The last chapter

The Book Group that I’m a member of meets this Saturday.  We’re reading ‘Little Women’ as a result of the release of the film that so many people are talking about.  Unlike most people in the group I have never read it.  When I was of the age when I could have read it I thought it was a ‘girls’ book’ and despite my rather, let’s say, gentle tastes, that would have been a step too far (it would have been the late sixties!).  But I fear I won’t get to the end of the book. I have just embarked on Part II, the wedding has just happened but I fear that even if I don’t go to bed between now and the meeting I won’t get to the last chapter!

56706-houghton_library-harvard_university-public_domain-wikimedia_commons

Will I get to the end of the book?

It has been only three days, spread over four, that General Synod has met for this February Group of Sessions, but goodness, it has felt a lot longer than that.  I can hardly remember Monday in the aftermath of Storm Ciara.  But today we reached the last chapter, as it were, certainly the last Order Paper – and what an Order Paper!  I have mentioned already the plethora of amendments that have come from members of Synod to some of the debates.  There has been hardly a single debate where something hasn’t been amended.  But this morning’s Order Paper, which sets out the order of business, the Motions and the amendments, rather than being the four sides of A5 which it would normally be, ran to 16 pages!

But we began the day well with the third and final stage of the Channel Islands Measure.  It was good to get this necessary change approved.  Not only was it a legislative process but it felt like a process of reconciliation.  What could have been fractious, accusatory and difficult was instead marked by a graciousness of spirit.  I don’t mean it lightly when I say that it was a privilege to act as chair for each of the stages and to help Synod do its work.

But then Synod embarked on three pieces of internal business – the House of Laity Election Rules 2020, the Clergy Election Rules 2020 and Convocations (Elections to Upper House) Rules 2020.  Three debates with acres of amendments.  There must be a better way than this for Synod to do this kind of business.  Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a very wise man and when he saw what Moses was up to said to him

‘What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you.’ (Exodus 18.14)

The context was Moses sitting alone in judgement as the people brought their disputes to him.  But the principle of delegation that Jethro recommends, the first instance in scripture (apart from God delegating stewardship of creation to Adam), is a powerful reminder in all governance, judicial and legislative settings that there has to be a better way.

The problem was that Synod was to end with two more important debates, one from the Diocese of Leeds on poverty and the church’s mission to the poorest sectors of our society and then a Private Member’s Motion on Legal Aid Reform.  Both were good debates – but we needed more time, the time eaten up by debates whose ‘chariot wheels’ had been clogged by amendments.  This Synod though has had a theme of justice, when we have not been looking internally.  We have looked at justice for LGBT people, justice for people of colour, justice for the victims and survivors of abuse, justice for the environment, justice for those in funeral poverty, justice for the marginalised in our communities, justice for those denied justice.  One member of Synod in one of the debates said that we were wrong to be spending time on such issues because one thing only mattered and that was that people believe the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ otherwise they will burn in hell.  When he said that I realised that we believe in a different God and follow a different Jesus.  The God I worship gave to his prophet Micah these words and this command

‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly’ (Micah 6.8)

The Jesus I know, the Jesus I follow is the one who stood before the scroll of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in which he had worshiped for so many years with his family and read out to them

‘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 4.18-19)

Good news is about the God of justice,  good news is about Jesus, good news is about the one who ’emptied himself’ (Philippians 2.7) embracing and inhabiting the poverty of human nature to bring us the riches of his grace.  This means that the church he loved into being, loves into life each and every day, seeks the justice which is characteristic of the kingdom – justice for the marginalised, excluded, ignored, persecuted, forgotten whoever, wherever they are.

This chapter closed with farewells, including, in his absence, a moving farewell to the Archbishop of York, Archbishop Sentamu.  In so many ways he has stood for this justice – not always as well as he might for all groups – but certainly, powerfully, for some.  I was grateful to him for his visible witness on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe.  Not wearing a dog collar, cutting it up in public, and vowing not to wear one again until President Mugabe was out of office was a gimmick but in the end a powerful witness.  Sadly, things are now worse for our sisters and brothers in that wonderful country than they were before, but I thank God for ++Sentamu’s witness and for the countless wonderful and loving brotherly hugs he has given to me over the years.  The chapter is closed but there is yet more to be written as this particular Synod gathers in July for its final time in York. God bless us ’til we meet again.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.  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.

socialhousing920-2014042412292756

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.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

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

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

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