Bishop Viv's Diocesan Synod Address - March 2019

First published 5th March 2019

In her address to Diocesan Synod on 2 March 2019, Bishop Viv spoke of how our churches can be safe places in times of turmoil and uncertainty, and the spiritual gift of lamenting.

Later this morning, we consider creation care, as the General Synod did last week. God's call to care for our environment is an aspect of mission which finds a ready ear in parts of our diocese. Bristol is striving to be a green city. Later this morning, we will also hear of our Uganda link, and those who have visited will know that our sisters and brothers in Uganda now experience the significant impact of climate change on their lives and livelihoods.

Meanwhile, we meet while the political turbulence in our nation continues; and, as I discovered last week in London, as fast as our plans as church leaders are made to respond to Brexit, they have to be unmade as timetables shift. Only uncertainty remains constant.

Two weeks ago, Swindon found itself caught between the increasing priority of care for creation and that political uncertainty. Honda opted for the greater certainty of drawing its production back to Japan, leaving 3,500 employees threatened with the loss of their jobs, and thousands more redundancies and business failures probable as suppliers and contractors lose trade. The impact on the local economy, on social bonds, on local identity and on morale will be significant.

Graham Archer, Acting Archdeacon of Malmesbury, emailed the parishes closest to the Honda plant with wise and practical suggestions, learnt from his own ministry in a situation of rapid changing employment at Felixstowe Docks. He wrote of the need for contact with those directly affected; amongst them are executives who have known the Honda decision for some time, but have had to carry the burden of that knowledge alone. Then there are those who now know they will lose their jobs and will already be making decisions about the possibility of moving away (and in my experience it is the most able who leave first); those who are looking at their finances and realising that they are now over-committed; and the suppliers and traders, for whom not knowing what the future will offer is the hardest thing to handle. All that is alongside, and within, a local authority already struggling, and which is likely to lose several million pounds of business rates which, until now, it has been receiving annually from Honda.

Graham went on to suggest that our churches can be safe places where people can express both their anger and their fears, whether in pastoral encounters or in worship. It is in worship we proclaim our faith in what God in Christ wants our world to be, and where we lament at our failure to make Christs rule a reality. So, with this news, we lament the loss of good jobs. 

My grandfather was apprenticed at 14 as an engineer and worked on production lines in Filton eventually as a foreman. That work gave him identity and pride, as well as earning him a living. Theologically (though he would never have put it like this), he partnered God in creativity and custodianship, and the shop floor was, for him, a good community, a place of solidarity and care. Our English culture does not readily prize manufacturing skill, nor does it prize the work of those who manage large scale engineering projects. That English culture is reflected in our English Church, where industrial chaplaincy has faded away, and where I struggled last week to find prayers for those who work on a production line, or those who trade from white vans, or who strive to get the investment their business needs to develop, or those who long simply to survive with a job.

Bishop Lee put his lament in a tweet: 

The shock of hearing Honda are closing the plant at Swindon hit me deep in my gut. It was a combination of shock, huge concern for the town and those affected, together with a sense of anger. They are all marks of compassion. Holding these in tension can build hope and a future.

Lament is a spiritual gift exercised by prophets, by the Psalmist, by Job, by Jesus. Remember the shortest verse of the Bible: Jesus wept? Remember how Jesus wept over the city? And when the Prophets and the Psalmist and Job and Jesus lamented, they did so because they had a profound understanding of how God's world should be, and a deep recognition that the reality they experienced was so very far from it.

We have recovered the spiritual gift of lament in recent times, thanks particularly to the writing of Gordon Mursell and the recently published prayers of Walter Brueggemann. Because, in lament, we describe the gap between what is and what should be, and we also claim the hope that the future can and will be different.

So, if the first part of Grahams suggested response was pastoral, the second was practical. Can, as he suggested, churches in Swindon consider how they might work with the local business, authority and charities, including, for instance, Church Action on Poverty which has expertise in Job Clubs, to find practical ways through for those who lose their jobs? And beyond that, is there the possibility of partnership with the Church Urban Fund to work with local communities where there is already significant deprivation?

As Brueggemann put it:

Teach us how to weep while we wait
And how to hope while we weep
And how to care while we hope.

Beyond the creation of safe space for lament, and the work of projects, however apparently fragile or insignificant, which will offer the promise of hope, there will also be the courageous work of engaging with, of standing up against, those who do not wish their neighbours well, and those who, in difficult times, will blame and divide their communities. That struggle is a Lenten task, our equivalent of Jesus encounter with the devil.

We need also to work with determination to keep communities together, and with those who work for the common good, for peace and for justice. For we have a vocation to proclaim that justice, which is rooted deep in the oracles of the prophets, which is enacted in the life and work of Jesus, and which is taken up by the church as the body of Christ. The church will continue to work with and for Christ, announcing and building his kingdom; that kingdom particularly visible amongst the poorest and the marginalised.

It was that bias to the poor and marginalised, articulated so clearly by the prophets, which was picked up by the 18th century Anglican politician Edmund Burke, for a while a renowned and significant Member of Parliament for Bristol, and who has a statue at the heart of the city, next to that of Colston. In words quoted by Archbishop Justin in the final Synod debate (which was rather grandly headlined The State of the Nation), Burke spoke of the church:

which says that their God is love, that the very vital spirit of their institution is a charity; a religion which so much hates oppression that when the God, whom we adore, appeared in human form, he did not appear in a form of greatness and majesty, but in sympathy with the lowest of the people and thereby made it a firm and ruling principle that their welfare was the object of all government. 

Those words were given in a speech in the House of Commons in criticism of the iniquities of imperial rule in India. As a church, we have had through the centuries, and have still, to speak publicly of our faith, a vocation to speak out for justice, to work with those in authority, to hold authorities to account, and to pray for those in authority.

I spoke on the decision made by Honda in the General Synod debate. Afterwards a young priest I knew from York Diocese came up to see me. His parish church looks across to Redcar, and he had watched as the blast furnace had been turned off in 2015. He and other clergy and lay people have worked with local councillors, with the Chief Executive, with trades unions, with all those prepared to join in advocating on behalf of all those affected. And, with tears in his eyes, he said: "It has been hell, but at long last we are finding resurrection."

A 60 million investment has been brought into Teeside to enable new enterprise and support new skills. There is in Redcar a new spirit of hope. Closer to home Bishop Lee, as Bishop of Swindon, is now in touch with Swindon leaders who are working with government to find support. We must pray for him, and for all those he is working with, that in Swindon too there will be a new spirit of hope.

As Graham put it, and put it well:

Lifes difficulties can be a source of darkness and enmity, but in the cut and thrust of good and evil, hopes and fears, they can also be an enormous time of grace as the church finds its heart for brokenness and commitment to prayerful service.

I am grateful to Bishop Lee, to Acting Archdeacon Graham, to Area Dean Clive Deverell and to all those whose work in Swindon has just begun. And all of us are involved. In this diocese, which is relatively small, but is made of a complex set of communities and interests, we have the task of holding together. From Bristol, Swindon can seem a world away. When I explain to Bristolians that the Diocese extends beyond Swindon, the response is near incredulity.

So, as a reminder of the people, lay and ordained, who will be bearing the brunt of care, of practical action, of prophetic proclamation, if you are from the Deanery of Swindon, or are affected by the decision of Honda, please stand.

For the coming many months months may we, whether from South Glos or North Wilts or the city of Bristol, may all of us hold Swindon and its people close to our hearts, that they may know our care for them, and our holding out Christs hope to and for them.

For each of us, all of us are the Diocese of Bristol.

We are the Diocese of Bristol.

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