Presidential Address – Diocesan Synod May 2019
Welcome to a rather unusual Diocesan Synod – don’t know if this is a first – but as we knew the marquee would be up on our lawn for a whole series of events, we thought it worth trying. At least, it seemed like a good idea six months ago – before we had any idea of the weather forecast! But I hope you can enjoy a slightly different setting and enjoy some good food afterwards.
This time last year, Synod met at Launde Abbey as part of the School of Prayer which I was hosting. From the feedback we received, some people loved it, others were less sure about it – one piece of feedback described it as ‘a waste of time’ - at least they were honest and didn’t feel the need to hold back on their feedback! But it was intended both as an attempt to practice what we preach in terms of everyday prayer - modelling the centrality of prayer in our debating and decision making; and to show the importance of trying new things. So, in the spirit of pioneering, we go on trying new things, knowing that some will get rained on and some will be damp squibs but that shouldn’t stop us trying.
At our last Synod meeting, in November, I spoke of the need for us to be bold in having difficult conversations. From the comments I received afterwards, some thought I was referring to the conversations we had about finance – these were indeed quite difficult but I’m grateful for the spirit in which they were conducted, and the follow-up work done by the finance team in helping people understand more fully the complexities of our finances. We’ll return to this later on our agenda.
But in fact, I wasn’t just talking about finance. Increasingly, I’m discovering that difficult conversations are core to role of diocesan bishop. From conversations with community leaders about Brexit, to conversations with school parents about Multi-Academy Trusts, to conversations with survivors of abuse, to conversations about ordination services and conversations about human sexuality, relationships and marriage. Wrestling with complexity, acting as a bridge between opposing views, staying in relationship with people who think my own views on issues are profoundly wrong, this is all part of what it means to exercise leadership in today’s church.
So today’s Synod is no different. And at the risk of making you all switch off, I want to start by talking about Brexit. What do we think is really going on in our nation at the moment? I’m not referring to parliament or political parties or withdrawal agreements, but rather the underlying currents swirling around the United Kingdom.
I’ve been trying to do a little reading on this recently, reflecting on the place of the church in this national debate. So, I put it to you that we cannot understand our world, let alone address it with the gospel of Jesus Christ, unless we grasp the roots of modernism and post-modernism and the strange mix of the two which exists in our current world and lie behind the Brexit conundrum.
So modernism is about the two great interpretative schemes of the nineteenth and twentieth century, progress and revolution, which themselves are rooted in a whole philosophy of history which has no place for God. Progress, from Hegel to Hitler, says the world is automatically getting better and better now that God has been taken out of the equation. History has reached its liberating goal which now has to be implemented, and we have to do this work of implementation ourselves since the gods aren’t around to interfere. Revolution, from Robespierre to Marx and beyond, takes the opposite view, saying that things will get worse, but then there will be a sudden transformative irruption as humans come to their senses. Again, we have to do this work of revolution since we will wait in vain for the gods to intervene. Neither progress nor revolution, of course, has gone according to plan – witness the two world wars of the last century and both progressive and revolutionary dictators. But there is no alternative narrative. So, now we discover that the stories that got us here have run out of steam and we don’t know where to go. Welcome to post-modernity.
From Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, from Freud to Derrida, thinkers have declared that this modern posturing is all a sham, a Tower of Babel tottering and about to collapse. There are no grand narratives to explain history. Now it is all about the personal, the local and regional rather than the national and supranational. There may be a place for God, but only on the individual level of spirituality, certainly not as a cosmic figure imposing his will on history and society. But just like the big narratives of modernity, there are all sorts of questions which post-modernity can’t answer – we simply don’t know what to do about the resurgent nationalism which we are witnessing across the world, about the refugee crisis, about growing inequality, about extending Europe in the East or preventing it imploding in the West. Neither modernism nor post-modernism seem to help us in our current state of confusion and anxiety.
I put it to you that this is what’s behind Brexit. When the modernist project, from which God was carefully removed at the start, gets larger and more powerful, it becomes, as Europe is perceived to have become and as Westminster is perceived by some Scots to have become, careless about local effects, unaccountable economically, a self-serving and self-congratulatory elite. You then have the classic seedbed for postmodernity, for the reassertion of the smaller narratives, for ‘identity politics’ and endless pressure groups. That is the inevitable backlash when people sense that an amorphous and alien ‘identity’ is being forced on them.
Please note that I am not making a value judgement on Brexit itself. I’m simply observing that it is a clear result of the modernist and post-modernist forces at work in our collective thinking. So what is the role of the church at a time like this?
For some, the temptation has been to see our own narrative, what we might call the ‘big story’ of the Bible as the alternative narrative needed by society. If only we could replace the modernist progress or revolution narratives with our own, all would be well. But the problem is that this is heard as the church – sometimes viewed as just another ‘elite’ group - trying to impose our own controlling narrative on everyone else. This is precisely what post-modernists have rejected and they won’t easily be persuaded to embrace another ‘big story’.
But neither can we allow our story to be reduced to just an expression of our own personal experience. ‘It works for me’ sounds attractive in a post-modern world where everyone’s story is valid but this reduces Jesus to just one religious figure among many others, interested only in my personal life and with nothing to say to wider society.
No, somehow we have to hold to the universal story of God’s involvement in the world God created, expressed supremely in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, while also ensuring this story interacts in a healthy way with the lived experience of individuals, experiences which are often full of hurt and pain and confusion. And the best expression of this is the local church. Small Christian communities which tell the compelling story of God in words and actions, in attractive, imaginative ways and ensure that space is given for people to find their own way to interact with this story and so encounter the one who came to heal and to bring us ‘life in all its fullness’.
This may sound like a long way from Brexit but I hope you can see the connection. I put it to you that our role is not to say that one side is right on Brexit and the other is wrong – we’ll each have views on that and that’s fine – but the role of the church is the address the underlying causes of the confusion and anxiety and model something different.
And I’m suggesting that we do that when churches model reconciliation, when we show the world what it means to disagree well, to live together well, to have difficult conversations. This is why I’m so passionate about ensuring our churches are diverse – that each local congregation has people of different backgrounds all seeking to learn about everyday faith. This is why I am so passionate about fresh expressions of church – churches which are truly exploring what it means to be a Christian community, and to be shaped by God within a particular local community. This is why I’m so passionate about Intercultural Worshipping Communities, which are at the heart of recent application to the national church for additional funding to develop our work with BAME people. We don’t want monochrome communities which simply reflect the divisions of wider society – we are called to model something different, however hard that might be in today’s society.
This is why our rural churches need our urban churches. This is why our wealthy churches need our poorer churches. This is why clergy need to model good collaborative working with lay ministers. This is why we are a diocese – 320 churches, 75 fresh expressions of church, 97 church schools, together with hospital, prison, university chaplaincies – this is why we need each other – so we can model a different way of living together in society.
I’m sure that like me, you have your moments when you feel down about the state of the church. There is much that is wrong with our institution and much that needs changing. But more than ever at this moment in history, our society and our world needs a church which shows clearly and plainly that Jesus Christ is risen from the grave, and that changes everything.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
Part two – “Pastoral Principles for living well together”
So we’re continuing the theme of difficult conversations – recognising for the church at this moment in time, this is perhaps the most difficult conversation. It is deeply personal and painful for many, and also raises great anxiety and fear in many.
So two things to say right at the start: as the agenda title makes clear, this is an update on the Living in Love and Faith process and also an introduction to the Pastoral Principles which have been produced by the national Pastoral Advisory Group and which I want to commend to you. So this is not a full conversation in the way that I know some of you want to have that conversation. And yes, I realise there is an irony in the light of all I’ve said up to now, that I am saying we are delaying the difficult conversation. But that’s a very deliberate decision which has come from the learning being done nationally – our belief is that we need to have the Pastoral Principles and the resources being prepared by the LLF group in order to have a healthy conversation. And so we are not going to rush. We will have the conversation at Diocesan Synod – we’re not avoiding it – but for now, we’re asking local congregations to do some preparatory work.
We are doing this partly in response to a motion which was passed by Akeley East Deanery Synod last year. That motion was addressed to Bishop Guli and me, rather than Diocesan Synod, and it reads as follows:
Akeley East Deanery Synod welcomes work underway nationally to consider “Living in Love and Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human identity, sexuality and marriage”.
We are deeply troubled by the sense of hurt and exclusion expressed by members of the LGBT community, and how they feel mistreated by the church. We believe that this must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Given the extended wait for change at national level, we ask our bishops to consider how they can best inspire and enable all Christians and churches in the diocese to pastorally support members of the LGBT community, and their families and friends, and how they can provide maximum pastoral flexibility and freedom to clergy in this matter.
I’m grateful to the Area Dean, Lay Chair and other members of Akeley East who I know put a lot of time and care into this motion and the accompanying debate in the deanery. Bishop Guli and I have talked about the motion and I have her permission to say that we disagreed on our response to it. That won’t necessarily surprise any of you, and it led to a healthy conversation about how we model good disagreement between ourselves as bishops, and within the Bishop’s Leadership Team. Those conversations are on-going.
So three further things which I want to say this morning: Firstly, to agree with the Akeley East motion and say that I too am deeply troubled by the sense of hurt and exclusion expressed by members of the LGBT community. I have tried my best to meet with LGBT Christians in recent months and listen to them – something which the LLF project group are also doing – and I have heard stories of great pain and hurt. Something has to change in terms of our ways of speaking and acting towards our LGBT brothers and sisters.
Secondly, for that very reason, I want to commend to you the Pastoral Principles for Living Well Together which were circulated with the Synod Papers (the second mailing which included the most up-to-date version). These Pastoral Principles have been co-authored by the national Pastoral Advisory Group – a group which includes people with a very wide range of views on these questions. They are not perfect, and everyone will find something within them with which they disagree – but the overwhelming thrust is to reiterate very clearly that everyone is created by God, everyone is loved by God and everyone needs to experience that love within a Christian community. Our welcome should be unconditional – and for that to be so, we need to pay attention to what the Guidance describes as six pervading evils. We need to:
· Acknowledge prejudice
· Cast out fear
· Speak into silence
· Admit hypocrisy
· Address ignorance
· Pay attention to power
The booklet goes on to suggest ways in which churches, whether small groups, PCCs or in Sunday services, could use the Pastoral Principles to generate good conversations. It will be for individual congregations to decide how to best to do this, but I do commend them to you.
In saying this, I also need to make it clear that personally, I am not persuaded by the second half of the Akeley East Synod motion which calls for “maximum pastoral flexibility and freedom for clergy”. The Church of England has a very clear doctrinal position on marriage, and we have not authorised any new liturgies for blessings of same-sex relationships or for transgender people – the recent pastoral guidance for transgender people was simply guidance about the use of the service of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith for someone who has transitioned.
And this is why, finally, the Living in Love and Faith process is so important. This process is all about changing the conversation and opening us all to new insights and learning. At its heart will be a suite of new resources – a book, podcasts, short films and more – which draw on a range of disciplines from biblical studies and theology, to science and history. We are acutely aware that views within society at large have changed enormously in recent years, and the church is more and more out of tune with society. But these resources are intended to help us discern what God is saying to the church. Is it the case, as with views on slavery and women’s ministry that we simply haven’t been reading Scripture correctly on these questions? Or is it the case that these are different questions, and this is part of the church’s call to holiness, to being Shaped by God rather than shaped by the world?
These are going to be difficult conversations. But I close by returning to what I said earlier. One of the ways in which the church is called to be salt and light in the world is by modelling reconciliation, bringing together that which is divided, having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
So I close with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer:
O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may henceforth be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
+ Martyn Leicester