This is an article commissioned by the Yorkshire Post and published today.

Last year my wife and I went to Germany where I conducted the marriage of two young friends. Just before lockdown. Recently they had their first baby (called Niamh – no idea how the Germans will pronounce it) and there is much rejoicing in the arrival in the world of this dependent little person.

And in that word ‘dependent’ we get a hint of what we might expect from Christmas this year – a year that has been challenging for many people on lots of fronts and in which our interdependence has been reinforced. The Covid pandemic has changed life in some way for everyone and we will be changed by the experience we have gone through – as individuals, families, communities, country and world. Life has been interrupted as the virus irrupted into the routines and ordinariness of ‘normality’, and we still don’t know what we will look like as we emerge.

In one sense, this is nothing new. The fact that we have come to harbour certain assumptions about life, the world and everything cannot supplant the reality that life is always fragile, uncertain and ultimately uncontrollable. For anyone who has suffered ill-health or the loss of loved ones, the brutality of this reality will be inescapable. The only certainty about the future is that it is always inherently uncertain.

Which is one of the reasons I am a Christian. Christian faith does not offer an escape from the uncomfortable or cruel contingencies of mortal life in a material world, but, rather, plunges us into that uncertain and fragile world. This is where Christmas comes in. Realistic, unromantic, brazen and with eyes open to all that life can throw at us.

In church or at home this Christmas I will be digging into the remarkable story of how the world was changed for ever by an event in an obscure part of the Roman Empire over two thousand years ago. The significance of it only grew through the ensuing years and centuries. We have often become so familiar with the narrative that it fades into some comfort-blanket romantic memory that warms the heart without intruding on real life and hard choices. Which is a pity.

For this story offers a radical challenge to anyone who is conscious of trying to navigate a complicated world with complicated people facing complex choices and no certainty that all will end well. It is the story of how God is more realistic than I am. Christmas tells of God’s unromantic coming – in “human dress” (as William Blake put it – into this uncertain and (often) unjust, cruel world. No hanging around in remote, uncontaminated purity, waiting for human beings to sort themselves out; rather, God opting into the messiness of the material world which brings us such glory and agony, pain and joy. No self-exemption.

This is important. Christian faith offers no escape. Like the baby Jesus himself, born in inauspicious circumstances in a violent and unjust world, growing up meant facing hard choices, making hard decisions, living through undeserved or unfair struggle, enduring loss and suffering. Yet, … this was described as bringing light into the world – light that the darkness cannot extinguish (as John’s Gospel puts it). No denying the darkness, its power or reality, but a defiant resistance to its ultimacy. Just read on in the gospel story and see what happened.

At the start I mentioned little Niamh, born just a few weeks ago in Germany. And I used the word ‘dependent’. Perhaps the defining characteristic of a baby is its utter dependence on those who love and care for it. A baby has no power, no claims, no negotiating demands. A baby has no shame in being totally dependent. But, dependence is sometimes seen in our society as a dirty word.

One thing we have learned through the pandemic is that we are all dependent on each other. I depend on a complex network of science, business, industry, finance, politics and social organisations in order to live and work – and for any vaccine to be administered across communities. If I become unwell, I depend on doctors, nurses and pharmacists to help me survive or die well. If I have to isolate, I need other people to provide food and moral support. In other words, we discover anew that “no man is an island, entire of itself” (as poet John Donne put it). We need each other. As Jesus grew he did so as an interdependent person in a society of mutual obligation and support. If, as Christians believe, Jesus is God incarnate, then this submission to interdependence becomes powerfully real. It suggests that Christmas is God’s invitation to everyone to get stuck into the world, loving our neighbours, serving our communities, giving up our lives for the sake of others. It is radical and challenging. It makes our choices harder, not simpler.

This Christmas will be different. But, the invitation remains the same. To open our mind to a different way of being, illuminated by the light who is born into our world as one of us, offering a different way of being together.

This is the text of an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post on Saturday 19 September 2020.

I have two images in my mind. One is the old BT commercial that told us in various ways, “It’s good to talk”; the second is the title of a book by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks: ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Both run the risk of sounding good as long as we don’t get down to detail.

It is no secret that societies seem more fragmented today than they were a decade ago. We don’t need to identify all the changes across the world, but just use a word like Brexit and watch what happens. Differences have always been there, but the fissures seem more exposed these days, and the language more violent. Social media clearly don’t help; they draw people into echo chambers in which the temperature is raised and the room for mutual comprehension or compromise is, at best squeezed, and at worst eliminated. Every argument forces a binary choice – with me or against me. Families have been split over political identity; everything is something to be angry about.

On the other hand, we saw during lockdown how people came together to celebrate and thank our frontline workers – crossing otherwise powerful fault lines and encouraging people to make common cause in a common ritual of gratitude.

The big challenge for us all, however, is how we hold onto the precious experiences of connection and move on from some of the powerful drivers of division. We have a mutual interest in making things better – even if there are powerful voices that exploit chaos and profit from discord.

BT was right: it is good to talk. But, there has to be a relationship from which the conversation can flourish. Talking at is not the same as talking with. And we clearly need to find a vocabulary for talking together about hard choices and opposing opinions.

Jonathan Sacks, in the title of his book, hits on something powerful. As long as there are people – every individual unique and with a different view of the world and why things matter – there will be difference. But, difference is not the same thing as division. The question for us in the noisy autumn of 2020 is not to do with avoiding conflict or pretending to some false unity; rather, it is how to find ways of reconnecting with those from whom we differ in order to disagree well (unless we have the courage to learn, grow and – heaven forbid – change our mind).

Easy to say, but hard to do. How is our society going to find ways of rejecting mere acceptance that division has to follow difference and find the nerve to come together? As the Covid crisis develops and our lives have become less certain, how might we avoid deepening conflict and creating a genuine way of holding together in a common society? For the pandemic hasn’t created disunity, it has exacerbated it. But its consequences have also exposed wider tensions between generations, ethnic groups and degrees of affluence.

Well, like most things in life, the beginning of an answer won’t be found in grand political statements or even economic fixes. Community goes deeper than these social arrangements and power factors. It is rooted in relationships that are honest, humble and realistic.

I chair a new coalition that aims to find ways of encouraging just this and it is starting work in Yorkshire. Called /together, it has emerged from some of the country’s leading businesses, arts, media, politics, youth organisations, charities and faith communities getting together to look for practical ways of doing something – not just complaining about the problems. This is not, however, a top-down organisation aimed at do-gooders dropping their protected benevolence onto a grateful society; rather, it aims at listening, convening, encouraging and resourcing local initiatives for bringing people together in common conversation and common life.

One of the first initiatives, aimed at providing genuine intelligence, is a massive national conversation. Anyone and everyone can join in. We want to hear people’s real concerns and see where they see the potential for creating a kinder and closer society. An online survey, together with conversations with people across the UK, starting here in Yorkshire next week,will help us to understand where difference has descended into division – and where, together, we might begin to address this in a humane, intelligent and mature way. The survey can be accessed at www.together.org.uk and will not take long to complete. Every voice needs to be heard. Other initiatives will soon follow, shaped by what we find out.

Why start here? Simply because we won’t find any answers until we have identified the right questions. In other words, dialogue and conversation must always begin with mutual listening. Listening leads to hearing, and hearing might just lead to understanding … even if not to agreement.

Difference can be dignified. It needn’t be a threat. In fact, in my own Christian tradition Jesus chose friends who (the Gospels make clear) didn’t necessarily like each other. They had different personalities, experiences and priorities. But, their task was to hold together –sometimes despite themselves. They had to learn to love, to make space for each other.

Together must always be better than apart.

This is the text of my article in the Yorkshire Post today to mark the seventy fifth anniversary of VJ Day.

The 75th anniversary of VJ Day is not just a day for celebrating the end of a cataclysmic global conflict. It is also a stimulus for reflection, humility and courageous self-reflection. For, in the famous words at the end of Bertolt Brecht’s play ‘The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui’, pointing to Hitler, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.” Not elegant, but inescapably powerful. The sort of idolatries and dehumanising perversities that led to two world wars have not gone away, and there is great danger in thinking that we have since then just “moved on”.

One of the most remarkable things about what followed VJ Day in 1945 was the ability of so many victims of Japanese military brutality to face the horrors they had endured and still forgive. Not everyone, clearly. And no one can point a finger at those whose suffering took them into silence, withdrawal or, even, hatred. Yet, many did recognise the complex nature of human identity, allegiance and obedience. (One of the best illustrations of this can be seen in the film ‘The Railway Man’ in which Colin Firth plays ex-POW Eric Lomax as he confronts the tortures he had endured during the war.)

This is not easy stuff. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged on Hitler’s orders a month before the Nazi surrender, addressed this when he rejected any notion of what he called “cheap grace”. You can’t just “forgive and forget” as a way of dealing with appalling cruelty or suffering; but, the beginning of any healing is to be found in facing the offence with courage and clarity.

A Japanese theologian called Kosuke Koyama did just that in 1984. Soaked in Japanese tradition and culture (though by then teaching in New York City), he wrote what he called a “pilgrimage in theology’ in which he went from Mount Fuji to Mount Sinai – from the heart of Japanese emperor worship back to the formative place of encounter in the Judeo-Christian narrative with God. What this meant for Koyama was not just some interesting historical study from which he could maintain academic distance, but an open facing up to personal challenge and failure. In a nutshell: how did he find himself seduced by a cultural worldview that led to unimaginable cruelty (as an exercise of power) while at the same time claiming to be a follower of Jesus Christ?

I mention Koyama because his account is not one that should be restricted to Japanese or Germans in the wake of a world war. It was a failure to recognise early enough the perversity of idolatry (of Hitler, the Reich, the Emperor) or the consequences of a thinking that dehumanises people that led to fifty million corpses across the planet in 1945.

An uncritical obedience to the Emperor cult led not only to extreme violence, but also to Hiroshima and Nagasaki where national identity and racial personality were reduced to ashes beneath the mushroom clouds of technological progress. Worship idols of national identity or racial supremacy and it will end in violence. Do we never learn from history?

Koyama came to the conclusion that Japan’s collusion with emperor worship was a form of idolatry – giving ultimate worth to a dehumanising ideology. He pleads that every culture is prone to similar idolatries and that these are easily colluded with. The challenge for us, learning from his experience, is how to critique the values of our own culture … in order to avoid unthinkingly slipping down a slope that leads inexorably to violence.

Self-criticism is not something that most of us find easy. Especially when we are asked to expose to external critique something as fundamental as our worldview: that is, our assumptions about the world, its people and what ultimately matters. It takes courage to look through the lens of others at the essence and drift of what we hold to be essential about our own collective values. The moral questions that lead us to condemn war crimes are the same as those we bring to bear on current challenges such as illegal immigration: what is a human being worth? And why?

I can’t go with Koyama from Mount Fuji back to Mount Sinai where the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition is rooted (the Ten Commandments and the shaping of a just society), but I can at least see in Sinai some fundamental encouragements and warnings: to love God and neighbour; to avoid coveting and killing; to avoid idolatry and build justice; to tell the truth.

VJ Day celebrates the end of a particular dehumanising brutality and the cost of resisting it. The values that led the world to oppose tyranny must be the ones we hold onto as they come under pressure in every generation.

This is the text of a commissioned article published in the excellent Yorkshire Post yesterday:

A quick story.

A little boy sat in his room trying to write his Christmas letter. He wrote: “Dear Jesus, I have been a really good boy this last year, so please can I have a bike for Christmas?” He knew this was a bit of a fib, so, he threw it in the bin and tried again: “Dear Jesus, I have tried really hard this year and have mostly been a good boy; so, please can I have a bike for Christmas?” Again, he knew this was pushing it a bit; so, in the bin it went, and then he wrote: “OK, Jesus, I haven’t been great this year, but I can try harder next year, … if you give me a bike for Christmas.” Then he threw it in the bin and gave up. “I need some fresh air,” he thought, and went out for a short walk before trying again. As he went around the corner, he glanced inside a garden and saw a large Nativity set near a neighbour’s front door. He checked no one was watching, nipped in, grabbed Mary, and hid her under his coat. Then he ran home, went up to his room, got out his pencil and paper and wrote: “If you wanna see your mother again, gimme the bike!”

At a time in our nation’s history when all the talk is of ‘deals’, it might be salutary to realise that deals are not everything. Christmas tells us that we can’t bargain with God and there are no deals to be done.

Does this sound a bit odd? Well, it should do. We now seem to live in a culture that values economics, money and trade above all else. Each time I ask (in the House of Lords, for instance) for whom the economy exists, I get blank looks. That the economy exists for the sake of people – and not vice versa – seems counter-cultural these days. Not everybody welcomes the question: what is the vision that Brexit is supposed to fulfil, and how do we quantify ‘the national interest’?

Christmas has something powerful to say to us as individuals – yes; but, it also challenges our social assumptions and rhetoric. Christmas says that people matter more than money, generosity more than the grasping of rights, love more than competition for advantage. Christmas whispers to an unsuspecting world that God comes into the ordinary and makes it extraordinary – not waiting until the world and our lives are all sorted, but coming among us as one of us and not open to bargaining, deal-making or competing.

This is why Christmas creeps up on us once a year, inviting us to put aside the truth claims of politicians, the power claims of those who have lost sight of dignity and social order, the pompous pretensions of those for whom status is everything. The baby of Bethlehem is born to parents whose relationship is socially questionable; born in obscurity in territory occupied by a military power; born to be hunted by a king and sent into exile for his own protection. A refugee as a toddler, he will lose his father by the age of 12, leave his family by 30, and be dead within two or three years.

And this is where the no-deals come in. The people who would respond to Jesus were those who knew they had no pretensions to uphold – that God comes to them anyway. And to those who assume that God is distant, standing remote from the muckiness of the world and keeping himself clean, Christmas says that God plunges into the heart of the real world – right into the places where the pain is most acute and life most bewildering or challenging. When I pray, this is a God who knows where I am and we are.

So, I will sing the carols of God’s free offering of himself in love to a complicated and sometimes brutal world. And I will still feel a little unease when the organ strikes up with Adeste Fideles and its glorious descants: I still think we should be singing “O come, all ye faithless”. For Christmas is the opening of God’s arms – and, therefore, of the arms of those who bear his name and claim faith in him – to a world that hasn’t asked for him, but longs for liberation and healing and redemption. No deals. No bargains. No competition. Just grace, mercy, generosity and the possibility of a new start and a different way.

Fantasy? Nonsense? Or a message that dares us to think again about who we want to be and how we want our society to be shaped?

Christmas can be sidelined into some religious compartment that we drag out once a year but keep tamed and away from real life. We can keep it as a remote and other-worldly fairy story … or we can dig deeper into the familiar story and ask what the God behind this story offers to people everywhere. For myself, I will consider again the response that Christmas – God surprising earth with heaven – invites from me: to follow the Jesus of the gospels, wherever this leads, whatever it costs, and however it challenges my assumptions about the way the world is.

This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

This is the text of an article written for the Yorkshire Post about the meaning of Christmas:

When we say that someone is 'down to earth', we usually mean that they are straightforward, unpretentious, with no airs and graces. Their feet are planted on terra firma, and they cannot be accused of being above themselves (or anybody else, for that matter). Being 'down to earth', therefore, is a good thing – something we recognise by its absence in some people's language, behaviour or demeanour.

So, it should come as no surprise that Christmas is about as 'down to earth' as you can get. Christmas might be about many things, but it is above all about God not exempting himself from the realities of the world, but opting in to all the world can throw at him (and us). Christmas is fundamentally a celebration of God being down to earth.

Now, this will sound uncomfortable to some and inconvenient to others. After all, isn't God there to be worshipped and feared? Haven't we already got God taped – if not only in order to dismiss what we don't like about religion?

Well, Christmas is supposed to surprise us – something our familiarity with various popular presentations of the Nativity militates against. But, it is meant to break across our fixed views of the world and the way it is, opening our imagination to a new way of seeing God, the world and us. It is meant to subvert our expectations of how the world inevitably has to be, inviting us to look differently, see differently and live differently in the world as it is.

Go back to the original story. God doesn't explode on an unsuspecting planet at the place of most political significance and compel everybody to turn their eyes to the great event. Most people in Palestine have no idea what is going on. That is part of the irony – the surprising and subverting. And, when it comes to it, it is outsiders – the 'great unwashed' shepherds and pagan foreigners – who are first to have their eyes opened to the mystery born in obscurity in a remote and troublesome corner of the Roman Empire.

In other words, the first Christmas draws the 'wrong people' to Jesus. Not the pious, the prepared, the priests or the pretentious, but those who don't 'belong' and those who least expect to be included. Or, as I once put it (and got into huge trouble with the media for daring to do so), the first Christmas should have led to the singing of “O come, all ye faithless…”.

Now, our familiarisation with Christmas, the sentimentalising of our consumer culture and our commercialisation of the celebration, have removed the Jesus of Bethlehem from the real world to somewhere more containable (where we don't have to worry about him growing up into a politically troublesome adult). In doing so, we allow the story itself to become rootless in the real world. And this is problematic.

So, consider this. The baby of Bethlehem was born into a world in which life was very cheap and expectations very limited. This world was dominated by a military power that ordered every part of life and society and dealt brutally with those who challenged its hegemony. The land into which the baby was born was occupied and its people humiliated. Under threat of persecution and death, the baby and his family fled to another country, becoming refugees and asylum seekers in a land whose very name (Egypt) represented slavery, misery and hopelessness. Terrorist groups emerged from the hill country of the north from time to time, bringing death and destruction to those places where the Roman forces exercised their power.

It sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? A world of insecurity and threat. Not a million miles from a world of ISIS, terrorism, fear and uncertainty.

Well, this baby would grow into the man who defied all power and denied all fear by inviting people to think again (or 'repentance' as it is sometimes known). What if there was to be a people who were not driven by fear, but drawn by hope? What if we could be down to earth, but not bound by earth? What if, while remaining rooted in and committed (body, mind and soul) to this world, we could be free to sit lightly to our status and dignity, our security and self-fulfilment, loving our neighbour as ourself and putting their interests before our own? What might this world look like? What would a society like this lead to?

This is basically what Christmas is all about. God doesn't wait for us to get our act together and sort out our integrity before coming to him with a plan. Rather, God takes the initiative, coming among us as one of us and, ultimately, opening his arms to us in an embrace that absorbs all that the world can throw at him, but without throwing it back.

And this is the point of getting to a church for a carol service. I love the aesthetics of candle light and familiar carols. But, what the church is actually doing – well or badly, but always fallibly – is to create a space, for an hour or two, during which we can be confronted afresh by the mystery of God's surprise – that even God is down to earth, right where we are.

Following the furore over the bishops' letter to the Prime Minister about refugees, I was asked to put pen to paper for the Yorkshire Post to explain why I agreed to be a signatory. The reason I agreed is that I had just spent the day meeting people who have been on the wrong end of war, displacement, humiliation and hopelessness – just like many of those escaping from the Iraq and Syria we have helped create. So, here is the article published this evening for tomorrow's paper.

I am not sure what the politicians and political commentators have been doing today? Still seething about the letter written by 84 bishops to the Prime Minister asking for a rethink on the numbers of refugees to be let into the UK? Still sitting behind screens being sarcastic about bishops and their big houses (which are actually their offices)? I have read today that some responses are becoming less hysterical now that the letter has actually been read.

Forgive me for being just a teensy bit touchy on this. I am in Sri Lanka visiting our link bishop of Colombo. The Church of England dioceses have links across the world: West Yorkshire and the Dales has close connections with Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Sweden (Skara), USA (Southwestern Virginia), Pakistan and Germany (Erfurt, though, obviously, this is not an Anglican link).

In other words, rather than simply pontificating about situations, we actually have grassroots connections with them. When asked why the bishops don't wade in on, say, the 100,000 killed in South Sudan, well … actually we have and we do. We also go to Sudan and see the impact of the conflicts in the South. It could be argued that we know what we are talking about.

So, back to the letter to the Prime Minister. If you are one of those seething about the well-meaning bishops getting it wrong again, have a look at this first:

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some five weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon? (Funnily enough, a letter from the Home Office arrived on Tuesday.)

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Labour ought we were right wing; the Tories think we are all lefties. We just have to get used to the knee-jerk responses that this defensiveness provokes.

The job of bishops is not to be popular or simply to go with the current, dominant flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things. The church cannot duck its prophetic vocation. Read the Bible and we are always getting into trouble with the powers that be – it goes with the territory.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument should be on the plight of refugees and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Today (Tuesday) I have moved from Kandy to Jaffna in Sri Lanka. We visited small rural communities and met people whose limbs have been blown off (or worse) during the thirty year civil war that ended in vile brutality only five years ago. One man with no left leg and a mangled right leg and foot cannot work and cannot support his family. An elderly woman has lost all her relatives in the carnage and now is totally alone. We went to an orphanage run by the Church of Ceylon where we met the inspirational priest and his wife who led a group of mentally ill women through the war zone to safety; they also brought several dozen orphaned girls. They were separated and only found each other again once the war ended. The warden of the orphanage has only one leg.

How many of the commentariat have actually got out from behind their screens to meet real people with real faces and real lives? Just asking. Because this is how the church lives, and it is how the bishops learn reality away form our small island.

Syria is a catastrophe. It is not numbers who are fleeing – it is people. And their torment will continue long after they have escaped the immediate horrors.

Much of our conversation here revolves around the civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

I think our letter might have been too gentle and diplomatic, after all.

The languages debate continues. Following earlier discussions on this blog – especially in the light of recent press reports on a podcast I’d made – here is a piece commissioned by the Yorkshire Post. I’ll let it speak for itself.