It is a great pleasure to inaugurate this new Diocesan Synod and to welcome the more than half the members who have been elected for the first time. It is a privilege to see the diversity and vitality of this Synod and I look forward to the work we shall accomplish together in faith, hope and love. We do live in rather fractious and anxious times; but I trust that we shall enter the discussions and face the decisions we shall make without allowing that external anxiety to pressurise how we approach Synod’s business. We put great store in Southwark on interacting courteously extending dignity and respect to all, listening attentively and assuming that our conversation partners are operating in good faith – and I trust that we shall continue in this way as people who are Christ-centred and outward-focused, with hearts on fire in all things.
This is the final Synod that Bishop Jonathan is part of because he leaves the See of Croydon in March next year, exactly 10 years after his consecration. I would like to express my thanks to him for all he has offered and for everything that he has accomplished. He has been an exemplary episcopal colleague, serving not only his Episcopal Area but also the wider Diocese as Chair of the Southwark Board of Education as well as the National Church in various additional roles, particularly on Ministry Council and as one of the lead bishops for refugee issues. We will have opportunities to say proper goodbyes in due course but meanwhile please keep him and Alison in your prayers as they prepare to make their move to Orkney.
Tomorrow is the final Sunday of the Church’s year, and many parishes will keep the feast of Christ the King – or, to give it its full name, the feast of ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe’. There is little room for manoeuvre here, even if one wanted it – because to make for ourselves the earliest Christian acclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’ is to acclaim Christ as Lord of all. Not the Lord only of those who acclaim him such. Not the Lord of our nation alone, or indeed of all the nations of the world. But Lord of all that God has created – all things visible and invisible – Lord, in fact, of the universe.
Christians of the earliest centuries knew this, often to their considerable cost. To say that Jesus was Lord was to threaten a Caesar who thought he was a god and to challenge the imperial cult surrounding him. After Christianity was officially recognised and tolerated throughout the Roman Empire by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 and the subsequent programme of imperial church building began, the truth of Christ’s lordship was built physically into churches. Christianity became the official religion of the Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 under Theodosius. Christ displaced Caesar and Mosaics of Christ Pantocrator – Christ the All-Powerful – were made to adorn the domes and apses of Christendom. In these, Christ the Lord looks upon his creation from the perspective of eternity with care and love and authority. This is truly a cosmic Christ – the Lord, the King of the Universe.
We are, it seems to me, in a time where we might benefit from recovering our sense of the cosmic Christ. This is not, as what I have already said makes clear, a new-fangled doctrine for those with itching ears or some fashionable, liberal fancy. This teaching is in fact deeply orthodox, both with a capital ‘O’ and without, and it expresses our faith in God as both the origin of the world and as its end and consummation.
How, we might ask, would the negotiations at COP26 have concluded if all the parties knew that Christ was Lord of the universe? Or if it was understood that creation is an epiphany, as showing forth of the divine nature? If we fully acclaim that God is at the centre of this world that He – not we his human agents – has made, then we are nearer to understanding and reimagining our God-given task to be good stewards of the created order he has made in love including planet earth. St Paul says that ‘ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made’ (Romans 1.20). I say this not to suggest that people of other religious convictions or none cannot perceive the precious worth of this world – other faiths make their own significant contribution – I simply want to suggest that our Christian faith offers a ‘yet more’… that can radically change our approach to the world, if we are prepared to live out fully the implications of that simplest and earliest of Christian creeds – ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’.
That there are in the Church of England many people who want to work out the implications of this simple acclamation of faith is plain from the energy created by all who have offered to serve this Diocesan Synod and, likewise, to serve the newly constituted General Synod. There was an amazing range of candidates for each of them, both lay and ordained, from across the Diocese geographically as well as across the spectrum of our rich diversity and I am very grateful to those who have been elected, and to all those who stood for election. There has been much to motivate people’s participation, so we shall need to focus on the dynamics of our life together: how we shall speak well of each other, valuing differences of theological emphasis and conviction, and allowing space for conscience where there is legitimate disagreement. We believe that Christ is the common source on whom we depend, and our common end. It is his Lordship that gives us a common purpose and a common vision.
Three big themes
There are three big themes to put before this Synod from its inception: the Southwark Anti-Racism Charter, the environment, and the character of our common life. Each will require sustained attention because the challenges are substantial. I encourage members of Synod to engage passionately with each of these at all times maintaining the bonds of faith, hope and mutual love.
The last Diocesan Synod approved unanimously the Southwark Anti-Racism Charter that Archdeacon Rosemarie Mallett played a significant role in preparing along with colleagues from the Diocesan Minority Ethic Anglican Concerns Committee. Our responsibility now is to put high principles into action because the Charter is not a certificate of arrival. It is rather a boarding pass for a new journey together. You will need to consider how we might write a good and true history that tells the story of all those who have contributed to the life of Church and Community in this part of the world; how we can facilitate open and honest conversations as a means to call out and confront racial injustice wherever it is found; how we can train and mentor people from diverse backgrounds for leadership development.
I have already referred to the challenges of caring for our environment. We have had plenty of evidence of our interconnectedness and interdependence over the past two years. Indeed, the pandemic is a direct result of our environmental predations, and the success of our efforts to contain it will depend largely on the way we interact with each other. Members of Synod, I urge you to be ambassadors in your parishes, encouraging people to be fully vaccinated and get their booster shots as and when made available. The misinformation and fear that surrounds vaccination is still holding back many good people from taking the steps necessary to protect themselves from the full force of COVID-19.
We shall need, too, to consider how our parishes might mobilise people and forge a new relationship with our environment. Bishop Richard, as lead bishop for the environment, and colleagues in our Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation unit have been leading on this; but we have much further to go. We cannot be overawed by the size of the challenge before us. Progress was made through the international commitments which nations of the world signed up to in Glasgow. Progress needs to be made in Southwark, parish by parish, in our journey towards good Eco-Diocese status – each small step in the right direction is part of a much bigger picture. We must commit prayerfully to a different future – to a better future.
Our common life, too, will need regular re-examination as part of our ongoing spiritual commitment. We ought to be people characterised by hospitality and generosity, receiving each person we meet as Christ himself just as St Benedict taught his monks. We shall not find ourselves short of opportunities for this as we welcome people to the UK from Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In the face of those who would dehumanise newcomers, we must remember that each and every person is made in the image of God, that each is so deeply beloved that Christ submitted himself to the Cross for their salvation.
The bedrock and locus of our discipline of hospitality is, of course, the parish. This is not to disregard chaplaincy, or new worshipping communities, all of which find themselves within one parish or other, all of which have been given renewed purpose matched by deep appreciation as we have journeyed through the pandemic. As a Diocese we are committed – and I have pledged my episcopate – to the highest possible number of stipendiary clergy in our parishes because it is the primary way we fulfil our mission: Priests and People working together in joyful partnerships in the Gospel.
But not every person interacts with our parish churches – they would be bursting at the seams on Sundays if that was the case! So we find ourselves, as we recover from the pandemic, with the opportunity to engage in new and supplementary ways. The Preface to the Declaration of Assent says, ‘The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation’. Our Church is Apostolic. It is Catholic and it is Reformed and we are committed to a meaningful presence in each and every community. To do this effectively we must be ready to adapt to rapidly changing contexts. That is why is we are called to ‘proclaim afresh’.
This is our task, just as it was for Augustine when he was sent here by Pope Gregory at the end of the sixth century. Or Hild, when she resolved virulent ecclesiastical disputes in the seventh century. Or Bede when he combined his love of science and theology to great effect in the eighth. Or Dunstan, reforming the religious life of this nation in the tenth. Or any number of saints in the thousand years following, including John Wesley, Edward King and Octavia Hill. Manifestly the life of the Church is not solely clerical in character. That is why we are actively developing lay ministry in Southwark in exciting new ways, so that each may live out by service the dignity conferred in baptism, each contributing to the life of this Diocese and the lives of people of South London and East Surrey as we renew our sense of shared purpose and common vision after COVID-19.
So, my friends, I conclude by returning to my opening comments and asking what is the ‘yet more’ that will be called from us if we live out the implications of our simplest and earliest creed: ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. For if we keep Christ at the centre, we can be free to focus outward on the world beyond the Church, for which Christ died and rose again, and which he loves with the deepest love. We will not know the answer before we set out, for we walk by faith and not by sight. Let us therefore, in all things, my sisters and brothers, let us be Christ-centred and outward-focused, fully expecting the kindness and mercy of God to be present and manifest in our lives and in the lives of those we serve through the work of this Synod.