This is the text of my Presidential Address to the fifth Diocesan Synod in the Diocese of Leeds in Harrogate:
Yesterday I spent the morning with over 100 headteachers from schools in our diocese for their annual conference. Speakers included Bishop Toby and Professor Mona Siddiqui. Bishop Toby helpfully and clearly addressed the question of how to handle the teaching of “British values” in our schools, recognising that democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and respect for diversity are easier to pronounce than to understand. Yet, rather than simply complaining about them – or their imposition on schools by government – we have a leadership obligation to take the agenda and shape it. It is always easier to spot the gaps than to fill them – to identify problems than to offer solutions.
In her address Mona Siddiqui lamented a culture that elevated what she called 'smartness' over 'wisdom' – that is, one that sees children and people as marketable commodities rather than cultural beings, and one that sees an ability to negotiate technical data (information) as an end in itself rather than a means to an end … wisdom for living.
Tangential to these observations was a notion I have been thinking about in a different forum: the iterative process of thinking and debate. How do we learn – before we even think of teaching anyone else – to learn? That is, how do we learn to take time to think and to argue and, potentially, to change our mind about something that really matters?
In my case, the question has to do with the EU Referendum and the role of the Church of England – especially in the form of its bishops – in interpreting or engaging in such a debate. Surely, if ever there was a debate in which wisdom should be prioritised over mere information (or shouting), this is one. And the rhetoric around it forms the backdrop to discussions about just about anything else at present.
Christians have a head start in encouraging people to slow down, to think and consider, to test argument, to reflect and deliberate, and to not be pushed or rushed into drawing premature conclusions. We are currently living Lent. The gratification of Easter has to be delayed while we live with the desert journey of God's people, heeding the exhortation of the Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama who tells us that we should stay in the desert and not try to escape it. If, like Jesus after his baptism, we are led “by the Spirit” into the place of emptiness, we must stick with it and, to quote someone else, “look for the flowers that grow only in the desert”. As Anglicans we live with the cycle of the calendar and the seasons – we give as much priority to contemplation as we do to activity.
This is pertinent to our Synod today because it locates our conversations and deliberations in something deeper than a mere exchange of opinions. We come together not to push our pet agendas, or to hear our voice heard for its own sake, but to try together to discern the will and purposes of God for ourselves, for our diocese and for our world. We seek wisdom, not just information. And to pay attention to this end, we need to attend with generosity and grace to listening and hearing as well as speaking.
For our agenda is heavy in its import for the life of our developing diocese. You will remember that we had to get to the end of 2014 – our first seven or eight months – legal, viable and operational. We just about managed it. 2015 saw a huge amount of work – much if not most of it away from public gaze – to identify what sort of diocese we want to be, and which structures we might need to enable us to shape ourselves accordingly. 2016 sees us migrating into those structures – structures like the lines on a tennis court that define our remit, constrain our resources, and set us free to play the game we are here for. We are not here to admire the net.
By January 2017 we should be up and running as a single diocese. No longer working from three offices, no longer working according to three inherited sets of processes or structures, no longer trying to keep the show on the road while the road itself is being dug up and diverted. One diocese heading in one direction and with a clarity of intention. We are still in the desert, deliberating and trying to identify the flowers that we will miss if we keep looking only for daffodils. But, because of the immense hard work of a relatively small number of people, we are pretty well on track to start 2017 in good shape.
At least two items on our agenda illustrate both the opportunity and the ongoing challenge.
We will not be asked today to vote on a new Parish Share system, but we will be asked to weigh up the work done so far and to recognise the complexity involved in coming to a conclusion. Options have been considered and debated. Formulae have been applied and then disapplied – or, at least, tweaked. Yet, what we can say about any proposed Share system is that it will never satisfy everyone. So, the Diocesan Board at its first meeting decided we should delay a decision until the July Synod, but have a first go at it as a synod today. As we do so, I pay tribute to those who, having been commissioned to do the work, have subsequently had to endure argument, debate and complaint as we struggle to find an equitable and viable way ahead.
However, payment of the Parish Share simply tells us whether we really believe what we say we believe. If we set our course as a diocese, we then have to pay for it and resource it. We will get what we pay for. If we choose not to pay for it, we won't have it. Yet, probably uniquely among churches in this country, we work a system of mutual resourcing and accountability – the only way we can maintain ministry and mission in places from which most others have long ago departed. Our eventual budget must be realistic. We have held things for the last few years in order not to rock any boats while the sea was rolling, but we now need to catch up with ensuring that we can pay our way as a diocese. The Archbishop of Canterbury once described a budget as “theology by numbers”; he is right.
The second item pertinent to these observations is the Quinquennial Inspection scheme. Buildings, what they are for, whether we see them as assets or liabilities, how we maintain them as a visible – and never neutral – witness to what we believe about the presence and glory of God. The recently retired former Archdeacon of Bradford has piloted for us a process called 'Living Stones' – working with a small group of parishes in Leeds and Bradford initially, to find a way of assessing the value and potential of specific buildings as assets for mission. We hope to roll this project out across the diocese in order to help parishes make decisions about the future and potential of their church and ancillary buildings.
UI use these two items to illustrate the interconnectedness of the items on our agenda today. They do not stand in splendid isolation from each other. They will tell us who we think we are as a diocese, and whom we are for. And the answer to those questions will further be shaped by our approach to fair trade and wider questions of economic equity across the globe. It all hangs together – even safeguarding. There is no point being grand in theological or missiological vision if people are at risk of harm in our churches – so, far from being a bureaucratic burden, safeguarding goes to the heart of who we are and how we want to be. (In October our diocese will be audited by the national church, and we have already been required to submit hundreds of documents to the Goddard Inquiry – a hugely demanding task in recent weeks.)If some buildings are a burden – and we keep being told they are – then we need to resource the parishes to attend to the challenge. To do so we need to ensure that we can pay for this resourcing.
However, there is one item which hangs over all this. It might sound trivial to some, vexing to others. It is our name. Prior to deciding on options for our visual identity as a diocese, we need to decide on our name. I will say more later, but out in the big wide world there is considerable confusion about who we are, who we aren't, our nomenclature and our reach. For reasons with which we are all familiar, we decided to be known as the Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales despite our legal name being 'Leeds'. This has proved problematic for a host of reasons. We need to sort it out and then, having seen ourselves through the eyes of the media and other outsiders, bring simplicity and clarity to the matter. As with everything else, there is a cost as well as a gain when deciding. In doing so we have to pay attention to both ecclesiology and missiology. So, we will have a consultation today which will be taken into consideration as we move forward.
All of this has to do with the mission of the church in the areas to which we are committed in mission. Money, buildings, branding, safeguarding. We discuss these matters conscious of our partnership links with Sudan (from where Bishop Toby returned last week), Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Southwestern Virginia, Skara and Erfurt – our partnership with them bringing into our own consciousness the call to discipleship and mission appropriate to or demanded by each context. Early tomorrow morning I will set off for a week in Iraq with Christian Aid, visiting Christians and other persecuted people. Their experience will form a check to our own preoccupations as a church in which discipleship is unlikely to cost us our life.
As we turn to our agenda, I thank this Synod and the people of our parishes for their maturity in sticking with us as we try to shape our future and our structures. Most people have taken the frustrations and complications in their stride and given the space for disciplined development to take place over nearly three years. From 2017 we have three further years to bed it all in before we review our progress and, subsequently, set out our strategy for the next five to ten years.
Through it all we must not forget our core vocation: to equip confident clergy to enable confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales. Worship, evangelism, nurture, ministry, mission. The old, old story. Our prayer, as we stick to these themes, must mirror that of Paul who prayed for the church (in Ephesus and beyond) as follows: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
Surely the way to confident Christians in growing churches transforming communities.