It’s a time for reflection and family say Leeds bishops

Right Reverend Marcus Stock.
Right Reverend Marcus Stock.
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For the first time, Leeds has two bishops. Neil Hudson asks both of them what they want for Christmas.

This is the first year there have been two bishops of Leeds. Following the re-organisation of the Anglican dioceses earlier this year, the old post of Bishop of Ripon and Leeds was abolished (along with the diocese which also bore that name) in April and a new diocese, centred on Leeds, was created.

We asked both bishops what their hopes were for Christmas and the new year.

Catholic Bishop of Leeds, the Right Reverend Marcus Stock was born in London and was announced as the tenth Bishop of Leeds, succeeding Arthur Roche, in September - the 53-year-old was ordained in November.

Here, he argues that only through an act of faith can the world prevent repeating past mistakes.

“Any reasons we have for family and friends to get together, to show each other kindness, be generous to others and celebrate in each other’s company, are good things in themselves.

“Each year, the few days of Christmas and the new year holiday period provide the opportunity for many people to do those things.

“But the preparation for Christmas can bring its own peculiar challenges, pressures and tensions.

“With ‘Black Friday’, ‘Cyber Monday’ and the news that online shoppers are worried about whether their gifts will arrive in time, the anxieties which many experience in the lead-up to Christmas simply seem to increase.

“Yet there are a great number of people around the world for whom such anxieties would be a luxury.

“Few of them will have Christmas at the forefront of their minds.

“Instead, they will be thinking about how they and the members of their families are basically going to survive.

“Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have become refugees, driven from their homes by war or the threat of violence or persecution, will be trying simply to survive. For them their only thoughts will be finding safety, food, clothing and shelter.

“Situations of war and conflict seem to arise in our world year-in and year-out, leaving us feeling powerless to help the people who are suffering.

“There is then a danger that we can become insensitive to their suffering.

“The frequency of these conflicts can be so despairing that it can lead to the temptation to put those are suffering out of our minds so that the thought of them does not upset us or, particularly at this time of year, our celebrations.

“Although we might be very generous in what we give to different charities and do what we can to assist those who are in need, most of us recognise that human effort alone appears to be incapable of bringing about a real and lasting change to these seemingly repetitive situations of human-made suffering.

“For this to happen, the hearts and minds of every person need to be changed. Change will not happen simply in the acceptance or imposition of a new political polity or new regime but in the recognition that humankind is unable to save itself. It needs a Saviour!

“At Christmas, Christians celebrates the birth of a Saviour. This Saviour though was not a great man of political power, he had no military fighters to support or defend him. He had no influential people around him or any impressive financial backing.

“He did not try to change people’s lives by force or coercion.

“The Saviour that Christians celebrate at Christmas was, like many today, born in poverty and not long after his birth 
had to flee for a period of time with his family as refugees as 
a result of the threat of violence.

“His mother gave him the name Jesus, a name which in the language of his people meant ‘the Lord is salvation’.

“He came in humility and weakness; his appeal was through his gentleness, compassion and mercy. He changed people’s lives by loving them and giving up his life for them.

“Christians believe that Jesus came into our world and can still come into our lives as the Saviour, to do something for us that we could not and cannot do for ourselves, to liberate us from everything which prevents us becoming the people we were created to be.

“In the life of Jesus the Saviour, we discover our true humanity, our true dignity and the greatness of the gift of life itself. Now that really is something to celebrate!

“In our celebrations this Christmas, let us be thankful for our family and friends and be mindful of all the good things we have.

“Yet never let us forget, or fail to assist in whatever way we can, those who suffer or are in need.”

Christmas message has endured through the years

Anglican Bishop of Leeds, the Right Revd Nick Baines has been referred to in the past as ‘the blogging bishop’ because he embraces social media.

He oversees the new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, one of the largest in the country, which replaced the dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds, and Wakefield on Easter Sunday.

Bishop Baines was Bishop of Bradford for three years and before that Bishop of Croydon. He attended the University of Bradford and before ordination in 1987, the 56-year-old worked for four years as a linguist specialist at GCHQ.

You can read his various musings on his blog page, here: www.nickbaines.wordpress.com

Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post, he said Christmas was not about getting the words right at but more about what’s in your heart...

He said: “A few years ago I got into big trouble with the media (and ‘Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’) for writing a book about Christmas.

“A newspaper took a paragraph and suggested I wanted to abandon traditional carols and rob ordinary people of the “magic of Christmas”.

“Nonsense, of course, but by the time it got around the world, one newspaper even claimed I had banned Christmas in England.

“The bit that annoyed people was simple: I suggested that we need to sing carols with our minds engaged and question what it is we are uttering to lovely tunes.

“I will try to illustrate what I mean. ‘Christmas is coming, the goose is getting flat / While shepherds washed their socks by night / Hark! The herald Angels swing.’

“It’s not hard to do violence to Christmas carols, is it? We know them too well and the words have become part of our cultural memory.

“They run through us like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock, so we can sing them in the dark and weep to the sound of a child singing ‘Away in a manger’.

“But, change the words or tune of a much-loved carol and you might well find the Christmas spirit disappearing in a rage of indignation. It’s like reading a familiar bedtime story to a toddler and changing the ending. (Try it at your peril.)

“But, there’s one carol that could be sung differently without upsetting anyone or anything. It’s ‘O come, all ye faithful.’ This is the one we usually belt out towards the end of a carol service.

“We work our way through it, tasting the mystery of ‘Very God, begotten not created,’ but secretly waiting for verse six when the choir lets rip with ‘Sing, choirs of angels,’ and all the girls go for the high notes of the famous descant, ending with no voice, but a big smile on their faces. Follow that!

“Well, I love it, too. But, I think this most popular carol is actually open to more than one interpretation.

“In my more theological moments I might be tempted to change one word and sing: ‘O come, all ye faithless.’ Or, at least, sing the first verse twice, with the word change in the repeat.

“I am not being facetious in suggesting this. When we read the gospels in the New Testament, what we see should, in fact, be shocking.

“The baby in the manger grew up. Faced with this surprising Jesus of Nazareth, it always seems to be the ‘wrong’ people who respond well to him.

“While the religious authorities (like me) couldn’t handle him and eventually nailed him, it was the poor, the marginalised, the people told that they are of no account to God, who found in Jesus the beginning of new hope, new life and a new belonging.

“It is, if you like, the ‘faithless’ who had their eyes open to spot the love and generosity of God in this Jesus.

“Christmas is about God coming to us; but it is also about us - whoever we are - coming home to God.

“So, contrary to popular prejudice about Christian killjoys, I want us to get out the glitter, drape everywhere with tinsel, blast out the Christmas music, and drill through the familiarity and ‘stuff’ of Christmas to the heart of the surprising story - celebrating as we go.

“Because, there, at the heart of this great mystery two thousand years ago, we meet a frightened family in poor surroundings, a baby in a borrowed cot and foreign strangers being the ones who recognise who this baby is.

“Shepherds and Magi - outsiders - are the first to see the God who comes among us as one of us.

“In other words, it was those regarded as faithless who first welcomed the baby.

“So, come all ye faithful. And come all ye faithless. Everyone is welcome to venture into a place where this story is being re-told, and see if awakened curiosity might even turn to worship - surprising us now as much as it probably did the shepherds and foreign travellers then.

“I wish you a happy and curious Christmas.”