This is the text of my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod which was, for the second time, conducted online.

One of the most beautiful cities in the world is Vienna. It is one of those places that echoes the heights of human culture and the depths of human misery. One of the things I was keen to see on my first visit there several years ago was the Holocaust memorial by Rachel Whiteread in the Judenplatz. It is really powerful: a large white inverted library with doors that don’t open – suggestive of books that had been burned by the Nazis and the attempt to extinguish the stories of people, 65,000 of them Austrian Jews who perished in the concentration camps. It is known as the ‘Nameless Library’.

What struck me when I visited a couple of years ago was that, standing about ten metres in front of it on the square, is a statue of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the German writer, philosopher and thinker who died in 1781 and is regarded as a giant of the Enlightenment. Given Lessing’s powerful influence on German culture, not least education, and standing between the statue and the memorial, I found myself asking how on earth a country and a culture can descend so quickly – within a few generations – from Enlightenment to Holocaust.

Now, this might seem like a weird way into an address to a diocesan synod in Leeds in 2020. But, it isn’t. We live at a time of massive challenge in which all the assumptions of progress, democracy, patriotism, the common good, and so on, are being thrown up in the air. We do not know how they will land. I grew up in a world that was determined never again to allow genocide – but look what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda. The post-war generation built nations and societies that assumed progress – that the world could only get better; that human beings had evolved through the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century and there was to be no going back; that the conventions of public discourse could only get better.

Well, I give you climate change. I add in Donald Trump and the direct and deliberate undermining of confidence in democratic norms and processes; we don’t yet know the end of the US election story. Or the coronavirus pandemic that has thrown the world into disarray, exposing inequalities and inconsistencies across the globe, but also close to home. Or the hit to the economy of a convergence between the pandemic and the ending of the Brexit transition next month. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh might seem small and distant, but so did Serbia in 1914.

Nothing is for ever. Nothing can be taken for granted. Norms are only norms for as long as they are normal (as opposed to extraordinary). We have no idea what tomorrow will bring; but, we do know that empires and ‘norms’ that take centuries to build can be demolished in weeks. We are not in control of everything.

And this is the context in which we meet as a synod today. We are in a second lockdown and are promised a vaccine soon; yet, we have been promised many things that have not been delivered. Our politics – at home and abroad – are being questioned everywhere, and going back to where we were fifty or thirty or even ten years ago is simply a nostalgic fantasy.

So, what does the church have to say in this context? The church that has been hit by two reports on its handling of sexual abuse in recent months? A church that has been forced by government to close its buildings for worship, rendering its ability to thrive and be properly resourced into the future at best questionable? A church that has just launched a process of addressing questions of love, faith, relationships and identity in Living in Love and Faith?

Let me briefly address each of these in turn.

I welcome the IICSA report and the light it throws onto how the Church of England has addressed abuse in and through the church. Light always exposes reality, and you can’t argue with reality. I am confident that we have a very good and experienced safeguarding team at the heart of this diocese, driving processes and systems that are strong. There is much further to go in offering care and redress to survivors of abuse – nationally – and we are alive to that. Bishop Jonathan leads for the bishops nationally in safeguarding matters and is making a significant difference. I will simply say, in the light of IICSA and the Whitsey Report, that many of the recommendations are already embedded in our systems here. For example, I always take the advice and leading of our Diocesan Safeguarding Advisers who, already, function as ‘officers’ in such matters.

The church, via the bishops, continues to question the rationale behind the closure of churches for worship in the latest lockdown. Closure of buildings does not close the church, but it changes it. We do not know what local church worship, attendance, and so on, will look like in the years to come. We know it will not look like it did a year ago. We can either mourn the loss of what was familiar, or we take responsibility for shaping what might become. As I said earlier, you can’t argue with reality, and lockdown has made immediate a number of challenges we had assumed might be addressed over time.

So, we have not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to be creative and bold and humble as we seek primarily not to recover a form of church life, but to renew the content of that life – our worship of God, our growth as followers of Jesus Christ, and our sacrificial service for our communities in the name of Christ. In short, we will discover whether we believe all this stuff about good news, death and resurrection, self-sacrifice, and Christian truth.

In other words, the situations that gave rise to the writing of the New Testament letters become more identifiable to us in our current situation. We are invited to read Scripture differently now. We can enter imaginatively into the minds of biblical writers because the precarious contingency of their situations is one into which we now have experienced a glimpse. And this, I suggest, is a gift. It reminds us of what we in England have too quickly forgotten: that life is fragile, social order is not a given, and control of the world is actually an illusion born of hubris.

Living in Love and Faith is not incidental to this. There has been a suggestion that the church is dragging its feet in questions of sexual identity because of its contentious or controversial nature. The opposite is true. This is the most significant and serious work done by any church anywhere and it has been published now – later than planned because of the impact on everything of the pandemic – in order to prevent further delay. It opens up a process for encounter with people, not just debate about a topic. I encourage you to look at the materials on the website and to engage with us as we roll out a programme of consultation during 2021-22. Bishop Helen-Ann is leading on this (as she is also part of the national ‘Next Steps’ group with the Bishop of London and others). Bishop Toby was part of the national group that has led on the process thus far.

Identity is not just a matter for people who like that sort of thing. If we are to value human beings as made in the image of God, then we have some complex and challenging – as well as engaging and potentially joyful – work to do. And we need to approach it with open hearts and generous minds.

So, today we have a varied agenda, set in the context I have described just now. Some items look more interesting than others and some are what we might call ‘housekeeping’ – how we order our common life and decision-making. We will consider the well-being of clergy, but recognise that this is not to downplay the well-being of lay people. We will discuss what a ‘re-imagining of ministry’ might look like in the months and years to come, but remembering that any ministry involves all people of all abilities and gifts. We will take seriously the life of the diocese as it is, and we will grow our confidence in its future.

Is that a rash thing to say, given the uncertainties with which we live? No, it isn’t. Our confidence is in the God who calls us, in the Jesus Christ whose church we are, and in the power of the Holy Spirit who constantly drives us out of what is familiar into the places of challenge where life is to be found. The risen Christ keeps telling his friends not to be afraid; we need to hear that clearly. We are called to be the church (and the Church of England with its unique vocation) now; it is no accident that we are here and called for just such a time as this. And we need to build one another up in faith as we venture into the uncertain world of 2021 and beyond. We are called to be faithful, even if some of what we attempt fails. We are called to do our business with faith, hope and – not least – charity.

There are many examples of individuals and churches fulfilling that calling over recent months in the way they have supported both their communities and the work of the church. We have seen parishes across the diocese respond graciously and sacrificially to the financial challenge that was laid out at our last Synod. Since then we have also benefited from the generosity of the national church who have given us the £1m we asked for to help the pressure on our finances. We have also received much generosity from individuals and parishes and I want to express my and our gratitude. We are not out of the woods and there is much to do, but we are moving in the right way and in the right direction.

To conclude. I began with reference to Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust memorial in the Judenplatz in Vienna. We cannot know what the future holds, but we can so live now that when people in the future look back at how we handled this present world, they give thanks for our courage and wisdom … and don’t simply spot the things we failed to grasp out of fear or familiarity. I trust we will be a blessing to the next generation and not a curse.

As we approach Advent and an unusual Christmas, a changed shape to our collective worship and outreach does not impede in any way the shining hope of God’s presence in the world – even in the cry of a tiny babe (as Bruce Cockburn put it). Our gospel – of light shining in the darkness – is rich and is for today. Comfort and joy are what we have to offer, albeit in a variety of creative ways this year.

We turn to our business in this light and in this spirit. May God bless us in our deliberations together for the sake of his kingdom.