Coping with Viking raiders, COVID-19 and worrying times in the wilderness were put into current Christian context in Bishop Nick’s Presidential Address to Synod on Saturday.
Speaking ahead of presentations on Living in Love and Faith and on the financial implications of the pandemic, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds reflected that confident of God’s love, shared Christian grace, humility and generosity have sustained the faithful through the toughest tests and always will.
He also stressed that clear actions are underway to maintain the gains of our young diocese: “We have learned a lot about how things can be done differently in a hybrid world, but we need all our collective energies, wisdom and discernment - to say nothing of courage and commitment - as we emerge into a new world,” he said.
Bishop Nick’s words are printed below and further reports on Synod’s discussions and actions will appear on the website subsequently:
I am doing a run of Pause for Thoughts on Zoe Ball’s Radio 2 breakfast show at the moment. The first was last Tuesday. What happens with this slot is that I agree a theme with the editor the morning before, do the script, take on board any comments, then finalise before it gets “complied”. Sometimes I go rogue and write two or three on different themes, so he has a choice - it all depends how fertile my imagination is on the day and how much headspace I have.
Last week I wrote a quick script about the Viking invasion of England and it’s impact on Whitby. Exactly! No surprise, then, when the editor texted me with words to the effect of: not a classic Baines script, not Radio 2 and could you try something else? One moral of this story is: never ever write for public media if you aren’t prepared to hear criticism, bin it and start again. Not bad advice for preaching, either, I think.
Anyway, what I had hoped to muse on in relation to Whitby and the Vikings was this. When we visited Whitby again a couple of months ago we spent some time in the ruins of the abbey. There is a plaque there that (rather blithely) says that the Vikings paid a visit in the late eighth century, after which there wasn’t a Christian community there until one returned two hundred years later. The Vikings sacked Lindisfarne in 793 and Whitby wasn’t far behind as the Scandinavians launched their first package tour to Britain.
Did you notice that timeframe? Two hundred years. Two centuries. Now, doesn’t that provide a bit of perspective on whatever is happening in the immediate present? (I was speaking - the same day as the Zoe Ball gig - with Imam Qari Asim at an online Common Purpose event for senior leaders in the north, and was asked about resilience in leaders. I responded with my own perspective-calibrator for when I hit major problems or challenges: in the context of the entire history of the known universe, will we survive this? The answer is usually ‘yes’.)
Now, I know I bang on about time and perspective a lot, but I make no apology for this. We cannot read the Scriptures unless we have a proper sense of how long time takes. The Exodus followed four hundred years of exile and growing oppression in Egypt - fine if you lived at the beginning or towards the end and, therefore, have a memory of ‘home’ to hold onto or some hope of resolution to inspire you; but, what if you were born two hundred years in and none of your preceding or succeeding three or four generations had known anything other than captivity? Following liberation from, the people spent a generation in the desert having to either die off or sort themselves out for what they had been freed for. Only then could they enter the land of promise and even begin to establish a different sort of society in which justice and mercy were the dominant contours of their common life.
So, we too easily read a plaque about two hundred years of defeated vacancy in Whitby and breeze over to the next bit of ‘interesting information’ without attempting to live into that experience and how it might have shaped our Christian ancestors in Yorkshire.
Why am I talking about this today? Well, I want to encourage us in this final Synod of the extended triennium to keep a sense of perspective as we look back at an extraordinary couple of years and look ahead to what the world - and the church - might look like in the next few years. We know in our heads that the only constant in this world is ‘change’, but we find it equally hard to navigate change (a) proactively and (b) where it is thrust upon us. Change is always changing: we either shape our future or we complain about being victims of other people’s decisions and choices. The former is healthier for both individuals and communities.
So, today I want to thank all of you who have given your time, attention, wisdom and gifts to the life of the Diocese of Leeds through its Diocesan Synod since 2017. Remember that in 2017 we were only three years old - a toddler diocese in the grand scheme of things. We had begun to turn our synodical attention away from basic matters of constitutional detail onto a strategy for growth and development. I remember encouraging members of the synod to bring from deaneries the wider concerns of the Christian Church in a challenging society - not least in the wake of the extremely divisive Brexit referendum in 2016 and all that followed (and continues). Then the pandemic hit and we all entered uncharted territory, having to hold our ministry and mission in tension with government instruction, all with total uncertainty of how long this would last, what damage it might do, and what we might look like once we emerged at some point in the future.
So, my gratitude is neither superficial nor trivial. As the Bishop, I am so proud of the maturity, transparency and vision with which the diocese and synod have navigated this strange land to this point. I hope many of you will stand again for the synod as we shape our future at a point when we cannot know what shape we are in (in terms of finances, congregations, demography, patterns of church life, and so on). Yes, we have learned a lot about how things can be done differently in a hybrid world, but we need all our collective energies, wisdom and discernment - to say nothing of courage and commitment - as we emerge into a new world.
I also hope you will encourage younger people to join us and get stuck in as, together in synod, we seek to be what Walter Brueggemann called “freshly faithful” in the next three years and beyond. We need to be a diocese of all the talents, so to speak.
But, speaking of talent, we also say farewell today to two of our number who have been integral to our development as a diocese. Canon Sam Corley, chair of the House of Clergy, is leaving us to go west of the Pennines (where the rain is wetter) to be the next Bishop of Stockport in the Diocese of Chester. I know he will be greatly missed across the diocese in so many respects: vocations, synod, civic and business communities in Bradford and Leeds, and so on. Sam, you go with our love, gratitude and prayers as you begin episcopal ministry in a part of the world where the football is simply lamentable.
We also say good bye to Jerry Lepine, Dean of Bradford for the last seven years. Jerry came with no illusions about the size of the task, but has been positively integral to the essentially trinitarian innovation of working three cathedrals (and three deans) in one diocese. Jerry is notable for always being cheerful, whatever the challenge, and has brought a new shape and confidence to Bradford Cathedral. Civic representatives have expressed to me their misery that Jerry is to retire at the end of July. Jerry and Christine will be moving to Derby in retirement and they, too, go with our love and gratitude and prayers. (The process for identifying the next Dean has begun and final interviews are expected to take place in November, suggesting that we will have someone in place in the spring.)
Nothing stands still. Archdeacon Anne Dawtry has announced her retirement from 31 October, but this will not be her final synod; so, we won’t say farewell to her today.
Today we do have to attend to serious business. I am hugely grateful to the Finance, Assets and Investment Committee who work so hard on our behalf to ensure that our financial decision-making is strategic and not simply reactive. Geoff Park and Jonathan Wood are doing excellent work to manage money and other resources to best effect in extremely challenging circumstances. This synod will today hear more about this and how our Cost Review might develop further.
What is clear is that we will have serious decisions to make in the years ahead. We won’t always know whether we are making the right ones - life isn’t like that, and we don’t have the gift of knowing everything the future might hold that, had we known it, might have led to different decisions in the past. But, we honour the integrity of all involved as we wrestle with these hard questions about how to reduce cost and increase income across the board. Please pray for all involved.
Yet, as we know all too well, the world doesn’t stop while a pandemic runs its course. Today we will look at the Living in Love and Faith process as the Church of England - uniquely, I think - tries to navigate a course through questions of sexuality, gender and identity which are the subject of massive struggle and debate across society at the moment. Some people have assumed that LLF is aimed at smuggling in a decision to change the church’s teaching or to simply bolster the status quo. In fact, LLF is about bringing together Christians of different experience, conviction and perspective in order to place argument or discussion within relationship. It might be that no one changes their mind on these issues; but, it is hoped that their mind, attitude and thinking might at the very least be shaped by new relationships that allow honesty, integrity and faithful belief to be heard, witnessed and appreciated for what it is.
To this end, I am called back to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi when he urges this divided community of young Christians to “have the same mind” - not, as you might think, the same opinion or view - which he goes on to say is “the mind of Christ” who laid aside his rights and claims, stepped down from a place of invulnerability, and opened himself to the complexities of a mucky world and complicated humanity. The focus here is on relationship and humility, not on uniformity.
And all this is going on while we face the climate crisis and our responsibilities in it. The wider church is addressing governance, simplicity, emergence and effectiveness of our structures and processes. Some of us are involved deeply in some of these groups, and we need your prayers as well as your sympathy!
So, let me conclude. Earlier I quoted Walter Brueggemann when he speaks of us being “freshly faithful” as we emerge from the pandemic into an uncertain and different world and church. In another context he urges what he calls a “tenacious solidarity”. This tenacity is, of course, rooted in what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called a “solidarity of the broken”. We belong together and we are in this together. We need no reminder of our brokenness, for Christian faith starts with our brokenness as a reality (but moves on to redemption and renewal and resurrection). But, when I see the failure, blindness or weakness of my neighbour, I see through it to my own. Grace, generosity, mercy and love are what characterise Christians doing their business in and through the church, but always for the sake of the world we are called to serve in humility and confidence and with fragile faithfulness.
We turn to our business in this spirit. Even if the Vikings or a coronavirus do their damage, they do not have the final word. God does. And he who has called us is faithful.
The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines
Bishop of Leeds