Today was my first Diocesan Synod in the Diocese of Bradford. This synod is comprised of lay people, clergy and bishop(s) from across the diocese and is the body that sets the direction of the diocese in terms of implementing policy decisions. Such synods can be strange bodies and I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a well-organised, well-chaired, friendly, committed and interesting group of around 50 people from urban, suburban and rural parishes. I actually enjoyed it.

I had two roles today: to give my first Presidential Address (the Diocesan Bishop presides over the Synod) and to lead a final session about the nature and direction of the diocese. I’ll write more about the latter in due course – once I’ve thought about it more fully. But, I thought it might be useful to put up the basic text (minus funnies, asides and extra bits of explanation) here. What I was trying to do was bring together the local with the regional, the national and the international in order that we get our perspective right. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I do believe in saying it as I see it. It has to be read in its proper context – my opening lines to the Bradford Synod and not a general address to the national media (for example). Although running the risk of ‘doing a Rowan’, here it is:

Right at the beginning of my first Presidential Address to the Bradford Diocesan Synod I want to thank you for the extraordinary welcome given to me and Linda since our move north after eleven years of exile in the south. It is good to feel the pavements and grass of Yorkshire under our feet, allowing us to sniff the clear air and experience the warmth of people’s friendship. We are genuinely grateful for the welcome which has expressed itself in so many and varied ways.

I am further grateful for the generosity and creativity that made the Enthronement on 21 May such a splendid occasion for the diocese, its people and communities. The Cathedral has a very high reputation in and beyond Bradford and its reputation was enhanced even further by the service: it did what it set out to do (put me in) and didn’t attempt to do a PR job on the diocese or environment. I know of no other bishop who has been led by a Bavarian Oompah Band to the Cathedral to be greeted by a brilliant brass band as well as choir and organ. For myself I can say that I felt the huge responsibility on my shoulders when I entered the Cathedral and am grateful for your prayers and encouragement. I am very glad to be here and am honoured to be the Bishop of Bradford.

But, this leads me on to make an observation that should be a source of pride and gratitude to the diocese as a whole. Not so many years ago Bradford Cathedral was synonymous with all sorts of cynical negativity. As we know from parish experience, it can take a generation or more for the reputational damage to be repaired and the memories re-shaped. Under the leadership and faithful ministry of the Dean, Dr David Ison, Bradford Cathedral has become respected, valued and recognised as a key player in Metropolitan District, city and diocese. As a newcomer I have been struck by the very high regard in which David, his colleagues and the Cathedral itself are now held – and such a remarkable achievement should be articulated, recognised and celebrated. I am personally proud to be associated with the Cathedral and will give it my full support.

And, while we are it, we send our love and congratulations to Canon Sam Corley and Claire who gave birth to a son, Micah, in the early hours of Friday. It is one way of growing the Cathedral congregation…

Growing the church. This is a challenge and one to which we must commit ourselves with confidence and some creativity. As you know, I have begun two- or three-day visits to each of our eight deaneries. I spent three days recently in the Airedale Deanery. This was followed by a morning with Rural Deans and Lay Chairs in which they very helpfully briefed me, enabling me to build a picture not only of the diocese, but of how it is perceived by those of us on the inside. Two things emerge: we have some wonderful people and places, but we use a rhetoric of survival rather than ‘thrival’. In my Enthronement sermon I spoke of the need for confidence: in God and the Gospel, in the church and the Church of England, and in our contexts – the places, communities and people we are called to serve for the common good. I wasn’t joking. If we have no confidence in God, the Gospel, the church, the Church of England or our changing world, why should anyone else? We must build our confidence to an extent where the rumour about the church is a strong and positive one.

How we shall do this is not entirely clear to me. However, as I said at the Cathedral, we can choose whether to be shapers of our future or victims of someone else’s decisions. I believe we should engage fully in discussions about the future shape and life of the church – with vision, courage and determination. Not for our own sake or that of the church as an institution for its sake, but for the sake of the Kingdom of God in and for the world. Our agenda today drives us in this direction: the Dioceses Commission (about which I am happy to answer any questions), finance and budgets, and those things which concern us as responsible stewards of God’s resources. I firmly believe that money follows vision and not the other way round. The corollary of this is, however, that if we believe in it and want it, we will pay for it; if we don’t, we won’t… and we won’t have it.

We can discuss this further in the final session of today’s Synod.

The church in any diocese has to be careful to see its mission and ministry in the context (or through the lens) of the wider context. I wish to shape that lens today with three different aspects:

  1. Firstly, our own preoccupations are set against the backdrop of Sudan. If ever the value or effectiveness of diocesan links were in question, events of the last couple of weeks provide a robust response. When violence broke out in our link dioceses of Northern Sudan, our response was only possible because of the years of patient relationship building that underpinned it. I am new to this particular link – I have had very close involvement in a strong link with Zimbabwe for the last decade or so – and am impressed with the strong support and affection for (and commitment to) our brothers and sisters in Northern Sudan. I am grateful for the initiative of the Sudan Group, the Archdeacon of Bradford for moving quickly in respect of the appeal (and its communication) and Alison Bogle and Chris Wright for getting stuff up and into the public sphere so effectively and quickly. As we pray for and support the church and people of Northern Sudan, let us also see how our own preoccupations look in the shadow of such life and death events.
  2. Second, the Church of England still has the ability to speak into the public discourse. It doesn’t always go according to plan, however. Last week’s furore over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s guest editorial of the New Statesman certainly hit the headlines and set off a public debate – but the debate was excruciatingly misplaced. Let’s be clear, the Archbishop of Canterbury has not only the right, but the obligation to speak into the public discourse on matters that concern the common good. Anyone reading the editorial he wrote will recognise that he was raising questions about our society and its governance – not attacking the government. Yet, here was the problem – and it is a problem we face as a church in what has been termed ‘the media holding context’: the furore was ignited not by what the Archbishop wrote, but what the Daily Telegraph said he’d written. Those who could be bothered to read the original article (recognising that it was designed to introduce a series of guest articles by people who wouldn’t necessarily agree with each other) discovered that the Telegraph report was deliberately mischievous.

Yet, this is the world we are in. I, too, have been on the receiving end of such reporting and it is not comfortable to receive the opprobrium of people who take the headline as gospel. However, it is not enough to moan about the media or their handling of ‘truth’. For them it is the story that matters. That’s reality and we have to get used to it. We also need to be creative in finding ways to shape our stories in and through the media – not simply complaining when things don’t quite go our way. To do this, we have first to learn about the media and how they (appropriate to their particular medium) operate. And – I would say this, wouldn’t I – we must learn to engage with the media confidently.

I am cross about the way a perfectly intelligent and important contribution to public debate was steered off-course by a newspaper. I only hope that the politicians and others who expressed their dismay in response to the Telegraph report have actually read the real thing. After all, public figures all know what it is like to be misrepresented or turned into a sort of entertainment football.

  1. Third, the anguished fate of the Greek economy reminds us that the financial crisis is not over. The interdependence of modern states in a global market means that – to distort John Donne – no land is an island. The challenge thrown up by the financial collapse of 2008 is only now beginning here in the UK and the severity of it has not fully dawned on us yet. And it is in this context that we are being asked to raise from our parishes a sum in excess of £4 million. Is this feasible? Yes, it is. In fact, it is essential.

The Church of England invented what is being called the Big Society, but should be called the Good Society. We founded hospitals and schools, cared for the poor, led communities, supported people through their living and dying. As children of our times, we often made mistakes or didn’t see as clearly as we might now do. But, there has never been a time when the church did not demand of its people a sacrificial commitment to its work for the sake of the common good. If we, driven by an experience of the generosity of God and rooted in his call for us to lay down our lives for the sake of the world, believe that the Gospel is good news for all people, then we must put our money where our heart is.

My heart is in the parishes and institutions of our diocese. The parish system is unique and shapes the unique vocation of the Church of England. It is the means by which we serve our communities: maintaining Christian presence and engagement, ensuring clergy ministry and leadership, equipping congregations to reach out in evangelism and service. That is what we are being asked to pay for – not a structure or an institution for its own sake. And, in that respect, we should acknowledge the excellent administration of this diocese’s support work under the guidance of Debbie Child.

The numbers of people entering ordination training in the Church of England are rising. However, the numbers of those retiring are considerably greater. It is not lack of money that compels our dioceses to re-shape ministry in the light of reductions in the number of stipendiary clergy; it is simply a factual demographic change. If my cursory calculations are correct, 31 clergy in the Diocese of Bradford will be eligible (or compelled) to retire by 2015.

This is OK. The world has always changed and so has the church changed to meet it. Nothing new there at all. But, we are challenged to face change with vision and courage, confident in the Gospel and the unique vocation of the Church of England to ‘be’ everywhere. I understand the challenges of our buildings and the apparent limitations of resources. But, I also believe that the God who has called us is faithful and will lead us into his future – if we are willing to go with him and one another.

In the paperwork for the appointment of a new Bishop of Bradford you asked for a ‘bishop who speaks plainly’. I assume you meant it. One of the stranger experiences of living in the south of England has been the frequency with which immigrants from the north have said to me: “I’m a northerner and I speak plainly.” Of course, what they mean is: “I’m about to be rude to you and you’ll just have to accept it.” Well, I am a northerner and I don’t buy into this. My response down south was usually: “Well, don’t give it if you can’t take it.” Some of these conversations ended at that point. And why am I saying this today? Simply to make the point that we need to live in the real world and address that world clearly and confidently. I do not work with hidden agendas and what you see is what you’ll get – for better or for worse. But, it will all be rooted in a deep conviction that we are all called to be faithful to our vocation to be the church for others and never to confuse means (the church) with the ends (the Kingdom of God).

I commit myself to this diocese. I am undertaking a rather demanding programme of getting to know people and places, engage with civil society and media, learn the history and culture, pray for you all. Next Tuesday I will leave home at 4am in order to climb Pen-Y Ghent at sunrise, work our way through the diocese, and end with a curry in Bradford with ordination students from Durham. I hope to learn quickly. But, I must also ensure that the local is always checked by the perspective of the wider world – the rural by the urban and vice versa, the regional by the national, and the national by the international.

And all of this under the grace, mercy and love of a God who opens his arms on a cross, looks the world in the eye and doesn’t walk away. May God bless us on our journey of discipleship, ministry and evangelisation together in the months and years to come.