Bishop Richard Diocesan Synod Address 05.11.2020

Published on: 5th November 2020

Bishop Richard

At the Bishops Staff meeting earlier this week, John Daniels led us in a very helpful meditation on the signs of the times.It was the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who said a preacher should have the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.So, if we are to be faithful in our proclamation of the gospel afresh to each generation we need to be good listeners before we are good talkers. We need to be aware of the wider cultural currents in our society and world if we are to communicate in a way that connects the timeless truths of the gospel to the reality of human experience.

There are two features of where we are today that I want to draw particular attention to.The first is related to unfolding events in the politics of America. The second relates to the pulse of the nation as we enter into another lockdown to combat the spread of COVID.

For a number of years cultural commentators have described the way we think now as post-modern.The modernity that we are now ‘post’ derives from the age of the enlightenment.Over a number of centuries this triumph of rationality led to the false assumption that we can look at things completely objectively. The positive to emerge from this way of thinking was the whole scientific enterprise.Based originally in Christian thought, it recognised the role of a creator who was ordered, and therefore assumed that the ordering principles of God’s creation could be studied, mapped and analysed.

As God was increasingly left out of the picture and human beings were elevated to being the centre of all things, it led to a hubris that envisioned the ever- increasing triumph of human rationality over the natural world. The myth of progress that marked the Victorian era eventually crashed onto the trenches of the Somme and Passchendaele, and was finally laid to rest by the holocaust. Whilst the scientific advances of the enlightenment have immeasurably enriched our lives, the cultural arrogance that led to colonialism and slavery most certainly didn’t.

In the 50s and sixties came a growing recognition that objective truth to a large extent depended on your point of view. Objectivity was nothing like as easy as we once thought. Today we recognise our predisposition to agree with certain arguments and positions has far more to do with the background that has formed us, or our personality type, than simple rational argument.This has led to the positive of much greater diversity in our communities, a desire to be inclusive and to write the wrongs of the colonial past which still plague the present.

However, as we are seeing worked out in the train crash of American politics, there is a significant dark side as well. Post objectivity has now become post-truth. Facts can have alternatives. Information can be manipulated without compunction to drive a particular agenda. Orwell’s newspeak and doublethink from 1984 are alive and well in 2020. All that seems to be left is the will to power, which Nietchze used to accuse enlightenment rationalists of. How the world turns! This slow death of rational discourse means people are much more susceptible to emotional manipulation.People are swayed by whoever has the loudest victim story, often fomented by unscrupulous politicians for their own ends.As GK Chesterton said, “when you stop believing in God, its not that you believe in nothing, its that you will believe anything. “

When this is coupled with a rampant individualism, you get the sort of narrow, polarised tribalism where we become unable to sustain civilised conversation with those with whom we disagree. The echo chambers of social media make this a whole lot worse.

The second feature is of course the COVID crisis. The evening prayer OT reading for today is from Isaiah 2: 12-18

“The Lord Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled), for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty, and all the oaks of Bashan, for all the towering mountains and all the high hills, for every lofty tower and every fortified wall, for every trading ship and every stately vessel.The arrogance of human beings will be bought low and human pride humbled; the Lord alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.”

The Old Testament writers quite clearly saw plague and pestilence as a direct punishment from God to a rebellious people.As in so many areas, Jesus qualified this understanding.For example, in Luke 13: 4, when people assumed that it must have been the fault of the 18 victims of the fall of the tower of Siloam, he said these people weren’t any worse than anyone else. However, he did warn people that they needed to reflect on this incident.These signs of the times were meant to be seen not as God smiting them, but as an opportunity for amendment of life.

COVID is one of those events that rightly undermines our illusion of control. We reflect on its roots in our own behaviour as human beings.Environmental degradation caused by human over consumption forces previously separated species ever closer together and allows viruses to jump and mutate.Economic injustice crams people together in conditions of poverty enabling the perfect conditions for contagion.

Poor educational opportunities perpetuate ignorance about viral transmission and so make it all worse.And linking to my previous point, rampant individualism and libertarianism makes mask wearing a politicised issue rather than a simple case of duty of care to one’s neighbour. This is not entirely unrelated to our discussion on being an eco-diocese and net carbon zero by 2030 later on this evening. The environmental destruction that made COVID easier to arise challenges us in our wider responsibility to tread lightly on the earth and pass it on unscathed to the next generation.

Post truth is not so clearly established here as it is in America, but nonetheless the deep suspicion of anything that smacks of authority is. Our capacity to speak an authoritative word into the contemporary world is diminished, not helped by safeguarding scandals. However, there is an authority derived from love and service.If you go out with Street Pastors on a Friday and Saturday night in Hereford, you will find no problem engaging with young people about things of faith.In the last lockdown the role of the church in our communities co-ordinating local services, ministering to the lonely, and providing comfort will be long remembered.These are the things that give our proclamation credibility.

And in that proclamation, we walk a middle way between the arrogance of enlightenment rationalism and the chaos of post-modernity and post truth.Our faith is based on the concrete facts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.We do not (at least I hope we don’t) say the creed with our fingers crossed behind our back.As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15: 14, “if Christ has not been raised, your preaching is useless and so is our faith.”In contrast to a culture where people endlessly re-invent themselves in ways that don’t cohere with reality, our sense of identity is rooted in our relationship with a God who loves us beyond our imagination. And confronted with our own powerlessness we resort not to despair but prayer.

I will finish with one of the highlights of my first few months here, the prayer pilgrimage around the diocesan boundary.Over 800 people joined in at the 36 churches I visited over the course of 4 Saturdays. The goal of the pilgrimage was to meet as many of you as possible, albeit fleetingly. But it was also to put our current challenges into the hands of God, to surround our gifts days in prayer, and to express something of our dependence on God’ s grace, not just our strategic ingenuity. A few weeks ago, we were forecasting a deficit this year of nearly 1 million pounds.The forecast is now only half a million.I do not think it is a coincidence that a wave of prayer came between those two estimates.

We continue to face huge challenges but God has not finished with us.In a world of fear around COVID, confusion around post-truth and anxieties about money, we stand on the rock of Jesus Christ, who is faithful and true, the same yesterday, today and forever.


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