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Presidential Address - March 2018

1 year, 3 months ago

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

It is fitting that this Synod meets, year by year, during the penitential season of Lent.  There is much to celebrate, much for which we hope, as we journey together as a Church and as a Diocese.  But there is also, always, that of which we must repent, and it is right to meet at that time of year when repentance is uppermost in our minds. 

This year we must, all of us in the Church of England, feel this with a particular weight.  As you will know, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, led by Professor Alexis Jay, is this month holding fifteen days of Public Hearings on Child Sexual Abuse in the Anglican Church, one of thirteen distinct investigations that the Inquiry is pursuing.  

The Inquiry is a necessary examination that the Church fully supports and the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of those who early on called for it.  There is now a strong institutional commitment in the Church of England to address the wrongs of the past, and in Southwark, as elsewhere, we have strong safeguarding processes in place, which we strive daily to uphold, for the Church now and in the future. Sadly we cannot do very much about the past.

None of this, however, does away with the need for repentance.   And we are all in this together.   “Indeed”, as St Paul says “the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body.” (1 Cor. 12.14-16).    Just as we rejoice together in what is good in the body of the Church, so we all repent, whatever our individual culpability, for the sins of the whole.

To see it written publicly, “A Public Hearing on Child Sexual Abuse in the Anglican Church” is thus very sobering for each of us.  The Inquiry will cause us to reflect on our failures, over many decades, to protect children from sexual abuse and our failure hear and answer the voices of those children, whether contemporaneously, or as adults seeking justice and redress for the abuse they have suffered.  

It is also vital to remember that this will be a painful time for those survivors who have been brave in coming forward.  We must listen to the voice of survivors, acknowledge and repent what we have got wrong in the past, and learn lessons for the future.  My Pastoral Letter about this is on the Diocesan website and reiterates that safeguarding children and vulnerable adults is not an ‘add on’ issue.  It is about the Kingdom of God.  It is about us, as followers of Jesus Christ, joining God's mission of transformation and reconciliation.   

If you have questions about the Inquiry or any related matter, please do contact the Safeguarding team and above all, if any of this raises issues which you would value talking about, please know that there is someone to listen to you.  Again please contact our Diocesan Safeguarding Team.

For now, though, I want simply to offer an opportunity to reflect, to accept responsibility, and to repent.   We should also use this time, as we must persist in doing, to hold in our prayers those whom we as a Church have failed.  But if our prayer is true, it must involve a determination that things will be different from now on. We can shape the present and the future.  So I propose that we stand, and keep silence for two minutes, after which I will say the Collect for Good Friday.

[two minutes of silence]

Almighty Father
Look with mercy on this your family
For which our Lord Jesus Christ was content to be betrayed
And given up into the hands of sinners
And to suffer death upon the cross;
Who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever.

The matters the Inquiry is charged with examining challenge us as a Church.  Whether or not we respond well depends on how we are knit together into a single body that can honour the distinctness of all and yet act as one.  I believe, if I may say it without any suggestion of complacency, that we are, more and more, in Southwark, cultivating the sinews of an institution, a body, which can indeed work for good, in this situation and across all the challenges and opportunities it faces.   I should like to say a few words about this now.

We have had some good reviews of how we work together at different levels over recent years.   Trinity House has thoroughly embedded the principles of Lead, Enable, Serve, which itself helpfully sums up the different elements of what those of us who are seeking to equip and resource and serve the Diocese are doing.   Drawing the correct balance between leading, enabling and serving is not easy, and there will always be moments when someone thinks it has not been done correctly.  Indeed from time to time mistakes will be made.  But we are getting better at this, and we have a culture that goes deeper than mission statements and is at heart relational.  

Then beyond Trinity House and our Area Offices much has been done to reform and renew our structures.  The fruit of the Fit for Purpose review can be seen in the great reduction in the number of meetings – the Archdeacons have a wry smile on their faces - the strong linkage between resources and the mission of God, and a clearer and more united decision making.  

These are all good things.  However structural reviews are a beginning only.  If we are to fulfil our aspirations, we need to move from Fit for Purpose, a set of good principles and structures, to Common Purpose, where we are living out our calling as fellow members of the Body of Christ.  We need to forge a true unity in diversity, a true mutual understanding and respect, undergirded by love and characterised by speaking well of each other.   

This is the road we are on together, and it is a long road.  Forging a common way of life comes from God, and our transformation is from him and by him - but a thousand ages, in his sight, are as a day gone by.  So we persevere with patience.

There are two themes to this transformation that I want to talk about in more detail.

The first is Lay Leadership.  Change is coming.  Southwark in 2028 will, God willing, be a Diocese in which laity and clergy are convinced that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission.  This properly springs from our baptism.   Through the flowing waters of baptism this indeed is already true, and nobody would deny it as a theological truth.  But ten years from now – so we pray, and so we strive – it will be a lived reality for all.  This Summer, Synod will hear and debate a report from the Lay Leadership and Lay Ministry Advisory Group which will, I hope, set out the steps we need to begin taking and we will commit ourselves to implementation.   I am committed to this culture change for as long as I am spared to be your Bishop, and I see great hope in it.

The second theme is the tone and spirit in which we conduct ourselves.  I have often spoken of the Five Guiding Principles, and in particular the concept of Mutual Flourishing, as ideas that are of wider application than the important context of the Episcopal Ministry of women, in which they were first formulated.   Speaking and thinking well of one another, trusting each other to have good hearts whatever our differences, taking the risk of believing that we really are all brothers and sisters: this is central to our calling.   “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:35]  

We have to go beyond good disagreement, though good disagreement is essential.  We have to strive always for a good tone and spirit in all our dealings with one another.   What we have in common is far greater than what may from time to time divide us.  And this is not to diminish the seriousness of the topics on which we do, honestly and with integrity, disagree on including different theological convictions.  But we all know that God became one of us in the person of Christ Jesus, that he died to reconcile us to God, and that he rose to lead us to Glory.  The things over which we disagree, weighty though they be, are nothing to this.  

Moreover, in God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet one being and substance, we see what unity in diversity can be.   Let us strive towards it, faithful to the words of St Paul in the letter to the Philippians: “in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”  (Phil. 2.3-4)

There is more to this than speaking well of one another. But speaking well of one another is a good place to start, and I expect it of you.   We remember what St James says about the power of our speech to change who we are and how we relate to others: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (James 3.7)  So let us begin with speaking well of each other.

Lastly, I want to set these two themes of Lay Leadership and Speaking Well, in the context of where we are.  For it is in this place, South London and East Surrey, that we will forge our common purpose.  The place shapes the purpose and the purpose shapes the place.

During the Eucharist I will have the great joy of commissioning Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, as an Honorary Assistant Bishop.  I am very glad that Archbishop Josiah has accepted my invitation to serve the Diocese of Southwark in this way.  There is a real fitness in this, for the worldwide virtuous circles of connection which are Archbishop Josiah’s special care, and also are central to who we are here.   After all, when we hear the phrase “the Global South”, we might be forgiven for taking it to be a description of the Global Diocese of South London!

Here in the Global South of Southwark, where God is praised in so many different languages and manners, in which a bring-and-share Parish Lunch can be a culinary tour of five continents, in which different insights and experiences mingle and contend, keeping us from complacency and stagnation, here in Southwark, thank God, we need never doubt that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. That should lie at the core of each of our spiritual journeys.

For all this we give thanks.   As we go forward on our Lenten journey as a Synod, we bear on our hearts those who have suffered so much because of past wickedness and negligence.   And we honour them by a determination to build a community in which all may know they are safe and valued.  We look to the future in strong hope.  May we, the Lord being our helper, build that future in the decade to come, a future  in which clergy and laity live and flourish together in the fullest partnership, all of us speaking well of one another and thus nurturing deep mutual love. So may we truly be Christ’s Body in this place.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.