This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning:
I am suspicious of straplines and convoluted vision statements that are quickly forgotten or whose formulation are seen as an end in itself. This suspicion might have something to do with the fact that when I was Vicar of Rothley in the Diocese of Leicester in the 1990s I worked with my Baptist colleague to set up an annual festival. Naturally, we called it the Rothley Festival. All was fine until someone decided to create some headed notepaper for me as the Chair. Under my name was our strapline: Nick Baines – Putting the Rot back into Rothley.
I suppose it was funny really.
Our diocesan strapline, however, is different. Loving Living Learning might better be described as a statement of our values. Simple, short and memorable, it is offered to our parishes and institutions as a prism through which our priorities, mission and activities can be refracted – or a lens through which we are enabled to keep things simple, clear and visible.
You will remember that when our diocese began at Easter 2014 I had to articulate a vision for it in a challenging context framed by an absence of governance, infrastructure or common systems. That articulation still holds: to create a vibrant diocese (vibrating in the tension between the wind of the Spirit and the wind of the world) equipping confident clergy to enable confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in our region. This has always been the vocation of the Christian Church; all we were doing was to call us back to our core vocation.
However, we simplified this into Confident Christians – Growing Churches – Transforming Communities. This worked well as a guide for our churches and diocese in focusing us on what and for whom we are here. So far, so good.
Then, when opening our new office in Leeds and addressing the need to attend to our visual identity, we employed a company new to working with the church. They didn’t know what we were trying to say – or, more specifically, what our offer is to the wider world that is not in church. In other words, we were speaking to ourselves in a language that meant something only to us. So, a fine articulation of vision and priorities for internal consumption. But, if the world with whom we wish to engage is to catch a glimpse of what we offer – good news – we needed something more… to shine a fresh light on it.
And that is where Loving Living Learning came from. As soon as we drafted it, our company got it. And now we offer it as a prism or lens.
The most fundamental command – or invitation – in the Bible is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourself. This pertains primarily to worship … and the ethical injunction to reflect the nature of the God we worship in the way we order our lives and our society. We love God, our neighbour and the world that is God’s creation. You can see the themes that might emerge within that framework: the environment, social ethics, political order, and so on.
Christianity is an incarnational faith. We are committed to the world as it is, getting stuck in and not exempting ourselves from all that the world can throw at us. Christian discipleship is not an insurance policy against trouble; if anything, it might well invite trouble. Jesus was not crucified for getting his vocation or his message wrong. Loving our neighbour means loving our neighbourhood and striving for the flourishing of individuals and our community or society. If God loved the world so much, then so must we. And this implies that our living in the world is done with the sort of faith and joy, rooted in resurrection and hope in a God who is not defeated by violence or death, that surprises earth with heaven and offers an alternative to the anger and fatalism that too easily pervades our public discourse.
How, then, should our church behave, prioritise its resources, demonstrate its commitment to all people, looking something like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels and whose ‘body’ we are told we are? This applies to manifestations of the church anywhere and at any level – parish, diocese, nation, Anglican Communion.
We are not good at all this, are we? Which is why we need to be people who are unafraid to do the learning that characterises a community shaped by a confident humility. Do we think we have nailed every detail of theology and ethics? No. Do we need to have the humility to keep learning. You bet. A church that knows its mortality and its fragility is more likely to be open to people who discover theirs.
Loving. Living. Learning.
So, when we look at the PCC agenda, is it possible to refract the business through this prism? How does each item contribute towards us being a loving, living and learning church for the sake of others? And when we look at the agenda and priorities of this emerging diocese, how does this prism offer a way of keeping us focused on what really matters – keeping things as simple as we can in order not to get bogged down in a million distractions? How do our buildings help or hinder us in this? How will the allocation of diminishing numbers of stipendiary clergy reflect these priorities or values?
These questions are pertinent to our agenda today. We live in a context in which the Church of England (but not just the Church of England) wrestles with demanding questions and claims. How are we to address the question of marriage and same sex relationships in a way that honours all people as children of God while paying attention to the biblical text and the wider ethical questions this raises. If the House of Bishops report to the last General Synod was inadequate, then I look forward to hearing the solution from those who didn’t like it – especially as the reasons for not liking it are actually diametrically opposed to each other in many cases. So, how are we as a loving, living and learning church to conduct this apparently unresolvable debate in a way that is godly, honest and resists the easy fragmentation against which the cross stands as a scandal?
The withdrawal of Bishop Philip North from his nomination to the See of Sheffield raises further questions for a church that wants to learn to be loving, living and learning. We forget very quickly that the arrangement we came to in order to allow the ordination of women as bishops involved compromise from those who longed for this and from those who opposed it on grounds of theology or ecumenical solidarity. No one thinks the outcome is ideal as it prolongs the messiness. But, whatever one thinks about the process (which was followed scrupulously) and the particular nomination, the personal nature of the attacks on Bishop North and his opponents demonstrates ignorance of a gospel characterised by loving, living and learning. I don’t know the answer, but we mustn’t let go of the question. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we cannot simply let go of each other without risking missing out on the blessing. Like Jacob we will walk with a limp and our wound will be noticed; but, better that than to collude with the culture of a world which resolves every dispute by simply walking away.
I well remember Bishop Tom Butler’s final Presidential Address as the soon-to-retire Bishop of Southwark. He spoke of how he had spent his holidays in Wakefield working on the house into which he and Barbara would retire. The cottage is on a farm and is surrounded by sheep. Tom related how he had rebuilt a wobbly wall in order to ensure that the sheep didn’t get into the garden form the field. The sheep watched him curiously. Once the wall was finished and firm, the sheep simply jumped onto it and then down into the garden. What had previously kept them out was the wobbliness of the wall. Tom’s point was simply that sometimes firm and solid walls are not the best thing to erect, and they might lead to the very thing they were meant to avoid in the first place.
So, messiness can sometimes be helpful. At the very least, it reminds us that loving, living and learning can be as embarrassing as the elderly relative who has given up on social proprieties and simply says what she thinks.
Well, all this sits nicely in Lent. We walk with Jesus and his friends – you know: Peter the impetuous, James and John the loudmouths, Judas the treasurer, and all the other examples of human perfection and moderation – towards a cross. The disciples cannot comprehend what lies ahead when Jesus speaks of his impending demise. He doesn’t despise them for their ignorance or their false conceptions or their competing visions for what constitutes an effective messiah. He walks with them, committed to them, open to their humanity, knowing that they would be broken by what lies ahead of them. And their witness – ultimately – is to stick together despite everything and learn to love and live together as fallible followers of the resurrected one whose body still bore the wounds of cruelty, violence and suffering.
And this is what a synod is. Disciples of Jesus Christ are brought together to do the business of the institution we call a diocese. We are responsible stewards of what has been committed to us by God and the Church. We do not randomly make decision in the interests of being seen to be successful; we look to be faithful to the vocation given to us by God for this time and in this place. And our task is to address this with as great a clarity we can, asking how this enables us to be a loving, living and learning Church.
Today we will look at matters such as how we order our Quinquennial Inspections of Churches, the call to grow our churches (because we believe this Gospel and its power to transform), and the use of vacant diocesan properties. As we frontload the diocese in order to provide the right drive and support for clergy development and lay training – and inspiration – we also consciously invest in appointing the right people to the demanding posts we have either re-shaped or created. Andrew Norman has taken up the reins as our first Director of Ministry and Mission and is already bringing to this work a wisdom and questioning clarity that we need. We continue to face financial challenges and will do so for some time. We are working with the Church Commissioners on funding applications for addressing some of the urgent missional needs of our region. We need to increase receipt of Parish Share if we are to pay for what we think we need to be doing. We do all of this in the face of increasing safeguarding demands and the burden some of our (required) bureaucracy imposes on us at every level.
So, why bother? Because all of this provides the evidence of whether we really believe what we say we believe, and what we claim our worship of God is all about. The authenticity of our worship will be evidenced by the priorities we set, and as seen through the prism of living, loving and learning.
I will conclude. We are in this for the long haul. No quick gimmicks or easy panaceas. No hiding from reality or simply trying to keep everybody happy. No episcopal initiatives descending on you to make you cross. But, a common commitment as disciples of Jesus Christ and ministers of his Gospel of reconciliation to one another and to the world around us: the world of Brexit, migration, famine, foodbanks, poverty, wealth creation, and everything else. We, too, shall walk the way of the cross. Together. And, in different ways, just like the first disciples, we will glimpse the world- and misery-shattering reality of resurrection. Together. And, like the couple who walked home to Emmaus trying to figure it all out, we will find the risen Christ walking alongside us – possibly even in the guise of someone else – listening to our incomprehension, staying with our grief and passion, reconfiguring the Big Story of God and the world, blessing us in sacrament, and leaving before we can enshrine him in a static encounter or even a memory.
May Easter awaken us to the loving power of God. May his cross-shaped sacrificial commitment to us and the world fire us in our Christian living. May our Lent be the place of our learning – for the blessing of the Church and the world we serve.