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.