This is the text of my Presidential Address to the third and final Diocesan Synod of this new diocese held in Harrogate on Saturday 18 July 2015:

This is clearly a week for endings. On Monday evening the General Synod finished its quinquennial stretch with some sense of relief that at least one of the divisive issues of the last couple of decades has now been resolved and we can move on. Today we conclude the triennial life of this Diocesan Synod. When you were elected to this synod you lived in one diocese; today you complete it in a different one.

Both synods have seen times of uncertainty, and members have had to show some vision, commitment and courage in sticking with it while the world changed around us. Therefore, I want to begin this address by thanking you and paying tribute to the maturity, wisdom and commitment you have shown during a process that has been unprecedented in the life of the Church of England. Yes, the uncertainty continues in respect of lots of areas of diocesan life, and many of those working for the diocese continue to do their work as best they can as we systematically work through setting up the structures and processes of the new diocese. Thank you for sticking with it. If the first Diocesan Synod felt like bringing three foreign bodies together, I think most people would agree that we have moved very quickly to feeling and behaving like a single synod for a single diocese.

At a time like this, when we recognise how far we still have to go, it is wise to see how far we have come. In just around one year we have appointed two new area bishops, a registrar, a chancellor, joint diocesan secretaries, a Diocesan Director of Education, a revived suffragan bishop, and adviser for church growth … and are about to appoint a Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations, and two new archdeacons. The area deans and lay chairs have taken on new responsibilities as we look at the purpose and shape of deaneries. This Synod has agreed a new form of governance, and reviews of many areas of work are well underway. And through all this we have kept the life and witness of our parishes and institutions going – in some places seeing genuine growth and renewing of vision and energy for the good news of Jesus Christ.

There are those who think we should be moving more quickly. Some of us doing the moving would agree. But, reality always compromises vision and the best strategic planning. No surprise, then, that today we will spend some time considering how we move forward together, developing, owning, articulating and implementing a vision that might shape how we shape the diocese for the future. I am pleased that Canon Paul Hackwood will bring to us an informed outside view (and critique) as we turn our minds – and our common mind – to this task.

In order to get us moving on this during the last year, I articulated the vision for the church as follows: “We want to be a vibrant diocese, with confident clergy enabling confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales”. It is a remarkably unremarkable statement – and hardly novel. In fact, if Fresh Expressions is de rigeur in the church at the moment, this is a classic stale expression of church. The problem is this: the vocation of the church has never changed since it began. Its context never stands still, but, in one sense, the vision or vocation of church has and does. Put simply, the logic of it sounds something like this: the vocation of God’s people was always to give their life in order that the world might see who God is and what God is about; this vocation was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus then commits this vocation to his body – the church – and judges the church by whether or not ( or, to what extent) we look like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. The rest is detail.

The statement of vision I articulated earlier derives from this simple understanding.

A vibrant diocese is one that vibrates. That is, it is sensitive to the breathing of the Holy Spirit – as it is to the movement in the world and cultures around it. If we want to be vibrant, then we must refrain from rigidity and allow ourselves to bend in the wind that God blows.

Confident clergy are vital. But, confidence is rooted in all sorts of things: in the Gospel itself and the inescapable (and often inconvenient) call of God; in the vocation of the Christian church, and in the particular vocation of the Church of England; in knowing that the church they serve will take them seriously and enable them to fulfil their ministry as best as possible, bringing both encouragement and challenge, freedom and discipline. This means that decisions we make about IME, CME, professional as well as theological development, pastoral support and clarity of expectation are important and need to be got right.

If our clergy are confident, they will be better able to fulfil their primary tasks of leading people and communities in prayer and worship, learning and nurture (to maturity), evangelism and outreach. If they are excited about the Bible and the life of the Spirit, then so shall they be able to encourage others. We can only inspire if we are first being inspired. Now, this is not to say that lay people are exclusively dependent on clergy for their spiritual and Christian nurture and confidence. But, it is to say that those whom we train, pay and support to minister as clergy have a particular responsibility to build the people of God as described in the Ordinal. They must be encouraged and enabled to do so. Yet, responsibility for our own discipleship lies with each of us, lay and ordained, and we cannot blame others when we get it wrong.

So, we need Christians – both lay and ordained – who are confident in God and the content of the Christian faith, confident in the church and the distinctive vocation of the Church of England, confident in the contexts in which God has put us. If our diocesan priorities need to be reordered, then this fundamental vocation must lie at the heart of them. There is no point us banging on about needing to reach out into our communities in service if we end up closing churches and having no confident Christians in our parishes to do the outreach anyway. It is not a question of ‘either-or’, but there is a contingency here that cannot be avoided.

We hear a lot in the church about how we must live out the Gospel in our lives, but shouldn’t worry too much about using words. For the record, St Francis did not tell his monks to “preach the Gospel; use words if you have to”. If he had said it, he would be wrong. We use language for everything all the time; why go quiet when it comes to the faith? What happened to Paul’s injunction to have “a reason for the hope that is within you”? I think the reason many Christians – and many Anglicans – are quiet or hesitant or lack confidence – is that they do not know the Scriptures, have not been helped to think coherently about why they believe what they believe, and have never been given the space to rehearse what such articulation of their faith sounds like. It is hard to argue in the pub if you haven’t tried it out in the church or house group. We must equip each other to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales – but, first, we need to experience it, know it and understand it.

Words and life cannot be separated. But, we have an urgent need to build up Christians in the faith so that they are theologically confident (at whatever level) to be Christian in the world we live in. This is an urgent task, and there is a plethora of resources available to help us in it.

Well, I can hear the objections even while I speak: for example, there are many other priorities and this is inward looking. No, it is not. The reason we will address the scandal of poverty this morning is not because we have some assumed political or ideological urge to do so, but because Christian theology, derived from the prophetic witness we read in the Scriptures, compels us to see people as made in the image of God and, therefore, of infinite value. Our economic and political priorities must derive from this theological anthropology. What is a human being? What is a human society? And how do we order our common life in ways that demonstrate that we believe what we say we believe?

Christians will come to different conclusions about how the scandal of poverty should be addressed. But, we cannot do or say nothing about the realities we see in too many of our parishes each day. If you haven’t done so before, I commend the book of Amos as a primer in such matters.

So, this last synod of the triennium has seen us transition into a new diocese. It gives us an opportunity to reappraise who and how we are. It allows us an opportunity to step back and think differently about why we do what we do in the ways that we do it. It invites us to renew our common vision for the present and future. As we thank God and one another for our life as an aggregate synod thus far, we pray to God and encourage one another as we shape the life of our diocese through the synod to be elected. May God bless us as we seek, in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, to enable the people among whom we live to experience and know the love and mercy of the Father – seen in the life and witness of the people who dare to bear his name and heard in the words of those who sing to his tune.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:21)

The General Synod of the Church of England is meeting for three days in London. Like many others, I approach such meetings with a mixture of serious anticipation and reluctant resignation. I might be unusual, but I usually need some prior wider preparatory thinking that sets the particular agenda in a constructive context.

So, I was belatedly reading some papers on the train this morning and found in them some useful stuff. Dr Isolde Karle presented a paper at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conference in Italy recently in which she addressed some of the challenges and perspectives arising from the role of the Church in a society differentiated by function (Kirche in der funktional differenzierten Gesellschaft: Herausforderungen und Perspektiven). Having examined the changes in society that have led to a diminution in influence on the part of the Church in the west, she differentiates between the dominance of status/order (up to the 18th century) and that of function/individualism thereafter. She looks at Luther (who wanted freedom from the – perceived – totalitarian claims of the Roman Catholic Church) and Schleiermacher (who wanted to free the church from the state) en route and summarises: “Religion war vor allem eine Sache der Ordnung, nicht der Überzeugung.”

Having stated that the church both gains and loses from the changes that now shape the modern world, she goes on to identify three 'dimensions of church life' that are significant for wider society:

  • Preservation of the Christian cultural memory
  • Church as an intermediary institution
  • Inclusion of the excluded.

Now, although these will take on slightly different complexions depending on the particular German or English contexts, they seem to me to offer a corrective to the common defensive misery or under confidence of the church in a changing world. Yes, there are other dimensions that could be identified, but these three matter enormously. Dr Karle is unapologetic in stating that this cultural memory cannot be taken for granted. “It is completely imaginable that one day the story of the Good Samaritan will no longer be known/understood. Solidarity with the powerless, deliberate care of the marginalised, of the sick and of people in need are not self-evident.” (Es ist aber durchaus vorstellbar, dass die Geschichte vom barmherzigen Samariter eines Tages nicht mehr verstanden wird. Die Solidarität mit den Schwächeren, die explizite Rücksichtnahme auf Ausgegrenzte, auf Kranke, auf Menschen in Not versteht sich nicht von selbst.)

The church is well placed to create the space in which other societal bodies can meet and thrive – hence the 'intermediary' role which the church exercises for the common good… on the basis of the vital rooting of our cultural memory in Christian theology and ethics.

In a functionally-differentiated world in which fragmentation is one consequence of societal change the church remains one of the few institutions that make space for all-comers regardless of background, status, qualification, wealth or ability.

OK, this is a rough summary of a longer and well-argued paper (that will be published next year). But, given that we will be debating women bishops (there's a surprise!) and 'intentional evangelism' (with the clear challenge of what this looks like among the poor and on our large urban estates where many churches are struggling to grow), Dr Isolde provides a background consideration of the cultural pool in which the church currently swims.

 

The new Alpha advert has just appeared – or, at least, just crossed my limited horizon. Have a look:

What is this saying about Christian faith:

  • it has credibility because a famous bloke likes it?
  • it has credibility because if a macho man (a ‘real’ man) likes it, it must be good?
  • it is for self-sufficient blokes who look pretty good in their place of ‘despair’?
  • it is useful for getting you out of tight spots?
  • it is useful for attracting attention?

There will be more possibilities than those and not everyone will like it. I guess, if you love Alpha, you will not hear any criticism of it and if you loathe it (for whatever reason), you will never be open to the good it does. This probably says less about Alpha than it does about us.

And my response to the advert? I think it’s a bit silly and confusing (in terms of the messages it sends); but I hope it gets a good airing, awakens the curiosity of women (who fancy macho-Christian) and men (who wish they were macho-Christian… or, just macho) and reaches the parts the rest of us don’t reach. I remember the old evangelist who responded to some criticism of his evangelistic methods with the retort: ‘I prefer the evangelism I do to the evangelism you don’t do.’

Mark makes a good point and I apologise for what looks like a lack of charity. But I have thought long about what he said and I offer the following in all seriousness:

1. Should Paul have apologised for 2 Corinthians 10-13? Maybe there is a place for sarcasm or plain speaking (something bishops are constantly being accused of avoiding). Robust language is sometimes necessary, but rarely welcome. Bishops are on the receiving end of a great deal of robust communication, much of which could be called abusive. This does not justify reciprocation, but it raises a question about who decides when strong challenge is appropriate or otherwise. It seems to me that people who assume the right to use strong language with those with whom they disagree are the first to apply the double standard and complain when on the receiving end.

2. If a practice is stupid, what should I have called it? I recall the language Mark used about Palestinians and wonder if they, too, deserve polite respect.

3. For whom did Christ die? It seems to me that Christ also died for the Palestinians – as well as for the atheists and agnostics who have launched the advertising campaign. Do you know why they did it? There have been Christian advertising campaigns on London buses (and elsewhere) for years and some are straightforward – Alpha, for example. But one campaign saw the words of Jesus accompanied by a phone number which, when called, told you you were going straight to hell. Hence the atheist campaign and the terms in which it has been done. I might think the atheists are both misleading and silly, but at least I understand why they have done it. And that makes me impatient with the response by some Christians. I might be wrong, but there it is.

4. Would Muslims be offended? Guess what? I asked one this morning if he would be offended and his response went along the lines of: ‘It is a bad advert, but is it any worse to ride on a bus with an advert like that (which speaks only of the ‘probability’ of God’s non-existence) than one for a film involving almost naked women – or a Christian advert making claims for Christ that I think are wrong?’

The point is that we need in our culture to find creative and robust ways of engaging such atheists. Shouting louder is both ineffective and stupid. (Oh no, I’ve done it again…) It makes me think that an equivalent would be going to Athens (Acts 17) and, instead of listening, learning and engaging appropriately, we simply demolish the altar ‘to an unknown god’ and throw their poetry in the bin. London is not Texas (or Nigeria) – and we have to engage in ways that are appropriate and effective here. My job compels me into such engagement every day of the week, so this is not simply a notional matter. (Incidentally, when I engage in robust argument with atheists in the media, the most frequent response from Christians  – usually by letter or email and often anonymous – is abuse and criticism of what I didn’t say… when just occasionally a bit of encouragement or support would help!)

I have further reflected on Mark’s reference to Jerry Springer – the Opera and the response to it in England. Without going into great detail, I would offer this response: I think the protestors hit the wrong target. The Jerry Springer Show had for years exposed vulnerable people to the most horrible public humiliation in the name of cheap entertainment. Did I see any protests about this dehumanising abuse of often vulnerable people? Er… no. But then the Opera says something pathetic about Jesus and suddenly the Christians are up in arms about being offended – as if Jesus is some weak, pathetic cry baby who needs to be protected from the world’s abuse. And my problem with this? Precisely that it is the similar failure to get the point  in the Gospels that leads religious people to crucify Jesus. If we were truly being ‘Christ-ian’, we would have been objecting to the Show, not the Opera. (Or, maybe, both – but only the latter if we had done the former.)

I don’t think Jesus needs to be defended in this way. The baby of Christmas grew up. The cross was about him being subjected to the worst the world can throw at him and defying it in being raised from death by the God who is not threatened by this stuff. I believe in apologetics and imaginative challenge to those who oppose God and the faith; but that does not mean simply shouting loudly about ‘being offended’ or colluding in the ridiculous hierarchies of victimhood that can be seen everywhere.

So, I apologise for injudicious or ‘uncharitable’ language. But I offer the above for further consideration.