As I have said twice before, it is a great pleasure to be at this new physical synod. Thank you all for the time you have given, for your dedication and your passion. If you are new to the Synod, this is a moment of change, in which your contribution, your wisdom, your thinking, your prayer, and your insight will be invaluable and irreplaceable.
However, there was never a time when the church was unchanged. Change comes from society, from culture, from context, above all from Christ’s command – to be transformed, to be a council, to be on the road together, to travel.
In John, 21 students go fishing. There is no point in doing the wrong thing. Like many here, they have to earn a living – put food on the table – so they do the craft. In fact, the presence of Jesus dedicates the search for what they do. Nor is there any reproach for not catching fish. It happens.
But as we read, other stories about fishing come to mind. Above all, there is Luke’s report on the catch of fish in Luke, chapter 5. More than that, in the very Gospel of John, we remember John 15: 5: “You can do nothing but me.” Capture failure is annoying. The answer to the stranger’s question on the beach is short. “You didn’t catch anything, did you?” “No.” The irritation is clear, but the obedience is also clear, and the result is that in a few moments they go from no fish to more fish than they can handle. They threw a net on the right side of the boat, which is my text for this speech.
The greatest danger of the Synod is that it encourages us to think that we are acting on our own, or in any case, that we can somehow do something without the intense listening that is inherent in disciples after the resurrection, and the call is on all disciples today.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, our first and most important task is to listen to Christ, above all in careful meditation on the scriptures and in prayer. But also in listening to each other and in trying to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit.
The Synod, therefore, is not only a council of assembly, but also a place of common encounter with the Living God. Which brings me to the current look and our context in which we listen.
Numerically, the number of regular church visitors has been declining in absolute terms each year since about 1952, 70 years the following year. As a percentage of the population of England, the Church of England was at its peak, when accurate records existed, in the 1851 census when we were about 20% of the population, about a few percentage points less than what was then called nonconformist churches. Today it makes us just under 2% of the population.
Institutionally, in the years that followed from 1851, we went through waves of change. And while we are currently in the middle of such a wave, and this Synod will be crucial in how we will ride on that wave and how it shapes us, in each there was a fear that we would lose our tradition, our history, our past. Ever since before the Norman Conquest, indeed long before the Synod of Whitby in 664, population movements and the evangelization of the nation have led to change.
The parish in which I served was the church from the Priory in Coventry from the end of the 13th century. The record from the General Synod 1280-1285 shows that the recorder reported “the greatest noise of those from your movement for the preservation of our priories.” (This last sentence is, of course, completely fictional.)
In the 19th century, a huge number of new missionary churches and new parishes, or daughter churches, were created to cope with the expansion of the population in urban areas. In the 20th century, liturgical reform led to great protests and dissatisfaction. The parish community movement has changed a lot. There have been profound changes in dressing, church attendance habits, and church models. I think it wasn’t until 1942 that women were allowed to go to church without wearing hats. In this century, as in the 19th, changes in the nature of society require change.
But change is not, must not be, cannot be, should not be, will not be, the abandonment of our past.
A remarkable, courageous and persuasive Australian Indigenous pastor, Pastor Ray, whom I met in Glasgow the week before last and whom I met earlier on Zoom calls – he worships at the Anglican Church in the Sydney Diocese – fought hard for Indigenous rights in Australia. He is the seventh generation of indigenous people, his family to be ordained, to be pastor in Australia – and remember that it was not until 1967 that the Australian constitution published a clause that indigenous people were not recognized as human beings or citizens were removed, generations before toga.
He told me a few weeks ago, that his people are talking about “walking backwards into the future” so they can see their past and keep that deep sense of what that past means to them. That’s important. They are moving towards the future, but they are not losing sight of their tradition, their wisdom and their heritage.
The disciples are fishing, and yet they need Christ’s call, and Christ’s equipment and Christ’s work to tell them where to fish. They guard the fishing, but for the fishing technique they must listen to Christ.
The reality is that a tremendous amount of work is being done at every point of this remarkable Church for England of which we are a part. People talk about falling too easily, but they lack the energy that motivates us.
Internally, we will look at reforms and changes that aim to focus resources where they are most needed, providing support anywhere and everywhere that shows signs of the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Discernment and obedience, throwing the net to the right side, require decision and action, and they need vision and strategy. So, internally, the Church of England strives to have a clear sense of what it is and where it is going – Archbishop Stephen will talk about it for a moment.
We have gone through the greatest peacetime challenge in the last 400 years and we have come forward. Efficiency is being transformed, training is being re-examined to function well in the very different patterns of population we see today, and even more different ones we see in the future.
The way dioceses work together and share resources is challenging and will change slowly, gently and consensually.
Our failures in protection, in racism, in the way we treat people with disabilities or whoever we see – anyone – we see as others, are resolved, not nearly as well or as quickly as we all want, but we know we are wrong and try to get better. There is a self-awareness that is real in this church. We are a church that can admit that it is wrong, say sorry and try – at least try – to do better.
It’s all internal. Where we come to that boundary between the external and the internal: The Church has a clear and powerful vision for the education of its more than a million people in schools and is expanding. He plants churches in new places, throws a net in unknown places and ways, maybe, God willing, as many as 10,000 new congregations in the next 10 years. And essentially, since it is the foundation of this church of England and for England, resources, fresh resources are put into traditional parishes.
Take Top Church in Dudley, there for centuries, a liberal Catholic in tradition (although it actually crosses all boundaries); a deeply hospitable church that, with the help of an SDF grant, is rediscovering its civic tradition, serving the poorest, welcoming those on the brink, especially those who are often excluded, growing in number and growing in the depths of worship.
The Church of England is renewing the ministry with the chaplains, also a deep part of our tradition and our history. This includes the laity – not so much a part of our tradition and history – and poses a challenge to clericalism.
She has done the theologically most sophisticated work on human sexuality and identity of any global church (that’s not my opinion, others have told us) and has published a superb book, Living in Love and Faith. And we seek to work to discern how to behave and how to love and how to include and welcome in the example and image of Christ.
We try to model disagreement well, because we are all different and disagreement is human, but the effort to destroy and reject each other and exclude each other is less than people.
The Difference course was launched last year, piloted around the world, and is now used in 26 countries, and the number is growing. The difference is a course that was not developed by me, but by colleagues working in Lambeth and other places, which encourages three habits of reconciliation – it allows us to get along well, it allows us to live well together; it is based on the Bible, it is lived in everyday life.
Habits are to be present, to be curious and to think again. These are all gifts to the world and role models for it. Information on the Difference course will be sent to each member of the Synod, and we strive to make it possible for anyone who wishes to participate in it.
As part of our contribution to changing the ethos in this church we work in, at a time when good disagreement in our country is rare, in the last 100 years, either less strong or weaker. I would encourage all members of the church and the Synod to participate in it.
I was, as I often am when asked to do a course, a little grumpy about it, let’s be honest. And while I was on vacation, I was told I had to do it because I was writing a book about reconciliation and I intended to write about the Difference course and since I am, I kind of thought well, if I fly through the booklet, I should be able to I insert a few quotes that seem like I know what I’m talking about.
But someone close to me firmly told me that it is not done that way and that I should participate. So I did, and I have all the passion of converts. It helped me look at things in a whole new way. I highly recommend it.
All these things we do are gifts to the world and models for the world. How good to disagree. That day when I heard during lunch, this morning there were attacks across the Armenian border from Azerbaijan. Another reminder of war, struggle and suffering.
And in the mission, we are working creatively to implement the excellent Coming Home report on housing and affordable housing, to address housing poverty to homes that are, theologically based words of the report, sustainable, safe, stable, social and satisfying.
We are working with a commission led by Paul Butler to see how to support modern families and households, and another one on social welfare. Health, education and housing are the three foundations of the reform of our society.
But above all, here I am talking to the clergy and the laity at the local level. Your extraordinary work through the crisis we still live in has been exhausting, but it has been shaped by God, centered on Christ. The constant, relentless, but wonderful work in the parish and chaplaincy is just continuing from week to week, and the challenge for this Synod is to support and secure that ministry.
Our goal is to fish on the right side, to see how people believe in Jesus Christ, to proclaim the good news in words and deeds. And it happens.
Our choices and resolutions are not binary. Choosing one does not mean excluding all the others.
Saving the parish does not mean stopping the erection of churches. To plant a church does not mean to leave the parish. Far from it. If we make any of these binary decisions, we will lose them all – we will completely fail in every way.
To support one fishing spot, one way of fishing cannot mean discarding all the others. That’s all of them. And as we strive to see as many people as possible affected by the Spirit of God and find the love God offers them in Christ, we must fish in every way, in every possible way, and we cannot look down on anyone as blocks, obstacles, or anything like that. in any way, ever. To use the words used by Alan, they are sisters and brothers in Christ.
This church is not at the exit. It can be sailing on shallows and rapids, storms and disagreements. We may often be stupid, we are always sinful, but at all times, and especially here, we must learn to listen to a stranger on the shore, who tells us where and how to fish. Throw your nets to the right.