The excellent Bishop of Hannover, Ralf Meister, delivered a brief ‘greeting’ on behalf of the Evangelischer Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) and ecumenical guests at the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in York. The bishop is also the newly-appointed German co-chair of the Meissen Commission, so I look forward hugely to working with him (as the English co-chair) in the next few years. The text of his address, coming in the light of the decision by the UK to leave the European Union, follows:

 

It is a great honour to attend this General Synod of the Church of England and to convey to you today the cordial greetings of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

I bring to you the greetings of the Council of the EKD, by the chairman of the council Bishop Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm,

the greetings of the plenary church conference and the presidium of the Synod, personally from the chair of the presidium Mrs. Schwätzer.

When I give you my regards as the Bishop of Hannover, there is a common bond between us. Because King Georg I. was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Kingdom of Hanover).

You come together in turbulent times. I’m aware that the decision in Great Britain for the Brexit is a national democratic decision, but with due respect for that, it has an enormous impact on the international, especially the European Situation and for Germany as well.

Please allow me to make short remarks about the new fragile European situation and our responsibility as Christians.

First: I was irritated, that the main reaction in Germany about the Brexit was a discussion about the financial and economic consequences of this referendum. The European dream is a dream of humanity and justice and not the question whether the stock-exchange is placed in London or in Frankfurt or about the future of the single market. But most important: The idea of Europe is based on shared values and peace.

Recently we remembered the Battle of Somme in 1916.

When we look for some voices, which proclaim a European perspective rooted in Christian values, we find this voice in words and music from your nation: in the War Requiem from Benjamin Britten with the poetry from Wilfred Owen. Owen fought in the war zone of Somme and died in 1918: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. […] All a poet can do today is warn.” Owen spoke as a Christian. What a strong sign of hope and reconciliation it was, when the War Requiem was first performed in the cathedral of Coventry in 1962. It will be the Christian charge, to warn of a separated Europe – in all the tendencies for a new nationalism and the modern attraction of political populists. A Europe split in gated national communities will undermine a common period of social, economic, cultural and peaceful welfare in Europe.

But the duty for the churches in Europe is not only to warn, but to give our people the hope, that the liberation in God’s grace will be the condition for a profound understanding of freedom, justice and peace.

Second:

We in the EKD are on the way to celebrate the Jubilee of the Reformation in 2017. It will be the first jubilee in 500 years, which we celebrate in a deep ecumenical understanding with other denominations parallel to a fruitful interreligious dialog with Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others. So we realise, that “the reformation is a world citizen”. It interconnects us in a strong line with Christians all over the world.

The Meissen-Agreement states: „We will take steps to closer fellowship in as many areas as possible, so that all our members together may advance on the way to full visible unity.“

This is an ecumenical sentence, first for us and our churches. This is a sentence of faith and of hope. But this is also a strong political proclamation for our worldwide responsibility as Christians; a responsibility to take the challenges of the modern, complex and anxious world as an invitation from God himself to work for his creation.

In this world, “right” answers are not easily found. But we have the task to witness our belief in God to practice tolerance and to engage in difficult dialogues.

Christianity has a history of interdenominational persecutions, discriminations, violence and war. We know, that it took centuries to come from “conflict to communion” and live in “reconciled difference”. May we owe our countries the story of the long way to the house of our neighbours? We owe our people the story of tolerance and acceptance, of respect and dialogue, of reconciliation and peace in the light of the gospel.

We need a strong common narration of Europe in which our Christian experiences are still decisive.

Christians are resilient and resistant people. We are strengthened in the hope from the creator of heaven and earth.

The liberating message of the gospel was in the midst of the reformation. We listen to that message in different contexts and exciting times, like these troubling days in Europe.

The reformation was a catalyst for a new understanding of the church’s role in society. In that tradition we stand. In England as well as in Germany, in the Anglican Church as well as in the Evangelical Church in Germany.

Let me end with a word from the protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his “Letters and Papers from Prison”:

“Choose and do what is right, not what fancy takes,

Not weighing the possibilities, but bravely grasping the real,
Not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there freedom.
Come away from your anxious hesitations into the storm of events,
Carried by God’s command and your faith alone.
Then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.”

(Widerstand und Ergebung, DBW, Bd 8, S.571)

God bless your synod.

I am in York for the General Synod of the Church of England – a session that lasts from this afternoon until next Tuesday. The agenda was varied in order to allow for a debate on a motion proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the EU Referendum. The Synod was encouraged by the Archbishop to look forward, not back.

I stood throughout the substantive debate, but was not called to speak – a little odd and frustrating given that I lead on Europe for the bishops in the House of Lords and chair the Meissen Commission, whose new German co-chair (Landesbischof Ralf Meister of Hanover) had just addressed the Synod.

Much of the debate was good, some was predictable. What was obvious, however, was how few of the ills attributed to the decision by 17million people to vote to leave the EU actually have/had nothing whatsoever to do with the EU. At some point this has to be named. If people wanted to express alienation for the political discourse or protest at the behaviour of Westminster, then the EU should not have been the target.

That said, the vote is a fact on the ground and we now need to get on with the consequences of the result.

Had I spoken in the debate I would have drawn attention back to a less introspective place. The European project had distinctively Christian origins and emerged from a Christian-driven post-war drive to create relationships that would prevent intra-European conflict in the future. Schumann did not dream up his vision from nowhere. So, the debate going forward has to do not only with economics, markets, jobs and currency values, but also with culture, education, hope and integration.

It is not insignificant that a group of German and British Christians exchanged visits as Europe “sleepwalked” (Christopher Clark) its way towards what was to be the First World War. As the world collapsed around them within a few years, the relationships continued. Enemies knew that they were friends because they were untitled by the cross and resurrection of Christ. In the run-up to what became the Second World War it was also relationships between Christians that held while the nationalisms screamed their allegiances. It wasn't just Bishop George Bell and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who kept the fires of love burning amid the conflagration of an 'Enlightened' continent.

So, in looking forward to what might come next for the UK and its place in Europe (if not in the EU), we might just learn from such a brief look back. It is the relationships that matter. And they matter more now, perhaps, than they did three weeks ago.

Church of England dioceses often have strong partnerships with Anglican dioceses around the world – often in exotic or 'other' places. Quite right, too, and very important. Trying to get links with European dioceses has proved more difficult because there is an assumption that “they” don't need us and, anyway, we know them already. But, this is simply wrong. There has never been a greater need for us to build strong relationships and partnerships with European Christians and churches than there is today. It is the relationships that sustain when everything else collapses – and the future of Europe looks more fragile today than it did just a few weeks ago.

I would say this, wouldn't I? After all, I am a europhile. I speak several European languages. I have strong friendships across Europe. I co-chair a European ecumenical body (the Meissen Commission). But, at risk of repetition, I say:

  • Now is not the time to diminish our investment in European ecumenical work, but to grow it.
  • Now is the time to create, build and strengthen sustainable relationships with European churches and Christians.
  • Now is not the time to look just at what is happening in our own islands, but to look through the lens of those on the continental mainland.
  • Now is the time to ask what we can contribute to the future of Europe and not just what we can gain from it (or from leaving the EU).
  • Now is the time to do the step-by-step, hard work of building relationships and making reconciliation a reality – not just in the divided communities of the UK, but also across the continent.

 

The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behaviour is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realise that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realise that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.

Well, today the General Synod finally voted to make it possible for women to be made bishops. Which means that before too long we should be able to stop talking about “women bishops” and just talk about “bishops”.

Not everyone will be welcoming this development tonight, even if they knew it had to happen. The debate in York lasted nearly five hours and only a few speeches were off the mark (or manipulative).

The bottom line is simply that the Church of England has practised what it preaches and taken the time (lots of it…) to make a decision that keeps people together despite disagreement. It offers a model of how there is an alternative to simply cutting and running when conflict occurs.

My post-vote statement reads as follows:

I’m delighted that the General Synod has today voted in favour of the legislation that will allow women to be consecrated as bishops.

It’s been a long time coming, but that’s because the Church of England has worked hard to hold together those of contrasting views, even when those opposed were in the minority. But the wrestling has paid off and we have upheld our commitment to being a broad church.

With the guiding principles the bishops have set out, we have a process that will both fully support women bishops while providing for the flourishing of those who are still opposed, and we can now move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and trust.

I believe women bishops will have a hugely positive impact on the Church of England, and I look forward to the first consecration.

Real credit goes to the Archbishop of Canterbury who brought in a radically new way of doing Synod business and working the relationships. I am not naive – this must have involved more wrangling and diplomacy than most of us have any idea about. But, he set a new course and made possible what looked utterly impossible only twelve months ago.

The other real credit goes to the Bishop of Rochester who chaired the group that had come up with this process and solution. He exudes calm, reasonable, gracious authority, and I wonder just how vital his personality and skill have been to getting us this far so quickly and effectively.

The Archbishop of York chaired the debate with great skill and lightness of touch.

So, now the hard work begins. We have to make this work. (And we have to be patient while the legalities are worked through until the winter when action might begin to be possible.)

But, for now we can sleep in peace, knowing that today the Church did something remarkable.

 

1. Why is my fantasy league team rubbish and getting worse?

2. Why did Education Minister Michael Gove recently accuse education in Bradford of having been appalling for decades when (a) education in Bradford had been run by a government agency for the last ten years, and (b) the failed Kings Academy in Bradford is a free school – independent of the local authority, set up by Gove and accountable only to him?

3. Why did the ECB cricket selectors still send Jonathan Trott to play the Ashes series in Australia when they knew he was suffering from 'stress-related' problems?

4. Did the ECB not learn anything from the Marcus Trescothick saga?

5. What qualifications does one need to chair the board of a bank?

6. Why are some commentators incapable of understanding the difference between (a) the Church of England “voting for women bishops” (which it did years ago) and (b) the General Synod of the Church of England voting on the form of legislation to actually make it happen?

7. When will the Daily Mail accuse Ed Miliband of being behind the enslavement of three Maoist women for thirty years in Brixton?

8. Why has George Osborne suddenly changed his mind on capping pay-day lenders?

9. Who is right about the deal with Iran on nuclear development?

10. Is there a better 'live' gig than Bob Dylan (in Blackpool… last Saturday?

 

One day in the life of the General Synod of the Church of England here in London.

  • Women bishops legislation in groups
  • The naming of dioceses
  • Presidential Address by the Archbishop of York
  • Church schools
  • Review of how the General Synod works

OK, there was also some other exciting stuff in between – legislative, mostly, but also lunch.

What holds all these seemingly disconnected agenda items together? Well, they fit into the mosaic of imaginative and prophetic life and work of the Church of England at every level.

Women bishops will come to be – we are simply trying to get the best legislative way of doing it, but are also learning to behave more maturely and Christianly as we do so. This matter brings in questions of justice, ethics, theology, ecclesiology, mission and order.

Until now an English diocese could only be named after a city. So, even though the new diocese in West Yorkshire & the Dales is based regionally, it has to be named after the Bishop's see: Leeds. In future it will be possible to name a diocese after its region – as it has been for ages in other parts of the Anglican Communion. So what? Well, the change (not welcomed by all) is permissive and demonstrates a concern to see from the outside what we are about on the inside. Not an enormous change, but perhaps significant.

The Archbishop of York delivered a powerful Presidential Address in which any hint of us being 'the Conservative Party at prayer' was declared dead and buried. The scandals of poverty, homelessness and the inequities between rich and poor were cited and statistically exposed – along with references to Jim Wallis, St Francis, Pope Francis and Gustavo Guttierez inter alia. As the Archbishop of Canterbury commented on Twitter, this was a “powerful address on shocking state of UK poverty. Statistically based, ethically clear, spiritually challenging”.

Church schools are contentious and often misrepresented. They are not faith schools. They aim to serve the communities in which they are set and they need to regain confidence in their ethos and remit. This debate was not about 'schools for the sake of the church', but, rather, about 'church for the sake of schools'. There were some impressively informed and wise contributions regarding education per se and the impact good education can have on the ground. In other words, theology provided the context for consideration of the common good, good education for all and the broader development of society for which good education is vital.

Anyone with experience of the General Synod knows that business could be done differently and, probably, better. But, the aim of this is not simply to order the mechanics of our business better (as an end in itself), but to enable us to get our business out there (as an end which is better enabled if the mechanics are clearer). In other words, this isn't about internal plumbing and yet more introspective navel-gazing; it is about enabling the church to be better focused on its real mission.

So, the agenda looks a bit bitty. But, it has to do with creating a mosaic of church life and witness that works at the levels of individual commitment, congregational focus, parochial service, diocesan priority, national prophetic speech. It is held together by the vocation of the church to be grasped by a prophetic imagination – being drawn by a vision of God's character and the vocation of God's people to live for the sake of the world in which we are put. It is prophetic because it dares to engage with uncomfortable truth and the messy unclarity of human life and society whilst demanding imagination of a world that does not yet exist.

 

So, this is the morning after the day before. The sun rose on the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield – as it did every day for the last century – and life carries on. (OK, maybe on some days the cloud just got lighter and the rain warmer…)

And there can surely be no sinister significance in the decision by the Synod being followed by Luis Suarez wanting to leave Liverpool and sell his soul elsewhere. Surely? (Minimum of £50million, please.)

Well, what is needed now is a clear timeline or framework of work for the next few months. We need to know when the 'appointed day' will be and then work back to timetable all the necessary, legal, financial, consultative and preparatory work in. The three dioceses need now to continue the conversations that have been going on for the last couple of years. It is an exciting time.

However, while the preparatory work is being done, there might be a short delay in communicating detailed timelines. We need to take a breath, keep doing our work of worship, mission and ministry in West Yorkshire and the Dales, and then – probably in the early autumn, if not sooner – give more definite and clear detail to our parishes and communities.

A key figure in all of this is the Programme Manager who has been working with us for eighteen months and discovering just how weird the polity and processes of the Church of England are. John Tuckett brings experience, wisdom, clarity, articulacy and excellent skills of communication, strategic thinking and attention to detail whilst holding the big picture. His contribution to getting us here has been appropriate (convening conversations, doing research, planning on our behalf, and always with the consent of the bishops). His contribution in the next phase of the process will be vital to the success of the scheme.

All three dioceses now have an answer to the unsettling question put by the Dioceses Commission three years ago. Wakefield, particularly, now needs space to face the new reality. The rest of us want to get on with it and to work closely with all three dioceses to create the new diocese and move things on. I am very confident this can be done.

It is a good day. Even if the Synod is now back onto internal electoral matters, something changed yesterday.

And Luis Suarez might stay at Anfield, after all.