This morning the Bradford Diocesan Synod – in a secret ballot – voted 90-4 in favour of the Dioceses Commission scheme to create a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. We had an excellent debate in which people were visionary, responsible, realistic and prophetic: it was inspiring to listen to. The negatives were aired alongside the positives, but courageous vision is how I would describe the vote.

Ripon & Leeds voted in favour. Wakefield voted against. Now it goes to the Archbishop of York for a decision as to whether the wider needs of the Church of England should demand that the changes be put to the General Synod anyway. They should.

Here is the text of my (so-called) Presidential Address to the Synod this morning:

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

One of the Old Testament pithy sayings I often quote is the line from Proverbs 29: “Without a vision the people perish”. The truth of the saying is not in doubt. Any group of people that has no vision toward which they live and work – and for which they might sacrifice much – will not survive for long. It is the common purpose – the commonly held sense of direction – that holds them faithful while all around them changes and threatens and wobbles.

No wonder, then, that a common vision is hard to hold on to and sometimes hard to identify in the first place. After all, a ‘vision’ can be made up of lots of fine-sounding words; but then more words have to be found – and agreed upon – that establish the strategy – the ‘how will we get there?’ stuff – for making the vision a reality. And there lies the real challenge. For any vision that can only be realized in the long term lies open to being thwarted by immediate or short-term realities that can easily distract from the agreed goal.

So, although we might all agree with the fine-sounding line from Proverbs, we then find ourselves in some difficulty trying to formulate precisely which vision and strategy should be adopted. In one sense, we need to be grasped by a vision – having our imagination and will captivated by it – rather than us simply trying to dredge one up.

This is pertinent when we look at the matters before us on our agenda today. What sometimes looks obvious and clear from a distance becomes more complex and demanding the closer we get to actually making a decision. But, let’s put the more ‘domestic’ matters in perspective before getting into the substance of the options before us.

A month ago I travelled to Sudan for my first visit to our link dioceses there. Linda and I spent just over a week meeting people and being introduced to the place, the people, the church, the history and the politics of the country. I posted eight blogs from Sudan while we were there, but tried to be careful about what I wrote and how I wrote it. As I learned from my decade-long links with Zimbabwe, it is all too easy to salve my western conscience by ‘speaking out’ about what is going on there, whilst thereby only making life even more difficult for those people who pay the price for my ‘prophetic’ utterances. Since returning, I have been clear that any response from me and us must be guided by those who will live with the consequences. Accordingly, I am in contact with Ezekiel, Bishop of Khartoum, about the daily realities, checking our perceptions with him, and being guided about what to do at this end. (And there was a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday this week, sponsored by Baroness Cox, into which our experience and analysis was fed via the Bishop of Exeter.)

What is increasingly apparent is that President Bashir’s government is engaged in ethnic cleansing of Africans. It is further clear that they want a single nation (Sudan) of a single race (Arabs) with a single language (Arabic) caught up in a single religion (Islam). Although complex, the direction – the ‘vision’, if you like – is clear; and it is not good for Africans – Muslim or Christian. We need to bear this in mind daily as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sudan, as we interpret the news we hear, as we consider how to respond, and as we continue to give of our wealth to house and feed those who have nothing.

Such support also comes form strange sources. I was speaking at an ecumenical conference in Hannover, Germany, a couple of weeks ago and agreed to stay on and preach at an international service on the Sunday morning. The organisers pressed me about where to direct the offering, which normally amounts to around €150 and in the end I suggested our Kadugli Appeal, which so far has raised around £100,000. The offering came to just short of €600 and will arrive in our accounts soon.

I tell you this partly to assure you that when I am on business away from Bradford, I am also working for Bradford and telling our story beyond our borders. The conference in Hannover was established by both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Hannover-Hildesheim region and attracted 1300 delegates to look seriously at how the church in Germany must change if it is to grow and reach a new generation. Fresh Expressions is something they have latched on to and they are keen to learn from the Church of England about our successes, our failures and our vision. Of course, listening through German ears compels me to examine the perspectives I have in England and in Bradford – which is never entirely comfortable, but does inform priorities and action.

(I will be in Germany again in May, along with some clergy and lay people form the Diocese of Bradford. The Kirchentag attracts around 120,000 ‘full-timers’ and a total of around 300,000 people over the four days. I will be doing various things, but my principle responsibility will be to preach at the outdoor closing service to a congregation of between 100-120,000 people. This will also be televised nationally on German TV. This is a privilege for an Englishman, great for the Church of England, and a shameless propagation of Bradford in Europe. Pray for me… and for those who have to decipher my German.)

I have been accompanying and observing the German Church’s reform process since 2007 when I was invited to the launch of the process in Wittenberg, birthplace of the Reformation in 1517. Although the cultures are different in many respects, watching the management of change in the EKD has been informative at a time when we are looking at significant change in the Church of England. I will refer here to two matters.

First, the matter of admitting women bishops to the episcopate. I don’t intend to rehearse here the events of July or November in the General Synod. Suffice it to say that anyone who comes up with a simple rationale for the failure of the legislation in the House of Laity has almost certainly got it wrong. The reasons for the failure are many and they are complicated – especially when you realize that it failed (in terms of votes) because enough people who want women bishops didn’t want them in the manner prescribed by that form of legislation. Vision and means again.

Since November facilitated conversations have been going on between different parties and the House of Bishops discussed these developments at our meeting in early February. Several options emerged and these will be worked on to see if there might be sufficient support for a form of legislation to be recommended by the House of Bishops in May for initial debate at the General Synod in York in July.

It is less clear to me than it is to others that this will happen. The current mantra is ‘simplicity with security’, which, it seems to me, ignores the fact that the search for ‘security’ militates against ‘simplicity’ – which is how we got to where we were in November in the first place. Anyway, an enormous amount of work is going on in order to see if a way forward can be found informally that will subsequently bear the weight of any legislation that might follow. Watch this space.

But, if agreeing on how to have women bishops is tough, we in West Yorkshire and the Dales face a challenge much closer to home. I hope to speak to this in the debate later, but will only do so if the points I wish to make have not already been made by others.

The challenge before us looks simple: we all agree we need to change, but what that change should look like – and how it should be brought about – is not obvious to everyone. The Dioceses Commission did not dream up their proposals because they had nothing better to do with their time or imagination. Look at the numbers for the three dioceses and, whatever the rhetoric from some quarters, they are, broadly speaking, heading south. If the proposals for a single diocese with an area system do not offer better mission and growth potential, then it should be obvious that current arrangements do not offer an alternative. One way or another there has to be change in the way we organize, ‘do church’ and reach out in this part of the world.

The problem comes, of course, when we ask what that change should look like. That will be the matter debated later. The Bishop’s Council has agreed that we vote in a secret ballot in order to ensure that everyone is free to make their own mind up. The method for doing so will be outlined immediately prior to the debate. Please note that our vote today is in principle – and although a considerable amount of coordinated work has gone on within and between the three dioceses already in order to flesh out realities and potentials, costs and benefits, making any changed arrangement a reality will depend solely on the will, determination, imagination and vision of those involved.

So, if you vote for this scheme, you commit to taking responsibility for making change work; if, however, you vote against, you need to ask yourself what you are, in fact, now voting for. No structure, old or new, will of itself deliver anything. Today is a challenge to our vision for the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales, our courage in facing change, our faith in God and one another, and our realism about the challenge before us.

The writer of the proverb I cited earlier got it right: without a vision the people perish. (Although ‘perishing’ can take many forms…) But, to confound Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, not ‘any dream will do’. Our vision must be faithful and bold, realistic and achievable, godly and honourable. However we vote – and you do not need to be reminded here of my support for the scheme, especially as I am probably one of the few to have worked an effective area scheme (Southwark/Croydon) – we need to do so prayerfully, with confidence and with a clear recognition that the status quo is not an option, that we will direct change or it will drive us.

As Joshua heard before entering new and unknown territory: “Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you.”

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