Bishop John, Members of Synod,
It’s a great privilege to be invited by you, Bishop John, to address Synod during this, your first Synod meeting as Diocesan Bishop. Synod members, thank you for your warm welcome, both here and across the Diocese of the Murray over the past month, as the Bishop and I have visited parishes and pastoral districts across the diocese. I bring you greetings in the Lord Jesus from the staff and students of St Stephen’s House in Oxford, where I am privileged to serve. The House has been praying for you over the last few days and weeks, most likely because they know what you’re going to get!
In the time leading up to our coffee break I propose to speak for about 45 minutes, and to allow about some time for questions. There will also be a chance for you to reflect upon some the things we have shared, and we will spend some time in groups after coffee pondering some important questions of identity, attitude and future direction in our local areas, the better to seek God’s will for us as, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we become more faithful still to the call of God in Jesus Christ, a call which is our duty and our joy, and which we all share because we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, his church, through our baptism.
This Synod meeting comes part way through the Taking the Plunge process which Bishop John instigated at the beginning of his time here. All across the Diocese, parishes and pastoral districts have been busy gathering data concerning the shape and identity of our worshipping communities, and have been encouraged to interrogate this data by comparing church attendance with demographic information, to see whether we can find the ways in which we can say that we are representative of our communities – and, above all, to learn more about our context as we seek to make the right decisions concerning the future shape of mission in our parishes and congregations.
If we would serve those communities it’s important to know who is in them – there’s no point in yearning, for example, for young families (certainly a constant refrain in parishes in England) if in fact there are no young families in the area in which you live. So this has been about coming to an understanding of who you are serving, so that you can focus that service and do it better.
All this information assists the process of Mission Action Planning, the strategic approaches to mission in the church which help us to pray, to think and to act in ways which will engage and attract individuals in the wider community, and ensure that we are doing all we can to make the risen life of Jesus a reality for others, and enable the joyful entry and incorporation of newcomers into the life of the church.
Of course, the simple truth is that we can’t share what we haven’t got ourselves. Alongside our planning together, as worshipping communities and as a diocese, there is the question of our own discipleship, our own following of Jesus Christ.
Some of you will have heard me refer to the Texan theologian Stanley Hauerwas who once suggested that there were two types of people he habitually met in churches – he categorised them as admirers of Jesus and disciples of Jesus.
Admirers are those who see Jesus, carrying his cross to Calvary, and think ‘What an amazing man. What a thing to do. I’m sure I could never do that.’ An admirer, a spectator. A disciple, on the other hand, is a pupil of the master (as the Latin has it) – one who learns from the Master and puts into practice what has been learnt, however imperfectly. Rather than watching Jesus, disciples follow him, carrying their crosses, to the place of sacrifice. Such a distinction offers a bracing challenge to us, every day. Am I a disciple, or merely an admirer?
This is a critical question for us, as individuals, as parishes and pastoral districts, and as a diocesan family. It is plain in scripture that Jesus longs for the church to be one which makes disciples – both those who consider themselves to be members of the church and those who do not. And it is perfectly possible to be a member of the church, offering commitments of time, energy and membership whist remaining as an admirer rather than a disciple. There is a saying in the Church of England that you can no more become a follower of Jesus by going to church than you can become a bus by sitting in a bus depot. Standing near to the means of grace is not enough. To be a disciple of Jesus requires an act of will and intention every day, seeking God’s purpose for our lives, recognising that the gospel has the potential and possibility to transform lives, including ours. And so my first challenge in this address is that all of us re-examine our lives and our hearts. Can we truly say that we are following Jesus Christ as we know we should?
The good news (and there is always good news) is that each of us in this diocese have a wonderful opportunity, from Pentecost onwards, to explore the whole business of Christian discipleship, its challenges and ultimate joys, through the faith exploration course Following Jesus, for which training has already been offered to leaders a week ago on a wonderful Saturday in our Cathedral. It’s hoped that as many people in the Diocese as possible will make use of this; alongside those with whom we worship, week by week, we will be able to examine our faith in Jesus Christ, so that we might be better equipped to serve him as we should. This will be further developed through a devotional Lent Course (which Bishop John will write) in the lead up to Easter 2015, and the running of a course in the Diocese entitled Leading Your Church into Growth. This is a course, developed in the Church of England by a team of missioners, including myself, over the last 15 years, and it has helped a great many parishes and communities to arrest numerical decline, decline in confidence, decline in discipleship. It’s envisaged that Bishop John and I will lead this course, from 13-16 April 2015, as the conclusion of this part of the process of encouraging growth in the local and diocesan church.
If God is gracious, and blesses this process, we will have taken some important steps towards equipping the faithful, so that the dispositions and ideas which contribute to a growing church can be adopted and practiced. The aim of all this is for us to be who we are called to be by God – his faithful, holy joyful people, with the church growing on the foundation laid by Christ. It’s an exciting journey which, if we travel it faithfully, will ensure that we and our communities will never be the same again.
Bishop John and I have spoken, during the last month, to a whole host of meetings of parishes – 21 so far – about various aspects of the life of the church. We have spoken of the mission of the church – in other words, the whole of God’s act of saving love to the world, and our role in helping that love flow into the world.
We have spoken of evangelism – the proclaiming of that love in such a way that new Christian disciples are made.
And we have spoken of church growth – the part we all have to play in helping the church to grow, both in terms of the number of people who are incorporated into the church, and the depth of life, belief and commitment evident in the church itself. All the various aspects of the programme of activity which Bishop John has instigated have one end in view – the growth of the church.
For the church, universal as well as local, there is no greater priority than its growth. In so many places across the world where the church has previously been strong, and indeed part of the fabric of society, a bracing new context of consumerism allied to new atheism has proceeded with quite alarming speed to surround the church to the extent that we can feel somewhat overwhelmed by it. It is all too easy to succumb to a culture of fear – fear of the future, fear of the decline of the church in such circumstances.
Some of you have pointed, in conversation, to the difficulties caused by changes in education in South Australia, with a decline and in places disappearance of religious education, prayer and the rhetoric of faith in education, allied to a secular culture which pays scant regard to the importance of faith in the public arena. It’s a perfectly valid point. Because these things are lodged in our institutional memory bank, we feel them keenly. For a long time the church of Christendom has been propped up by particular activities and institutions, whether in the field of education, public health or social action. Society has changed, and these things are no longer there. There has also been a break in the chain whereby children learned the practice and the doing of faith from their parents. There’s a terrible paradox here, because whilst the church rightly speaks of coming to maturity of faith, the world around us contends that faith itself is an immature thing, fit only for children and the ridiculously simple, at that. I recall a cartoon in an English Magazine which appeared a few Advents ago; it showed two men in the English equivalent of a bottle shop, with trollies packed with an astonishing quantity and variety of festive drinks. One turns to the other and said ‘Of course, it wasn’t for the children we wouldn’t bother with Christmas.’
We can no longer rely on those other agencies, any more than we can rely on any kind of default position which will bring people into our churches as of right. No-one else will proclaim the gospel for us. We must do it, not merely because no-one else is, but because it was always our job in the first place. The great Carmelite mystic Teresa of Avila reminds us of this in a famous piece of writing:
Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks Compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours, Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
And so my second challenge to you today is: are we prepared to accept that our society has changed, and that we therefore have to act and respond differently? As the baptised people of God in our various localities it is, and has always been, our task to be heralds of good news for the world. And the processes of Mission Action Planning which I have spoken of across the diocese in the last month are designed to help us recover that sense of mature responsibility for the spread of the gospel first given to us at our baptism, and renewed daily, weekly, in the gathering of the community around word and sacrament.
Everything else – the discernment of vocation to holy order, the training of disciples, discussions about money, time, resources, the past, present and future of the diocese – all these things sit at the feet of the imperative of which Jesus speaks at the end of Matthew’s gospel, to
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Jesus’ outline for the Church’s mission is threefold. Firstly, there is the business of evangelising the nation. This is more than winning individuals. It is no less that the conversion of entire cultures, including our own. This flies in the face of a contemporary tendency to see all views as somehow relative aspects of truth.
We believe in one who says in John 14 ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ The attitude of our culture seems to suggest that truth is less important than convenience, summed up in the phrase ‘I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it works for me.’ If Jesus is indeed the truth, then he is the truth for you, for me, and for all. This does not imply a lack of respect for people of other faiths, traditions and belief, but rather begins with a sense of stability about who we are. In conversations with people there are many who would be prepared to sacrifice that understanding of the truth, and we should be aware of that, and guard against it.
Secondly, Jesus is reminding us that the baptising of new converts is an essential first step in a long process of sanctification and participation in the life of the church. In doing so we enter into a way of life which places sacraments at the heart of what it means to be Christian at all. The sacrament of Baptism incorporates Christians into no less than the Divine Life and family of the Holy Trinity as children of God, as the single name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit reveals the unity of God’s inner life, the oneness of his nature. And Jesus promises elsewhere, in John 16.13, that the church will be guided by the Holy Spirit as we are led together into all truth, countering deception and falsehood where it is found, as the Spirit continues the teaching mission of Jesus to bear witness to the truth.
One of my late Father’s most enjoyable sayings was ‘God is alive and well, and working on a far less ambitious project.’ Yes, this is the greatest project, greatest story, greatest love that has ever been known. The work of the church is a work greater than that entrusted to Monarchs, Emperors, Governments and rulers. In the words of the English Evangelical theologian Graham Tomlin, we are to
… [They also] whisper around the good news that things don’t have to be like this. The king is coming, in fact he has already landed, and others can begin to live joyfully in the light of this coming kingdom as well. This is essentially what evangelism is – the simple announcement that there is another king, another kingdom that will one day become fully visible, and the invitation to take part in it.
A massive task, yes, a vital one too, but an exciting one, and one we undertake on behalf of a God and in partnership with Him. The business of equipping the diocese for mission is a pressing one, and you may well be feeling that there is a great deal going on in a relatively short space of time to do just that – and you would be right. I’d like to suggest that there are two very good reasons why there is no time to lose.
Firstly, there is no time to lose because we need to be who God wants us to be in order to be the church at all. The Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner once observed that the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning. If we would be the church, we must be about God’s mission, and there should be no delay in being more faithful to his purposes.
Secondly – and you know this to be true – we do not have the luxury of leisure in this initiative. Congregations have been dwindling here, as indeed they have been in England, for some time. In many instances, we are approaching a point of crisis. I mean this in its original Greek sense of a crisis meaning ‘a point of decision.’ Decisions will have to be made about the shape of ministerial provision and priority.
I delight in Ann Morisey’s rather terse and ironic statement that, give that the church has been in numerical decline for about a century, some sort of growth strategy would seem to be a little overdue. And of course, parish and diocesan finances are part of the story of local viability and vitality, but they are far from being the only benchmark. In my last diocese those of us who were charged by the bishop with the implementation of strategic planning for church growth has a catch-phrase – ‘2034.’ We would repeat it, especially during times of difficulty, stress and disagreement. I suppose it became our vision statement. The reason 2034 was important to us was that 2034 was the year the Diocese would cease to exist if the current strategy remained unaltered. It concentrated the mind wonderfully.
The seven stated priorities which Bishop John has offered to you give us some indication of the pressing concerns which confront the diocese at this time. And, as a sidebar, I urge you not to fall into the trap of seeing the diocese of The Murray as a separate and somehow remote institution from the parish, disconnected from local priority and concern. This is, perhaps, a peculiarly English disease – the idea that in our parishes, we might characterise ‘the diocese’ as if it were some separate body in which we played no part. As I stand here I am intrigued, because I am looking at as good a representation of the Diocese of the Murray as I am ever likely to find – local church communities, clustered in families, gathered around your bishop. And if the last few weeks have taught me anything, it is about how this diocese is actually a large family unit. This is emphasised in those seven areas for priority as a diocese offered by Bishop John in earlier meetings.
– A sense of partnership with one another and other Christians, based on a realistic and honest understanding of who we are and what we believe.
– A desire to explore together the creative possibilities inherent in our sacramental life, as we seek to worship God more truly and faithfully.
– A revealing of the ministry of the family of Christ as a shared enterprise, in which the whole people of God are the foundation and bedrock of the ministry of the whole church, lay and ordained.
– A sense of ourselves as a serving, proclaiming, thankful, spirit filled Diocese, who stand in the revealed tradition of Christianity and which confidently proclaims the love of God to and for the world.
– An understanding of ourselves as an all age community, lived out in our worship, outreach and nurture. This especially includes those who are noticeably absent – the young and families.
– A renewal of our calling to be a prophetic voice for the voiceless, seeking the ways of justice for all, which is essential to our missionary task.
– A realistic appraisal of the resources for mission at our disposal, with a sense of financial responsibility for the cost of the ministry we sustain from regular, planned giving, using the example of the crucified Christ in assessing the level of our own commitment.
I guess it is easy to spend a lot of time assessing the negatives of our situation. But I believe that in the long run this diocese has the opportunity to model something special and spectacular for the Anglican Communion generally, and, indeed, the universal church.
I am sincere in my belief that the delights of being a priest in the Church of England are many, but that I can find no delight whatever in what seems to be happening in so much of our life together. The Church of England has seen a transformation over the last thirty years which has placed great focus on an over-centralised, over-managerial, resource-consuming and energy sapping bureaucracy which stifles initiative and kills the spirit. This was recognised back in the 1960’s by the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, who once said that if only those who seemed to spend all their time on committees, and yak and yak and yak, would actually get on with the task of evangelising people in parishes, then we should not be in quite the situation we are in. Regrettably, it seems that his words have not been heeded, and effective mission is frequently compromised.
None of that needs to be the case here. How can a Diocese sit lightly to such things, recognising the importance of prudence, good stewardship and accountability without becoming weighed down with a model of institution which actually does harm to the church? That is a challenge which should be part of our concern as we seek to build an appropriate, faithful and focused model of diocesan operation and polity which places local mission as the overwhelming priority. Put simply, a diocese which begins with a vision benchmark which asks ‘Does this help the local mission of the church, or not?’ and acts accordingly. All structural questions about the life of Diocese need to be viewed in this light, so that we never fall into the trap of becoming a self-preserving, self-perpetuating institution but a place which enables and encourages the experience of the life of God’s Kingdom.
Thank you for your courtesy and patience in listening this morning. I hope and pray that this synod meeting is giving you a flavour of the way in which this diocese is making strides to meet the challenges which we know to be part of our landscape: please know that my main experiences of this diocese, which I will take back to England in a few days time, will be twofold: astonishing hospitality and joyful people.
As far as the first is concerned, you are an instinctively generous lot! Never underestimate that advantage as you look to develop styles of events and activities which attract, intrigue and engage. You are already on the right side of that curve. Secondly, you are people of joy – and how important that is. For what else can we be? The life to which Jesus calls us is abundant beyond our wildest dreams. We are not inviting other people to join us so that they can share the chores of our church existence. We are inviting people to ‘come and share your Master’s joy’ – a joy which we share, as those who seek to live, here and now, as citizens of heaven. Our task is to issue the invitations to the heavenly banquet, on behalf of our host and guest, our friend, our brother, our king, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and to the ages of ages. Thank you.
Given at Woodcraft College, Morphett Vale, SA