And so to bed

This short Group of Sessions ended with two important debates. The first was on the Anglican-Methodist Covenant. For anyone in the Church of England or the Methodist Church this subject has been rattling on for far too long. The whole idea has been kicked into the long grass too many times as far as I’m concerned. Ok, there are some real issues to deal with – and they aren’t all from our side. Why would Methodists want to join up with the CofE, I sometimes ask myself? It’s not as though we have everything sorted! I am impressed by the Methodists social mission agenda, their commitment to gay and lesbian people and to women’s ministry. We have a lot of catching up to do before the Methodist Conference should accept us in a covenant with them.

The real business of ecumenism though happens nowadays not in Synod chambers or in Conference but on the ground, in the parishes, in community. We have a wonderful example of the Methodist Church at work in our local community at Bermondsey Central Methodist Mission. They do tremendous work in social outreach and we are achieving great things with them for the homeless of the area through the ROBES project, our local cold weather shelter. That is where the most effective work takes place – but structures have to catch up with it.

As far as ecclesiological differences are concerned I have learnt a huge amount from Porvoo. We’re twinned with Bergen Cathedral and work closely with the Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe. The situation of the Lutheran and Methodist churches is different. But when we entered into the Porvoo Agreement and the mutual recognition of ministries there were things that had still to be worked through and this remains the case. But that has not stood in the way of the relationship that we do have and that bears fruit in plenty. It is ‘by their fruit that you will know them’ says Jesus to us in St Matthew’s Gospel and the fruit is good. And I believe the fruit of a deeper relationship with Methodism in this country would be good.

Some of the people we welcome as guests in the ROBES project may have been made homeless through the implementation of the bedroom tax – I don’t know. But there are so many reasons why people end up homeless that this iniquitous attack on the welfare system cannot help.

Sleeping out for those with no place to lay their head

Sleeping out for those with no place to lay their head

It was on this tax that the Synod ended. The Diocese of Leeds had brought a motion expressing our deep concern about the effect of the tax. I had the opportunity to add to the debate. Some good and moving stories were told of people caught in this ill-thought through initiative.

The fact of the matter is that there are not sufficient single-occupancy dwellings for people who might want to move to move into; that those who have not been in debt previously are driven into arrears; that Councils are having to use their resources to compensate people caught in the trap; and that those who have made their home in a community, in a place, are being forced to move.

One Synod member said that she is widowed, living in her own home, with spare bedrooms. She receives a 25% reduction in her Council Tax. A person in the same situation as her but in public housing would be charged extra. How is that just, how is that fair? It is not, and we are the people of the God of justice.

 

Hope you've got no spare bedrooms up there, Christopher Robin!

Hope you’ve got no spare bedrooms up there, Christopher Robin!

There was a division of the whole Synod at the end of the debate and the Motion was passed with none opposed and only three abstentions. That gives a clear and strong message to the nation.

And ‘as I lay me down to sleep’ I will remember those who are homeless this night, and those who are concerned because they cannot pay the rent, and those who know that they have more bedrooms than they ‘need’.

May the Lord grant us all
a quiet night and a perfect end.
Amen.

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Persecution

The focus of this morning in Synod shifted from what can often seem to be a preoccupation with our own affairs to something which should be high on our agendas, whoever we are. The Eucharist, Archbishop Justin’s homily and the panel discussion were all about the plight of those being persecuted in Iraq and Syria.

I was delighted that time – and quite a lot of time was given to this – but, to be honest, a little disappointed that what we had in the Chamber was so managed that what could have been passionate and engaging was anodyne and dull, nevertheless so much of what was said was important to hear.

After yesterday’s historic moment as the Canon was enacted, we had another today as we welcomed Shaykh Fuad Nahdi, Executive Director of the Radical Middle Way and an Imam, to take part in the General Synod. He was on the panel with His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, the Revd Rachel Carnegie, Joint Executive Director of Anglican Alliance and Bishop Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds who from his time as Bishop of Bradford gained huge experience at working with the Muslim community.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting Syria, Jordan, Sinai as well as the Holy Land as part of pilgrimages and part of the rich joy of that is to see the ‘tapestry of faith’ in the region at its best. The danger is that the tapestry is being torn apart, irreparably damaged, lost.

The plight of the ancient Christian churches is extreme and they are in danger of disappearing. But alongside this is the persecution of Muslim by Muslim, the destruction of mosques and shrines by those who share their faith. We have been there, we know what it is like. The beautiful retrochoir of Southwark Cathedral hosted trials of Christians by Christians during the reign of Queen Mary. People, like the protestant martyr John Rogers, were sent from that place in which God was and is worshipped to their death at Smithfield.

John Rogers, protestant martyr

John Rogers, protestant martyr

++Justin made the point in his homily that persecution should never be romanticised. It is wrong, it is terrifying, it is suffering. When we speak of martyrs in the church it is too easy to forget that we are talking about the death of real people, of ordinary people. Our red vestments may remind people of their blood but at times we are guilty of glamourising what is not glamorous.

This morning was a beginning, but only that, of taking seriously what is happening. What happens next, what we as a church do next, is what is really important and let that neither be anodyne nor romanatic.

Passionate, loving God,
give courage and hope
to your persecuted children,
whoever,
wherever
they are.
Amen.

In silence

London’s a strange place isn’t it. I got on the Tube this morning to go to Westminster for this second and final day of this Group of Sessions. The Circle Line train was packed as you would expect at 8.30. The doors closed and we moved off – and there was complete silence, complete silence. It was a better silence than we achieve in so many of our churches – it wasn’t unfriendly, not unsettling, not disturbing. People were just completely silent. Of course in people’s heads other things were happening – but not every one had headphones on. A lot were reading. But it felt like a place of utter tranquility.

I’ve talked to a number of people about what happened first thing yesterday afternoon as the Canon was enacted. It was received in ‘dignified silence’. The most momentous event in many of our Synod careers was received with the same silence as if we had just amended the Fees order, or decided some other piece of minor legislation – more silence in fact, as then there might at least be a rumble of pleasure. But nothing.

Given that everything we now do is in the media spotlight what does this say to the nation? That we aren’t really bothered? That it wasn’t as important as we had been making out? But we are and it is.

I understand of course that for others it was a painful moment. But then we should have been able to rejoice and weep together, that would be truly an honouring of one another’s feelings. But the moment passed and we moved into prayer and greater silence.

But this morning my heart is rejoicing and I want to sing, I want to say how good it is to be part of a church that has had the vision to do this. It is a great day and God is good.

I suppose that was what made the tremendous service in St Paul’s to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women so amazing. The spontaneous applause as the class of ’94 entered that wonderful building was not just applause for them but all that bottled-up, restrained joy that had been held back by dignified silence.

With the prophet Isaiah I say

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

(Isaiah 12.6)

Diversity – creative or disastrous?

You could spend an afternoon idly wasting time, making some tea, watching rubbish TV, reading a book, having a doze. Or you could spend an afternoon making history and dealing with issues of importance and moment. This afternoon in Synod has felt more like a day than a few hours.

After the debate on the Report of the Business Committee in which were raised some very important issues, such as why the Private Members Motion on Equal Marriage has been parked for so long, we moved to the enactment of the amended Canon which would enable women to be consecrated as bishop. It only took a few minutes but at 14.54 on Monday 17 November 2014 it was done. The Archbishops, the Prolocutors and the Chairs of the House of Laity signed the document and it was enacted. And after all the struggles it was as simple and profound as that. Sometimes life is surprisingly simple and beautiful and this was one of those moments.

The Archbishop of York then led us in prayer and it all felt so right and so calm.

The Synod Chamber

The Synod Chamber

Archbishop Justin then gave a most powerful address about the state of the Anglican Communion. He began by saying very clearly that the Anglican Communion ‘exists and is flourishing’ and he told some great stories from his visits around the Communion of where the Provinces are vibrant and growing. But he also recognised that the diversity of the Communion, not just in cultural terms but in theological as well, mean that, ‘our divisions may be too much to manage’. He spoke about his desire that the Communion works more collegially and that was why a Lambeth Conference would be called if it was the desire of the Communion, not because there was an ‘8 in the year’. And he concluded by commenting that the Communion of the future is ‘likely to be very different from the past’.

As someone who commented quite negatively about aspects of the Anglican Communion when we were debating the Covenant and rejecting that as a way forward, I thought this was an honest and truthful address. But ++Justin talked of ‘a prize worth almost anything to achieve’ by which I think he meant our unity in Christ. My question is, so who pays the price of that? Is it gay and lesbian people who are looking for justice and equality, not just in the Church of England but in Uganda and other places in the Communion where even their lives are in danger and not just their chance of preferment or freedom to love. We are always dealing with the issues of truth and justice and freedom to be the people that God created us to be, whoever, whatever we are.

Then followed Legislative Business and a good debate on the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. That sounds quite dry – but it isn’t at all. How we live out our vocation is so important. We are told at ordination that we are to be ‘ambassadors for Christ’. What does that mean for the way we act and live as deacons, priests and bishops?

But it is also about such things as the Seal of the Confessional and how that relates to safeguarding. That provoked some excellent speeches from people as diverse as Fr Philip North (soon to be the next Bishop of Burnley) and Canon Chris Sugden, who exist at very different ends of the candle but were clear in their defence of confidentiality, as am I. Once the seal is broken it is broken. But that means we must face the very difficult issue of what happens when someone discloses abuse in the confessional. There are ways of addressing it but they need thinking through and, as ever, we must listen to survivors.

We also need to listen to the words of Jesus to the apostles when he commissioned them to this ministry of reconciliation into which every priest is drawn

‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20.23)

We may like the idea of the first half of what Jesus says and may avoid the second. But the truth is, and this is a hard truth, that the two go together. Reconciliation is tough work, in the lives of individuals and in the Church of England and in the Anglican Communion.

Is diversity creative or disastrous? It has to be creative, but as with the ministry of reconciliation, there are two sides to the coin and we must be as honest and realistic about that as ++Justin was this afternoon.

So after Questions this long and momentous, historic afternoon ended.

Deo gratias.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Arriving at the edge of history

The tea room is already full as members of the General Synod arrive for this two day Group of Sessions being held in Westminster. There should have been sunshine for such a day as this, but instead the skies are clouded over and there is a hint of rain in the air. But nothing can dampen the moment.

I’m old enough to remember that two feasts used to fall on this day, 17 November, and you had to make a choice. Hugh or Hilda? Now they have been separated out and today is the feast of St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln and Wednesday is the feast of St Hilda, Abbess of Whitby. But for this day I want to bring them back together to stand with the Church of England on the edge of history.

Hugh was one of those great bishops. It seems from my reading of it that he understood the pastoral role of the bishop and he gave himself to it, riding round his diocese, visiting the clergy, encouraging them and building up the church. Anyone who can have a swan as a pet can’t be all bad and Hugh wasn’t bad at all.

St Hugh, pray for us.

St Hugh, pray for us.

Hilda was one of the most tremendous women in the history of our church. She presided over the Synod of the church which had to handle the difficult issue of the date of Easter – celtic or Roman pattern? She gathered a community around her of both men and women and was a true mother to the church of her day. There is always an episcopal feel to her and depicted holding her pastoral staff as an abbess should, we see a sign of the moment of history that awaits us in the Chamber at the beginning of business this afternoon.

St Hilda, pray for us.

St Hilda, pray for us.

Hugh and Hilda, formative figures for true episcopacy in this land and patrons for this afternoon.

It has taken a great deal of time to get to this place, many tears have been shed, there have been frustrations and difficulties, false dawns, pain, disappointments, mistakes, moments of near disaster, loss of credibility, compromises, and, in the end, a new clarity and sense of purpose. It has been costly for those in favour and for those who are oppossed. But we are here and I feel a huge sense of privilege to be part of this afternoon.

It is right to be joyful but it is wrong to gloat. The ‘Five Guiding Principles’ have got us to this point and to this momentous afternoon, and they are a real commitment to mutual flourishing. That is not easy for some but we have to see it is a vital and real commitment by the whole church. We must all flourish; by God’s grace we will all flourish.

The ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning talked about the Synod and made the point that the Anglican Church in the other parts of the British Isles can already have bishops who are women – but they haven’t. That is the next challenge for the church following this afternoon. It is one thing to pass legislation, it is another to make sure that women are nominated to diocesan and suffragan sees. That will be a real test of the resolve of the whole church.

So we move to the Chamber. There is other business for us to deal with – but more of that later. Now we stand at this historic moment and God is with us and the prayers of St Hugh and St Hilda will support us.

God bless us as we meet in Synod.
May your Holy Spirit guide and equip us
in all we will do.
Amen.

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