Parishes are not in danger and the national church can learn from Leeds, Bishop Nick tells synod

The time-honoured commitment of the Church of England to its parishes is not in danger, the Bishop of Leeds, The Rt Revd Nick Baines told our Diocesan Synod at its first in-person gathering since the pandemic began.

Speaking to the new synod at Bradford Cathedral today, he added that those considering diocesan mergers or re-organisation elsewhere in the country could learn from the creation and development of our young diocese, but have yet to ask for help and advice.

“Is the parish in danger and is there a centralising plot to evangelicalise the Church of England into a plethora of free-standing and independent congregations? Do we need to ‘save the parish’?”

“No. The parish is not in danger.

“I have been explicitly clear in this diocese that the Church of England has “a unique vocation” to England - rooted in missional and legal obligation to territory.

“If we don’t do it, nobody else will.

“We are not giving up that responsibility that emerges from the parish system,” Bishop Nick said.

He praised synod members for the achievements of the last seven years and addressed the financially-testing times in which we live and the need for responsible stewardship, before synod went on to discuss and approve the diocesan budget for 2022 and then received a presentation on Saving Creation, our Carbon Net Zero Strategy.

Bishop Nick’s Presidential address to the 20th meeting of synod may be read in full below and a comprehensive report of proceedings will be published on the website.

 

Presidential Address by the Rt Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds

Let me start with a warning. When we were clearing out the Bishop’s House in Bradford whilst moving to Hollin House in Leeds, we came across two hidden  file boxes marked simply ‘1936’. I know I should have been humping boxes around with everyone else, but curiosity got the better of me. In the first box was a pile of typed and hand-annotated presidential addresses by the then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, to what we would now call his diocesan synod. Among them was the one dated 1 December 1936 in which he thought he was urging the new king, Edward VIII, to go to church more often and recognise his need of the grace of God. A single - rather oblique aside - led to the abdication crisis which ended ten days later.

In other words, be very careful what you say here! (Incidentally, the second box contained the correspondence the bishop received from around the world - mostly negative - which proves that green-ink letters and social media nastiness are nothing new. The best letter is beautifully written and from a QC in Gray’s Inn in London; it begins: “Your Grace, you worm…” … and doesn’t get better.)

A new synod - like a new anything - brings an opportunity to look afresh at matters that have become familiar to the usual suspects. As I often say to a congregation when licensing a new parish priest, there is little point bringing in someone new if all you want them to do is to repeat what has been done before. The gift of newness is the opportunity to look differently, to see through a different lens, to re-calibrate our perception of reality, to check on the direction of travel.

So, this new synod is not here to flog once-dead horses or to keep dancing to the same old tune, but, rather, to shine fresh light on old and current themes in order to keep us on the right track, reminding us of our core vocation as the Church of England in West Yorkshire, parts of North Yorkshire, a bite of South Yorkshire, a slice of Lancashire and a morsel of County Durham.

The purpose of a synod is given a clue in the title: it brings together the bishop, clergy and laity in council where the bishop can take counsel. This involves considering legislation for the national church, debating and agreeing the shape and priorities of this diocese, discussing and knocking around issues of the day - in church, society and the wider world. It is not a locus for mere grandstanding or waging battles. It is not a forum for trying to put others down, but, in humility, genuinely trying to seek the mind of Christ together.

Now, I haven’t begun this address in this way because I think controversy is a bad thing or because I fear the next few years on this synod. In fact, the opposite is the case. My experience since our second diocesan synod in 2015 has been almost entirely enjoyable, even if the agenda in the first five years was dominated by the nuts and bolts of creating a new diocese and getting it up and running. You will recognise how we went from a simple vision statement (“to be a vibrant diocese, equipping confident clergy to enable confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ in our region”) to a simple dynamic (“confident Christians - growing churches - transforming communities”) exercised through our values (“Loving - Living - Learning”) and shaping our Strategy (which is under regular review). It has been a long journey, but the hard work and commitment of clergy and laity alike has given us a strong foundation for future mission and ministry. The role of this synod is to help us think, calibrate our commitments, check our priorities and shape our mission according to the resources we have.

Now, this might be a good time to make reference to some of the noise around the country, not least on social media. Is the parish in danger and is there a centralising plot to evangelicalise the Church of England into a plethora of free-standing and independent congregations? Do we need to ‘save the parish’?

No. The parish is not in danger.

I have been explicitly clear in this diocese that the Church of England has (what I call) “a unique vocation” to England - rooted in missional and legal obligation to territory. If we don’t do it, nobody else will. We are not giving up that responsibility that emerges from the parish system. This is why we insist that all new clergy do Lead your Church into Growth (LyCig) training. The way parishes are shaped or organised might always change according to opportunity and available resources; but, the parish is essential. What about SDF and resources churches? In this diocese they are working strategically through parishes.

This is important. The church - as is true of every institution and every community in the country - currently faces huge challenges. It is still too early to identify the true cost and impact of the Covid pandemic. Some churches might not survive into the future; the Parish Share might not be sufficient to pay for all the clergy we would like; we just don’t know yet and the picture is not clear. However, building on current surveys and the baseline studies done in the first years of the diocese’s existence, we are now trying to build a picture that gives some indication of the direction of travel for the next few years.

(As an aside, let me address quickly the rumours about planned church closures around the country. There is a massive difference between a forecast that “350 churches might close” and “there is a plan to close 350 churches” in England. I rest my case.)

However, as the budget item later on the agenda makes clear: the money can’t go out if it doesn’t come in. We have to be responsible stewards of the resources available to us. But, we are confident that a responsible strategy for (a) getting clarity of data, (b) setting priorities for the next couple of years, and (c) looking at potential as well as the status quo, will set us on a course we can sustain with confidence and commitment.

This is a course of action that is being replicated across England. At a national level I chaired a Governance Review which reported in September, will be presented to the new General Synod in November and will be debated next February. If the Synod doesn’t like our recommendations, it will have to identify alternatives that are better and will, subject to Parliament and Charity Law, better address the problem of duplication and expensive complexity that no one has said isn’t a problem. Governance is vital, but reform is pointless unless we have paid attention to the fundamental questions of vision, strategy, legislative simplification and evaluation of effectiveness. So, although the governance work was commissioned before the pandemic, the other work began in the context of and in the wake of likely pandemic impact. The aim is to simplify and clarify national structures, enhance accountability, and identify ways in which the national church might better resource parishes and dioceses.

The other element being looked at has particular resonance in this diocese. The Dioceses Commission has invited bishops thinking about possible ‘mergers’ with other dioceses to have a conversation with the Commission. This is hardly a strategic approach. To be clear (and I have repeatedly tried and failed to make this clear in the House of Bishops): in the eleven years since the Scheme was launched that led to the creation of the Diocese of Leeds there has been just one roundtable meeting of all the bodies involved in it - and this took place on 22 November 2017 in London … at my instigation. There has been one ‘review’ … and that was a quick data-led review (nothing about process or people) commissioned by me in 2020. Nothing has been instigated by the Dioceses Commission or the archbishops. Consequently, there has been and continues to be no learning nationally as a very unstrategic process of considering possible diocesan reorganisations apparently begins. I cannot conceal my frustration at this; but, I will say no more at this point.

Suffice it to say that you - this synod - have had the courage to walk an untrodden path, create a new diocese without any template to work to, and have pressed on in the absence of any national curiosity or learning - and you should be hugely proud of what has been achieved in the last seven years. We are a resilient diocese and will continue to face the current and future challenges with that same faith, courage and costly determination.

So, today we set all this in the context of the planet’s urgent crisis. Theologically, we can say that “saving creation” is God’s remit; but, we are the body of Christ, human beings and communities made in the image of God, co-creators and partners, in the power of the Holy Spirit, taking our responsibility for saving what God has given to us as stewards. For many people - particularly younger people - the climate crisis is the priority of all priorities, reducing other matters to a low level of interest or engagement. There is a certain clarity to the position put to me recently by a teenager: “If there isn’t a planet to live on, there won’t be a church to worry about.”

We need, therefore, to keep a sense of perspective in all that we discuss today in this synod. What is  our primary calling from God as a church? These questions never offer a binary choice - creation and climate OR the parish share. We have to look at it all, but keep the perspective clear … and as simple as possible. Or, let me put the question differently: How are the people and churches in the parishes and institutions of the Diocese of Leeds going to be Good News in the years ahead as we emerge

through and from the pandemic into a new - and as yet undefined - future? For that is our calling and that, brothers and sisters, is our joy.

For two of our number this will be their last synod in this diocese. Anne Dawtry served as Archdeacon of Halifax in the historic Diocese of Wakefield and worked hard - strategically and on the ground - to help shape the structure and culture of the Diocese of Leeds. We owe her a great debt as she retires back to her native Lancashire at the end of this month. Anne, you go with our love and gratitude - and our prayer that you will enjoy a long, happy, healthy and hopeful retirement.

Bishop Paul Slater has served his entire ordained ministry in the Diocese of Bradford and then Leeds. Paul was the Archdeacon of Craven when the Scheme was laid down and his job was the only one to be named for redundancy (apart from the diocesan bishops, of course). Paul served with selfless commitment despite the potential personal cost and was integral to seeing the Scheme through to reality. This involved him straddling two dioceses as the Archdeacon of Craven and the Archdeacon of Richmond until the roles were combined in the new diocese. In 2015 I asked him to become the Bishop of Richmond (subsequently Kirkstall) in order to shape the Leeds Episcopal Area and deputise for me when necessary in the diocese. He has done this with faithfulness, wisdom and vision - like Anne Dawtry, often against the odds and at personal cost. Paul will retire at the end of January and the process has begun to seek a future appointment.

Both Paul and Anne retire with our heartfelt gratitude. May God bless you both in all that lies ahead, and may you never doubt the value of all you have done here and among us.

So, to business. I offer you the best invitation in the Bible to someone - Bartimaeus - who was being invited and challenged to take responsibility for the future in the company of and in response to the offer of Jesus: “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.”

 

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

 

16 October 2021

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