Presidential Address - July 2018
Presidential Address by The Bishop of Southwark, The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun
My friends, fellow members of Diocesan Synod, if you need any encouragement you need look no further than the Southwark Pastoral Auxiliaries I commissioned recently and also our new Deacons whom I ordained on Saturday and those to be ordained Priest in each of our Episcopal Areas in the coming days, all by God’s grace and Divine Providence. Moreover, today marks the end of a very significant triennium. Tonight is, as Churchill put it, “perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
This has been the first triennium under the new arrangements from Strategy for Ministry and the Fit for Purpose Review. We have had three years of our new co-ordinated way of operating, with renewed clarity in our governance. We have had three years of the DCT, drawing together key committees and councils and providing the correct level of scrutiny, enabling officers to take forward executive action under the guidance of the Diocesan Secretary, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for her rigour and energy. This has been a vast improvement and we give thanks for three years when the many different decisions have been made in the correct places, with action taken by those best equipped to take it. All this is good and the success of the Parish Support Fund is testimony to this.
I think, however, that we may only see how much has been achieved in retrospect – the story of Emmaus speaks to us here. For as well as these good structural changes, there has been a deeper change in culture. We have seen a growth in openness and clarity, increased readiness to see the bigger picture and put the needs of the whole before individual agendas. I express warm appreciation of those standing down from this Synod and from the DCT, who have made an enormous personal contribution to the building up of a deeper spirit of common purpose. I express that appreciation by saying that those of us who carry forward the work will continue to build on these foundations. It remains for us to take these changes wider and deeper, the Lord being our helper.
This evening I want to speak in a reflective mode, to say something broad and theological about values and vision. And I begin by reflecting on the words of Richard Baxter.
Some may be surprised to hear me cite a 17th century Puritan! But – and I shall say more of this soon – this is part of the glory that is the Church of England. Richard Baxter was an Anglican clergyman from Shropshire. In 1640 an infamous oath was promulged which required clergy to be obedient to a long list of people, and concluded with the term “etc”. Richard Baxter had more gumption than to put up with this nonsense. He rejected Episcopacy in this form, and chose to work as a curate in a poor area of the Midlands. Later he turned down the invitation to be Bishop of Hereford. Instead he devoted himself to Parish ministry and to writing. He died on 14th June 1691.
We know him today from the joyful, rousing him, “Ye holy angels bright” – and also from The Reformed Pastor a book filled both with piety and with practicality. And we honour Richard Baxter for his steadfast resistance to swearing such a slippery and unsatisfactory oath. Clearly faceless bureaucrats were just as much of a burden then as they are in our own time!
Among many other good things Richard Baxter says this:
“ministers must smart when the Church is wounded, and be so far from being the leaders in divisions, that they should take it as a principal part of their work to prevent and heal them. Day and night should they bend their studies to find out the means to close such breaches. They must not only hearken to motions for unity, but propound them and prosecute them; not only entertain an offered peace, but even follow it when it flieth from them.”
If we are to live out our vocation as the Church of England, these are words we need to hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Unity is not the only value, but it is a value and a very important one with deep scriptural roots. Our unity in diversity, hard won, and never stable or finished, is a precious thing, and central to what we are called to be. Where else in Christendom would you find a Church that unites such a breadth of opinion and commitment? As the Established Church finding a place for the broadest range of legitimate viewpoint we go forward, never ceasing to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
Yet it is a hard challenge. We never get it exactly right. But then, high mountains are hard to scale. We could have chosen the easier way of a hard-edged purity. Then we would long since have split into smaller and smaller sects. We could have chosen the path of relativism and secularism, becoming, in the memorable words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, “Rotary with a pointy roof.” But we refuse that temptation too.
Instead we go on trying to take seriously our responsibility to proclaim the Gospel with gladness and joy to all the peoples of this land and maintain a lively presence in each and every community - without letting go of that which was handed on to us (cf 1Cor. 11.23, 15.3). This is our calling. Nothing less could be demanded of us. This unity must be, as Richard Baxter says, “a principal part of [our] work”.
Our concern for unity takes us yet deeper. We are each rooted in our own tradition. And we are also enriched by our brothers and sisters, living the same Christian life but with different emphases, different experiences, different music. Part of my personal discipline is to read regularly, on their anniversaries, the writings of those who have gone before us. Thus it was that, in the middle of June, I came to be reading Richard Baxter. Not, perhaps, someone I would otherwise have read; but someone in whose words the Spirit of Christ echoes loud and clear down the years.
The moral of this story is that to work out one’s own tradition as part of a wider unity within the broad stream of Anglicanism is not to be diminished or to give up something. It is to be enriched, to become more fully and roundedly who one really is. Not ceasing to be distinct, but realising one’s true personhood by being fully part of a unity.
And if this sounds like an echo of the Trinity, we should not be surprised: Father, Son and Holy Spirit are fully distinct, fully themselves, fully who they are, precisely in that they are of one being with one another – Three Persons in One God. May that Trinitarian life be in us all, as we cultivate the rich Anglican unity in diversity. That is my ambition and prayer. We are each true to what gives us life and gives life through us: but in our persistent, generous unity, we come to know our own particular tradition in its fullest richness. Being part of the whole does not diminish our distinctness; it completes it.
Richard Baxter, a man who liked to know the worst at once, puts it the other way around: “the self-sufficient are the most deficient.” Let us give thanks for our interdependence. But as we give thanks, we work to make it a reality. Again, Richard Baxter is clear on the minister’s duty: “be studious of union and communion among ourselves… sensible how needful this is to the prosperity of the whole, the strengthening of our common cause.” We must not be “leaders in divisions.”
Central to this is speaking well of one another. St James is famously pungent about divisive speech. He likens the tongue to a tiny spark that sets a whole forest aflame. (cf James 3.5) If we can but rein in our tongues, we find that our hearts, wiser and slower, bend towards one another. This bears repeating. If we can but speak well of one another, much else will follow. It is a discipline, but one to which we are equal. Let us rededicate ourselves to speaking well.
In all of this we will be much helped, as a body, by the very good work now going forward around the topic of Lay Leadership and Lay Ministry. Much of our Synod today will be about the report of the Lay Leadership and Lay Ministry Advisory Group, which I invited Anne Deering to chair.
This report is the start of what will be a long, forward looking process of culture change. I am committed to seeing it through, and if I am spared I shall pursue it diligently over the coming years. It is broadening and deepening of that culture change we have seen in the Diocese in the last three years. The fundamental aim is nothing new. It is to be what we are, at our best: a flourishing partnership between Priest and People, each playing the part to which God calls them. I believe it is in tune with developments in sister churches and the vision of Lay Apostolates in the Roman Catholic Church: dedicated disciples working together to the glory of God.
There is something priceless to be gained for our unity, for our speaking well of one another. Again, Richard Baxter enlightens us. He is frank about the risks for Clergy: “we lose our authority with our people when we divide.” And his prescription is simple: “Distance breedeth strangeness and frementeth dividing flames and jealousies, which communion will prevent or cure.”
So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it is not for us to sit in our own echo chambers, but to come out and mingle with all. And some times it is the lay voice that can speak of the bigger picture, speak of the wood rather than the trees, speak of the big things we have in common rather than the smaller (though not negligible) things that divide us. May this broader, more generous voice, be heard.
As we go forward together, Lay and Ordained working together in joyful partnerships, bearing the light of Christ, so we join hands with one another, with Christ at our centre, focussing outwards, determined to speak well of each another, confident that our differences make our unity richer. May this be so. And may we do all in love, which binds everything together, so that the world may know that we are truly Christ’s disciples (cf Jn 13.35).