At the Diocesan Synod on Saturday, Bishop Nick spoke – in anticipation of a synod discussion – about the diocese’s vision.
He said, “We need Christians - both lay and ordained - who are confident in God and the content of the Christian faith, confident in the church and the distinctive vocation of the Church of England, confident in the contexts in which God has put us. If our diocesan priorities need to be reordered, then this fundamental vocation must lie at the heart of them . . . We have an urgent need to build up Christians in the faith so that they are theologically confident to be Christian in the world we live in”.
To any objection that this is inward looking, he said, “No, it is not. The reason we will address the scandal of poverty this morning is . . . because Christian theology compels us to see people as made in the image of God and, therefore, of infinite value.”
Earthing the church in West Yorkshire and the Dales
This is clearly a week for endings. On Monday evening the General Synod finished its quinquennial stretch with some sense of relief that at least one of the divisive issues of the last couple of decades has now been resolved and we can move on. Today we conclude the triennial life of this Diocesan Synod. When you were elected to this synod you lived in one diocese; today you complete it in a different one.
Both synods have seen times of uncertainty, and members have had to show some vision, commitment and courage in sticking with it while the world changed around us. Therefore, I want to begin this address by thanking you and paying tribute to the maturity, wisdom and commitment you have shown during a process that has been unprecedented in the life of the Church of England. Yes, the uncertainty continues in respect of lots of areas of diocesan life, and many of those working for the diocese continue to do their work as best they can as we systematically work through setting up the structures and processes of the new diocese. Thank you for sticking with it. If the first Diocesan Synod felt like bringing three foreign bodies together, I think most people would agree that we have moved very quickly to feeling and behaving like a single synod for a single diocese.
At a time like this, when we recognise how far we still have to go, it is wise to see how far we have come. In just around one year we have appointed two new area bishops, a registrar, a chancellor, joint diocesan secretaries, a Diocesan Director of Education, a revived suffragan bishop (or rather, a revived See), and adviser for church growth ... and are about to appoint a Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Vocations, and two new archdeacons. The area deans and lay chairs have taken on new responsibilities as we look at the purpose and shape of deaneries. This Synod has agreed a new form of governance, and reviews of many areas of work are well underway. And through all this we have kept the life and witness of our parishes and institutions going - in some places seeing genuine growth and renewing of vision and energy for the good news of Jesus Christ.
There are those who think we should be moving more quickly. Some of us doing the moving would agree. But, reality always compromises vision and the best strategic planning. No surprise, then, that today we will spend some time considering how we move forward together, developing, owning, articulating and implementing a vision that might shape how we shape the diocese for the future. I am pleased that Canon Paul Hackwood will bring to us an informed outside view (and critique) as we turn our minds - and our common mind - to this task.
In order to get us moving on this during the last year, I articulated the vision for the church as follows: "We want to be a vibrant diocese, with confident clergy enabling confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales". It is a remarkably unremarkable statement - and hardly novel. In fact, if Fresh Expressions is de rigeur in the church at the moment, this is a classic stale expression of church. The problem is this: the vocation of the church has never changed since it began. Its context never stands still, but, in one sense, the vision or vocation of church has and does. Put simply, the logic of it sounds something like this: the vocation of God's people was always to give their life in order that the world might see who God is and what God is about; this vocation was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus then commits this vocation to his body - the church - and judges the church by whether or not ( or, to what extent) we look like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. The rest is detail.
The statement of vision I articulated earlier derives from this simple understanding.
A vibrant diocese is one that vibrates. That is, it is sensitive to the breathing of the Holy Spirit - as it is to the movement in the world and cultures around it. If we want to be vibrant, then we must refrain from rigidity and allow ourselves to bend in the wind that God blows.
Confident clergy are vital. But, confidence is rooted in all sorts of things: in the Gospel itself and the inescapable (and often inconvenient) call of God; in the vocation of the Christian church, and in the particular vocation of the Church of England; in knowing that the church they serve will take them seriously and enable them to fulfil their ministry as best as possible, bringing both encouragement and challenge, freedom and discipline. This means that decisions we make about IME, CME, professional as well as theological development, pastoral support and clarity of expectation are important and need to be got right.
If our clergy are confident, they will be better able to fulfil their primary tasks of leading people and communities in prayer and worship, learning and nurture (to maturity), evangelism and outreach. If they are excited about the Bible and the life of the Spirit, then so shall they be able to encourage others. We can only inspire if we are first being inspired. Now, this is not to say that lay people are exclusively dependent on clergy for their spiritual and Christian nurture and confidence. But, it is to say that those whom we train, pay and support to minister as clergy have a particular responsibility to build the people of God as described in the Ordinal. They must be encouraged and enabled to do so. Yet, responsibility for our own discipleship lies with each of us, lay and ordained, and we cannot blame others when we get it wrong.
So, we need Christians - both lay and ordained - who are confident in God and the content of the Christian faith, confident in the church and the distinctive vocation of the Church of England, confident in the contexts in which God has put us. If our diocesan priorities need to be reordered, then this fundamental vocation must lie at the heart of them. There is no point us banging on about needing to reach out into our communities in service if we end up closing churches and having no confident Christians in our parishes to do the outreach anyway. It is not a question of 'either-or', but there is a contingency here that cannot be avoided.
We hear a lot in the church about how we must live out the Gospel in our lives, but shouldn't worry too much about using words. For the record, St Francis did not tell his monks to "preach the Gospel; use words if you have to". If he had said it, he would be wrong. We use language for everything all the time; why go quiet when it comes to the faith? What happened to Paul's injunction to have "a reason for the hope that is within you"? I think the reason many Christians - and many Anglicans - are quiet or hesitant or lack confidence - is that they do not know the Scriptures, have not been helped to think coherently about why they believe what they believe, and have never been given the space to rehearse what such articulation of their faith sounds like. It is hard to argue in the pub if you haven't tried it out in the church or house group. We must equip each other to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales - but, first, we need to experience it, know it and understand it.
Words and life cannot be separated. But, we have an urgent need to build up Christians in the faith so that they are theologically confident (at whatever level) to be Christian in the world we live in. This is an urgent task, and there is a plethora of resources available to help us in it.
Well, I can hear the objections even while I speak: for example, there are many other priorities and this is inward looking. No, it is not. The reason we will address the scandal of poverty this morning is not because we have some assumed political or ideological urge to do so, but because Christian theology, derived from the prophetic witness we read in the Scriptures, compels us to see people as made in the image of God and, therefore, of infinite value. Our economic and political priorities must derive from this theological anthropology. What is a human being? What is a human society? And how do we order our common life in ways that demonstrate that we believe what we say we believe?
Christians will come to different conclusions about how the scandal of poverty should be addressed. But, we cannot do or say nothing about the realities we see in too many of our parishes each day. If you haven't done so before, I commend the book of Amos as a primer in such matters.
So, this last synod of the triennium has seen us transition into a new diocese. It gives us an opportunity to reappraise who and how we are. It allows us an opportunity to step back and think differently about why we do what we do in the ways that we do it. It invites us to renew our common vision for the present and future. As we thank God and one another for our life as an aggregate synod thus far, we pray to God and encourage one another as we shape the life of our diocese through the synod to be elected. May God bless us as we seek, in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, to enable the people among whom we live to experience and know the love and mercy of the Father - seen in the life and witness of the people who dare to bear his name and heard in the words of those who sing to his tune.
"Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Ephesians 3:21)