‘Wearing thin’

Whatever else this particular Group of Sessions of the General Synod will be remembered for, it should be the debate on the IICSA report which happened on the final day. Yes, the Cathedrals Measure will make a big difference, yes, the shape of our Diocesan Boards of Education is important, yes, nothing can happen without sound budgeting but how we treat one another now and how we have ill-treated people in the past, the systemic, institutional failures, have to be faced up to.

Three survivors joined the debate and spoke to Synod. We have heard from people before, of course, but this felt different. Partly I think it was because if you had selected Speaker View on Zoom rather than Gallery View then the person was in your room with you, more immediate, strangely more present than when they are on the platform in Westminster or York, or if they are pre-recorded and on the screen in either of those places. This was an encounter at another level.

The other difference was that they were speaking to us after we had read the report of an independent group of people. Those who had in some way, for some reason, not really taken seriously the voice of survivors – and they are around – had to now listen.

I felt challenged to an extent that I hadn’t felt before, particularly challenged as a member of the governing body of an institution that I love and have given my life to serving. This was tough stuff but then it needed to be because those speaking to us had gone through the toughest stuff and it was out of that that they were speaking.

The third speaker held nothing back. The apologies that we had yet again made were, in his words, ‘wearing thin’. If we were sincere in these apologies then there needed to be ‘lasting change’. Having spent many years thinking about the issues around Sacramental Confession and safeguarding these words struck a chord with me.

As we all know that word ‘repentance’, metanoia μετάνοια in Greek, is all about a change of heart, a change of direction. It has been said by one commentator that ‘The elements of repentance, regret, reflection, and transformation are always present in the concept of metanoia to some degree.’ It is that to which the church is being called; it is to that that the penitent before the priest is called.

After the penitent has confessed their sins they then say, if a more traditional form of words is being used

For these and all my other sins that I cannot now remember, I am very sorry, firmly resolve not to sin again, and humbly ask pardon of God, and of you, father/mother, advice, penance and absolution.

There has to be this commitment to change, to not sin again, to turn your life around. It isn’t sufficient just to say sorry, and the priest needs to look for the genuine signs of true and deep repentance if they are doing their job in that situation. And if that is the ministry of the church to individuals the church must show the same signs in relation to its own acts of contrition, otherwise the ‘sorry’ wears very thin.

I think that this Synod was a Rubicon for the Church – or at least it should be. Rather than packing our bags and heading to the station or the car to get home we clicked on Leave at the bottom of the screen and put the Zoom password into trash. The Crystal maze was behind us, Synod was done. But it can’t be as simple as that this time.

There is of course a challenge in the Gospel for us.

Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18.21-22)

There is a boundless generosity in the love of God, God’s love does not ‘wear thin’ but instead in the thin places and the thin moments of our lives is felt even more intensely. But we need to hold on to the words that have been said to us, because for some it feels as though they have been hearing the ‘seventy-seven times’ and it IS wearing thin.

One member of Synod summed the whole thing up, however, with another piece of scripture. For me it made sense of everything – of our vision, of our budgeting, of our life as institutions, of the questions that we ask of each other, of the mazes that we can find ourselves in. It was those words of the prophet Micah, and these were the words and this was the prayer with which I left the Zoom screen and the Synod on this occasion, and with a desire to do different, to be different and to do better.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.8)

Reality

In one of his ‘Four Quartets’ the poet T S Eliot says

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

I had the feeling today that we were being asked to cope with a great deal of reality in the General Synod.  I’m not complaining.  The priestly task is precisely that, engaging in the reality of the world and bringing it to the altar.  That is what is at the heart of the incarnation.  God enters into the depths of our reality and engages with it.  Jesus is the most real person, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is constantly wanting to make clear

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things. (Hebrews 2.14)

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The ‘flesh and blood’ that Synod was asked to engage with today was real and painful.  We began with the response of the Church of England to the first report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). I, like so many millions of people, watched with horror the two documentaries that the BBC recently showed into the Peter Ball abuse scandal.  I watched as the stories of victims and survivors were told.  I wept, as I am sure you did, at the inadequacy, no, it was more than inadequacy, the complicit inability of the church and its leadership to engage with reality when it was presented to it.  One speaker in the debate today commented that they were surprised by the reaction of people to the documentaries, as though they didn’t know what had been going on.  It was all in the reports we were told, and that is true.  But the way in which the story, the reality was presented to us, that was new and that was so powerful.

The debate on the response of the church to the IICSA report was powerful, painful, honest.  But it left me feeling … well, I don’t know to be honest, numb, guilty, angry, sorry, all those things and more.  But what is any of that compared with those whose lives have been damaged, permanently scarred by what they have suffered at the hands of those in the church they trusted?

That debate was followed by one on the Climate Emergency and Carbon Reduction Target.  Again, it was a deeply powerful debate and there was an almost palpable sense of powerlessness in the chamber.  The issues are so huge, what can we possibly do?  I had proposed an amendment, to name cathedrals specifically in the Motion so that we work alongside the rest of the church and are challenged alongside the rest of the church in achieving the zero emissions target.  Another amendment, which was also accepted, but not one proposed by me, changed this target from 2045 to 2030.  I didn’t support that – I think we are being unrealistic.  But the decision was made and that is what we have committed ourselves too – and, in a way, good for us for being so bold. Climate change is a present reality for so many of our sisters and brothers and we must never forget that.

But the final bit of ‘very much reality’ came in the afternoon, in the debate on Paupers’ Funerals.  The very phrase sends a shiver down the spine but, as we heard there has been a 70% rise in the number of these funerals over the last three years.  You would have thought such things were Dickensian, the experience of young Oliver Twist when he is working with the undertaker Mr Sowerberry. But this is now our reality, when people go into debt to afford a funeral for their loved one, when some councils will not allow family or religion at a ‘Public Health Funeral’, when families do not get to know when the funeral is taking place and will not get the cremated remains of their loved one back, simply because they are poor and I suppose, in Dickensian terms, are ‘undeserving’ of common human dignity and respect.

It was a painful and disturbing debate.  But my mind went to the texts of the Requiem Mass where so many find their comfort in the face of death.  At the very end of the Mass, before the coffin is carried from the church, the choir sings the ‘In paradisum’

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.

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Dives and Lazarus and their changed realities

At the gate of the rich man’s house lies the pauper Lazarus.  Luke tells the tale in Luke 16:19-31.  The rich man and the pauper, the poor man, Lazarus, both die.  But the poor man’s reward is rich in heaven.  Whoever is before us at the Requiem we sing of the pauper, and that is how it should be.  The harsh reality in the parable is this, as Abraham, our father, speaks,

“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” (Luke 16.25)

Is this more reality than you can bear, the abuse of the innocent, the rape of the planet, the plight of the dead, the sorrow of the living?  But it is for this reality, into this reality that Jesus came, that Jesus comes, and this reality with which the church must engage.

Incarnate Lord,
you share my flesh,
you share my pain,
may I share your joy,
in your kingdom reality.
Amen.

The beauty of holiness

On Sunday we all go to church.  In fact we all go to York Minster and that is always a treat.  This morning ++Sentamu was presiding and ++Justin was preaching.  The Minster was full and it was all very lovely.  The Archbishop preached about the state of the nation and the need for reconciliation and the role that we, as the Church of England, have in helping with that.  I am sure he is right, the question we were asking each other as we walked back from the Minster to the University was ‘How?’.

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The Eucharist at the Minster always ends in the same way.  The organ plays as the altar party leaves and the choir follows and then as they reach a certain place in the nave they take over singing a setting of Psalm 150, unaccompanied and to a chant by ‘George Surtees Talbot (1875-1918) sometime Vicar Choral of York Minister’ as it says in the order of service.  The treble voices soar at the end of each verse and as the choir moves out of the nave and into the choir aisle the sound becomes more distant and more ethereal.  Even Google seems to know little more about Talbot apart from that he published one book.  There is no picture available online, nothing but these beautiful notes which much captivate thousands of people each year as the Eucharist ends and they prepare to leave the Minster ‘To love and serve the Lord’.  Leaving with the ‘beauty of holiness’ ringing in our ears must be part of the response we need to make to the nation, witnessing to the reality of our reconciling God, being salt and light, being bridge-builders, truth-tellers, peace-makers.

So we are back at the University and after lunch back to an afternoon of business.  Sunday afternoons should be about sleeping off a big roast lunch (with Yorkshire Pudding) and a bottle of claret with your feet on the sofa and a Doris Day film on the tele.  Not for us.  We will begin with Safeguarding Questions followed by a presentation on Safeguarding.  As the IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) continues and members of the Church of England are being called to give evidence and we are hearing the voices of survivors, these will be important pieces of business.

Then we will move on to a debate that has been ongoing for years and years and years, the discussions between the Methodist Church and the Church of England.  This debate is called ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’ and will call on the church to move forward.  I will be chairing this debate so I will say no more, only what a delight it was to sing one of the great hymns by Charles Wesley, ‘And can it be’.  That final verse should be ringing in our ears as much as the lovely Psalm 150.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Then this Session will finish with a debate on a motion from the Diocese of Southwark on ‘Refugee Professionals’.  It will encourage us to see refugees as a gift and not an ‘issue’, not a ‘problem’, arriving as so many do with the most amazing skills and professional backgrounds, which are so often ignored, so often wasted.

So, a busy and very serious afternoon.  So if you are watching Doris Day with your feet up, enjoy, and spare a thought for us.

Holy Spirit,
guide our thoughts,
our words,
our actions,
that filled with the beauty of your holiness
we may serve the world.
Amen.

A safe church

I couldn’t be in the Synod Chamber for the start of today’s business, as much as I wanted to be.  In fact, I was on the ‘Big Breakfast’ show on ‘Premier Radio’ with Lisa Gutwein, a member of the congregation at Southwark Cathedral and also the author of the recently published book ‘Doorkins the Cathedral Cat’.  The interview had been in the diary for a long time and we were keen to tell the story of Doorkins, so that was why I was there. It may sound very trivial compared with the importance of the debate that was going on just down the road, on Safeguarding in the church and I suppose in reality it is.  But there is a deeper message to Doorkins than just the story of a cute tabby cat.

Doorkins arrived at the Cathedral doors in 2008.  She was a stray who somehow found her way into the churchyard.  The vergers noticed her there each morning and after a while put out food for her.  Then they put the food inside, in the warm and very cautiously she made her way across the threshold and into the building.  And she decided it was safe to stay.  Since then she has become a feature of our life and a much loved part of the Southwark Cathedral family.  She is still a bit wild and can be grumpy and challenging but she can also be loving – not so different from a lot of people who come to church!  We don’t know her story and why she was on the streets – and, of course, we never will.  She was God’s little gift to us.

Her story is a parable of what a safe church should be, simply that, safe, whoever you are.  Unfortunately all the incidents of abuse that are now known about and those yet to be disclosed happened in or around churches perpetrated by people, clergy and laity, who used their power to prey on others, children, vulnerable adults, of whom they took advantage.  The safe church became the unsafe environment.  We all need a safe space, we can all be vulnerable when all of a sudden there is a power imbalance and the church should and must be safe.  Getting there will take a lot of doing and rebuilding trust will take a long time.  The debate in Synod today was just another stage on the journey – but as we were clearly told, there has to be a change of culture and that change will involve how each of us thinks and speaks and acts. We have to change.

This Group of Sessions ended with a debate on Valuing People with Down’s Syndrome.  As I had anticipated it was powerful and moving.  I felt tears welling up at various points as I heard some of the contributions.  We rejoiced when we were told about a young man, Simon, who had encouraged his congregation in the sharing of the Peace – not just a polite shake of the hand but the trusting hug.  He was bringing his warmth to warm up the church.

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Two members of Synod, themselves living with disability, made powerful contributions.  Rachel Wilson said to us

‘The beginning of an individual’s story does not dictate its end’

That is true for each one of us.  And Tim Goode said to us

‘I give thanks to God that I have to live an interdependent life.’

Interdependence has to be the hallmark of what it means to be church.

Some wanted to draw us into the issue of abortion and Synod resisted that, and for good reason.  This was a Motion aimed at Her Majesty’s Government and it needed to be clear and focused and the final Motion, slightly amended and supported by everyone who voted, is just that.

But the final short film we saw of young people with Down’s Syndrome thanking us, each in their own way, but reach with lovely, genuine smiles was both heart-warming and deeply powerful.  These are our sisters and brothers, who like you and me can be vulnerable and need both a safe church and a welcoming world.  We would be poorer without them.

In between these two debates we talked about Religious Communities and about Digital Evangelism, both useful and good debates.

All in all it has been a fascinating Synod that has taken us here and there, to places we haven’t been before.  But as the psalmist says in Psalm 139

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
(Psalm 139.6)

There is no place where God is not and this Synod has reminded us of that fact.

Jesus,
you entered an unsafe world
and paid the price
for us, for me.
May we create a safe church
in which your wounded hands
embrace all your children.
Amen.

From bats to sentinels

Who ever said life in Synod is boring? Where else could you be on a Saturday in July that would take you from bats to sentinels in just a few hours? I said that this Group of Sessions was about tying up loose ends and, metaphorically speaking, putting the cat out. But it’s proving to be much more than that.

One of the joys of the day was being able to see Bishop Michael Perham again. Michael’s departure from Gloucester was overshadowed by events and his formal farewell from Synod delayed. But now we had the opportunity to thank him for all that he gave to the church, in the places where he ministered and on the bigger stage. I was always struck by his ability to see the big picture and to be able to galvanise support from his (then) brother bishops in support of the ordination of his (to be) sister bishops. I had the privilege to be involved in some late night tactical meetings during the debates on the ordination of women to the episcopate in which Michael brought together a range of us who were concerned to see this happen and who, in some way, represented a constituency. I was there because of my role in the Society of Catholic Priests and, I have to say, brought little to the meetings (I’m not a tactician). So I gained more from sitting there than I gave and what I gained, amongst other things, was a deep respect for Michael. We will miss him. The warmth of the applause as Synod rose to its collective feet to bid farewell to him was no more than he deserved.

Bishop Michael - a final farewell

Bishop Michael – a final farewell

The day began however with a draft Safeguarding and Clergy Discipline Measure. Creating a safe church is one of the most important tasks that faces the church at the moment. It is all about the core values that we have and the core values in the ministry of Jesus and the core values in the Good News that we bring. But the behaviour of individuals and the institution as a whole has not just let down people and the nation but betrayed Christ. Safeguarding takes up a huge amount of time, emotional energy and resources at the moment – and that is as it should be. We owe it to survivors and we owe it to those who come to us in trust and bring their children to us in trust and think that we can be trusted and that the church is a safe place, is a sanctuary for them in their vulnerability, to do better and to do what is right. Too often we have not been a safe place.

Getting it right at the moment seems to be all about policies and procedures. Of course, at the moment it is and this was what the debate centred on. But we mustn’t forget that what is even more important is a change of culture, a change of mind-set, a change of behaviour. If Southwark Cathedral, for instance, is to be a truly inclusive church then it must be a safe church and that means that everyone of us who worships or works there has to believe that to be our first responsibility, our first priority and live and learn and be, so that that is true and so that the parent of a child or a vulnerable person can trust that it is true.

It was fantastic that in the voting the whole Synod gave its full support to this Measure and the Amending Canon that accompanied it. But the work continues – in fact it has only begun.

The bats appeared in a debate that followed on the new Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015. These have come out of the ‘simplification’ process. As one person commented, it can only be in the church that a 126 page document could be described as simple. But through the revisions the processes whereby a PCC applies for a Faculty to do work in church, and the work of the DAC and the Archdeacon and Registrar as well as the Chancellor of the Diocese are clarified and in many cases streamlined (in fact Archdeacons come out of it with more work and responsibilities but they seem to welcome that).

One great comment though that has been well Tweeted was by one member who said that there were three things in his view that stood in the way of mission in rural churches ‘blocked gutters, bats and the Victorian Society’. The gutters create damp and decaying church buildings; the bats create a stinking environment that keeps people away and the Victorian Society, with its devotion to poor examples of Victorian pitch-pine pews, stands in the way of the flexible use of space by church and wider community.

Bats and the church

Bats and the church

Before I’m attacked for being anti-bats or anti the Victorian Society no one was saying either of those things and neither am I. But it was a plea to work together on issues that face churches and can hamper the purpose of our great buildings. No one spoke in defence of blocked gutters!

It was good to see the work of the ‘Simplification Group’ coming through in such a helpful way.

In between these debates there was another example of simplification and that was in relation to the creation of ‘interim posts’. These will be appointments for up to three years, renewable for a further three, of a priest whose specific job is to look after a parish or group that needs particular skills and care in the interim. It works well in other parts of the Anglican Communion, not least the Episcopal Church in the USA, and gives dioceses real flexibility in the future.

After lunch and the farewell to Bishop Michael we moved into a take note debate on the report of the Faith and Order Commission on Senior Church Leadership. In what could easily have been seen as a bit of a ‘graveyard slot’ after lunch it was a really excellent debate. There is a huge amount of talk at the moment in the Church of England about leadership. I have been involved, as a Dean, in the mini-MBA that has been organised for us in Cambridge. It was excellent but I was very concerned at the lack of space in that course to reflect theologically on what we understand as leadership in the church.

The Green Report was also heavily criticised – and I think justifiably so – for too much emphasis and us of language drawn from business models of leadership especially when those models have led the world into financial crisis, Greece to the edge of the abyss and the poorest and most vulnerable picking up the bill. Has that model anything valid to say to us?

This, by contrast, is a very good report and has much to say and much to teach and from a deeply biblical and theological basis. The quality of the debate reflected that. After all, what does it mean to be a leader in the church when you are principally a follower; as one speaker said ‘Before you were a leader you were a Christian’ and it is that prior calling and vocation out of which all else flows. What does it mean to be a successful leader when Jesus looked like a failure in the world’s eyes and when those he ‘led’ fled from him? What does it mean to hitch your life and ministry to one who says in Matthew and Mark

‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve’ (Matthew 20.28)

who in John’s Gospel washes his disciples feet and assumes the role of the servant, who as Paul says in Philippians 2.7

’emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,’

This is a challenge to all of us in leadership positions. At the moment the church seems obsessed with bishops and the number of old Sees being revived and filled is a testimony to that. What happened to the NHS when it was seen to be failing – create more top level leaders!

Simon Stylites - a model for episcopal ministry?

Simon Stylites – a model for episcopal ministry?

So I was pleased that the Bishop of Chelmsford reminded us of something in the Ordinal for Bishops, that a bishop is called and set apart to be, amongst other things, a sentinel. He admitted it could be boring, just watching, but having that oversight, the long view, to see what is coming, to celebrate and to warn, to look to the horizon – it was a great reminder. From the top of the tower you might even see the bats coming!

Lord Jesus,
you call us to be followers,
servants of others,
foot-washers,
bread-breakers,
watchers
and friends.
May that be our vocation.
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