Bishop Trevor’s Address to Synod July 2014
“Which Faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation”
These words from the Declaration of Assent, used at the beginning of every new ministry set both the context and the challenge for all that we are called to be about as disciples of Jesus Christ. We as individuals; we as members of the Body of Christ; we as the parishes, the chaplaincies, the deaneries and the diocese of Canterbury.
All that we are about, if we are to fulfil our commitments to:
- Grow the Church numerically and spiritually
- Re-imagine ministry
- Build partnerships that enrich communities
The context is this generation. The challenge is the proclamation afresh of the life changing transformative love of God in Jesus Christ. A proclamation which has much more to do with how we live rather than the words we speak.
Many are the stories which surround St Francis of Assisi, but one which I have quoted on several occasions would seem absolutely appropriate here.
Towards the end of his life, Francis was asked by his disciples what they should do after his death. His response was simply “preach the word of God everywhere and, if you must, use words”.
In this Address, let me offer some thoughts on both the context and the challenge as we live them out in our own common life. In so doing, I want also to refer to a number of issues which confront us not only as church in this diocese, but as we continue to play our part in the life the national church.
At the Eucharist which preceded one of our recent senior staff meetings, Archdeacon Stephen reflected on some of the words set for the Old Testament lesson for that morning from Hosea 8.
“For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind”
The context of Hosea’s words: the utter failure of the people of God to live out their calling to be faithful to God and faithful servants of his world. Faithless in that they, the people of God, had utterly rejected the rule of God’s love and chosen to live for themselves alone.
“They made Kings, but not through me; they set up princes, but without my knowledge. With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction” says Hosea.
Such might be God’s judgment on much of the life of the world today. We reap the whirlwind of violence and hatred in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Ukraine and Russia, in the occupied territories in Gaza because we reject the ways that lead to peace.
Economically we might be said to be reaping the whirlwind of the banking failure. While the pundits might tell us that we are emerging from the most damaging recession since the end of the Second World War, the reality is that far too many people in our own communities are yet to experience the new growth and upturn. That said, I for one rejoice that the Government has recently recommitted itself to the determination that point 7 of our GDP shall continue to be given to international aid, even when there are many in our own society who will argue that in times of economic trouble we should look after ourselves first. The whirlwind becomes all the greater when nationalism is allowed to replace the sense that we are one world.
We reap the whirlwind also in the continuing fragmentation within our own communities. Loneliness and fear are all too often the other sides of the coin to individualism and self-determination.
We are also part of a society in which long established mores are increasingly being challenged. Yesterday’s debate in the House of Lords for example on assisted dying makes the point well. As I tried to point out in an article in the Church Times last week, the bigger question that confronts us I think is not assisted dying but how to die well in a society which wants good dying for everyone but, as of yet, is unwilling to will the means for that to happen. Again, the seeming ease with which the legislation allowing for same-sex marriage was passed by Parliament underlines the very rapid changes now occurring in our common life. Parliament was all too willing to grant the church a quadruple lockout so that we could not be required to conduct same sex marriage but seemingly failed to understand that marriage is the bedrock of our society.
By now you might be thinking – is it all downhill from here? Is the whirlwind only to increase in intensity and thus sweep away all established norms and practice?
Are there signs of hope? Yes I believe there are. I have already mentioned our national government’s commitment to aid for developing countries. Nearer to home I think we are showing the signs of wanting to be a more caring society. The work of food banks for example; the increasing determination to face up to the shame of indebtedness which destroys both individuals and communities; the generosity shown in contributions to Comic Relief and Children in Need; the work being done in each of our communities to build closer partnership and thus ensure that loneliness and fear do not win the day.
But if we are to proclaim the life giving faith of Jesus Christ afresh we do I believe need to do far more work in understanding this generation. If we approach it merely in judgment then we shall fail the world which we are called to serve. If we approach it in love with a much deeper experience of that love and reconciliation being lived out in our life then hope becomes not just a word but a lived reality for those whom we are called to serve. I look forward to March Synod when we will look at our work with children and young people, including how we communicate with this generation.
Let me now turn to what it will be for us to live afresh that life giving faith of Jesus Christ.
What does and will it mean for us to proclaim, to live, afresh the life giving and transformative love of God in Jesus Christ? At a recent gathering of ordained and lay leaders in the diocese, Graham Ward, the Regis Professor of Theology at Oxford offered us a stunning picture of our generation. One in which project multiculturalism has so obviously failed. We have yet to learn how to learn together in diversity. We have replaced such a vision with the pedestrian living alongside but in self-contained and hermetically sealed cultural identity.
More fascinating is the fact that the world around us in its ever changing culture has adopted much of our rich Christian symbolism and language, with little or no understanding as to the meaning of such symbol and the life transforming power of such language lived in community. So, for example, Christian architecture is seen to be a sign of stability. The wearing of a crucifix just a piece of modern jewellery; heaven a place longed for but with no means of entering its joy. Adoption happens without reality, but in my experience there is hunger for meaning. A thirst to belong. A longing that though the older heaven and much of its certainties have passed away there might just be a new heaven and a new earth in which reconciliation might be one of its dominant characteristics. Here is challenge for us if ever there was one. A challenge to the way we live. A challenge to the way we worship. A challenge as to how we live together in such a way that the world might be truly confounded by the way these Christians love one another, positively and not with the implied cynicism that all we can do is fall out with each other.
The decision which the Church of England General Synod took on Monday with regard to its ministry – in other words to agree that women can and should be ordained as bishops to the church – relies more on trust than detailed rules. “Much more Christ like” to quote Archbishop Justin than anything else we have considered before. Law can get us so far but it cannot create trust, cannot help us to live together rather than merely alongside each other.
Interviewed many times since Monday, I have struggled to help the media to understand that we are not in a winner takes all situation; that we are not institutionalising discrimination; we are not even responding to the spirit of the age. Rather that we believe under God men and women can, and indeed are being called, to exercise episcopal leadership in the life of our church. But at the same time, how we live together as one family will be measured by how we treat each other and find Christ in the other when the other clearly does not welcome or rejoice with a decision made. The building of trust, as we all know well, is painstaking and costly but without it, none of our diocesan key objectives will ever become reality. Until such time as we trust each other more deeply – yes in financial generosity; yes in being willing to share the resources we have; yes in being willing to let go of some of our own most treasured possessions we will not grow more fruitfully and more joyfully into God’s future.
As you will all know, I rejoice with the decision which the church has now made and look forward to sharing in the consecration of those women who under God we believe are called to episcopal ministry. But equally I remain committed to ensuring that those communities and individuals in our diocese for whom that decision will continue to be problematic will themselves receive the resource, and the prayer necessary for their own flourishing as I hope, pray and indeed know that they will continue to pray and resource for the flourishing of us all. The world finds this all rather strange but the true test will come if the many words we have spoken are indeed matched by lived experience.
Two further and final reflections. The first around the complex and demanding issue of human sexuality and finally the briefest of reflection on our agenda this morning.
As I have already said we are in the midst of immense cultural change. Social attitudes are changing rapidly. A changing context always raises new questions about our missional stance towards culture. Clarifying how we can most effectively be a missionary church in a changing culture around sexuality must be a key objective for us all. As for the questions of order so even more with questions of human identity and sexuality there are many views, many firmly held opinions in the life of our Church. Views and opinions which no matter how strongly held within ourselves are received in our generation as discordant unforgiving and sometimes homophobic. As regards the latter let me say unequivocally that there can be and never must be room in our Church for homophobic behaviour or anything that looks like it. Whether we like it or not sometimes the majority of our population look at us and see what they don’t like. I welcome therefore Len Budd’s question to me this morning which repeats a question asked of me during the course of one of my recent deanery days. I welcome this opportunity to repeat what I said then, that although there may be profound disagreement in our church and perhaps even in our Diocese, on the issue of human sexuality and identity there is work to be done in encouraging those within the church who are at odds on this issue to express their concerns in a safe environment, listen carefully to those with whom they disagree profoundly, find something of Christ in each other and consider together what the practical consequence of this disagreement might be.
From New Testament times the Church of Christ has had to face disagreement. Fashioning our life as a church includes finding ways to “disagree Christianly” to quote words of Archbishop Hapgood.
The Pilling Report published in November 2013, recommended that the church’s internal dialogue on the subject of human sexuality might best be addressed through a process of conversations across the church and involving others in the Anglican Communion. The House of Bishops agreed in May that the process of such conversations should be managed centrally for the sake of consistency and clarity in reporting back. Under the direction of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s director of Reconciliation, David Porter, a team of around 20 trained facilitators will support a process of conversations across the Church of England. They will bring the skills necessary to ensure that the process provides a safe place for all viewpoints to be expressed and to keep the conversations to the objective of seeking understanding rather than having any pre-determined trajectory.
Following work to be done in our own College of Bishops in September this year the process will then extend across the dioceses, working in clusters to enable 12 regional conversations, each involving 60 participants, to experience the process. The aim will be for each group to have 25% of its participants from the 40 and under age group. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersexed people will also, we hope be fully represented. The range and balance of views in the group should also, as far as possible, reflect the range and balance within the dioceses themselves. Details as to how we in the diocese will be represented in those clustering conversations will be widely disseminated later this year. But be assured the conversations will be no mere talking shop but a genuine attempt to reflect what it means for us know to live under the word of God faithfully thus serving the world which as I have already indicated has a hunger and thirst for faith. Listening as we all know well is a very demanding activity. Unless we listen beneath the surface unless we open ourselves up to the possibility of receiving that faith of Jesus Christ afresh in each of us our message to the world will continue to be uncertain and in so many ways deeply unattractive.
What then has all of this to do with our agenda this morning? My answer is everything. How we fashion our lives. How we resource one another. How we learn to trust one another. The necessity to be undergirded with human and financial resource. As General Booth the founder of the Salvation Army once said “there is no such thing as dirty money only the hands that sometimes hold it.” In other words, money is part of God’s gift to us and it requires of each of us a generosity, including a generosity towards the person with whose views we profoundly disagree and a generosity towards the parish so different to our own. Generosity must always be our highest priority.
As you have all heard me say many times before if we live to ourselves be that as individual, parish or diocese we will die through ourselves. Only as we become a more welcoming more attractive and more generous church, will this faith that we seek to proclaim afresh, meet the needs of a hungry and thirsty world.