Bishop's Address - 20th September 2014

First published 15th October 2014
Anyone who was involved in any way with the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury over the past weekend, cannot but help to have been encouraged and inspired by his energy, his total lack of stuffiness (dont call me Your Grace, Im Justin) and his evangelistic zeal, drive and competence. My overall sense was that he was in his sweet spot.

I am aware that a huge number of people were involved with the planning and the execution of all this and I want to take this opportunity to than all those whose effort and imagination delivered with great efficiency a schedule, that to be honest, I thought was unattainable Oh ye of little faith! The involvement of other churches across the city was also welcome and encouraging.

I have so many good and moving memories; the Archbishop responding to a grilling from some sixth formers at St Mary Redcliffe school; Standing Room Only at the Cathedral; being prayed for by a bunch of Koreans at Hope Chapel; the Archbishop with the street pastors of Kingswood talking comfortably and naturally with clubbers; the time with our clergy and LLMs; the Malmesbury Baptisms and the magnificent Eucharist in the Cathedral on Sunday morning followed by a discussion on education chaired by the Dean.

These are all memories that I will cherish.

I had to leave the weekend to go to the House of Bishops meeting on Sunday evening, a swallow dive of such steep trajectory that I confess that on Monday, I felt a little flat! More about that in a few moments.

One part of the weekend that was hidden from the sight of most of you was on the Saturday evening when we held a dinner with my staff and the Archbishop and his staff. I want to give some time to outline the nature of our discussion. After all, its not every evening you have the undivided attention of the Senior Anglican leader in of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as a captive audience at your dinner table!

We discussed some weighty themes, some of which address where we are as a Diocese. The Archbishop was frank in his assessment of the national church. If our decline were to continueat the present rate for the next ten years, we would lose the critical mass required to effect any meaningful recovery.

Of course, Holy Writ tells us that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church of God, but in itself that does not secure the future of the Church of England. The Archbishop believes, and I agree with him, that we need to change our approach to the culture into which we minister, and like all good leaders he models the change that he talks about.

We asked him honestly whether our commitment as a Diocese to invest exclusively in the growth programme was a wise thing? The Archbishop was very clear that this was the only appropriate decision, indeed that it was the only sensible decision that Dioceses in the Church of England could and should make in the current climate.

If I might make a momentary detour for a moment, I need to mention and for you to celebrate that this Diocese is highly rated in the national church. We rank second in terms of our leadership development across the national church. Our pastoral care and the way we manage this is equally highly rated by you. I heard yesterday that the effectiveness of our Church Growth courses are ranked in the top five across our Church. I want to take a moment to thank our Ministry Development team for all their effort and hard work in achieving these significant outcomes. This is all the more remarkable as this has been achieved with very limited resources.

The reality is however, that over my years as your bishop we have done little more than stop the decline that was a mark of this Diocese over a long period. Again, this in itself is not insignificant in terms of the fact that we have achieved this in a context of shrinking resources, and here I want to thank my clergy and LLM colleagues and all of you who have bought into the growth agenda we have so doggedly stuck with in recent years. Many of our churches are growing and still too many are not, but we continue to pray, that as we plant and others water, so God will give us the growth.

For me this needs to be based on a major and honest re-assessment of what we think we are doing in our churches in a post-Christian community. Lesslie Newbigin has rightly pointed out that the challenges of evangelisation in a post Christian Culture are more complex than those challenges faced by the early Church, which of course ministered into a pre Christian context. Too much of what we do; too much of our cultural self understanding is based, I believe on the assumptions of Christendom and will frankly just not be fit for purpose.

There are somewho stand in the way of the kind of changes required to be a church thathas a missiological edge to it. Churches which are governed by what the choir and or music director will tolerate or where the music group sings the same song over and over again till we all collapse exhausted, need to think again.

The South West regional bishops have the issue of clergy and lay training in their sights and propose to meet with regional theological educators to discuss how to prepare those women and men who feel called to licensed ministry, lay or ordained to be even more properly equipped to meet the challenges we face. Our own Ministry Development Team will continue to work on the agenda of equipping the whole people of God for their calling.

Let me restate what I have said to you many times before that a missionary church requires more theology not less. A theology lite church will certainly not be fit to meet the apologetic challenges of the world in which we have to contend for truth in the market place of ideas, some of which are deeply destructive of humanity.

Of course the great danger in our world is that the great god of our consumerised world choice means that the call to discipleship becomes just one of a set of generally superficial lifestyle choices. Thus denominational affiliation amongst the young is non-existent and the overall feel of Christianity in the West is that of a tired and ever so slightly indulgent faith. Let me remind you of a basic truth of the response to follow Christ. Bonhoeffer put it starkly, "when Christ calls a man or woman, he bids them come and die."

A recent Synod - you! - agreed that we should re-focus our shrinking resources for the next phase of our strategy on the growth programme. It has been pointed out that this will mean some tough decisions on where we focus those resources.

We questioned the Archbishop as to whether the published mission statement of the C of E was a help or a hindrance in the current climate and I quote the mission, a Christian presence in every community.

In itself there is nothing wrong with this other than its common interpretation ie. A Christian presence equals a building, preferably neo gothic in style, a stipendiary clergy person or part thereof preferably living in a nice house. The issue is not particularly whether such a vision is right or wrong, simply that it is becoming completely unaffordable and raises expectations that increasingly we are unable to meet. I think it would be fair to say that the Archbishop gave us encouragement to think imaginatively and creatively as to how we tackle these challenges going forward. We propose to do this with your help and involvement.

To close, I want to bring you up to date on the outworking of the Pilling Report. This was the report of the House of Bishops Working Party on Human Sexuality. One of its strongest recommendations, given the green light by General Synod back in July, was for the whole Church of England to hold facilitated conversations around the issue of the Church's teaching on human sexuality and the new understanding and context of human sexuality in the 21st century. Of course, there is a degree of fear from all sides of this debate, which is not conducive to what the Archbishop speaks about when he talks about the Church modelling good disagreement.

What I can tell you is that the first round of consultations will be done on a regional basis. My staff will be asked to ensure that all sides of the debate are well represented at the Regional consultations and we will be sending 12 representatives to these consultations, dates and venues yet to be decided upon.

Earlier this week the House of Bishops met in Market Bosworth to try and shape these conversations. The event made some progress and what became clear is that there will also be Diocesan facilitated conversations following the Regional events. We shall be offered the use of professional facilitators recruited by the Archbishops Adviser for Reconciliation, Canon David Porter and they will be made available for both regional and Diocesan conversations.

My own sense is that bishops should not be present at these conversations as sometimes the presence of a bishop can inhibit people from saying what they really think though I cant say thats been my experience within this Diocese though more seriously, because my conservative views are well known and as a bishop I have a concern to teach what the Church teaches and by implication, not to teach what the Church doesnt teach, I think it would be liberating for the conversations not to have your bishops present

The common thread that joins together the two issues I have spoken about today is this. How does the Church engage with contemporary society with the Good News of the Gospel, when clearly there are many who find the Good News less than good!

  • What is the good news for gay, lesbian bi-sexual and transgender people?

  • What might be the cost of discipleship look like in relation to my sexuality and how should that be exercised?

When Christ calls a woman or man he bids them come and die Whether we are speaking of evangelisation or justice we must never forget the truth that Christian discipleship is a risky business. As Eugene Peterson said, the Gospel is free but it is never cheap. What will not cut the mustard in our world today is a low octane, low commitment easy believism driven solely by what St Paul called the wisdom of this world. There are lots of things we can squabble over but people find it very difficult to argue with whole-hearted commitment.

This weekend, I was really proud of you all and this great diocese and what you are doing. The Archbishop was gracious in his appreciation and encouragement of what we are trying to do, for he recognises that we are trying to work with the reality of whats going on around us. Our task is exciting, thrilling and highly risky. God, in Christ has shown His commitment to us in that, whilst we were sinners Christ died for us. Let us pray that our commitment to Him and His purposes will be robust.

See from his head, his hands, his feet,

sorrow and love flow mingling down;

Did ere such love and sorrow meet,

Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were an offering far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul my life my all.


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