford were established as separate dioceses by those who thought the change would be negative, retrograde, trendy, unnecessary, unmissional, and so on. I guess they would represent a re-run of some of the 'denial rhetoric' that is being articulated now.

However, these proposals invite the Church of England in West Yorkshire (and beyond – because this could still be put to the General Synod for acceptance even if one of our dioceses votes against it on 2 March), for the first time in several generations, to do what the Church of England used to do in re-shaping itself for the sake of its declared mission.

Vocation

Who is the church for? The church's vocation is a tough one: it essentially asks us to be 'prophetic', not only in word, but in action. By 'prophetic' I mean offering the world the possibility of a different way of seeing and being… even while the old world continues and appears dominant. This is the invitation of the Old Testament prophets: to see a new world whilst the current reality was exile under a powerful empire. Not only do the prophets speak truth about now, but they use language to fire a daring imagination about a different future… a future rooted in hope. At the beginning of his public ministry Jesus poses the same challenge: you can't see how the pure God can come among you again while the unholy pagans (the Roman occupying forces) remain in your land, compromising your worship and blaspheming your faith; but, dare you 'repent' (literally, 'change your mind' – see through a re-ground lens) and begin to live now as if God were present, contaminating the unholy with grace rather than being afraid of being contaminated by the bad stuff? (This is what is going on in Mark's summary of Jesus's message, mission and ministry in Mark 1:14-15.)

Walter Brueggemann draws attention to this when he writes:

… prophetic preaching is the enactment of hope in contexts of loss and grief. It is the declaration that God can enact a novum in our very midst, even when we judge that to be impossible. (P.110)

More suggestively, perhaps, he goes on (p.130f) to expose the discrepancy between what we Christians say and sing, and how we then handle prophetic demands:

There is a tacit yearning in the church for the prophetic. And so the church sings about the prophetic with some vigor… The church sings that way with hope, all the while, in practice, mostly resisting anything prophetic and really wanting no more than a status quo pastorate or priesthood, mostly wanting apostolic faith that “tells” but does not summon too much.

In other words, we don't walk the talk. In relation to West Yorkshire all parties have agreed, articulated and rehearsed the view that change needs to happen and that we cannot just continue blindly into the future. Yet, when specific change is proposed – based on thorough consultation, research and testing alternatives – some of us resist even using our imagination to see how 'a different way' might potentially look, were we to have some courage as well as convictions. What lies before us is not simply a choice about specific proposals for a single diocese, but also (and perhaps more importantly) a challenge to the integrity of our vocation as a church. Given that so-called 'alternatives' have come too late in the process, been simple reactions to specific points that, once addressed and answered (see the 'threat' to funding three cathedrals, for example), are held onto regardless or quietly dismissed in the search for another objection.

Vision

I understand what lies behind the fear of change, loss and uncertainty. (After all, if this scheme goes through, I become the first diocesan bishop to be made redundant – a prospect I don't relish, but for which I am prepared.) But, this is what the church is called to model in every generation – for our rootedness is fundamentally not in our institutional shape (as if this were directly established by God in creation), but in our courageous and prophetic faithfulness to the mission God has entrusted to us.

I will come back again to some of the specifics involved in the proposals, but for now the big question has to do with something deeper, more integral to our identity and vocation, more theological and attitudinal. A new single diocese would bring huge challenges and opportunities. There will be errors, mismanagements and failures. Risk will be felt acutely. Structures – existing or potential – achieve nothing of themselves; all depends on how people lead, work them and creatively attend to their potential as media (parameters) for enabling the vocation to be fulfilled.

I think I am not alone in Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds in wanting our decision to be driven by courage, vision, creative commitment, vocational conviction and missional invitation. We must not fail the church and the wider world by being driven by denial, fear, resentment, protectionism or self-interest.

More anon.

This morning we met with four of the bishops of Sudan. Each explained the situation in their own diocese and we had a very fruitful conversation about how we can best build on our relationship to mutual benefit. The talk was open, honest, trustful and opened several doors to future work together.

One bishop was missing. Andudu, Bishop of Kadugli, is in Juba, Southern Sudan, as he is unable to return to his own diocese for reasons of safety. In June 2011 he was in the USA for medical treatment when Sudanese forces started their attack on the Nuba Mountains. While there he made some comments – perhaps without on-the-ground direct knowledge – and the Sudanese government took exception, making it impossible for him to return without endangering his life. His family is in Uganda. He was represented at our meeting this morning by one of his Canons who has had to flee Kadugli and is being cared for by the Diocese of Khartoum.

The situation has confused me a little – the rhetoric in the UK sometimes attributing motive and consequence where convenient, but not making complete sense. I fully accept that this might be evidence of my stupidity rather than a comment on the people doing the reporting or commentating. I could not understand why the bishop (and others could not return, especially as it is more peaceful in some areas right now than it has been). Today I began to grasp it (although what follows is not intended to be a full analysis).

The Sudanese government is attacking supporters of the SPLA. Kadugli itself is under government control, but other areas of South Kordofan are controlled by the SPLA. Thousands of people have fled and the humanitarian cost is being paid for by neighbouring states which are absorbing them. However, the government does not want a repeat of Darfur and, so, has prohibited the erection of refugee camps. This means that people escaping have to find their way to relatives in other cities – leading to families of ten or twenty living in very tight accommodation that was already overcrowded with a single family.

The other dioceses are caring for the refugees who exited by the gateway of El Obeid en route to places like Khartoum. These people have nothing and the people looking to help them have little. More could be said, but suffice it to say here that the courage, tenacity and quiet commitment of the bishops and their people to care for these displaced people is admirable. Last year I launched a 'Kadugli Appeal' in Bradford and so far we have raised £100,000 to enable these people to feed and assist those displaced. Of course, the need goes further – for example, children being absorbed into church schools in Khartoum – but at least something useful is being done.

Each diocese in Sudan faces this need for care of displaced and often traumatised people at the same time as losing some of their leading people to the South. This is another matter to which I will attend when I return to Bradford next week. But, the challenge is enormous… and is being tackled by good people with quiet determination and a shed load of love. It is very humbling.

It is also clear that government attacks in South Kordofan cannot be reduced to simple categories of political allegiance, race or religion, but is shaped by various mixtures of all three. Any analysis that seems simple… is probably wrong.

Our conversation went beyond the diocesan situations to wider issues such as the influence of Saudi Arabia in Sudan and other parts of the region. I was reminded of the need for people like me (who are involved in global interfaith dialogue) sometimes to check the western liberal perspective and look through the lens of Christians in places like Sudan where Islamic rejection of conversion from Islam to Christianity is more than an academic matter. Enough said… for now.

It is salutary that I have just started reading Walter Brueggemann's 2012 book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. His starting point is that Christians operate in the real world with a 'narrative' that refuses to accept the 'dominant narrative' of the world in which we live. Without ducking the challenges of this, he maintains that Christians must constantly rehearse their own narrative, with God at the centre… even though this God is rejected in the world's dominant narrative (which he later describes as 'self-invention, competitive productivity and self-sufficiency' resulting in 'military consumerism'). Against this, the Christian narrative has to do with 'wonder (instead of self-invention), emancipation (instead of the rat-race of production), nourishment (instead of labour for that which does not satisfy), covenantal dialogue instead of tyrannical monopoly or autonomous anxiety), a quid pro quo of accountability (instead of either abdicating submissiveness or autonomous self-assertion), waiting (instead of having or despair about not having)'.

His point – which (a) he draws out from both Old and New Testaments and (b) reflects the call to responsibility as the heart of freedom that Joachim Gauck speaks about in his little book Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – is that the world's narrative does not prove adequate (see how an obsession with security leads to massive insecurity, for example), but that this is too often not recognised or appreciated… even by Christians who are supposed to sing from a different hymn sheet. You'll have to read the book to get the point, but Brueggemann bangs the drum he has been beating in almost all his writing and preaching: that Christians must refuse narratives of defeat, ending, destruction and loss by holding to one that affirms perseverance, newness, creation and hope. “Choose life,” is the challenge of the Deuteronomist – which assumes that choices must be made and responsibility taken for those choices. In other words, Christians cannot be escapists from the challenges of power in the world, but, rather, challenge that world's assumptions (and exertions of power) by choosing to live differently in it.

It is perhaps not surprising that this reads with particular power here in Sudan as the day draws towards its close and the Muezzin calls the people to prayer.

 

The last time I was stopped at a police roadblock was in Zimbabwe in 2007. In fact we were stopped at a number of them, mostly while we were en route to Victoria Falls. This morning we were stopped in the dark just outside Khartoum while driving to visit the new Diocese of Wad Medani. Our passports were taken while another bloke with a big red stick poked his head through the car window, saw the white man and asked where we were from. “England” elicited a frown and a sucking of teeth – after which he said, “Football?” I wondered if giving the wrong answer might make our plight worse. “Liverpool,” I said with a smile. He looked at me and said: “You'll never walk alone.”

That's globalisation for you!

Further on in the two-and-a-half hour journey and I got another lesson in how not to jump to conclusions… or misreadings.

The road runs alongside the Blue Nile and either side of it runs a sort of 'ribbon development' in the making (as well millions of plastic bags and bottles, accompanied by an exotic range of animal carcasses at various stages of decay). What I thought I was looking at as we drove (hairily, at 60mph, as if we were playing dodgems) was strings of derelict buildings surrounded by low and deserted compound walls. Another bit of unfinished or neglected infrastructure? Or evidence of communities now abandoned because of conflict or expulsions?

Neither, in fact. These were buildings and walls in process of being constructed. What I saw as falling down was actually being built up. My prejudices – of which I am not proud – were confounded yet again. And it made me wonder how many other such judgements I make that reality might embarrass. All I did was ask the Bishop of Khartoum (our host) and he, unaware of my thinking, just told me people find it cheaper to buy land and gradually build houses outside the city. I didn't know how to read what I saw.

Having cleared that up – and resolving to ask before judging – we received wonderful and generous hospitality at the Cathedral in Wad Medani. This diocese was established only a couple of years ago, carved out of Khartoum which was imply too big. It is still enormous. And it still covers territory that is currently subject to war – creating enormous numbers of displaced people. All the clergy, including the Diocesan Bishop, are volunteers – they are setting the whole thing up from scratch and, already poor, have next to nothing.

But, what they do have is faith in God, a strong commitment to serve the people of that area, and a refusal to give in to any easy option. They are remarkable. Why is it always the church that runs (for example) literacy projects and creates community for people who don't belong to them? It seems that wherever you go in the world, the church is there, using its often meagre resources for the betterment of their people.

At the moment this diocese depends on links with dioceses like mine even to produce a modicum of working capital. They are explicit about wanting to be self-sufficient, but need to get the resources (for example, build shops and a guest house on their land in order to raise a little revenue to then be able to fund clergy and further sustainable projects).

If you know anyone rich who wants to see some cash go to very impressive people in a tough part of the world, point them in my direction.

And now for a meeting with the bishops of Sudan – excluding the Bishop of Kadugli who is now based in the South and cannot return to his own diocese because of the war going on there. More anon.

(Oh… and I have just re-read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – basically, we need to know how to use freedom for and not just enjoy freedom from – before moving on to Walter Brueggemann's The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. It's all fun, fun, fun…)

 

The last time I was stopped at a police roadblock was in Zimbabwe in 2007. In fact we were stopped at a number of them, mostly while we were en route to Victoria Falls. This morning we were stopped in the dark just outside Khartoum while driving to visit the new Diocese of Wad Medani. Our passports were taken while another bloke with a big red stick poked his head through the car window, saw the white man and asked where we were from. “England” elicited a frown and a sucking of teeth – after which he said, “Football?” I wondered if giving the wrong answer might make our plight worse. “Liverpool,” I said with a smile. He looked at me and said: “You'll never walk alone.”

That's globalisation for you!

Further on in the two-and-a-half hour journey and I got another lesson in how not to jump to conclusions… or misreadings.

The road runs alongside the Blue Nile and either side of it runs a sort of 'ribbon development' in the making (as well millions of plastic bags and bottles, accompanied by an exotic range of animal carcasses at various stages of decay). What I thought I was looking at as we drove (hairily, at 60mph, as if we were playing dodgems) was strings of derelict buildings surrounded by low and deserted compound walls. Another bit of unfinished or neglected infrastructure? Or evidence of communities now abandoned because of conflict or expulsions?

Neither, in fact. These were buildings and walls in process of being constructed. What I saw as falling down was actually being built up. My prejudices – of which I am not proud – were confounded yet again. And it made me wonder how many other such judgements I make that reality might embarrass. All I did was ask the Bishop of Khartoum (our host) and he, unaware of my thinking, just told me people find it cheaper to buy land and gradually build houses outside the city. I didn't know how to read what I saw.

Having cleared that up – and resolving to ask before judging – we received wonderful and generous hospitality at the Cathedral in Wad Medani. This diocese was established only a couple of years ago, carved out of Khartoum which was imply too big. It is still enormous. And it still covers territory that is currently subject to war – creating enormous numbers of displaced people. All the clergy, including the Diocesan Bishop, are volunteers – they are setting the whole thing up from scratch and, already poor, have next to nothing.

But, what they do have is faith in God, a strong commitment to serve the people of that area, and a refusal to give in to any easy option. They are remarkable. Why is it always the church that runs (for example) literacy projects and creates community for people who don't belong to them? It seems that wherever you go in the world, the church is there, using its often meagre resources for the betterment of their people.

At the moment this diocese depends on links with dioceses like mine even to produce a modicum of working capital. They are explicit about wanting to be self-sufficient, but need to get the resources (for example, build shops and a guest house on their land in order to raise a little revenue to then be able to fund clergy and further sustainable projects).

If you know anyone rich who wants to see some cash go to very impressive people in a tough part of the world, point them in my direction.

And now for a meeting with the bishops of Sudan – excluding the Bishop of Kadugli who is now based in the South and cannot return to his own diocese because of the war going on there. More anon.

(Oh… and I have just re-read Joachim Gauck's little book on Freiheit: Ein Plädoyer – basically, we need to know how to use freedom for and not just enjoy freedom from – before moving on to Walter Brueggemann's The Practice of Prophetic Imagination. It's all fun, fun, fun…)

 

Back in 2007 I took a group of twenty to Central Zimbabwe for two weeks. The day after we arrived we walked to a farm and saw with our own eyes the desert that had once been a thriving and fertile farm. It has to be remembered that this was a time when the Zimbabwean economy was in free-fall and inflation at a mere 10,000%. We experienced constant power cuts, water stoppages and harassment from Zanu PF’s dodgy police.

While walking around the arid farm, and wondering how on earth a future might be shaped out of this disaster – the breadbasket of Africa become the basket case of Africa – my misery was interrupted by something easily missed and apparently trivial. It was a single rose, about twelve inches high, planted and watered in a small hole in the dry soil. It looked feeble and misplaced – almost futile. But, as everything else seemed to be closing down and smelling of death, here was a prophetic symbol of hope. It seemed to be saying that the is a future – that there is more to reality than what appears as the immediate evidence of your eyes. It was placing a question mark over the dominant gloom, whispering a new melody over the grinding music of doom.

In my presidential address to the Bradford Diocesan Synod this morning I called for our diocese to be ambitious and prophetic and I said it like this:

We should be ambitious. We should be confident about our vocation and the God who gives us it.
In all these matters we are being invited to be prophetic. I know the word is over-used. (I remember the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that when people ask him to be prophetic, what they really mean is: ‘Say loudly what I want to hear you say!’) But, to be prophetic in the biblical tradition is to catch a glimpse behind the curtain of our time and place – a glimpse of the glory of the God who, in the face of our pessimism and gloom, always whispers words such as ‘resurrection’, ‘renewal, or (in Walter Brueggemann’s memorable phrase) ‘newness after loss’. Being prophetic is to plant a seed when everyone else tells us the ground is dried up. It is to build a house when everybody else is demolishing and leaving. It is to sing a song when everybody else has gone silent. It is to build a boat when there isn’t any water… yet.
It is to be a sign of hope – assuming a future. As Rowan Williams says of Dostoyevsky, there is never a final word in the conversation; there is always more to be said. Just as there is nothing new under the sun, there is never an ‘end’ in the economy of a God for whom even death doesn’t finish everything off.

The Occupy movement does not have a monopoly on prophetic action. Every action, word or symbol that defies ‘endings’ by holding out even a tiny promise of a new beginning – a future beyond the loss – is prophetic. And hopeful.