Bishop Richard Diocesan Synod Address 17.07.2021

Published on: 19th July 2021

Bishop Richard

Good morning everyone.  Can I add my welcome to you to that of Philip’s to our Diocesan Synod this morning.  This is the last Synod of this group of sessions, and a new Synod will convene in November.  So, for some of you, this will be your last meeting. Can I take this opportunity to thank you for your service to the diocese.  There is a somewhat cynical description of Synods as a group of Anglicans waiting to go home. I appreciate some of the governance things we have to do may not be the most riveting.  Nonetheless, this is the body that allows accountability to the wider diocesan family on a number of crucial issues in our life together.  We do need to find ways of better engagement and ownership, particularly in times of challenge like the present.

I had hoped that this Synod could have been in person at the Palace and that we could have offered you hospitality as a way of saying, “thank you.” Sadly, that isn’t the case.  I’m sure we had all hoped that the so-called ‘freedom day’ on Monday would have been a rather more hopeful occasion than it currently appears. As someone who has already been pinged by the app, and seeing so many people being forced to self-isolate, the removal of restrictions looks increasingly like a gamble rather than a welcome release.

All of these sorts of decisions are made on a judgment of risk.  Indeed, every decision carries it.  Change is hard for people and carries an emotional cost, often not borne by the people who have the power to make the changes. When we make a decision to change it is a balance of cost and reward. I had hoped that we would have been further along in our strategic conversations after 18 months in post and that we would be better able to sketch out a path for the next few years.  Unfortunately, COVID has prevented the sorts of face-to-face conversations that I see as vital for the next phase of our life together. We have been able to accomplish a certain amount on zoom and online, but inevitably that excludes a number of people from the conversation.  Fortunately, the work of my predecessor and indeed this Synod, has provided the diocese with a set of strategic priorities that continue to guide us in the short term.  However, the conversations and feedback I have received so far show me that the current strategy isn’t really owned or understood in most of the diocese.  When asked what people think of the current strategy, the response has sadly been, “Is there one?” in many cases.

If we have to make hard and unpopular choices over the next few years, we will need some strategic principles to guide us that are consistent and widely owned around the diocese. There is no substitute for conversations to achieve that goal. 

We must be on our guard against a number of things in this process.  Firstly, cynicism.  A number of people have said to me they’ve seen this all before over a number of years.  Surely, this is just another one of those, this time with more management and church peak. We have indeed had many strategic conversations over the years.  There have been changes in the structures of the diocese, but no fundamental shift in the relentless downward trajectory on the ground. This leads to a tendency to retreat into the narrowly parochial, focussing just on our own issues, and miss the bigger picture, and the inevitable fact that we are dependent on one another.  It is said that organisations go through four stages as they grow, develop and decline.  They start by building, with all the excitement of something new and the energy of life and success.  Once the structures and systems are established they evolve to maintaining, just keeping things ticking over. Without the energy of building they move to the phase of justifying poor performance, and in the real decline phase shift into blame.  People seek to find someone who is responsible for their current predicament.  There has been a bit of that in some of my feedback.  Once you get into the cycle of blame you are on a very slippery slope.  We must guard against it.  An article in the Daily Telegraph last week by Allison Pearson was a particularly odious example of it. A combination of misinformation, misunderstanding and plain abuse will no doubt have distressed a number of people, generating fear and anger at phantom strategies for clergy culling and buildings closures that simply don’t exist.

Secondly, we must be focused on who we are and what flows from that is what we do. We are a spiritual community, followers of Jesus Christ, seeking to work in the power of the spirit to build the kingdom of God.  We want to see the love of God in Jesus Christ clearly communicated, so men, women and children become part of that kingdom and join us in the adventure of faith.  We’re not the National Trust with hymns. We should be asking ourselves the question, “how can we encourage more people to become followers of Jesus Christ and grow in their discipleship, not just how can we get more people to come to church?”  If we focus on the first question we will almost certainly address the second one.  If we focus on the second question, we will almost certainly be accused of a membership drive to get more money to prop up the institution.

Thirdly, we need to understand that we are in this together. Every part of our diocesan and wider Anglican family has its part to play.  Some have directed their ire at the Archbishop of Canterbury who is currently on sabbatical.  But I can’t see how ++Justin taking some time off to replenish his batteries after working 70 hours a week for 6 years really has anything whatever to do with declining church attendance.  He has a particular national role.  I don’t think most of the 98% of people who don’t come to church are making that decision on the basis of his diary.  The General Synod has a role in legislation.  They do important work in defining the boundaries within which we work, especially simplifying the laws that govern so much of our activities.  Our staff in the diocesan office direct their efforts at supporting front line parish ministry.  The Diocese can only function with a certain central infrastructure.  Charitable accounts need to be managed properly, clergy need to be paid, trained and supported, and the next generation of vocations discerned and nurtured, buildings need to be managed and the ecclesiastical exemption well run to avoid us coming under local planning regulations. We need to have proper safeguarding infrastructure and look after our 78 church schools, a key part of our mission. We need to be as efficient and minimalist as we can with that infrastructure, but I think we are more or less at that point now.  There is no magic money tree lurking in the cupboard. 

But it is the parishes, benefices and deaneries that are the frontline where the Churches central work of mission, ministry and pastoral care takes place. For this, our clergy are not a ‘limiting factor’ they are the catalyst for the release of missional energy in God’s people. They teach the faith, care for the broken, release, empower and enable the lay ministry that is a similarly vital part of our common life. If our future strategy revision just fiddles about with governance we are frankly wasting our time.  The only change in strategy worth doing will be one that warms the spiritual temperature at the coal face.  Something that excites people with the truthfulness of the Gospel and its transforming power, and shapes communities of faith that are an embodiment of the kingdom Jesus spent most of his time talking about and died to spread.  This will be not so much about doing different things, but doing things differently.  Put simply, we need more Christians! Our strategy will need to be one that shapes our culture to make that more likely.

It would be easy, faced with our current challenges to lose hope. We are very few as a proportion of the population, but you plus God is always a majority. We have the same Spirit in whose power Christ was raised from the dead.  What God can do with a surrendered heart is almost limitless.  May our hearts be surrendered afresh to Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. 

Amen