Weaving the threads

The Archbishops had decided that before the Synod was Prorogued we should have an opportunity to debate ‘The State of the Nation’.  Synod members often complain that we can never have a timely debate, that the agenda is set so far in advance that there is no space to respond to the events that are happening as we are meeting.  There were no complaints on this occasion!

Threads

We weave the threads

For those unfamiliar with the layout of Westminster, the Abbey alongside which Dean’s Yard is located in which stands Church House, is on the opposite side of the road to the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament are.  On the other side of the road in Parliament Square is the Supreme Court.  Downing Street is just a short walk away and along Birdcage Walk and through St James’ Park is Buckingham Palace.  The Synod meets at the heart of national life and so it was the perfect location to have this debate.

What was so interesting though was that this debate on the nation was a weaving together of the strands of the whole of this Group of Sessions.  Forget the legislative business that we had to plough through; the rest of the Synod was about some of the elements that would make up any debate about the state that we find ourselves in as a nation.  We talked about the environment; we talked about racism and how it affects travellers, gypsies and the Roma people.  We talked about children and young people.  We talked about life on our hard pressed and maginalised estates.  We talked about the pernicious effect of advertising and gambling.  All these threads could have been left hanging, like at the back of a badly finished piece of tapestry.  But they weren’t.

This really measured and thoughtful and intelligent debate brought all of these strands together because they are all symptomatic of the challenges that our nation faces.  One speaker talked of the demons of liberal democracy and the dark side of something which in many ways has delivered so much.  The Bishop of Bristol spoke passionately and movingly about Swindon, part of her diocese, and the effect of the proposed closure of the Honda factory on so many ordinary people.  Others spoke about the need for hospitality.  Someone talked of creating a ‘counter-narrative of hope’ which could be spoken into our communities. The Bishop of Coventry spoke movingly of the effect our decision to Brexit will have on the ordinary people of Europe with whom we have unbreakable bonds.

But it was the Bishop of Chelmsford who really captured the mood, speaking of the Beatitudes in St Matthew’s Gospel and homing in on one in particular

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ (Matthew 5.3)

He said that what Jesus was pointing to here were those who realised that they didn’t have all the answers, those who weren’t self reliant, those who knew their need of God and their neighbour and he called on us to have a new humility, as a church and as a nation, and to see beyond our opinion of our own riches.  It was a powerful point and I fear I haven’t done him justice in reporting it.  But this is a debate to read when the Report of Synod is published.

The call was of course to pray, every day, all the time for our elected representatives, for the Government and Parliament and to commit ourselves to doing this.  But the whole Synod was a real encouragement to re-engage with those communities from which we have become seperated, it was a call back to ‘our first love’ to the mission of God, in the world, for the world, in this nation for this nation.

The threads were joined, tied off and neatened.  Then like the artist we turn the work around at look at the ‘good side’, the image that has been created.  When we join these threads we see the face of Christ and we see the kingdom of God.  The Archbishop of Canterbury began the Synod reminding us that ‘We can’t talk about Jesus without looking like Jesus’.  The tapestry reveals the face and we have been sent out to speak ‘the language of love more fluently’.  The work begins, revealing Jesus and kingdom values to the nation and to the communities in which the church is set, as the pearl in the field.

This was the Brexit Prayer that I wrote for all the cathedrals to use.  Please continue to pray it with us.

God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.
Amen.

On the estates

One of the wonders of the English language is that the same word can mean such different things.  Sunday evening used to hold the treat for me of watching ‘Downton Abbey’, what Lady Mary was getting up to, the wonderful Dowager Duchess of Grantham and all the rest of them.  But every so often they would leave the comfort of the dining or the drawing rooms and visit the estate.  Kind words, jars of jam, a caring look would be shared with the tenant farmers living in their beautiful tied cottages.  Idyllic.  But when Synod debated Estate Evangelism yesterday we were not thinking of Lady Mary out on the estate but the other use of that word – those big areas of social housing that dominate may of our industrial and post-industrial cities and towns.  When they were built they were often given names that suggested a more bucolic image than their reality – Blackbird Leys on the edge of Oxford comes to mind – but life on our estates can be desperately difficult yet have a deep beauty as well.

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There are lives behind the windows

The Bishop of Burnley, with his usual enthusiasm, introduced a debate that was aimed at encouraging the church to reengage with these estates.  Many still have church buildings but with few priests or other ministers and often small and struggling groups of people trying to keep things going.  The thing is – and we have to be honest here – we have let down the people who live on our estates.  When I was ordained people wanted to go to a parish in the north, people looked forward to being in an estate church.  It was where the really gritty work could be done. ‘Faith in the City’, published back in 1985 much to the annoyance of then then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, encouraged the church to put resources into the inner cities.  The Church Urban Fund was created, things happened.  And then the fire went out and it was no longer sexy or attractive.  Priests do not in general apply for jobs on the tough estates, they want to live and work in nicer places where more people may go to church and its easier to produce those good metrics that show growth that the Church of England demand of us.  So we have added to the marginalisation of those communities that are on our estates, the marginalisation which has been reinforced and made worse through years of austerity, the diminishment of Local Government and the disgraceful way in which the benefits system has been changed. It all adds up to a very sad story of abuse.

Yet in the debate we heard really good stories of places where work is going on and communities are being supported and encouraged.  We heard about places where congregations are growing through the committed ministry of lay and ordained people together – but often struggling to find the resources that they need.

We were reminded that it was with the poor and the marginalised that Jesus began his ministry.  His ministry was with those who had nothing. The ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ which Luke gives us in his gospel says it all

[Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.17-19)

Working on estates in east Leeds taught me what treasures there in those places, treasures of faith and commitment, treasures of skills and imagination but also a need of encouragement where often confidence is lacking or has been beaten out of people by the system.  What we committed ourselves to yesterday when we voted for the motion before us was to put our resources, of every kind and at every level, back into this area of our mission to and for and with these communities.  But that will be a challenge to all of us and not least to priests to hear the call to minister in such places and have the courage to respond.  Their courage will not go unrewarded.

Lord Jesus,
you embraced the poor
and made them rich.
May we do as you did.
Amen.

How long, O Lord, how long?

Yesterday was basically a day taken up by legislation. The Archdeacon of Southwark saw through a major piece of work amending various rules and practices. But what gained the attention of Synod was the clause which reduced the time lay people could be a member of their Deanery Synod from forever to two terms of three years. Anyone who has been to a Deanery Synod meeting (and here I’m generalising wildly) might think that once was enough. But there are some people who are deeply committed to this level of Synodical government. And they let their views be heard.

In the Diocese of Southwark an extensive piece of work is being done in breathing new life into deaneries. So it was ironic that this attempt to ensure that new life and new voices and perhaps new and younger people could get into Synod and past the present ‘bed-blockers’, was being resisted. But, unlike with Brexit, a way forward was found and the legislation gained final approval.

With typical Synod serendipity that business was followed by a debate on an Amending Canon which, for the first time in the history of the Church of England, is recognising the place of religious communities and religious life in the life of the church. As my formation for priesthood took place in the shadow of the house of the Community of the Resurrection I had a real interest in this but as I was in the chair I couldn’t express that. The difference with the Deanery Synod debate was that in this part of the church you are looking for stabilitas the commitment to community and place which is not limited by any other consideration. Whether it be for a defined period of time in a form of new monasticism or life-long in a more established order there is always this commitment. In itself that is a great witness to the church and to the world where short-termism can be the name of the game.

So this may all seem contradictory and maybe on the face of it it is.

In Psalm 13 the psalmist calls out four times the refrain ‘How long’. Sometimes we just don’t know and have to wait on the Lord’s time, and sometimes legislation will answer us!

Lord of time and eternity, teach us to value every moment and to use it well in your service. Amen.

Looking like Jesus

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night in a hot sweat realising what you have done? ‘Why did I do that?’ ‘Why did I say that?’ ‘What possessed me?’ It seemed that for some in the Synod chamber yesterday they had been having that very feeling!  Back in July 2017 in the Synod meeting in York there were two memorable debates that really encouraged me.  One was on banning Conversion Therapy in churches – the practice believed in by some that you can ‘convert’ someone from one sexual orientation to another – and the other was welcoming members of the transgender community into our churches.  Both of these motions were passed by Synod.

Fluent in the language of love

Truth revealed on the South Bank

But the one on trans people was about even more than simply welcoming.  There was a call to provide some liturgical way to help people mark the transition into their new identity and to enable the congregation to recognise and welcome them.  The Synod asked the House of Bishops to consider all of this.

So the House of Bishops have considered it and have issued some Pastoral Guidance which suggest that clergy can use the provisions already in existence in Common Worship around the ‘Renewal of Baptismal Promises’ to mark a persons transition and new identity.  Some people were sad that no new liturgy was created but, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting the bishops to do that.  But the guidance provided does say

It is important that the occasion should have a celebratory character

and opens with the statement

The Church of England welcomes and encourages the unconditional affirmation
of trans people, equally with all people, within the body of Christ, and rejoices in
the diversity of that body into which all Christians have been baptized by one
Spirit.

So, I mentioned yesterday that there were a record number of Questions submitted and that over 30 of them were about trans people and the churches response.  What we witnessed in Synod during Questions I found disturbing.  It felt like a bullying, abusive onslaught from a group of Synod members who were infuriated with what had happened after that decision in all three Houses back in 2017 and who were determined to catch out the bishops responding to Questions. This was not Synod at its best.

In many ways those of us sitting there witnessing all of this have seen the opponents play all their cards at once and so we know what it is that we are still facing on the complex issues of gender and sexuality.  This will all feed into whatever finally emerges from the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process. We must never be complacent about what we face on these issues.

Ironically the Archbishop in his Presidential Address in the afternoon had said two powerful things.  One was that we should ‘speak the language of love more fluently’ and the other that ‘We can’t talk about Jesus without looking like Jesus.’ I saw neither of those things as we listened to those aggressive questions, neither the fluency of love nor a Jesus-like resemblance.

Looking like Jesus means picking up those old wristbands again, you know the ones with ‘WWJD’ – ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ The answer for me is in the gospels and all around that fluent articulation of love that we find there and that amazing verse so loved by evangelicals

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3.16)

As Jesus says these words to Nicodemus we realise the full impact of salvation, for every person, whoever they are, however they identify, however they describe themselves, wherever they are on their journey.  Jesus celebrates that, that is what Jesus is like, that is what Jesus looks like and that is what the church needs to look like, speaking fluently the language of love, if we are to be the church of Jesus.

Loving God
forgive us when we disfigure the face of Jesus,
when we speak more fluently
the language of hate
than the language of love.
Amen.

Back in Westminster

The eyes of the nation are on Westminster, sadly not because General Synod begins the February Group of Sessions in Church House just the other side of the road from Parliament, but because of what is going on amongst our elected representatives. Unlike across the road, there is no way in which you can slip easily from one house to another in Synod – it takes a long time to move from the House of Laity to the House of Bishops and wearing a purple shirt just wouldn’t achieve it. And in many ways we all sit as independents, there are no formal ‘parties’ but there is a collection of groupings, some more formal than others. They can of course be very influential – we’ve seen that at times and I suspect will continue to do so.

Church and State

But don’t expect that Synod will be a ‘Brexit-free’ zone. The Presidents of the Synod, who are the two Archbishops, added an extra item to be debated into the agenda after the draft of it was published. This Synod will close on Saturday with a debate on ‘The State of the Nation’. That will be our opportunity to say clearly (I hope) to the people of England (The Church of England deals with England) and to the Government and Parliament as well as the Prime Minister (a committed and regular member of the CofE) just what we are feeling at this moment, out there, in the parishes, at the grass roots, where people are in danger of losing their jobs, and where communities are fractured and unsettled. The CofE is in every part of this country and its clergy, mostly, live where we minister. We know what it is like. There’s are 12600 parishes in the Church of England and 533 parliamentary constituencies in. England! So we have a good feel for things. Inevitably we will be told to keep our nose out of politics and to stick to God, but as we know God is not contained by the church and the disciples were forced out by the Holy Spirit from the closed room into the rich diversity and challenge of the world.

So it promises to be an interesting Synod. There is a strong theme – often the theme is accidental but this time it is deliberate – evangelism. So we will be debating that area of our life as it affects various groups, especially young people, and various situations and especially our estates. It is in both of those areas of national life that the ‘State of the Nation’ really hits home. It is the young who will be denied the benefits of European integration and all that that will mean; it is on the estates that the inevitable deprivation from a downturn of the economy will be felt with consequent cuts to public services. How do we speak Good News into both of these situations? That is a real and important question at this time.

There are the largest number of Questions tabled since 2003 – 120 of them! At least 33 questions are around the response of the church to the needs of members of the transgender community. That has become a huge issue that we need to deal well with and this number of questions shows just how important the needs of our transitioning sisters and brothers are.

There will be an update on the work of the group looking at the more wider issues of sexuality. It is called ‘Living in Love and Faith’ and it will be good to hear where we are. Bolting horses come to mind really!

It will be interesting to see whether issues around Lambeth 2020 are raised. I saw on Twitter the beginnings of anger being expressed at the exclusion of the spouses of bishops who are married to a same-sex partner. This affects only a few bishops but the question has to be, why? All other spouses are invited and unlike in previous Lambeth Conferences will not have separate meetings. I think I could guess what the official answer to why these particular people are not welcome would be, but is that good enough?

There is the resumption of a debate on the environment and there’s a lot of legislation – but there has to be, we are a legislative body after all. But it is to the debates on evangelism that I am looking for inspiration and energy. Let’s hope we find it!

Lord of the church, bless our Synod and inspire us to witness to your love in the world. Amen.

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My Lent Diary

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In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

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Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark