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Presidential Address - November 2016

2 years, 5 months ago

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

‘President Donald J Trump.’ No comment. Except to say, thank God for Hereditary Monarchy.

We should not make the mistake of thinking our own times uniquely troubled. When we read in the Gospel tomorrow of nation rising against nation, we also remember that this phrase has resonated in every generation. We are not, thank God, living in 1939, nor even in 1936.  Nevertheless, in this week of all weeks, there is something to make us say, as Hamlet says, “the time is out of joint.”  

First we should pause and acknowledge that at the personal level this has been a time of loss.  We mourn The Revd Dr Andrew Wakefield, taken from us so suddenly, whose funeral will be conducted by Bishop Richard on Tuesday. And we began this morning by holding the people of Croydon in our prayers, praying particularly for those killed, injured or bereaved in the tram crash on Wednesday, giving thanks for the emergency services.

And then in the national and international sphere, the tectonic plates are shifting.   It is too early to say what exactly is happening.  But a common theme seems to be the failure of trust in the political class; the predominating tone is one of impatient anger.

More and more, in these days, our own lives intersect with the news, and not usually in a way that makes for peace of mind.

Last month, encouraged by the Year of Mercy inaugurated by Pope Francis in Advent, I went with Archbishop Peter Smith of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Southwark and our respective delegations, to visit prisoners, officers and chaplains at HMP Wandsworth.  In numerous conversations the message we received again and again was about staff shortages and the cumulative impact of savage cuts in recent years.   There is a negative spiral: too few staff to supervise activities leading to discontent and more demands on staff time.  Against this background the value of the Chaplaincy Service at Wandsworth, led by Canon Tim Bryan, is incalculable.   Scarcely had we got back from our visit when we read of public warnings that order in prisons would break down; and hot on the heels of these warnings came the violence and escapes at Pentonville.

We live in troubled times.   We live in troubling times.

What can the Church offer in response?

I want to give a very short answer.  It is an answer each of us needs to make real, and that will not be easy.  But the central theme can be stated in a word.  Service.  To be more precise, Godly service.   Simply put, God came among us in the form of a servant, so we must do likewise.   Service is a matter of living outward, of finding other people’s hopes and fears as compelling as our own, of laying down the burden of our own self-interest to pursue the interests of someone else.

Service can become a reality in many different ways.  Service is love in action and these two, love and service, are intertwined. And if we truly serve others, rather than seeking to gain advantage in return, we come to know them better, more as God knows them.  We grow stronger in love and the knowledge of God’s loving purposes for us.  Indeed, the more we love, the more we are moved to serve.   And as we cultivate this virtuous circle we become the antidote to the ugly mood of this last year, which has seen the strengthening of fear and of the mistaken idea that more for someone else means less for me.  We are able to counter this in our daily lives by practising hospitality and generosity, by living and working out for ourselves the truth that it is in giving that we receive.  And the way into this is an attitude of service.

For our parish churches service is of the first importance too.  One abiding impression from visiting Wandsworth Prison was how much our parish communities of faith have to offer. The men I met spoke of the need for someone to talk to on release to help them make sense of the world and their place in it without judging or fearing them.  They spoke of the longing for connection.  They spoke of the need to give something back, to find roles in which they can be trusted and win trust.  Both before and after release virtuous circles of connection and interaction are vitally needed.  Above all, this has to happen not as part of some planned system, but personally, one by one, at the most local level. 

This is just the sort of thing a parish church can do so well: love realised in practical service, in a particular place, by particular people.  I only mention prisoners as one example: Matthew 25 gives the bigger picture of Christian service, in which all may find a way to join in.  

St Mary Magdalene Peckham is a concrete example of how this can work out over the long term.   I recently dedicated a new altar in this church which I consecrated 5 years ago. Under the leadership of their Vicar, Dr Olu Adams, the PCC raised 90% of the £2 million funding for the new church themselves - an extraordinary achievement - with the remaining £200,000 as a loan from the Diocese, a debt which the parish have been steadily repaying; but now the outstanding balance  of around £100,000 has been remitted in order to liberate resources for mission and ministry.   Renewed energy can be focussed  onsharing the Good news, especially in work with children, young people and families, using the new church and community centre to help all in the community to grow in love and the knowledge of Christ.

St Mary Magdalene Peckham is a church, like many in the Diocese, in an area of significant deprivation undergoing rapid change.  It is important that we pay as much care to these communities as to new emerging communities and developments such as Battersea Nine Elms where we have been successful in obtaining significant funding from the Church Commissioners which will enable us to look creatively at mission delivery and fresh expressions of Church.  

Acts of corporate yet personal service are not solely the province of parish churches.  What a rich gift is given to prisons and to hospitals, schools and other institutions, by our chaplaincies and their teams of willing lay and ordained members, many of whom are volunteers.  It is inspiring to meet at Wandsworth members of the volunteer chaplaincy team in their distinctive blue tee shirts drawn from among the prisoners, offering acts of service and finding that the reward is in the giving.  In the same way it was encouraging, nearly three weeks ago, to host, with Bishop Pete Broadbent of Willesden, a pan-London meeting of Anglican hospital chaplains.  All that chaplaincies do in fostering peace and hope in institutions which are more and more under pressure from funding cuts is a rich tale of service that is too seldom told, but one in which we can take due pride in this Diocese.

In the Public Square service is central to what we can offer as Church.   It was with a purpose of service that I convened the Faith and Community Assembly in the Cathedral at the beginning of October.  The key note speaker was the first Muslim Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, admitted into office in May at his request in our Cathedral Church, who so admirably aspires to be Mayor for all Londoners, a sign that the spirit of service is not confined solely to Christian witness.  The purpose of the Assembly was to stand together in solidarity as Londoners both in condemning prejudice and distrust as well as affirming tolerance, generosity and welcome which are so vital in our increasingly global metropolis. Let me conclude by reading you the text of the Declaration which I signed with the Mayor Sadiq Khan together with other faith and community leaders:

  • We pledge our determination as Londoners to ensure that this great city shall continue to be a place of welcome, generosity and equality, with respect for all
  • We condemn and oppose prejudice and distrust and will work unceasingly for tolerance and the common good 
  • We abhor all examples of exclusion based on ethnic identity that mar relationships between neighbours of all ages, faiths and backgrounds
  • We stand in solidarity with those in London who are mistreated or held in contempt because of who they are or where they have come from
  • We affirm that our diversity is a source of strength and that we are committed to learning from one another 
  • We commit to living out this Declaration in our own lives, in our teaching and preaching and in our community engagement

There is much to discuss in today’s Synod, and I commend it all to your careful attention.  But I want to put the notion of service at the centre and I look forward during Advent, as the Year of Mercy draws to a close, to ordaining Southwark’s first three Distinctive Deacons – a hospital lay chaplain, a deaconess and a Church Army Officer, who will embody in our midst the spirit of service which is the bedrock of ministry and discipleship, lay and ordained.  Indeed I pray for us all that today we may discuss and debate in a spirit of service; and that as we go out, God willing, we shall keep at the front of our minds, in our churches, in our homes, in our places of work and community engagement, this same purpose: service.  “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mt 20.28)