This is the basic text of a sermon in Wakefield Cathedral at the Easter Vigil:

“Who will roll away the stone…?” (Mark 16:3)

It’s an entirely reasonable question in the circumstances. But, it is also quite revealing.

The three named women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – will have spent the sabbath in empty agony. Jesus is dead and buried. The sabbath is not the day for visiting tombs or touching dead bodies; so, they must wait until the sabbath is over, the sun is shining on a new day, and they can resume their shocked grieving. They come early to the tomb of Jesus, expecting to find a corpse whose dignity will be honoured by being anointed in the usual way.

That’s the point. They expected to find a buried body. Everyone knows that when you are dead, you are dead. (And Professor Alice Roberts, President of Humanists UK, was surprisingly theologically orthodox when she tweeted yesterday that dead people do not come back to life. Christians strongly agree. We believe that “God raised Christ from the dead,” which is different.)

If we are to live this story and not just intellectually recall its drift, then we must inhabit the imagination of Mary and Mary and Salome. They came to the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus. They didn’t pitch up with a sneaky suspicion that he might not be there. They didn’t predict the surprise that awaited them. They weren’t playing some game of emotional forgetfulness that then dissipated in the joy of resurrection.

In fact, what they encountered at the tomb didn’t fill them with unbridled joy; the message of resurrection, accompanied by the experience of a vacated grave, terrified them. Verse 8 tells us that “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Let’s just stick with this for a moment.

After I did Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning (Good Friday), I quickly got an email from a woman who wrote: “A disappointing, wasted opportunity to share the story of the cruel, unjust crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. I learnt more about Winston Churchill and R S Thomas than I did about why Jesus died and what it means to know him as my redeemer through his glorious rising on Easter Day.”

Apart from confusing the Today studio with a pulpit (and not understanding the medium), she also made the mistake of wanting to rush to Easter Day before having lived through Good Friday or the emptiness of Saturday. And we cannot begin to understand what the gospel is telling us unless we work hard imaginatively at living with the story as it unfolds – not knowing the ending.

I don’t wish to be too controversial, but it seems that we would be much more ‘biblical’ if we were to recognise that the resurrection was met not with joy and bubbles, but with terror and fear and amazement. The joy can come later when, to quote Luke’s account of the couple on the road to Emmaus, their journey and conversation with the risen Jesus – incognito at first – “their hearts burned within them” as Jesus re-framed the narrative that made his death a necessity rather than an error.

I venture to suggest that we might benefit as Christian disciples from staying with the text and what it describes before moving on too quickly. Which means watching these women as their world begins to shake beneath their feet.

On one group visit to the Land of the Holy One, we were taken to a convent in Nazareth where we descended some recently excavated steps down into the earth. At the bottom was a tomb with the door-stone rolled back. When it was excavated they found a mummified body of a bishop – suitably attired – keeping watch over what was, to him and his community, holy ground. It is thought this might have been the burial site of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Apparently, when they first opened the cavity, the smell of ointments and perfumes, kept sealed for centuries, wafted up and out. I still have the photographs I took of a real tomb with its stone removed.

Looking at it, I remember making sense of these women who made their way to the garden where Jesus had been buried, asking “Who will roll away the stone for us?” As I said, it is a perfectly reasonable question.

But, as they found themselves confronted by emptiness and alarm, they also discovered that Jesus cannot be imprisoned, manipulated or contained – by prejudices (about how the world is or why it is the way it is), by past experiences (death is the end of everything), by our sin and failures (of which we need little reminding), or even by death itself.

In fact, what these women find is that God has already found them. He has gone before them, brought order out of chaos, seeded new life out of death, a new beginning out of the ultimate of endings, a new future from the ashes of the past.

This, I think, is powerful for us in our world at this particular time. We need no reminding that the coronavirus pandemic has brought death and misery across the planet – caused in part by our careless exploitation of the planet as if it is ours and not that we are stewards of it. Every community will know the cost – in every sense – of the last year. And when we ask the entirely reasonable question “Who will roll the stone away for us?”, we will find ourselves challenged to think afresh – what the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann calls being “freshly faithful”.

You see, resurrection has become a useful metaphor for new life and hope – like bunnies and seeds and so on. But, to leave the resurrection there is to leave the stone unrolled. It is to lack either curiosity or seriousness. The resurrection is certainly not less than a metaphor for what, again, Brueggemann calls “newness after loss”; but, it is certainly much more than a metaphor. Something happened to Jesus, the disappointingly dead man.

Clearly, the Romans could have stopped the new and completely challenging Christian movement on day one – by producing the body. They didn’t. Is it really credible that the first friends of Jesus went through unimaginable struggle and suffering for what they knew to be a lie – if they had hidden the body? No, the women found an empty tomb; the men didn’t believe their story, so eventually saw for themselves; and the women became the first evangelists – quite fitting as they were the ones to stay with Jesus to the bitter end.

And what do they find? Jesus is the same, but different. Jesus knows them by name. Jesus bears the wound marks in his risen body. And, as the story develops, they find that it wasn’t just a grave stone that had been rolled away, but also their understanding – their assumptions – about God and the world and themselves.

This is why at the heart of the Christian faith is not some vague optimism about the future – no lazy or seductive ‘pie in the sky when you die’ crutch with which to navigate life. Nor is it some spiritualised faith that disconnects God from the material world and splits human being into compartmentalised bits. No. At the heart of the Christian faith is a real cross planted in a real rubbish tip outside the city walls … and an empty tomb that, if we can’t find an explanation, still cries out for a response.

At Easter we don’t just celebrate a ritual that makes us feel better when life is tough. Rather, we unashamedly and unapologetically plant ourselves with the friends of Jesus who, bewildered and maybe even afraid of the implications of all this stuff, offer the world a different way of seeing and believing and being. That is why we eventually sing alleluia. This is what makes sense of those people in the gospels – often disregarded women – who find in Jesus that they need not be imprisoned in their past, nailed to a reputation or fear that pins them down and traps them behind a stone. Here is life. Here is hope. And a community of Christians who have been grasped by grace and love and mercy has no option but, with a confident humility, to live it out in generosity, forgiveness, love and mercy towards our neighbours.

The Easter fire will not be put out. The Easter candle might sometimes flicker and fade, blown by the draughts and pressure changes around, but it will stand proud, bearing witness to the stubborn conviction that death does not have the last word after all.

What these women went on to experience was that this same Jesus, by his Spirit, empowered them for all that lay ahead. When in the Eucharist we proclaim: “The Lord is here, his spirit is with us!”, we are not just mimicking the old banner I saw in a photograph in Pravda many years ago – a banner hanging in a Soviet factory exhorting the proletariat to work harder at the five year plan: “Lenin is here; his spirit is with us” would have been the English translation. (Was it a promise or a threat, I wonder?) No, the Lord who is with us is the one we read about in the gospels, pouring himself out in love and mercy for broken people.

And this is why tonight, as we celebrate the rise of the Easter Son, we can bear the name of Christ with confidence and faith; for, as I have framed it many times before, we are not driven by fear, but drawn by hope.

The Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology in Prague, Tomáš Halík, made the point recently in an address to clergy in the Wakefield Episcopal Area that the resurrection did not herald a return to how things were before crucifixion. The world has changed and so must we be changed and change … if we are to be faithful to the transformative power of the risen Christ.

As we emerge into a changed world, our hearts, minds and imaginations grasped by the haunting mystery of the resurrection, let us be faithful to the call of the risen Christ to walk with him and together into an uncertain future – just like the first Easter people.

I conclude with a verse from a song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the text of a Presidential Address I gave to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning via Zoom.

Eighteenth Diocesan Synod, Saturday 13 March 2021

Sometimes there is no ending. We are just left hanging there, wondering what happens next and who might be responsible for deciding.

Think of Jonah who tries to run from a God in whom he believes, but whom he also resents for maintaining an inconvenient generosity towards dodgy people. The prophet, in hiding from the God who calls him to a personally uncomfortable ministry, finds himself vomited onto a beach and into a reluctant agreement to obey the call to preach repentance and mercy to a recalcitrant people in Nineveh. He does the bare minimum and retreats from the market square to lick his spiritual wounds while, to his horror, the people actually do repent and change their ways. Why can’t God be more like him and feel justified venom towards the sinning people? Why can’t God be just and consistent and blow these people away? (Echoes of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son?)

He finds himself taking shelter under a tree … which God then causes to shrivel and die, exposing Jonah to the wild sun. Why, asks God, should I not also be free to forgive and set free the people I love anyway? It is about grace. And Jonah the prophet doesn’t like grace when applied to the wrong people – though he wants it for himself.

And then the story ends. What did Jonah do next? What happened – did he get converted? We don’t know. Some biblical academics have suggested that the ending is missing. I tend to agree with the scholars who have concluded that the story deliberately ends there – leaving the reader hanging – because it compels us to use our own imagination and see whether the ending we imagine (or would like) is faithful to the character of Jonah or the character of God.

We could look elsewhere in the Bible and find other cases of (what I sadly might call) endinglessness. Poor Moses, having endured the miserable behaviour and ingratitude of his own liberated people, meets his own end on the edge of getting his reward – leading the people into the Land of Promise. Jeremiah, faithful despite his own misery, disappears into exile and silence. The ending of Mark’s gospel is, according to some scholars, missing. People bump into and glance off Jesus, and we don’t know what happened next: did the rich young man ever come back and say, “OK, I’ve got rid of my securities; now can I come with you?”

But, the people of God, who have been grasped by grace and captured by love, are not dependent on the endings or the ends being tied up. We can live with uncertainty and without fear in the conviction that an ending is the gateway to a new beginning. As Easter will demonstrate, the death and loss of Good Friday do not spell the end of the story; but, Sunday won’t come before we have walked through Friday and the emptiness of Saturday. And that means leaving stuff behind.

Now, this is supposed to be a presidential address to a synod, not a sermon. But, the business of our agenda today, as we deliberate together in grace and love, avoiding either nostalgia or wishful thinking, has to be rooted in a biblical theology that helps us imagine our own future. And that means taking seriously the context in which we meet and do our work together.

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, decades before any pandemic erupted on the world, encouraged the church to be bold in rejecting the dominant narratives of what he calls the empire – those assumptions that explain why the world is the way it appears to be, and insists that everybody thinks the same way. He urges Christians to “re-describe reality” in order for us then to re-orientate towards a different future. That is to say, we don’t accept that today is the end or that death and fear have the last word in this world. We refuse to accept that people are economic cogs whose major function is to consume material stuff in the hope of clouding out the questions about meaning and value. We decline the pressure to think that competition over vaccines is either noble or good. What does “world-beating” imply?

In other words, we are called back to discover the grace of God amid the moral and material complexities of being human in today’s world. Like Jesus looking out from his cross, we look reality in the eye and don’t claim any exemption from the cost of grace and love. We certainly don’t look out in order to claim ownership of the territory from the one on that cross who is there precisely for having given up claims in the interests of love.

This morning we will spend time asking about our experience of a year of lockdowns and pandemic. We will have an opportunity to speak and think honestly about what that experience (and how we think about it) has – or ought to – change us. In his excellent little book Virus as a Summons to Faith Brueggemann writes of Jeremiah: “… the prophetic promise does not intend a return to ‘the good old days’ or a restoration of a previous … arrangement … [It] rather intends a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways.”

In other words, as we confer together the question we face is this: are we open to a future – and an ordering of that future – in which our relationship with one another in the Body of Christ is the holding context and content, and not a fixation on our pet securities, nostalgias or inherited models? Freshly faithful.

Therefore, we join together in considering our future, cognisant of our faithfulness to the past and the biblical narrative of courageous leaving and journeying. The biblical story has not changed, but we might gain fresh insight from our new experience. As I wrote to the clergy at the beginning of the first lockdown last year, having our diaries destroyed has allowed us to inhabit something of the normal life of people in some of our partner/link dioceses in places like Sudan, Tanzania and Pakistan. So, what can we learn? How can we change?

Or, in the quadrant of questions I suggested as a simple framework for planning ahead post-pandemic, (a) what have we lost that needs to stay lost? (b) what has been lost that we need to regain? (c) what have we gained that was OK for this time, but needs to be lost? (d) what have we gained that must be retained and built upon if we are to be freshly faithful?

Across the Diocese of Leeds we will have different perspectives and have enjoyed or endured varying experiences during the last year. But, we now find ourselves moving towards a re-emergence and an honest evaluation of how we might be in and for the future. And we do this not with fear, but with hope, determination and generosity. The pandemic is not the end. The challenge to our churches, not least financially, is not the end. The loss of some familiar routines or practices is not the end. As I have said many times, you can’t argue with reality. But, we needn’t be cowed by reality. Because, as Brueggemann says, we are called to reframe reality – to find ways and words to tell a different story, to read our present circumstances differently, through the eyes of a God who is faithful. Working hard at this will help us in our own churches and communities to live, worship and serve as people of hope and people of joy.

Joy? Really? Yes, unequivocally. Because Christians are not surprised by fear or mortality or uncertainty. They are the raw stuff of Christian living and thinking and praying. For our trust is in the person of a faithful God, not in the outworking of a formula or a convenient bargain with God that ensures our own security.

Our diocese has a strategy derived from three one-word values. Loving Living Learning is not a trite slogan designed to make us feel better. But, our deliberations need to be infused with love (for God, the Gospel, and the creation that is loved by God); with an incarnational commitment to the world as it is, but drawn by a vision (of the Kingdom of God) that comes to us from the resurrection future; with the humility that comes from recognising our fallibility, failings and blindnesses, and sees learning as a virtue and not a weakness.

And what might this look like if we embody these three values? Well, when we come to think about the post-COVID future, we will do so with mercy, humility and love. When we consider the well-being of clergy (which is not in contradistinction to the well-being of lay people), we will look with generosity and hope and not be defensive about where we might have mixed experiences of them. Matters pertaining to the DAC and quinquennial inspections bring these values down to concrete reality: how do we steward the resources God has given us? However we feel about the hard questions of sexuality and identity, will we approach LLF with the humility that allows us to encounter others, listen genuinely, learn from … even if we don’t agree with the conclusions others draw?

It’s a bit like when people say “I love everyone” or “I love the whole world”, but really struggle to love the awkward so-and-so next to me. I call us back to a simple truth: that Jesus did the calling of his disciples and their witness was to follow Jesus together despite their differences of personality, experience and vision. No one was given a veto over who else Jesus could invite on the journey. One of the glories and gifts of Anglicanism is the fact that we are thrown together with other Anglicans, regardless of whether I approve of them or not. That is what deanery synods and clergy chapters are for.

I need to conclude. The days ahead are full of opportunities, some of which we wouldn’t have invited and which we don’t welcome. But, they are the gift we are given, however uncomfortable. The days ahead are full of challenge. But, when has the church (or the human race in any generation) not faced unprecedented challenges? The days ahead are full of promise – the promise of God to be faithful (the “steadfast love” that Brueggemann translates as “tenacious solidarity”) as we seek to be faithful to our vocation as a church in and for England.

I do not know what the future holds. But, I do know we can face it together as the gift that God has given for this generation. We can be confident with humility, creative with fidelity to our story, and merciful as we make decisions of which we might be unsure. In the end, we seek to be the people who answer the prayer we say every day: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

Amen. Let’s get to it.

13 March 2021

Lockdown is a challenge. But, for me it also allows space for some conversations that might usually get squeezed between meetings and then forgotten.

Yesterday I had two. Both ran around how the current situation impacts us now and might do in the future. My question (or one of them, at least) is this: when life and its routines are disrupted or taken away, which wells do we draw from to sustain life and meaning? While everything changes above the surface and the shape of the future is uncertain, can we locate the underground streams that keep flowing anyway?

There is probably a better way of putting this. But, in a really stimulating conversation with a BBC friend yesterday morning we were wondering if this crisis has revealed the shallowness of many of our cultural or personal wells. It’s a question, not a statement.

For me, as a Christian, the wells – the underground streams – go back a very long way. The creation narratives in Genesis speak of order being brought out of chaos. The Exodus has a people’s settled world being ruptured and them being driven out of the familiar into the strangeness of a desert where they had to lose before they could gain – to lament the loss of a world before being in a position to reorientate towards a different future in a different place. (It took forty years.) Later the people get exiled from the land of promise (twice, in fact – in the eighth and sixth centuries BC) and take time to live with their loss … before settling in the strange land … and then, generations later, having to leave again. They return ‘home’, but discover that home is no longer what they remembered.

I could go on. The Christian tradition lives and feeds from these narratives of leaving and moving and settling only to be disrupted and moved again. And this experience is rooted in an acceptance of mortality and contingency and what goes with the freedom of living in a material world.

But, we don’t usually transition straight from one world to another. We have to stay with the loss, lamenting what has been lost, grieving for a world (or way of life) now gone. People will take a shorter or longer time to live with this. There will be anger, powerlessness and disorientation. And while this is going on some people will accept the new reality and start orientating towards creating a new world.

So, what are the narratives or assumptions that keep us nourished while all this goes on around and above us?

Christian faith does not assume a life (or world)of continuous security and familiarity. It is fed by scriptures that speak of transience, mortality, provisionality, interruption and leavings. But, they also whisper that the endings are always beginnings – the leavings open a door to arrivals that could not have been experienced otherwise. In other words, the loss can be seen as a gift – what Walter Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

So, as I have suggested to clergy in the Diocese of Leeds, we might be helped in articulating this by asking four questions: (a) what have I/we lost that we need to regain in the weeks and months ahead? (b) what have we lost that needs to remain lost – left behind in another country? (c) what have I/we gained that we need to retain in the future? (d) what have we gained recently that was useful for this season but needs to be lost if we are to move forward?

We might feel sometimes that we don’t have much to go on. The photo below is one I took on a visit to a farm in Gweru, Zimbabwe, back in 2007. During a drought and amid economic collapse, someone had planted a rose in arid ground and watered it each day. It was a prophetic challenge to the desert; it was an act of hope, of prophetic imagination. Today is not the end.

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.

 

… 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.