Be freshly faithful and use insights gained during the pandemic to build worship as we work confidently towards a shared future, Bishop Nick has urged Synod.
In his Presidential Address to the online forum, Bishop Nick firstly referenced the travails of Jonah, Moses and Jeremiah as examples of how journeys are always accompanied by God and that apparent endings can be portals to courageous progress.
“The people of God, who have been grasped by grace and captured by love, are not dependent on the endings or the ends being tied up. We can live with uncertainty and without fear in the conviction that an ending is the gateway to a new beginning,” Bishop Nick said.
“As Easter will demonstrate, the death and loss of Good Friday do not spell the end of the story; but, Sunday won’t come before we have walked through Friday and the emptiness of Saturday,” he said.
Synod members were asked to discuss and share experiences of new ways of worship during the pandemic and to consider new strengths and old weaknesses that have been revealed.
A comprehensive report of proceedings, other debates and voting will be published shortly.
“The days ahead are full of opportunities, some of which we wouldn’t have invited and which we don’t welcome. But, they are the gift we are given, however uncomfortable,” Bishop Nick said.
“The days ahead are full of challenge. But, when has the church, or the human race, not faced unprecedented challenges?
“The days ahead are full of promise - the promise of God to be faithful as we seek to be faithful to our vocation as a church in and for England.
“Let’s get to it.”
Bishop Nick’s Presidential Address is printed in full below:
Diocese of Leeds
Eighteenth Diocesan Synod, Saturday 13 March 2021
Sometimes there is no ending. We are just left hanging there, wondering what happens next and who might be responsible for deciding.
Think of Jonah who tries to run from a God in whom he believes, but whom he also resents for maintaining an inconvenient generosity towards dodgy people. The prophet, in hiding from the God who calls him to a personally uncomfortable ministry, finds himself vomited onto a beach and into a reluctant agreement to obey the call to preach repentance and mercy to a recalcitrant people in Nineveh. He does the bare minimum and retreats from the market square to lick his spiritual wounds while, to his horror, the people actually do repent and change their ways. Why can’t God be more like him and feel justified venom towards the sinning people? Why can’t God be just and consistent and blow these people away? (Echoes of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son?)
He finds himself taking shelter under a tree ... which God then causes to shrivel and die, exposing Jonah to the wild sun. Why, asks God, should I not also be free to forgive and set free the people I love anyway? It is about grace. And Jonah the prophet doesn’t like grace when applied to the wrong people - though he wants it for himself.
And then the story ends. What did Jonah do next? What happened - did he get converted? We don’t know. Some biblical academics have suggested that the ending is missing. I tend to agree with the scholars who have concluded that the story deliberately ends there - leaving the reader hanging - because it compels us to use our own imagination and see whether the ending we imagine (or would like) is faithful to the character of Jonah or the character of God.
We could look elsewhere in the Bible and find other cases of (what I sadly might call) endinglessness. Poor Moses, having endured the miserable behaviour and ingratitude of his own liberated people, meets his own end on the edge of getting his reward - leading the people into the Land of Promise. Jeremiah, faithful despite his own misery, disappears into exile and silence. The ending of Mark’s gospel is, according to some scholars, missing. People bump into and glance off Jesus, and we don’t know what happened next: did the rich young man ever come back and say, “OK, I’ve got rid of my securities; now can I come with you?”
But, the people of God, who have been grasped by grace and captured by love, are not dependent on the endings or the ends being tied up. We can live with uncertainty and without fear in the conviction that an ending is the gateway to a new beginning. As Easter will demonstrate, the death and loss of Good Friday do not spell the end of the story; but, Sunday won’t come before we have walked through Friday and the emptiness of Saturday. And that means leaving stuff behind.
Now, this is supposed to be a presidential address to a synod, not a sermon. But, the business of our agenda today, as we deliberate together in grace and love, avoiding either nostalgia or wishful thinking, has to be rooted in a biblical theology that helps us imagine our own future. And that means taking seriously the context in which we meet and do our work together.
The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, decades before any pandemic erupted on the world, encouraged the church to be bold in rejecting the dominant narratives of what he calls the empire - those assumptions that explain why the world is the way it appears to be, and insists that everybody thinks the same way. He urges Christians to “re-describe reality” in order for us then to re-orientate towards a different future. That is to say, we don’t accept that today is the end or that death and fear have the last word in this world. We refuse to accept that people are economic cogs whose major function is to consume material stuff in the hope of clouding out the questions about meaning and value. We decline the pressure to think that competition over vaccines is either noble or good. What does “world-beating” imply?
In other words, we are called back to discover the grace of God amid the moral and material complexities of being human in today’s world. Like Jesus looking out from his cross, we look reality in the eye and don’t claim any exemption from the cost of grace and love. We certainly don’t look out in order to claim ownership of the territory from the one on that cross who is there precisely for having given up claims in the interests of love.
This morning we will spend time asking about our experience of a year of lockdowns and pandemic. We will have an opportunity to speak and think honestly about what that experience (and how we think about it) has - or ought to - change us. In his excellent little book Virus as a Summons to Faith Brueggemann writes of Jeremiah: “... the prophetic promise does not intend a return to ‘the good old days’ or a restoration of a previous ... arrangement ... [It] rather intends a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways.”
In other words, as we confer together the question we face is this: are we open to a future - and an ordering of that future - in which our relationship with one another in the Body of Christ is the holding context and content, and not a fixation on our pet securities, nostalgias or inherited models? Freshly faithful.
Therefore, we join together in considering our future, cognisant of our faithfulness to the past and the biblical narrative of courageous leaving and journeying. The biblical story has not changed, but we might gain fresh insight from our new experience. As I wrote to the clergy at the beginning of the first lockdown last year, having our diaries destroyed has allowed us to inhabit something of the normal life of people in some of our partner/link dioceses in places like Sudan, Tanzania and Pakistan. So, what can we learn? How can we change?
Or, in the quadrant of questions I suggested as a simple framework for planning ahead post-pandemic, (a) what have we lost that needs to stay lost? (b) what has been lost that we need to regain? (c) what have we gained that was OK for this time, but needs to be lost? (d) what have we gained that must be retained and built upon if we are to be freshly faithful?
Across the Diocese of Leeds we will have different perspectives and have enjoyed or endured varying experiences during the last year. But, we now find ourselves moving towards a re-emergence and an honest evaluation of how we might be in and for the future. And we do this not with fear, but with hope, determination and generosity. The pandemic is not the end. The challenge to our churches, not least financially, is not the end. The loss of some familiar routines or practices is not the end. As I have said many times, you can’t argue with reality. But, we needn’t be cowed by reality. Because, as Brueggemann says, we are called to reframe reality - to find ways and words to tell a different story, to read our present circumstances differently, through the eyes of a God who is faithful. Working hard at this will help us in our own churches and communities to live, worship and serve as people of hope and people of joy.
Joy? Really? Yes, unequivocally. Because Christians are not surprised by fear or mortality or uncertainty. They are the raw stuff of Christian living and thinking and praying. For our trust is in the person of a faithful God, not in the outworking of a formula or a convenient bargain with God that ensures our own security.
Our diocese has a strategy derived from three one-word values. Loving Living Learning is not a trite slogan designed to make us feel better. But, our deliberations need to be infused with love (for God, the Gospel, and the creation that is loved by God); with an incarnational commitment to the world as it is, but drawn by a vision (of the Kingdom of God) that comes to us from the resurrection future; with the humility that comes from recognising our fallibility, failings and blindnesses, and sees learning as a virtue and not a weakness.
And what might this look like if we embody these three values? Well, when we come to think about the post-COVID future, we will do so with mercy, humility and love. When we consider the well-being of clergy (which is not in contradistinction to the well-being of lay people), we will look with generosity and hope and not be defensive about where we might have mixed experiences of them. Matters pertaining to the DAC and quinquennial inspections bring these values down to concrete reality: how do we steward the resources God has given us? However we feel about the hard questions of sexuality and identity, will we approach Living in Love and Faith with the humility that allows us to encounter others, listen genuinely, learn from ... even if we don’t agree with the conclusions others draw?
It’s a bit like when people say “I love everyone” or “I love the whole world”, but really struggle to love the awkward so-and-so next to me. I call us back to a simple truth: that Jesus did the calling of his disciples and their witness was to follow Jesus together despite their differences of personality, experience and vision. No one was given a veto over who else Jesus could invite on the journey. One of the glories and gifts of Anglicanism is the fact that we are thrown together with other Anglicans, regardless of whether I approve of them or not. That is what deanery synods and clergy chapters are for.
I need to conclude. The days ahead are full of opportunities, some of which we wouldn’t have invited and which we don’t welcome. But, they are the gift we are given, however uncomfortable. The days ahead are full of challenge. But, when has the church (or the human race in any generation) not faced unprecedented challenges? The days ahead are full of promise - the promise of God to be faithful (the “steadfast love” that Brueggemann translates as “tenacious solidarity”) as we seek to be faithful to our vocation as a church in and for England.
I do not know what the future holds. But, I do know we can face it together as the gift that God has given for this generation. We can be confident with humility, creative with fidelity to our story, and merciful as we make decisions of which we might be unsure. In the end, we seek to be the people who answer the prayer we say every day: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”
Amen. Let’s get to it.
The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines
Bishop of Leeds