Is this plan radical enough?

First published 19th September 2015

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Here is Bishop Mike's inaugural address given at the first meeting of the new Diocesan Synod on Saturday 19 September.

First, can I start by thanking you for your willingness to give your time and your experience to the Diocese by responding to the call to stand for election to the Synod. This Synod is the biggest Bristol has had for a number of years and, although we have some progress to make, much more diverse.

I hope you will make attendance a priority and that you will make your contribution. We shall certainly do what we can to facilitate that contribution…

Key question: How do we invest in the future while avoiding the mistakes of the past?

One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everything's fine today, that is our illusion Voltaire

Voltaire knew nothing of what organizational psychology calls status quo bias. That is, that individually and corporately we incline to make choices for the status quo - even when we can see some positive advantage in making some changes.

A good example is that though it is clear that regularly changing our bank accounts, credit card providers, or our utility suppliers will advantage us financially, most people dont make the switch. Thats status quo bias. Somehow its easier to do nothing!

It seems, according to an epic study originally undertaken in 1988 by William Samuelson and Richard Zuckhausen, that people have some kind of irrational bias to, and faith in, the way things are.

Well, we in the Church of England get this. Indeed we have become champions of the status quo. In some ways this is perfectly understandable. There is a right kind of conservatism in the Church. We have a tradition and a message to hand on, but, as the introduction to the Declaration of Assent reminds us, we proclaim this afresh in each generation.

This is far from easy. How do we connect with modern culture without trashing the tradition we have received? What is sadly very clear is that the Church of England is just not connecting with many of those sub cultures at the present time. Too many of our churches lack the diversity of the context in which they are set. We are called to be a Church for the nation. The critical question therefore is how do we reconnect?

Our conversations in recent times have led us to the belief that we need to rediscover the Church of England as a missionary movement. That is to say, we have to work out how we are to set about the challenging task of the re-evangelisation of our diocese.

But the secularization of our society, profound differences within the Church which could divide it, ageing and declining congregations, a shortfall in clergy numbers, financial challenges all can set us off course from our call.

The temptation, and I feel it myself, is to let the waves of cultural and societal change wash against the decreasing flood defenses of the Church and just hope that something, somehow, sometime will turn back the tide. We know that Jesus assured us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church but was a heavily institutional, now elderly Church what he had in mind?

Let me be clear: addressing this challenge of re-evangelisation is primarily the local church's call and responsibility. Ordained and lay disciples following the call to follow Jesus and to make Him known connecting with God so that others may be connected with Him and the world transformed.

The real question for me as the Bishop of this diocese is, How might my spiritual leadership help inspire and equip ordained and lay disciples across this diocese to fulfil that call?

The question for us as a Synod is how might the the Diocese, that strange mix of Church-as-organisation and the Church-as-a-connected-body, foster that connectedness and growth across our whole diocese for the long term.

This is a new Synod and before I depress you further by seeking to define further a little of the reality around us, I want you to understand that you, all of you, have a part (indeed a responsibility) to play in the shaping of this diocese for the future.

This is the forum in which we invite you to represent the wider Church in our debates together. In recent years we have sought to re-shape the Synod to be more about engagement with these key issues, consultation and feedback.

Over the past two years the previous Synod engaged in conversations about the shape of the new strategy to help us fulfil our call. A number of things emerged: We should be confident and renew our commitment to the Growth Programme to discipleship, mission and evangelism We have come a long way but not far enough we must change but build on and learn from the past In the context of scarce resources, we must find a way to both be fair in the way we provide ministry across the diocese and smart about how we invest for growth. We have to invest in the future.

I have already spoken about our call as Christians and local churches to become a missionary movement. As a Church nationally, discipleship and evangelism are now at the forefront of the Reform & Renewal Programme. Unsurprisingly and I hope reassuringly, in this diocese, whole life discipleship, which we have articulated through the Growth Programme, and evangelism have been at top of our agenda for some time. This sounds great, simple and uncontroversial but it is deeply challenging for all of us. Our commitment to prayer, self-sacrifice and reliance on God's strength will need to find new levels.

Truth be told, the challenges that the Archbishop and national Church are now raising to critical status are ones we have recognized and been addressing for some time as a diocese.

The reducing supply of clergy retirements outnumbering new ordinations is something we have substantial experience of. 60% of our benefices have experienced a change in leadership between 2010 and 2015. In one year, 10% of our incumbents retired! We addressed this creatively through offering change management support in vacancies, an approach other dioceses have now adopted. We have also had success in nurturing new vocations.

We have made tough decisions as a result of increased financial pressures and decisions of parishes to reduce their giving to the wider diocese to support ministry. We have driven down central costs but, like our parochial infrastructure, can only cut so far if we are to maintain our infrastructure and meet the basic requirements of organizational life in the 21st century responsibly.

We have been early adopters on these challenges and with relative success. There is much to celebrate and give thanks for and many of you here have had a part to play in this thank you! Crucially, we have learnt from what has worked and what hasnt and this has contributed to our strategy.

But the reality is we have only been in the foothills of these challenges and need both to increase our discipline and to make a step change to prepare for the ascent to come.

Part of this relates to how we share and allocate ministerial resources. The last Synod recognized that it cannot spread the ministerial jam ever more thinly and expect growth. Neither should we sustain situations which as a result of historical accident, precedent and one-off decisions rather than strategic intent are over-deployed or under-deployed in the overall scheme of things. This is neither just nor wise stewardship.

At the same time, the Synod saw that it needed to invest for growth in Christian disciples, in new ministers, in financial resources and in new ways of making Christ known. In developing our strategy, we have sought to find ways of bringing these together.

So our deployment strategy will provide a level playing field when it comes to appropriate ministry, but we also need to build now on that playing field.

We need to invest for the future. This means we need to focus on connecting with younger people both in terms of evangelism and in nurturing ministry and leadership. This is the step change, this is where we need to have a focused approach and this is what the mission area plan and ministry plan seeks to bring together.

Let me be clear, having Mission Areas is not a plan to re-structure the Diocese. They build on our parochial structure and life. Their introduction is about exploring how to create the best possible conditions for healthy growth and then sharing that elsewhere. They will also provide an environment for the training of new ministers who will be better prepared for the challenge of re-connecting the Church of England with the various sub cultures we need to reach in order that the Church reflects the wider diversity of society.

There is a lot of talk about the impact of amalgamations of parishes. The latest and most credible research has concluded that there is no discernible correlation between amalgamating parishes and either growth or decline.

What is simply obvious is that putting no growth parishes and benefices together and further withdrawing resources was probably doomed to failure from the beginning and merely accelerated the endemic decline in such amalgamations.

Our strategy seeks not only to avoid this obvious mistake but learn from other experiences. In developing this approach we have really tried not only to learn from our past experience, but also to learn from what has (and hasnt) worked in other dioceses.

We have recognized that, if we are to develop effective partnerships for mission, we cannot overpromise and under-deliver. The reality is that we do not have the resources or the capacity to make these work immediately across the diocese and it would be foolish to try.

As a result we will focus on piloting this approach in two or three areas in the immediate future. We need to focus our effort in order to learn and bring the benefits to the wider diocese in the future. In the meantime, we want to invite all parts of the diocese to consider if, how and when they want to opt into this approach.

Of course we have had a range of feedback about this primarily questions, a lot of affirmation and of course some concerns. We have tried to listen to and address this and I would like to address two concerns.

First the criticism that this is top down. I consider this both unjust and somewhat wrongheaded. This approach has come about as a result of wide and lengthy consultation. It has allowed ideas and good practice emerge bottom-up to inform strategy. This has inevitably slowed down our decision-making but we trust for the better. But any plan involves those in leadership co-ordinating and focusing action and policy and ultimately decisions about this need to be proposed and made for the benefit of the whole.

Second, the concern that this approach is not context sensitive or will reduce support for certain parishes, particularly those currently struggling. Well by proposing pilots which are marked by characteristics rather than criteria, these areas can develop in ways which are appropriate to their context. This will look different in rurality compared to a city centre or an outer-estate and we can share that learning, not only in future mission areas but also in every parish. This approach really can ensure that the support we offer as a diocese and the best practice that is out there, can be shared. Furthermore, we are seeking to level the playing field and guarantee ministerial support for all parishes in a way that is fair.

I understand peoples concerns. I have my own. I have said before that if I had an anxiety, it would be this: Is our plan radical enough?

Wherever and however you deploy resources, there is still a financial cost to be borne and that remains whatever. Can we recover confidence in the generosity of the parishes and benefices of the Diocese in meeting costs through the parish share. Time will tell…

The one thing I need to say is this and I have said it many times. Doing nothing is really not an option. This not least because when the National Church allocates its resources going forward they will want a level of accountability to re-assure themselves that these funds have been used in a strategic way. If we are to do anything different, we will rely on their financial support.

The Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council have challenged us to have a strategy that will not perpetuate the status quo but instead changes the way we approach mission and ministry. Our strategy offers that and they will only invest their resources in something that does. They have made it very clear that sponsoring decline is not something they will continue to do.

You would think that the Early Church might give us a beautiful theory that we might apply to all of this. If you think this, I think in relation to the first missionary drive of the Church, you would be mistaken. Jesus had told his disciples to go into all the world, but Acts reminds us that they got stuck in Jerusalem. Paul had not yet arrived on the scene and the Church was in grave danger of being subsumed into the Temple as a slightly off-beat sect of Judaism.

What drove them out of Jerusalem? Was it a rousing speech from a church leader reminding them of their Dominical commission? Was it a report from the central church pointing out the outcomes of the status quo? Was it some dramatic prophetic intervention of God? Well the answer to all these questions is a resounding no!

We read in Acts 8:1 the following:

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

In verse 4:

Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.

Adversity shook them out of their complacency. And it maybe that the only thing that will shake us out of our tendency to status quo bias will be the reality of the adverse climatic conditions we are facing.

It is within the power of all people to do nothing, wrote Samuel Johnson.

We need to wake up and do something. Feedback is important, but feedback borne of fear is just fear dressed up in rhetoric and is not generally backed up by any better plan.

This Synod may have the last opportunity for this Diocese to make some decisions that will create the sustainable infrastructure we shall require to take us into the future, (unless the Lord returns). Ultimately we must recall that this is not just about us, not about our lobby groups and campaigners but about God's big idea the Kingdom of God.

I trust that together we can and we will rise to the challenge.

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