This is my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate this morning:

When we decided to create the Diocese of Leeds back in 2013/14, who’d have thought that before five years had passed the UK would be leaving the European Union, Donald Trump would be in the White House, the Far Right in both eastern and western Europe would be organising and mainstreaming language and ideas that previously had been kept under the counter (as it were)? (Or that Manchester United would be sinking?) Assumptions about the effortless and inevitable progress of liberal capitalism have been proven illusory, and we have been reminded once again that civilisation – however it is ordered politically – is fragile: we take order for granted at our peril.

Well, I thought I would begin on this cheerful note simply because it sets the context for the business of the church and this synod. The church does not float around in a context-free realm of spiritual isolation in which individuals pursue their personal and privatised piety as if disembodied from the real world. And Christians do not come to worship in church or to deliberate in a synod without being shaped mentally by what is going on around and among us. It is no wonder, then, that Christians are as in danger as anyone else of being driven by fear and anxiety at a time of considerable national and international uncertainty.

I am not sure anyone would put a bet on how Brexit will turn out by the end of March next year. But, whether you are an ardent Brexiteer or a die-hard Remainer, both the uncertainty of the situation and the bitterness of the public discourse in these matters will be of some concern. What is of most concern to me at this point is that argument about substance has been submerged under polarised sloganizing designed at a visceral level to diminish real engagement. However we got here, we are where we are; and simplistic categories – Leaver or Remainer – do not help us steer a common future of mutual respect.

As usual, the language is the give-away. If “the will of the people” is a vacuous and fatuous statement incapable of clear rational defence, then so is the term being used for a second referendum (which, in fact, would be a third referendum…), “the people’s vote”. I don’t think the last referendum enfranchised budgies or aliens. Language really does matter – what is not said as well as what is heard.

But, this is the Orwellian problem we now face – one that will not be solved by liberation from the shackles of Brussels or a return to the Remainer status quo. We now seem happy with the normalisation of lying and misrepresentation by politicians. Just one example from the last few days: Boris Johnson claims that the 1.3 million majority in the referendum was “the biggest majority in our history” – only for the BBC Reality Check Twitter site to reply that the majority in the referendum on joining the EEC in 1975 was 8.9 million.

The point is not the numbers; the point is the shameless lying that, on being exposed, never provokes an apology or retraction. We are getting used to this and learning afresh in the twenty-first century the lesson clearly not learned from the twentieth century that public lying, the categorising and demonisation of other people, and deliberate or careless representation of facts always have consequences – and those consequences are not normally positive. And none of this has to do whether the UK should leave or remain.

However, analysis and criticism are easy. The question we face as a church goes beyond Brexit and Trump and Orban and the far right demagogues bestriding Europe like some embarrassingly pathetic Colossus; it has to do with the need for some agents of reconciliation who have the courage simultaneously to be prophetic and generous. This goes beyond political affiliation or referendum preferences, beyond feelings about immigration and economics. This present context must push Christians back to asking fundamental questions of theology (who is God and what is God about?), anthropology (what is a human being and why do we matter?), sociology (what is a human community and how do we enable the ‘other’ to thrive?) and Christology (who and what are we for if we belong to Christ and are primarily called to resemble Christ?).

I never cease to be amazed by the self-giving commitment of our churches which, often in the face of their own resource challenges, offer food to hungry people, company to lonely people, hope to diminished people, care to abandoned people, and dignity to unvalued people. We now also face the challenge of how to broker conversations and relationships between people divided by sloganized politics, visceral rejection of those who differ, and sheer anger at uncertainty or helplessness in the face of uncontrollable powers. The national church is attending to this, and I will be taking part in an ecumenical colloquium at Lambeth Palace next month as we take counsel from partners at home and abroad. But, each church in each parish needs at the very least to ask what steps – simple and achievable – can be taken in the next few months to bring together what has been divided and begin a healing of what has been wounded. This is our mandate – a ministry of reconciliation between God and people and between people and other people. Regardless of the outcomes next March, the need in the months and years to come for common healing, common vision and common repentance will be demanding and urgent.

Against this backdrop we also do our synodical business today. Our diocesan strategy has been under development for some time in order to flesh out how our diocesan vision might look as we prioritise and make decisions. The vision is the goal; strategy is the plumbing that helps us get there. Vision can remain nebulous and imaginary unless someone does the hard work of asking (and answering) the questions how, when, by whom, how much, and so on. Following considerable road testing with groups, individuals, the Bishop’s Staff, the Diocesan Board, and many others, we bring the strategy to the Synod today. This is not an imposition on parishes or individuals; like our three simple values Loving Living Learning, this strategy invites parishes and churches to ask which elements of it might help them in their local ministry and mission as they, integral constituents of a diocese that has a responsibility to make the best of the resources of people, money and things available, seek to see the Kingdom come in our parts of Yorkshire. I look forward to good and constructive engagement with the strategy as we debate it later.

Yet, this in itself depends on the resources we are prepared to make available for the work of the Church of England in our parts of Yorkshire. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, once famously described a financial budget as “theology by numbers”. I think he was right. How we direct our finances tells the world what we really think matters – what we really believe about God, the world and ourselves as Christians. Money matters – as Jesus made clear when he pointed out that the contents of our heart will be exposed by the way we use our wallets. (He put it more elegantly than that, but the point is the same.) Or, as I put it at the excellent Lay Conference back in June this year: “If we believe it and want it, then we will pay for it; if we don’t believe it or want it, don’t pay for it and we won’t have it.” Brutal, but with the virtue of clarity.

Now, I am not naïve, and it is not as simple as that. Some people, some churches and some communities are getting poorer while others are getting richer. The Church of England takes responsibility for territory – a unique vocation in itself – and this imposes demands on our parishes that can weigh heavily. Yet, we believe in mutual resourcing according to ability and need. What generosity looks like will differ according to context and the discipleship of the people. But, we cannot avoid the hard task and challenge of deciding together how we shall aim to fund the ministry and mission entrusted to us here in the Diocese of Leeds.

This will be challenging. Significant strides have been made to reduce the deficit – this will be explained later. More will need to follow, if we are to afford what we say we want. While all the hard work is going on to work this out, please continue to pray for Debbie Child and Geoff Park in particular as they face the day-to-day hard work of bringing us into line and keeping us real. And pray for those who have asked for voluntary redundancy or who might face difficult decisions in the future as we seek to balance the books. Some have served for a long time and with great loyalty through great change; this is not an easy time, and we thank them for their service, and wish them well in their future.

So, before we proceed with this important business, I want to thank you for being willing to sit on this synod and bring your wisdom and experience to our deliberations for the next three years. When we established our new governance in 2014 the Synod was clear about maintaining a large membership of both clergy and lay people – options had been presented that would have created smaller bodies. However, there are now deaneries that are well underrepresented in both Houses, and we need to explore the reasons for this without jumping to conclusions. That said, we now have a smaller Synod, and I hope all members will feel able to contribute in the knowledge that opinions will be listened to and heard (if not always agreed with) with mutual respect and generosity. Sometimes a single voice might shine light on a matter that a couple of hundred others have not.

I also want to thank and congratulate our new chairs, Canon Sam Corley and Matthew Ambler. Please be kind to them as they get to grips with their new responsibilities – not least in chairing this Synod today. And, as in all things, let us do our business in the name of the Christ who gave himself for us, claims us for his own, and calls us to minister through the church for the sake of his world. May God bless us as we do our best for his sake.

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

13 October 2018

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