This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Bradford Diocesan Synod this morning.
The last couple of weeks have been very interesting for me. Last week Professor Ben Quash, our Honorary Canon Theologian, addressed the Clergy Study Day here in Cottingley on a ‘Theology of change, transition and the future’. He was followed by Sebastian Feydt, pastor of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, who gave us some contextual history of Germany in the twentieth century before going on to tell stories of how the fall of the Berlin Wall radically changed his society, his personal life and his world. Being German means having endured radical change and trauma several times in a single century – in a way we in Britain can barely comprehend. Both of these men spoke with confidence and curiosity about their experience and understanding of how Christians might face the future – especially when they are not the instigators of change.
Then, yesterday, the longest day, I started in the very early morning with a walk from Austwick to Feizor, continued with a school assembly, visited farms, businesses, did a Q&A in a home for elderly people, did a session in a pub in Grassington, visited a trout farm and learned about orchids, and concluded last night with a candid conversation at Coniston Cold with land owners, farmers and business developers about challenges and opportunities facing rural life, the rural economy and the rural church.
One of the things that became clear during this day was how farming and the rural economy have changed during the last hundred years. It is marked that those farmers who have survived or thrived are those who, rather than bemoaning changes that threaten their existence, have diversified creatively and adapted their basic industry in order to set up alongside it other newer initiatives aimed at making a living out of the real circumstances of the world they are moving from and into. It was a very challenging and encouraging (and instructive) conversation, and I am grateful to those who made it possible.
Nothing ever stands still. Not ever. Never.
We sometimes speak as if there were once some golden age when everything was good and time stood still. But, we know this is nonsense. And if the story of Germany and the changing rural landscape don’t mean much to us, then just think for a moment about matters under consideration in our Synod today or those related to them.
On Monday 8 July in York the General Synod will vote on the Dioceses Commission scheme to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. If the motion is passed, change will come in the months and years ahead; if the motion fails, change will come in the months and years ahead. In other words, standing still is never an option for any living person or society. Change happens and nothing can stop it.
And while we are discovering what our diocesan structure might look like into the future, our brothers and sisters in Sudan will be creating an Internal Province and electing an Archbishop to lead it. For the candidates involved – and the field is tiny – the world will change for ever. It has already been decided that the Archbishop will also be the Bishop of Khartoum – which means that if Bishop Ezekiel is not elected, he will have to vacate his current See and move into an uncertain future.
At the same time as all this is going on our brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia will be celebrating the consecration of their new bishop and moving into a different future. The diocese waits to see what this might mean for them – what it might look like for the years ahead.
And if that isn’t all, we will be welcoming a new Dean of Bradford into his new post – following a move from Nottingham and the security of a known parish and role. The Cathedral was already facing change, but this will now continue apace and we will support Jerry and Christine in their new life and ministry among us. Having served us well during the vacancy, Andy Williams will face the tough task of stepping back into his role as Canon Pastor before taking sabbatical leave in the autumn.
Looking outside the church, our city has seen the closure of two more shops and awaits the start of work on the Westfield Centre. This development will have an impact on Little Germany and the Cathedral Quarter as more people – hopefully – will be drawn through the retail area and out the other side. This should foster the redevelopment and repopulation of Little Germany in particular, opening up the potential for some really creative and entrepreneurial renewal of business, culture and architecture.
Next week I will ordain a number of people at Bradford Cathedral – people whose lives have been interrupted by the call of God to move out of their comfort zones and take on a responsible ministry that will change life radically for them and their families. As they do so, we also recognise that Adrian Botwright will be leaving the diocese after a rich and substantial ministry here, whilst the unique Bob Shrine will be retiring. We owe our ordinands our prayers, encouragement and support; we owe Adrian and Bob our gratitude, prayers and encouragement as they move on to new ways of living and serving.
I could go on. In fact, I think I will.
It looks like the National Media Museum will not face closure after all. Following an enthusiastic and well-orchestrated popular campaign, assurances have been given that none of the northern museums in the Science Museum group will be closed. This time. Which means that significant work will now be done to re-vivify the museum and attention will be paid to how even more people can be drawn to visit this great place. And, at least, the current troubles refocused local attention on the importance of locating national resources in northern cities like Bradford.
If you want to get people to remember the value of something, threaten to take it away. The General Synod did it once with deaneries…
As you know, the General Synod will also be spending considerable time at its July meeting considering how to take forward the simple matter of making it possible for the church to ordain women to the episcopate. Options have been set before the Synod and we will have to see if a way forward can be agreed that will command the support of the majority of the Synod this time. If not, uncertainty will continue for a season.
And, speaking of seasons, the new one will see a new manager of Manchester United, a new manager of Chelsea and a new manager of Manchester City. All change for the success-hungry clubs that have more money than sense.
Children in our schools will be moving on to a new class, a new school, a new place of further or higher education – or into a new job or an employment vacuum. Today we will hear about changes in academy culture that affects us as a diocese.
OK, I’ll stop this now. But, my point should be obvious: change is ever-present and there is never a time when change is not happening. The only question is how we face it, hide from it, avoid it or shape it – a theme we have discussed often during the last two or three years here in the Diocese of Bradford and the region of West Yorkshire & the Dales.
One of the challenging things to emerge from Sebastian Feydt’s account of the church’s role in the fall of the Berlin Wall was that, despite having been the agent and locus of peaceful change in the GDR, when everything else changed around it in the brave new world of a reunified Germany, the church just carried on – it didn’t address the need for it to be different in a world that was becoming rapidly different. The consequence is two-fold: many beautiful and restored local churches are empty, and the church is now having to play catch-up… which is much harder than creating or shaping change ahead of the game.
Today in this synod we have an opportunity to consider the ongoing challenges of poverty in our diocese and the changes this economic situation forces upon society. It continues to challenge the church to look beyond its walls to its neighbours and both ask why such change is happening and how we must respond if we are to be true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We will take time this afternoon, not to rehearse arguments for or against the Dioceses Commission scheme going to the General Synod on Monday 8 July, but to do the grown-up stuff of thinking pragmatically about what should be our priorities if (a) the scheme is approved, and (b) if it is voted down. If we are to own our future and creatively shape what is to come, then we need to start thinking about these matters now. By doing what we will do today, we will be able to inform the process beyond 8 July and begin to take responsibility for what sort of church we think we need to become if we are to be faithful to the Gospel in the years to come.
In a book about the changing religious complexion of Germany (Glaubensrepublik Deutschland) I came across the following line: “Hope is the gift to hear amid the cacophanies of the present the music of the future.” Christian theology and life is characterised by a commitment to be counter-cultural in seeing behind the veil of present ‘reality’ and being drawn by the haunting melody of a future barely glimpsed in the resurrection as God shines the light of his future into our present, disturbing us with a hope that won’t let us go. That is what Christian discipleship is all about and it forms the compelling instinct for worship. It must also drive our will to live in the light of the past in the present for the future and not to be always ten steps behind the world we are supposed to be reaching and leading.
Brothers and sisters, let us keep before us a vision of the Kingdom of God, rooted in hope, that fires our imagination, strengthens our courage, drives our will, feeds our prayers, sweetens our speech and is characterised by mutual love.