Presidential Address - November 2018
10 months, 1 week ago
Presidential Address by The Bishop of Kingston, The Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham
I am very grateful to Bishop Christopher for his invitation to give this presidential address in his absence whilst on sabbatical. He asked me to try to offer some reflections on the broad mission of the Church in our current context and, in particular, to be outward looking. That is very appropriate at the start of a new triennium in Diocesan Synod, which plays a vital role in the vision and direction of our Diocese. I am very grateful to all of you for your willingness to serve our Diocese and God’s Church in this way.
There is certainly no shortage of uncertainty and fear on the political front at this moment in time. Not only do we have the turmoil of the Brexit negotiations, but we have major changes going on in global geopolitics in response to some of the huge challenges presented by conflicts, major inequalities across the world, and issues of sustainable development and the care of our planet. There are very deep political divisions not only in our country but across the world about how to deal with these huge challenges.
The Christian gospel offers a big and cosmic vision of human life which includes but goes far beyond politics, and gives real hope in difficult times. But in spite of this, the mission of the Church as we are called to “proclaim the gospel afresh” in our generation faces major challenges:
- For many of our contemporaries belief in God has become extraordinarily difficult and some regard it as an irrational fantasy
- Others see religion primarily as a source of conflict or repression, a damaging and toxic influence on human life
- And despite the widespread interest in broader questions of spirituality, the numbers regularly attending mainstream churches continue to struggle despite great efforts in Church Growth, and we are very much in the minority in terms of regular church goers.
There are plenty of examples in history when the Church has seemed under enormous pressure. In order to respond well we need a clear focus on the central message of the Christian faith and the primacy of God’s love for all his creation and the efficacy of that love in bringing hope and new life to every situation no matter how difficult or challenging it might seem from matters in our personal life. We are about to enter the season of Advent, which, with its emphasis on both the first and the second comings of Christ, gives us the broadest scope for our understanding of the gospel. In Ephesians Chapter 1 we read that: “with all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”. We are today very aware of the vastness of the cosmos and the complexity of life on Earth. Many of our contemporaries think that there is no ultimate meaning other than those we create. Our Christian vision is very different in that it tells us that the deepest reality of all is the God whose nature is love, which pervades all the cosmos. It is that sacrificial and self-giving love of God made known in Christ, which is the most transforming and salvific power not only in human life, but in the cosmos. We are called as Christians to live and grow in that love to repent and to believe. In short, to proclaim the good news of God’s love in our generation. It is that which brings real hope to our troubled world.
In the life of our Church it is vital that we are shaped and led by a big vision of the gospel. I have long thought there are three fundamental things that are central to the life of our churches:
- Our worship and prayer – doing the very best we can open our lives to the love of God in Christ, week in week out in our services, and day in day out in our own prayers
- Our teaching and preaching and sharing of the gospel – especially in a world where faith is deeply contested we need an articulate and intelligent understanding of Christian faith which can be expressed in an engaging and intelligible ways
- Thirdly, the fundamental things of our church: the living out of our Christian faith in lives of love and service, committed to striving for justice and peace and the care of creation.
These are primary things of God’s Church, the first order things that do not change with time and which everything else must help to promote.
We are privileged to live and serve in a very vibrant and diverse Diocese, which has some wonderful mission and ministry in many places with deeply dedicated people serving God right throughout the Diocese. My personal contact with this Diocese goes back over 50 years to 1966 when aged 11 with my family we moved from Manchester to London. Having not been previously engaged in churchgoing, apart from being baptised, I was soon involved in the Pathfinder group, and later the youth fellowship in the parish of Christ Church and Emmanuel Surbiton. That evangelical tradition was deeply formative in my life. Several years after University, I moved with my then young family to New Malden, and worshipped at the more Anglo-Catholic Church of St James. It was from there that I went as a Southwark ordinand to train for ordained Ministry and in recent years, it has been an enormous privilege to serve as Bishop of Kingston for the last 16 years. It is probably because of these experiences that I have no doubt that the primary mission of our Church takes place in our parishes and chaplaincies, day in day out, week in week out, and in the faithful living out of the Christian faith in our world. Our Diocesan structure is there primarily to support and enable this local ministry, but we do need a strong sense of our interconnectedness as part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Southwark Diocese is certainly vibrant and inspirational and it can also, at times, be messy, argumentative, and rather chaotic. One of the roles of the Diocesan Synod is, under God, to seek to shape the ministry of our whole Diocese in a way to bring all that vibrancy which is productive and godly and truly serves God’s mission.
In order to give shape and direction to our mission and ministry we have developed the Southwark Vision to guide us in the next few years. It is important to realise that this is not an end in itself, but rather a tool to help us to achieve the first order goals of the mission of God and God’s love in Christ which I spoke about a little earlier. That is the reason that the Bishops of the Diocese have emphasised that our Vision should be thoroughly shaped by all the five marks of mission, which include:
- proclaiming the good news;
- teaching, baptising and nurturing new believers;
- responding to human need by loving service;
- striving for peace, justice and reconciliation;
- and seeking to safeguard the integrity of creation.
Those marks of mission reflect the big picture of the gospel. For effective mission, I believe that all five need to be thoroughly intertwined, which is why the presentation on eco-churches which we shall receive later this morning is not an optional extra in the gospel, but central to the big picture - God’s salvation.
But of course, in order to realise that we do need more specific goals and targets and so we have developed in the Southwark Vision some particular strategic objectives to give some sharpness to we need to do in the next few years. And you will hear more of that later. It all needs resourcing which is why careful stewardship and our budget is of course crucial in enabling all of that to happen.
In order to be successful in this the Diocesan Synod, and all its members I would like to suggest, have some particular responsibilities. I would highlight three in particular:
- I believe it is vital that we work well across the whole of our Diocese and of course to use the old-fashioned phrase our so-called ‘churchmanship’ divisions. To the vast majority of those outside the Church these can seem incomprehensible and can make the Church and the Christian faith look deeply unattractive when all people hear about are our arguments. My experience has been that when we manage to work well together across our differences, which are very real, I would not wish to underestimate them - and to use Bishop Christopher’s phrase we speak well of each other - we can develop under God, a truly creative tension which can lead to exciting and innovative ministry and mission. We have a variety represented in this Synod and it is our responsibility to model creative partnership as different parts of the whole body of Christ.
- Secondly, we need to be outward facing and to be ready to work in good partnership and loving service with other organisations and faiths to work for justice and care of the environment. A fine example of this took place last Tuesday in the pan London knife crime event at our Cathedral. We have countless other examples across the Diocese, including food banks, lunch clubs and the like. Particularly important, I believe, is developing our engagement with civic structures which is often best done at deanery level. Such activities give the Church real credibility.
- Lastly, the third responsibility for us as members of Diocesan Synod is to act both as ambassadors for our Diocesan Vision to try to articulate it in our parishes and chaplaincies and also as critical friends of it. It is very easy in a diocese as large as ours for a negative dynamic to develop in which our parishes, chaplaincies and other ministries can feel disconnected from what is perceived as ‘the centre’ and for things like the Southwark Vision can be misinterpreted as the centre telling everyone what to do. It is profoundly not that. It is meant to serve and come alongside ministry in every place. We need an environment in which we have a strong sense that we are all part of this Diocese and together we seek to be faithful under God in proclaiming the gospel afresh in our generation and Synod members have a vital role in that ambassadorial and critical friend role creating that dynamic.
So, as we begin a new phase in the life of our Diocese, let us have a clear vision of the good news of God in Christ – in the words of two Corinthians Chapter 4:
For it is the God who said, ‘let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But let us also remember the next verse of that passage, which reminds us of our human frailty:
We have this treasure in clay jars, so to so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us in all that we do.
So as we begin this new Synod let us pray that in all our service in this Synod we may be guided, empowered and directed by God’s Holy Spirit.
So thank you again for your willingness to serve in this Synod and for your kind attention during this address.