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Presidential Address - July 2017

1 year, 11 months ago

Presidential Address by The Bishop of Southwark, 
The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun

When we last met, in the first week of Lent, I began by observing that “a good deal of water has flowed under a large number of bridges since last we paused on the road that we tread together in this Synod to reflect and debate”.  If anything, one would have to say that the flow has quickened since then.  There is no desire on my part to spread alarm and despondency by exaggerating the troubles that we face, as a city, as a nation and as a church; yet it is hard to disagree that we are living through some strange and painful times.  There has been terror on our streets and suffering which has touched the lives of many: Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Tower and Finsbury Park.   

These times call us to reflect soberly, and to be of good courage.  They are not easy times to live through well.   On the other hand these times give us as a Church the chance to realise once again the deep truth, of which we are reminded over and again, and which is true now and in eternity: that no matter how dark the darkness, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

Less than a fortnight after we last met, we saw the first of the current wave of terrorist attacks.   At the precise time of that terrible attack in Westminster, on 22nd March, I was on my way to meet with Tobias Ellwood, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister who went to the aid of PC Keith Palmer as he lay dying from multiple stab wounds.  On discovering that Westminster had been sealed off, I made my way straight to the Cathedral to join in the prayers for the victims, their families, our police, doctors, nurses and emergency services.  It was already apparent that in stark contrast to one terrible act there had been so many small acts of goodness, gentleness and kindness.  There were others who, like Keith Palmer, ran towards danger and suffering, not away from it.  The prompt action of a Government Minister was typical of the courage and dedication of many including passers by who showed care and compassion and mercy to their injured neighbours, and offered hope even in the midst of such pain and fear.

Since then we have seen more such terrifying, utterly ruthless and cruel acts on our streets until at length it came very close to home indeed.   On the afternoon of Saturday 3rd of June I presided at a joyful service of Confirmation at the Cathedral.  But just a few hours after that, the calm and happy atmosphere of the Cathedral and its immediate vicinity was rent asunder by terror.   Eight people were killed and many more injured and traumatised.   A young nurse gave her life by the entrance to Montague Chambers, the Cathedral offices, trying to save a fellow human being under attack.  Others suffered terribly and many more would have been killed and injured had it not been for the rapid and effective response from the Police - their engagement with people on the streets in the following days was magnificent.  

The next day we had to relocate the Diocesan Pentecost service to St Mark’s Kennington, and for a week the Cathedral was closed, within the Police Cordon.  It is hard to say when there was last such a long interruption to the daily life of prayer in that holy place.  For a week the daily offices of the Cathedral were said in St Hugh’s Church and at the Chapel in Guy’s and among the first services that were conducted after the Cathedral re-opened were the National Service of Hope, and, a week later, the Community Service of Hope.   On the 14th of June, I went into Borough Market with colleagues from the Cathedral to bless, reclaim and re-hallow that space that had been so traumatised by violence: it was such a privilege to do this and there were tears in the eyes of many of those we encountered.

Again, even in the aftermath of these terrible events, light shone in the darkness.  Late on that terrible Saturday night, the Dean received a text from Amir Eden, a young Muslim, born in Guy’s Hospital, an ex-pupil at the Cathedral School, and now the Chair of the Bankside Residents’ Forum and a resident of the Cathedral Parish, his home within the police cordon.  ‘I’ve got nowhere to go.  Can I come to you?’ was his text.  ‘Of course’ was the Dean’s reply.  In the days thereafter I was closely in contact with local and national representatives of the Muslim community – as I was with the range of those seeking to rebuild and reinforce relationships of goodwill and hope.   I was able to be present on London Bridge in solidarity with well over 100 Imams and Muslim scholars who declared boldly “This is forbidden by your religion…  This is not a path to heaven”, and with the Dean attended Friday Prayers at the Harper Road Mosque.   It was also a privilege to stand with Sadiq Khan as he spoke out on behalf of all Londoners of good will at the City Hall Vigil.  And this broad spirit of committed neighbourliness, friendship and goodwill was exemplified in the Iftar hosted at the Cathedral towards the end of Ramadan.  

I should like to acknowledge here the wonderful leadership in large things as in small, which the Dean has given to the Cathedral community when it has been most needed and also as Parish Priest with his colleagues bringing comfort and encouragement to those in need.   Andrew is unable to be here himself this evening as there is a meeting of the Cathedral’s Finance Committee, but he particularly asked me to pass on his apologies and to thank you all for the support which he and the Chapter have received.  On Monday evening Songs of Praise was recorded at the Cathedral and there were 700 people from across the Diocese in the congregation.  It will be broadcast on BBC1 on Sunday 30 July: yet another part of the varied response to these troubled times.

In all this, we have seen, again, the darkness transcended by the light which it does not and cannot extinguish.  The terror we have seen on our streets has been followed in recent days by many small acts of loving care for neighbour and many expressions of community solidarity.  As I have already said publicly, hatred that leads to violence is a wicked distortion of the image of God in which we are all made.  It is a wicked distortion of religious belief and identity.  Londoners are determined to show that what has happened, terrible as it is, will not undermine the trust, friendships and goodwill which bind us together, and we celebrate our remarkable diversity, especially across different faiths as a rich blessing.

Since the attacks in Borough Market the Cathedral has re-opened most of its doors – there are still some repairs to be effected, but all are welcome within once again.  As well as the Services of Hope and the ordinary daily and weekly services of the Cathedral, we have seen the return of the Southwark Pastoral Auxiliaries for their Annual Service of Commitment and the commissioning of new SPAs.  Last Saturday the Cathedral was joyful and resplendent for the ordination of thirteen wonderfully new Deacons in the Church of God.   As our daily rhythms are being reestablished, our hearts go out to those who have had their “normality” cruelly taken from them.  The journey to finding peace and a measure of healing will be a long one, and we do not forget this.   As we are living through these dark times, there are those among us for whom the normal passage of time has been arrested.

For our nation these have been strange and difficult times.   We have seen a baffling election, which nobody seems to have won, despite the unexampled rancour with which it was fought; and an unnecessary election at that, precipitated by the ripples of a perhaps even more unnecessary referendum a year ago.  What the political outcome may be we cannot know; but so far as it has laid bare some deep fault lines in our national polity, it challenges us again to build bridges and not walls and to put our trust in God alone.

Neither do we forget – for who could forget, not least when the burnt out building stands as its own bleak monument on the skyline of this City – we do not forget the terrible events of the night of the 13th and into the 14th of June at Grenfell Tower.   Again, there are political questions at stake which it is not my purpose to probe here; but I want to point also to seeds of hope even in the shadow of this most hopeless catastrophe.  

I was very much struck by a newspaper article by a Priest in this Diocese, Giles Fraser, with a parish not far from here, who had met the Priest within whose Parish Grenfell Tower is located, and who was alerted in the small hours to what was going on.   Asked what his response was, he answered simply “I went to the Church, opened the doors and turned on the lights”.   Soon the Church began to fill with those who needed help and those who had something to give, and it became the centre of a thriving relief operation as the night wore into the day.  All that started with simple practical actions which spoke of welcome and concern, by contrast to some of the other actions by the local authority.

Through all of these dramatic and often terrible events we are faced anew with the challenge to live out our Christian calling.   For what do we have to set against acts of wickedness or culpable negligence?  As we frame a response here, we must cultivate deep roots.  Those of us who were fortunate enough to be in the Cathedral for the ordinations to the Diaconate were richly blessed by the sermon preached by The Revd Professor Sarah Coakley, who occupies the Norris-Hulse Chair of Divinity at Cambridge.  Sarah was fresh from leading the Deacons’ retreat, where she had taken the candidates for ordination to a very deep place of reflection by bringing thoughtful, spirit-filled theology to bear on searching questions posed by ministry in South London and East Surrey in 2017.   We will do well to return again and again to the well of wisdom which has been filled by two thousand years of faithful, thinking Christians.

If we do our theological reflection well, then it will lead us back, but with ever deeper understanding and renewed commitment, to the simple, deep, powerful truths the Church has always known.   These can be hard to live out, but they are not complex: the merit of good theological reflection is to clarify, not to introduce unnecessary complications.   We are to be Christ-Centred, and Outward-Focused; to Love God with all our hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves.  God works his healing power precisely through those willing to take the risk of ministering from the heart.   In this ministry we all have a part to play: not each of us the same part, but all held in honour, all dependent on one another, all supporting one another.  

This is why I am so glad that tonight we will be discussing Lay Leadership and Ministry.  We will be hearing, from its author, Matthew Frost, about “Setting God’s People Free”, the Report recently adopted by General Synod.  This Report articulates a vision similar to that which we have been shaping here in Southwark, drawing on the Archbishop’s Charge to me to deepen our discipleship, and to value and empower the laity at every level of Diocesan life. I take it that in the title of the report “God’s People” includes Clergy too, and that even includes Bishops!   All of us being set free to live, together, with our varying gifts and callings woven into a rich unity, the lives God made us for.   These times call for the exercise of all the gifts with which God has equipped us, springing from our baptism and incorporation into the Body of Christ.  The Eucharist can only be celebrated by priest and people coming together in worship and going out in joyful service. The Church is not a small band of professional clergy and a few powerful lay people in prominent positions; rather it is a great band of pilgrims all professing Christ Crucified.  If we are to put up in response to the dark times through which we are living a response that speaks truly of our Risen Saviour, then this is a task for us all.  And if we are committed to it, we may also be sure that He will use it to shape us into the people it is good for us to be.

We may go forward with justified confidence in our relationships and community engagement, that web of overlapping virtuous circles of connection which has been built up as the outworking of the Gospel imperative to love our neighbour.   This vision has sustained the Church, and the communities we serve, well.   We must never neglect to continue weaving these networks together.   And we must hold fast to our values of tolerance, always more willing to look to the log in our own eye than to the speck of dust in our neighbour’s, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping, enduring all things.  It is through such patient, faithful service that we are able to hold up, by God’s grace, the light of Christ for this world.

So, my prayer for us all, is that we hold this light up faithfully, that we ourselves would be filled with the light of Christ, and that the darker the darkness in which we move, the brighter that light would burn within us.   May we “hold fast to the word of life” so that we may “shine like stars in the world”[cf Philippians 2.15-16] to the Glory of God the Father, pouring out his love in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit he has given to us.