What should bishops say in public?

(Photo: Unsplash/MattBotsford)

Imagine, just for a moment, being given an opportunity to address the country on national radio.

What's more, you've been asked – specifically as a Christian – . to share with people something that will really make them think. And all you've got is a couple of minutes. What might you want to say?

As a Christian, I hope you might find yourself trying to think of ways in which you could present something of Jesus clearly, in such a way as to draw people to him, and not put them off. You might perhaps think, 'What one simple thing can I say about Jesus that will really provoke thought when it is heard?'

Which brings me to an episode of Thought for the Day broadcast on Radio 4's Today programme last week where the speaker was Nick Baines, the Bishop of Leeds. Bishop Nick has helpfully reproduced the whole transcript of it on his blog and you can read it for yourself here. 

In many ways, it is quite interesting. It certainly demonstrates intellectual breadth, beginning as it does with the phrase 'the other day I was browsing the German political journal Der Spiegel,' which is probably not something many of us (or indeed many bishops) could say. We also get references to Bertolt Brecht, Shakespeare and WH Auden.

The fact that I am writing about it now shows at least that it had some kind of impact. But when the bishop had finished speaking, I must share honestly that I felt let down and disappointed. The reason? There was no mention of Jesus.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not writing this to indulge in bishop-bashing for the sake of it. And broadcasting on Thought for the Day is incredibly difficult. I'm not aware of the precise brief that the speakers are given, nor am I pretending I could do a better job.

But not to mention Jesus ... I struggle with that. Browsing down the bishop's blog I notice that his Pause for Thought on Radio 2 on September 9 also contains no mention of Jesus by name, and neither does his article from the Yorkshire Post below that. A Church Times article (September 8) mentions the word 'Jesus' once, albeit in brackets as a sub-clause to the main point of the sentence.

By now I am sensing a pattern. We scroll down to September 6, and a speech in the House of Lords: no mention of Jesus. And then we're back to Thought for the Day with the transcript of another broadcast. Surprise surprise, although there is reference to loving our neighbours, which obviously Jesus did say, there is no mention of Christ by name – although we do learn that the good bishop was once employed by the intelligence service GCHQ 'working mainly in Russian and German'. Which must be handy. Perhaps he now browses Russian magazines as well as Der Spiegel.

The Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines(Photo: Diocese of Bradford)

At this point I should probably give the answer to your unspoken questions, and the answers are firstly, 'Yes I have cut and pasted the articles to which I refer above and run a spell check,' and, secondly, 'Yes the spell check does indicate only one reference to Jesus in passing, and no mention of the word "Christ" either'.

It might be argued in relation to Thought for the Day that there is a clear prohibition on anything that might be classed as 'proselytism' – the attempt to convert others. Maybe – I don't know. But I cannot see that such a ban, even if it actually does exist, precludes mentioning Jesus. After all, I have learnt everything I know about Guru Nanak from listening to Indrajit Singh, the delightful Sikh leader and broadcaster, in that same slot. And in the first Thought for the Day transcript I have located online by Vishvapani Blomfield there is a direct quote from the Buddha.

In the Church of England service when bishops are ordained, they are asked: 'Will you lead your people in proclaiming the glorious gospel of Christ, so that the good news of salvation may be heard in every place?' I struggle to see how, without much mention of the name of Jesus, this is really being done in the blog items I have mentioned above. In fairness to Bishop Nick, several days ago, with this article in mind, I did leave a comment on his blog below the first transcript I have quoted from above. It said something like, 'I really struggle with the fact that God and Jesus are not mentioned in this'. A little note popped up to tell me my comment was 'awaiting moderation'. It remains unpublished.

When Steven Croft became Bishop of Oxford, the very first words he spoke when inaugurated were: 'May I speak with humility, mercy and joy, May I speak of Jesus and his ways. May I speak clearly and with boldness now and always. Amen.' A good prayer for all bishops – and all of us, indeed, too.

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A