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Bishop Richard's Weekly video Message - Transcript 16.11.2023

Video for November 16th, 2023

Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.

There can be no doubt that the rule of law is one of the pillars of our society and indeed civilisation.  The idea that we all, great and small, rich and poor, abide by an agreed set of rules is a guarantor of justice and fairness for the greatest number of people.  We are justifiably offended when people use wealth to circumvent their obligations under it. We are outraged when it is violated at an international level by wars of aggression as in Ukraine. In the next week or so I should be getting my call to enter the House of Lords, where I look forward to representing the diocese and participating in the law-making process – but more of that in another video.

Paul in his letter to the Romans commends a submission to duly constituted authority. Other New Testament writers encourage us to pray for those in authority. This seems extraordinary at a time when the authorities were largely brutal and capricious.  The principal is that societies work best when there is a rules-based order rather than anarchy.

Law regulates us at multiple levels. Charity legislation binds trustees to act in certain responsible ways.  One of these is the fiduciary duty to maximise asset value.  The trustees of our diocesan board of finance have been very effective in that over the last few years.  What we gather each year in parish offer is about £1 million less than it costs to run the diocese. Fortunately, wise investment decisions and glebe sales have allowed us to bridge that gap, although it isn’t sustainable long term at the current level. Charity law allows little leeway to vary this fiduciary responsibility against other charitable objects.  Unfortunately, law is a blunt instrument in this case.  Its hard to put a financial value on reputation, net zero obligations or fairness. Recent land sales by the Church Commissioners in the north of the diocese are a case in point. An offer on some land was accepted from a local resident’s group, hoping to preserve it for amenity and as a nature reserve. Before contracts were exchanged, a developer offered more.  Fiduciary duty required the Commissioners to accept the higher offer, despite seeking 3 different legal opinions to discharge their moral obligation to keep a verbal agreement.  It left everyone with a very nasty taste in the mouth. The law effectively compelled them to act in a way that was morally dubious.

I’ve had my first experience this week of chairing a debate at General Synod. Our proceedings here are governed by a web of standing orders. These guide the decision-making process, govern our courteous dealings with one another, and create a space for decisions that allow the maximum number of voices to be heard. Sometimes these can be frustrating, slowing things down, even when the majority would like to go forward in a particular way. One of our self-limiting statutes is that any changes in church doctrine require a two thirds majority in each of the three Houses of Synod to pass. This is there to ensure that substantive changes can command the greatest possible consensus.  Jesus prayed for unity, not uniformity, and the greatest possible unity is encouraged by such a measured and slow process. I’ll need a bit more time to reflect on the outcomes of General Synod this week and its implications for our life together. However, the headlines are that the prayers of love and faith are likely to be commended for use in parishes before the end of this year. An amendment by the Bishop of Oxford was narrowly accepted, that will also allow standalone services for same sex couples on an experimental basis while the full synodical process goes forward.  For some this will be a cause of rejoicing; for others a source of great sadness.  Such is the reality of a diverse and divided church. It remains the task of all the Bishops to foster a safe space for all to flourish.  That is my commitment to you, irrespective of what my own views are on these issues. It is a disappointment to me that an amendment from the Bishop of Durham that would have stated that more explicitly failed to pass. Our fundamental task is unchanged. We are called to proclaim Christ and grow disciples. We must build a church that means we don’t get in the way of the Holy Spirit’s goal to achieve that end!

+ Richard

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