Presidential Address - March 2019
1 year, 10 months ago
Presidential Address by The Bishop of Southwark, The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun
Given that the latest possible date for Ash Wednesday is 10th March, and that on very rare occasions we have held this Synod on the first Saturday, not the second Saturday of March, it is theoretically possible that our Spring Synod could occur before Lent. However this has not happened in recent years past - and by only three days it has not happened this year either. For here we are, at the beginning of Lent, in Synod: which is a word meaning the way together: from the Greek, syn, together, as in synergy; and hodos, a road or way or journey – as in exodus. We are today in Synod, on the road together and it is good to be here together!
This sense of journeying together is rightly something of which Christians are always conscious. The Apostles wandered the Mediterranean basin and well beyond, with St Thomas reaching India, fulfilling their great commission to go and baptise everywhere. The People of Israel were perhaps most themselves when they wandered in the desert and spent 40 years journeying to the Promised Land. Abraham himself was a wandering Aramean. And we are keenly aware of this sense of journeying together in Lent.
Ahead of us in the distance, drawing nearer as we walk together, is Calvary, the cross starkly visible against the dark sky. Beyond the brow of the hill, we know, for we have trod this way before, is the garden, the empty tomb, and the shore of the Lake where the Risen Christ beckons us to come and share breakfast with him. In Lent we walk the way of the Cross in the steps of our Lord and I ask your prayers for our curates who will be accompanying me to the Holy Land in a few days time, staying first at St George’s College Jerusalem and then moving on to Galilee.
Lent is when we should look deeply into the mirror of our souls and ask if we are truly what we were created to be: in other words we discipline ourselves so as not to point the finger at others but instead examine our own consciences. We strive to lay down ambition, fear, anxiety, status and security. We strive to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others – those who journey with us, and those who, as yet, have not the strength or the sense of direction for the journey.
These are themes to which we rightly return again and again, year by year, each year seeking eternal truth in the concrete reality of the world through which we journey. It is, I hope in this spirit that we gather in our Synod. This is all a necessary part of our commitment to journeying together.
Now, I realise that we are about to have a full meeting with many densely written papers, and inevitably some powerpoint. We have all, at times, felt the weight of what C.S. Lewis says in Surprised by Joy of his first encounters with the real and actual Church. He had been expecting deep spiritual converse on profound matters. Instead he found “the crowds, the umbrellas, the notices, the bustle, the perpetual arranging and organising.” But of course it is in precisely these daily, human interactions, that God chooses to be present to us. Lewis’s acceptance of the umbrellas and the notices is part and parcel of his acceptance of the Incarnation: the word made flesh and the necessary messiness of our human condition.
So I say again, we are together on a journey - the great journey of the Christian life: towards the Cross, towards the empty tomb, towards the Mount of Olives where Jesus was taken up from the sight of the disciples and at length, after many, many Lents and Easters and Ascensiontides, to that City of Eternal Light that lies at the end of all our journeys. That eternal journey is what we are on, here and now, in this Synod. And I hope that that is reflected to some degree in the eh spirit in which w e meet together.
It is for this reason that I have returned again and again during my now eight years serving you as Diocesan Bishop to the Gospel account of the Emmaus Road as a narrative for our journey and the Southwark Vision. We walk the road together and as we walk we come to know that Jesus is walking with us - though we may not at first fully realise this or indeed recognise Him walking with us along the way. And so the three words which encapsulate Southwark Vision, “walking, welcoming, growing” are very telling. For we trust under providence that there will be growth in Southwark. Indeed there are many green shoots already. And we pray for growth not only in the number of fellow disciples but in the depth of our engagement with God and one another. Our part is to welcome others to join us as we walk together, and to walk together faithfully. As we do our work today, engaging with discussions and motions and possibly even amendments, we do it as those on a journey together, loving God, walking with Jesus, led by the Spirit.
With that background, I commend to us, as a Synod, and as a Diocese, and as a Church, the Lenten discipline of listening.
Listening is one of the most powerful things we can do and there is nothing weak about listening Its strength is a strength of service, of co-operation, of true Christian love. And in listening we can very often transcend our own fears and anxieties for ourselves and leave them behind in our concern for and interest in the other. Disciplined listening is a practical way to enter into the reality of being Christ centred and outward focused.
In Southwark I believe it will be in large part by good listening that our unity is forged. As Bishop, alas, it often falls to me to speak! But the most productive encounters are those when it is possible to take time to listen attentively first, entering into a reality different from one’s own: not necessarily agreeing or opposing, but simply listening. Time and again, this good listening gives rise to fruitful unity in ways we could not predict. Time and again, this kind of good listening, not proposing solutions or giving advice, but hearing to the full – time and again this listening is, by grace, healing.
It is now less than three weeks until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union. This is a time of great uncertainty for everyone as the country waits to hear the outcome of the vote due to take place in the House of Commons on Tuesday 12th March. I am duty Bishop all next week - all five days next week, so it will be very interesting to know what is happening in the other place. Even when this vote has taken place it is still difficult to know how life will be here in the UK in the next weeks, months and years.
Earlier in the week I sent a letter jointly with the Area Bishops to clergy encouraging our churches and congregations to pray for unity and for all our peoples and the peoples of Europe, whatever our personal views about Brexit. On Friday 29 March, assuming that is when we leave the EU – and there is still some doubt even about that - the Cathedral will be open all day for people to come in to pray and to light a candle at the dedicated prayer station culminating in a special service of Evensong at 5.30. I encourage you to pray for the future of our nation and Europe in the coming days and weeks.
I had the pleasure earlier this week of hosting a supper for Diocesan Clergy who are citizens, or who are married or partnered to citizens, of European countries other than the UK. The genesis of this evening was a Tweet from a senior Priest in the Diocese, born outside the UK, who has served God in the Church of England faithfully and long, and wrote “After 30 years of living and working, and paying taxes, in the UK, I have to apply to be allowed to stay and continue doing what I love and feel called to do. Wonder what ‘my employer’ thinks of it all?” The employer of that priest is God and not the Bishop!
I heard distressing stories of animosity on social media including comments to this priest saying “go back to your own country”. I heard of tactless, though possibly innocent remarks and questions – “will you have to leave now?” – “where are you really from?” I heard of remarks that had to go unaddressed because, for example, they were made in the context of a funeral – “are you still here? I thought we had a referendum.”
Perhaps most moving was the case of the next generation, which these clergy were sharing with me: children of parents from different countries to whom London, England, the UK, Europe are concentric circles of home, whose roots go out into the outer circles, but whose lives are centred here. For those of us like me who were born here and know no other home, it is very hard to imagine how much one’s sense of self can be shaken by these changing times we are living through.
Of course, provisions for EU nationals to continue to dwell here are being made. And we do not forget the plight of some members of our communities whose citizenship is beyond the EU altogether and who may be literally threatened with deportation.
The issue for EU 27 citizens in London is not so much a legal and practical one – though these things have their due weight – but it is a matter of identity, of welcome, of being. Simply to be asked to register, when one thought one already belonged, is a very disturbing thing. It can leave one unsure how one stands with one’s neighbours and friends. It can make one question who one is in this community.
There is a role for the Church here and it begins with listening. I hope there will also be a chance for some increased visibility too. I would like to put on display the good and faithful ministry of Clergy and Lay People in Southwark whose roots are elsewhere in Europe - indeed with the Windrush scandal still fresh in our minds, not forgetting those whose roots are beyond Europe. We shall always strive to honour the contribution of all in Southwark regardless of where they come from. As I have said before, our diversity is God’s gift and blessing to us in this Diocese. It is very important we say this.
And so, first and foremost this Lent, may we listen well to one another, and form our estimation of each other with love and not with judgment. Secondly, if you are a lay person or a priest in this Diocese whose citizenship is in another country, and if these last months and years have made you wonder “am I part of this?”, let me say, loudly and clearly, you are – you are dearly loved and appreciated by us all. We are all in this together. Through our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, all Christians, in all times and in all places, have become our brothers and sisters. We rejoice in this and we know, however our relations with our fellow European nations are reordered in the coming weeks, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. Even so, Come Lord Jesus.