This is the text of my Presidential Address yesterday to the second Diocesan Synod of the infant Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales:
Several years ago I sat through a theological conference in Salisbury on Fresh Expressions and the nature of the church. Like most conferences, there were some papers that grabbed the attention and others that … well … didn't. As usual, I was waiting for the one that would keep me thinking well beyond the conference itself. In the end it came from a retired professor of New Testament who presented a deceptively simple paper on the church in the Acts of the Apostles. Her basic thesis was this: the centre needs the margins and the margins need the centre. (Now, how deep is that?)
What she meant was that when Paul took the church into uncharted territory – particularly opening it up to the Gentiles – he could easily have just done his own thing way out on the margins, and hoped that the other apostles didn't notice. However, he insisted in bringing back to Jerusalem the issues being faced in the far reaches of what used to be called the 'mission field', and keeping the pioneer churches accountable to the centre. Of course, the corollary is that at the same time he was compelling the centre to take responsibility for the whole mission of the church – even in those places where they were inventing new ways of being church.
The centre cannot ignore the margins and the margins cannot cut loose from the centre. That is one of the lessons from the Acts of the Apostles, and it is one that we are exercising in our deliberations today. How do we ensure in our large diocese a structure that will hold together and offer resilience in a world and a church of competing interests and priorities? It is a tough question; it is not an original question.
Of course, structure, governance and mutual accountability do not stand alone in some notional realm where standing orders take the place of holy writ. Rather, they must be written through and created by relationships that, rooted in a common vision (however articulated), are constantly seen as the end to which the structures are the means. That is the biblical way: we can get everything else right, but if we have not love, we are just making a loud and pointless noise. As Paul wrote in 1Corinthians 13: “So, these three remain: faith, hope and love – but the greatest of these is being seen to be right.” (Or, as Elvis Costello put it: “What's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?”)
This is actually a serious matter. Creating structures of accountability and governance cannot be an end in itself; if the doing of this is characterised by anything other than love-exercising-trust, then we are not the church we are called to be.
Today's agenda is important and we need to apply our best thinking and deliberation to how we wish to shape the governance of our infant diocese so that we are liberated to do the work of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To put it concisely: how do we set ourselves up so that our energies and resources (of people and of stuff) get directed to prayer, evangelism, nurture, teaching and worship, and don't exhaust us all in too much bureaucracy or administration?
Now, this is not simply the local concern of this synod or this diocese. The General Synod has launched the Church of England on a radical process of reform and renewal – something we might hear more about later in our time together. An often-misused word, 'radical' means 'going down to the roots'. And for the church at this time it means recovering our vision and what I sometimes refer to as our 'core vocation'. Many groups and societies could do much that the church does in our communities – if they cared enough and got organised, that is; but, no one else will live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ on our behalf. If we don't do it, nobody will. If we believe this gospel, then, like Paul himself, we will be compelled to bring Christ to people and people to Christ. And we must not be distracted from this mission: to enable people to become and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the church which exists for the sake of the world that is God's.
However, we don't do this in a vacuum. Soon the general election campaign will begin. We will be battered by competing programmes and promises, by a rainbow of colourful rhetoric and differently shaded visions. The recent Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops – notably and noticeably unread by many of those who confidently commented on it – does not set out a party manifesto; rather, it calls for a new vision for our political life and discourse … one that inspires and draws citizens out to vote. This goes behind the presenting issues that get batted around amid the varieties of pragmatic and reactive politics, asking questions about what are the ends to which particular policies are the means. Christians will come to different conclusions, no doubt; but, Christians must engage with offering a vision that inspires a fresh way of looking at why the world is the way it is and how it might be changed.
And in this context we shall have a short item introducing the Synod to the realities, application and implications of sanctions on benefit claimants. Despite the complexities of some of the political and economic debates about our society and cultures, we are constantly brought back to the people whom the church is called to serve.
It should not be surprising, then, that this Synod is both inward-facing and outward-facing. Governance is not simply about representation and order, but will also shape how the area bishops are to be equipped to offer the leadership required of them. If the area system is designed to bring decision making closer to the ground, then how the bishops are engaged in the governance of the diocese matters. In the debate we will need to be clear about creating a structure that does not militate against what we say we want in terms of leadership, coherence and mission – for example, in creating Area Mission and Pastoral Committees that work. And the point of it all is to free us for effective mission and evangelism.
The Constitutions of Boards and Committees enable us to get the car on the road so we can steer it in the direction we wish to travel. And we need to keep before our eyes the ends to which these are, again, the means – and not confuse the two. Likewise, I shall confirm the appointment of Debbie Child and Ashley Ellis as joint Diocesan Secretaries. The sudden departure of the former acting Diocesan Secretary, John Tuckett, placed a huge responsibility on the shoulders of Debbie and Ashley which they were not obliged to assume or accept. They did, and have continued to exercise leadership and service in trying and complex circumstances, keeping the administration of the existing diocese afloat and taking on the immense task of identifying and enabling the processes that will allow us to create the diocese we choose to be. The Diocesan Registrar will pass on the job descriptions if requested, but at this stage we need to express our support for Debbie and Ashley – and the staff of our offices – in their enormous task.
So, our business is substantial in shaping the diocese for the future. We even get to promulge two canons – and life doesn't get more exciting than that! Yet, the point of the inward-facing stuff is not simply to make us neat and tidy for our own sake, but, rather, to enable us better to face outwards with confidence to a world in need as part of a national church that is deliberately reforming and renewing itself in recognition of the urgency of our task. If we can get some of the internal stuff sorted – or at least get us on the way – then future agendas should be capable of focusing our energies on our external obligations. We must remember that a synod is not there simply to hold people to account, but to enable the church to consider and what being the body of Christ means in flesh and blood in our day.
I am clear that, however we articulate it, we must measure everything against – and draw everything from – a vision that compels us in our common life and witness. We are the church of Jesus Christ, who though being in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. If we are Christian, we must be imitators of this Christ. And, as we walk the way of the cross in the days ahead, we can do so as those grasped by a burning need to give ourselves that others might see how much God loves even them.
That is why I believe we are called to be a vibrant diocese – one that, sensitive to the movement of both the Holy Spirit and the world we are in, vibrates with life and energy. For this to happen we need to enable our clergy to be confident in their calling – in and through the church – in order that they might be equipped to bring Christ to people and people to Christ. Of course, evangelism and nurture are not the sole preserve of clergy; but, the clergy are called to grow communities of disciples who in turn become ministers – confidently living and telling the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales (and Barnsley).
I pray that, rooted in prayer and selflessness, we will keep our focus today and in the future, not confusing ends with means, not settling for mere tidy pragmatism, but being fired with love for Jesus Christ and a commitment to live in and for him in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world.
So, now to business.