Diocese of Leeds


This is the text of this morning’s Presidential Address at the Ninth Diocesan Synod of the Diocese of Leeds.

All bets are off.

Not so long ago the UK had elected a stronger government that decided to hold an unlosable referendum on our place in the European Union. Brexit came as a surprise even to many who wanted it. The Prime Minister resigned as the country wondered what lay ahead. The Americans elected Donald Trump – a business man who had no experience of (or apparent interest in) public service or political office – and he has torn up the rule book on international diplomacy, the dignity of high office and truth-telling. Despite fears to the contrary, France voted against the Far Right, and Germany looks to be re-strengthening its affection for Mutti Merkel – despite the immigration crisis that appeared at one point to threaten her future. And Theresa May called an unlosable election in order to strengthen her hand in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, even though the clock had already started ticking.

But, we woke on Friday morning to a world in which all the certainties of the previous months had been overturned. We now have little idea of how we shall negotiate Brexit or how, in the light of this, we will be negotiated with.

Now, I don’t set this out briefly here in order to depress you, but, rather, to make a very obvious and simple point. There is no ‘normal’. The world changes every day, and we need to face the choices and challenges particular to our current circumstances. One hundred years ago the world was fighting a brutal war that nobody wanted and few thought likely only weeks before it ignited.

We need to live with humility in the face of what might be possible – as what might be possible does not always coincide with what we might find desirable or convenient.

I find this particularly pertinent in the wake of an experience during the last few weeks. I was in Germany for celebrations and commemorations of the launch of the Reformation 500 years ago. The Kirchentag brought together tens of thousands of people to Berlin and Wittenberg where Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche. I began preaching in Halle in the marketplace outside the church where Handel learned to play the organ. We went on from there to Jena, which is where Hegel taught, and Schiller met Goethe. From Jena to Berlin to preside at the Meissen Eucharist in the Gedächtnis-Kirche which was the scene of an Islamist atrocity last year. Then we went to Wittenberg for the grand finale.

This might sound like a tourist guide. But, just think about what the people there have lived through during my – and your – lifetime. A divided Germany in a divided Europe in a bipolar world dominated by US capitalism. Now a world in which the capitalist powers are turning out to be China, India and Brazil. America has gone mad and turned inward, Europe is open, but threatened, migration has changed everything, stability has become a fantasy for most people, and the future looks fragile and uncertain.

When Martin Luther was getting cross with the Pope and exploiting the latest communications technology to change the world, anti-semitism was acceptable and rife. Blood was shed easily, and the populations of Europe knew that life could often be short and brutal. Since his time, the world has endured revolutions, rapid technological progress, the elimination of many diseases, the expansion of lifespan and expectations, the exploitation by empires of huge numbers of people, the generation and abolition of slavery (except in the manufacture of modern clothing and sex-trafficking), the mechanisation of war and the sophistication of mass slaughter, globalisation and anti-globalisation, the sexual revolution, and so on and so on. And terrorism: the singular persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the indiscriminate violence against ordinary people on our own streets, the targeting of young people at a pop concert. And the prospect of more to come because we cannot control the world or people intent on murder.

Every generation wakes up to the realisation that change is a constant. And, as we are seeing at the moment, the constant repetition of mantras about “stability” or “certainty” do not automatically translate into the imaginative consciousness of achievable vision.

And this is where we are. Change is here to stay whether we like it or not. The only question has to do with our faithfulness in engaging with and shaping it as followers of Jesus Christ who calls us to repent: to change the way we look in order to change the way we see in order to change the way we think in order to change the way we live. To be a follower of Jesus involves a sitting loose to some certainties or expectations, and being willing to face the world as it is (or as it is becoming) and not as we would prefer it to be.

For example, and as I expressed in London this week, we cannot rewrite the history of this Diocese of Leeds in the light of what we have either done, failed to do or had done to us. We are very conscious of where we might have been dealt a stronger hand in the management of change or the realistic resourcing of it. There are many lessons to be learned from our experience – both within the diocese and across the Church of England – and the various reviews that will be conducted should help the Church better shape itself for the future. However, we are where we are, and cannot go back. Indeed, we are where we are because so many people – clergy and lay – across the diocese had the vision, courage and sheer northern nerve to give it a good, strong go. I believe we have been faithful to the call God has given us at this time and in this place.

Look at the agenda before us today and you will see that the challenges we face are not insignificant. The motion before the Synod relating to our Diocesan Environment Policy is important because it calls us to take seriously the call of God to nurture the earth and its people. This hasn’t been dreamed up by some trendy conspiracy theorist in order to tick a box. We are not the President of America. Rather, how we tackle our responsibilities for the environment is a massive element of the expression of our responsibility under God for the world we say is his and the people he loves to death and beyond. Loving our neighbour does not stop at stocking the food bank.

This is not necessarily comfortable stuff for everyone. It is hard to contemplate changes in lifestyle or spending. But, repentance is double-barrelled: it is a positive thing that leads us to embrace something, not simply let something go.

If we want to dig a little deeper into why our use of the earth’s resources matters, then we just have to listen to our brothers and sisters in link dioceses who pay the price for our preferences. Tanzania and Sudan face environmental challenges that are real. Sri Lanka does not see the eco-challenge as a merely interesting academic theory to be discussed, but lives with the changing weather patterns and their consequences, needing little persuasion about the state of the world and its resources. I will say something brief later in our agenda about the visit of our link bishops back in April.

And this brings us to a wider question of resourcing. During the last three years or so we have worked hard together to identify, articulate and develop a vision that is gospel-shaped. We have not dreamed it up. We have derived it from the Scriptures and from the faith that draws us and shapes us as followers of Jesus. We have kept it simple: Confident Christians; Growing Churches; Transforming Communities. It is infused with values of Loving Living Learning. I believe these words characterise our approach to all we have done as a diocese during the demanding years since we began – opening up our imagination and not closing it down by promising panacaeas or guarantees.

But, vision has to be resourced by a strategy and that strategy has to be funded. In a conversation in the Church Commissioners office in London earlier this week I suggested that our diocese is really only six months old. It is only since January this year that we have been able to function properly as a single entity with single systems and fully integrated data. So, we are at the beginning, not the end. And, this being the case, we now have to pay attention to the future resourcing of our vision.

As you will see from the papers, we face a challenge to finance what we currently do. We are not paying our way, and there is no magic money tree (!) hidden away somewhere for us to pluck its fruit. Our parish share income does not cover what we have. However, there are two things to be said about this in the light of the journey we are on.

First, you cannot set up a new entity at the same time as slashing its costs and its primary people. During the last six or seven years of uncertainty and then transition we did not look to cut clergy posts. This would have damaged morale and was not an option in the circumstances in which we found ourselves. So, broadly speaking, we maintained the numbers. But, we did this knowing that the number of stipendiary clergy available for deployment across the country is going to dip considerably in the next ten years – by between 25-40%. So, although not primarily driven by finance, we are going to have to start looking more radically at pastoral organisation, clergy deployment, training options, licensed and other lay ministry development, and new models of resourcing our churches. This has an impact on identification, discernment, selection and training of clergy and lay people. It all has to be rooted in discipleship rather than curatorship.

We can either dribble into this gradually, or we do the hard work now of looking at future shaping and resourcing of ministry and begin to work it out now. The Bishop’s Strategy Group has started to work at this, whilst the area bishops and archdeacons (in conjunction with their episcopal area colleagues) are doing what I call baseline studies to see how we might need to adapt appropriately and wisely to a cut of, for example, 10%, 20%, 30% or 40% of stipendiary clergy. Of course, this raises the question of what we expect clergy to do in what arrangements and with what resource in terms of people, buildings and finance.

I said there were two things to be said here. The second is this: we should not have a problem in paying for what we say we believe about the church’s mission and ministry. Levels of giving are not as high in the Church of England as they are in many other denominations. What this means is quite simple: if we say we believe it and claim to want it, then we shall pay for it; if we don’t want it, we won’t pay for it, and we won’t have it. In the future we can only have what we are willing to resource.

Now, to go back to my first point, we have frontloaded the diocese in terms of our offering to parishes, clergy and other ministers. We have appointed people to drive and support creative ministry and mission across this diverse diocese, and we need to give them time to make a difference. I know there are dioceses that prefer to have high-profile campaigns and inspirational slogans; we have chosen to attend to the basic structures and people of our diocese in order to hold our nerve and aim at a longer-term strategic growth dynamic that has a chance of working. Put simply, we need to make new disciples of Jesus Christ who then take the mission and ministry of the gospel into the next generation and beyond. And they need to be inspired – not impressed – by us, our discipleship, our vision, our courage, our commitment and joy.

And all this will be reviewed as we go through the next three years and beyond.

So, as we do our work today, I trust we will do so in the name of Christ who calls us first to repent, to walk together, to discern together the will and ways of God who calls us. May we be faithful. And, in keeping some proper sense of perspective on time, may we recall the words of Martin Luther who famously said: “Long is not eternal.” (Lang ist nicht ewig.)

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate. It comes in the wake of the atrocity in Nice and the failure of an attempted military coup in Turkey last night.

Earlier this week the bishops met for our monthly meeting at Hollin House. We always begin with a Eucharist, have breakfast, then do Bible study together before attending to the business before us. Obviously, we have a rota for leading the Bible study, and this week it was the turn of Bishop Toby, just a few days before he will be leaving for a visit to Sudan representing the Archbishop of Canterbury – of which more later.

Bishop Toby took us to Jeremiah 32 and the iconic story of prophetic hope: Jeremiah buys a field at Anathoth. Nothing odd about that? Just a wily old man playing the Ancient Near East version of the Stock Exchange? No. Jeremiah buys his field, places both the sealed and unsealed deeds in an earthenware jar, then has it buried in the field. Why? Because this looks like an absurd investment and Jeremiah looks mad.

The context is this. Society – and what we today might refer to as political and economic life – is about to fall apart. The Empire is closing in and the future looks bleak. Horizons have narrowed and people are looking increasingly short-term. They are, to reverse a phrase I often use of Easter, being driven by fear and not drawn by hope. And it is now that Jeremiah buys a field and hides the deeds and, in this quiet prophetic act, votes for hope. The end might be nigh, but the prophet catches a glimpse of a new future and, when others look down, he dares to invest in that future. Now is not the end.

This seems to me to be very apposite at a time when we live with huge uncertainties in both nation and church. Whether you voted Remain or Leave in the recent EU Referendum is not the point. We are where we are and we must take responsibility for the future and our shaping of it. It is infantile to sit on the sidelines, sure of superior wisdom, sniping at those working for the future and taking no responsibility for it. And Christians in particular are called, whatever the circumstances, to voice hope, live hope, and illustrate hope. (I am not sure now is the best time to buy a field and bury the deeds, but you get the point.)

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann is well worth going to for biblical and theological insights into the role and language of God's people at times of pressure or exile. One of his books is called 'Hopeful Imagination'; another 'The `Practice of Prophetic Imagination'. A third, with the subtitle 'Listening to Prophetic Voices', is titled 'Texts that Linger, Words that Explode'. These titles by themselves sum up the vocation of God's people, whether three thousand years ago at Anathoth or here in England in the twenty first century: to be a people of hope, drawn by a hope that comes to us from the future (and in which light we now live), articulating and giving a vocabulary for hope, acting and living hopefully at the heart of a society that is too easily driven by fear.

It will come as no surprise to you that I am particularly keen on how we articulate Christian hope, even where it looks absurd, even where it defies the evidence of “now” with the promise of “then”. What Brueggemann is asking us to do is to use words and actions to capture the imagination of a people so that they look beyond the immediate crises and dangers to a future that only God knows. Whether, despite our faithfulness and fidelity, and like Jeremiah the miserable but hopeful prophet, we head off into exile and the loss of everything that gives our life meaning – with all the sense of loss and betrayal and despair that involves – or life goes well and we prosper like never before, our vocation will be the same: to speak and live hopefully, holding out to people locked into “now” the possibility of God's future.

Now, I have taken some time on this at the beginning of this address because we need as a diocese and a synod of that diocese to root our deliberations in a theology that is strong enough to bear the weight of uncertainty. Theology is never merely academic, though we honour those whose academic attentions enlighten the rest of us. The point here, however, is that we need to sharpen more than our intellects, and have our imagination captured by the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who, as Matthew tells us, is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets.

So, whether we are happy with Brexit or not, whether we are fearful of the future or not, whether we are obsessed with particular hobby horses or relatively indifferent to matters that are deemed crucial by other people, we are called to hold the detail – the particular – in the light of the broader and longer-term vision. Will our debates and deliberations today demonstrate that our imagination has been captured by a prophetic vision? Or will we just go away satisfied that we have done some business?

Today we address some very important matters. What are our responsibilities towards those who, regardless of their own views and commitments, take up arms to defend us – even when our politicians demand that they serve in conflicts with which they do not agree? More particularly, what are our responsibilities to serve them once they have left the armed forces, but are themselves left with traumas, memories, disabilities or broken relationships? It can be tempting to think that this applies to areas around Catterick, but not, perhaps, to places where the Forces are not immediately located. Yet, it is highly probable that there are ex-servicemen and women in almost every parish in our diocese. How should we care for them as our response to them having fulfilled their part in serving to defend us?

Of course, for the church in every parish to offer such care to those in need (when they need such care) we need the church to be there in the first place. We know many parishes in both urban and rural areas face challenges in relation to the maintenance or development of buildings. In the next few years the number of stipendiary clergy available to lead our parishes will reduce. The models we have employed for several generations or more will no longer work – and we must address this in the years ahead. But, what is fundamental to any approach to deployment of ministries is the cash to fund it all. To put it crudely: if we don't want it, we won't pay for it; and if we don't pay for it, we won't have it. The parish share goes to paying our clergy: if it doesn't come in, it can't go out.

So, today, after much detailed work and revision, having worked through a number of options and gone through the implications of each, we must decide whether or not to approve a new Parish Share system for our diocese. Three old systems could not simply be combined – and the creation of our diocese allowed for a new consideration of many options best fitted for this new entity going forward. What is clear in any such proposal is that not everybody will be happy. This is reality. But, if I dare invoke the prophetic imagination mentioned earlier, does what is proposed allow us to move to the next stage of our diocesan life and mission? That is the question.

However, the church, however it is funded, and the ministry, however it is shaped and ordered, is whistling into the wind if it speaks and acts as if in some spiritual isolation unit, accountable only to itself. Our biblical theology begins with creation and ends with new creation. The future of the earth is a matter of massive import when most of the world's scientists are clear about the impact of human behaviour on the climate. Some of our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion have got rather tired of disputes about sex when their habitat is disappearing, their economies are collapsing and their future is in serious doubt.

Too big to get our heads around? Tempting, isn't it? But, we must be a responsible people who do our bit of Anathoth not only to invest in a future, but to shape ourselves accordingly. So, we will consider a Green Energy Saving Scheme, and we need to see in our decision where the prophetic language and action lie. Remember, the 'prophetic' is not the same as 'fantasy'.

But, whatever we do has to be paid for. I want to pay serious tribute to colleagues who have slaved over financial matters during the last two and a bit years since we were born as a diocese. It has been difficult bringing three systems together and trying to forge a meaningful future with numbers that were accounted for differently in historic dioceses. As I have constantly reiterated, we are on track to start 2017 with our structural foundation in place and with clarity about the resources at our disposal. We ended 2014 legal, operational and viable – which was not a forgone conclusion. We spent 2015 keeping the show on the road while reviewing all aspects of diocesan ministry and mission, aiming to propose a new shape for a new diocese. This process has not been easy for those whose jobs or roles were caught up in the seemingly endless, but unavoidable, uncertainty. This year we have been starting the processes of re-shaping, building on our new governance structures and developing our vision for prioritising our mission across the diocese and episcopal areas. We are nearly there, but the debates we have today, and the decisions we make, will allow us to be clear about where we start from on 1 January 2017. We will move into the new diocesan office in late September, bringing our administration under a single roof for the first time.

I pay tribute to all in this diocese who have worked so hard to get us to the starting blocks – a task and challenge for which we should all be grateful. But, 2017 does see us at the beginning and not the end. Personally, I will feel able to look up and out in a way that has not been possible thus far because of the sheer volume of work needed to get the foundation established upon which the rest of the building might be erected in the future. So, 2017 sees us clear about who we are – the Diocese of Leeds -, how we are shaped, what resources we have decided to apply to our mission, and how all this shall be funded and administered most effectively. But, that only means that we can then turn our attention to bedding it all in, inviting the scrutiny we require, looking to the medium-term, looking seriously and radically at how we wish to deploy our clergy and lay ministers in the future, constantly re-assessing our priorities and behaviours, not confusing ends with means, and ensuring that at every level of the diocese's life we are drawn by hope and not driven by fear or particular interest.

So, I want to conclude by drawing us back to the wider context in which we do our particular business today. As I said at the beginning, Bishop Toby will soon leave for Sudan to take part in an ACC consultation about whether Sudan should form a Province of the Anglican Communion separate from South Sudan. Currently there is one church across two countries, and South Sudan is collapsing into conflict. Our partnership link is with the five dioceses of Sudan where the church is coping with almost insurmountable demands to cope with refugees, feed the hungry, house the homeless and clothe the naked. We will be involved in any future support for our sister church in Sudan … where the challenges are beyond enormous. As we do our business today, conscious of our responsibility towards refugees here (and we will debate a very practical response to this later), we send Bishop Toby to give our love to Archbishop Ezekiel and his colleagues, to promise our prayer and support, and to take with him our gratitude for our partnership in the Gospel.

Now, let us turn to business, but with a prophetic imagination that dares us to shape our thinking, our listening, our speaking and our hearing in a way that might be described as godly.