Archbishop of Canterbury’s presidential address to the 2021 meeting of General Synod

This church is not on the way out. It may be navigating shoals and rapids, storms and disagreements. We may often be foolish, we are always sinful, but at every point, including especially here, we are needing to learn to listen to the stranger on the shore, telling us where and how to fis


As I have said already twice, it is a great pleasure to be at this new physical synod. Thank you to all of you for all the time you are giving, for your commitment and for your passion. If you are new to the Synod, this is a moment of change, in which your contribution, your wisdom, your thinking, your prayer and your insight is going to be invaluable and indispensable.

There has never been a moment, though, when the church was without change. Change comes from society, from culture, from the context, above all from the command of Christ – to transform, to be a synod, to be on the way together, to be travelling.

In John 21 the disciples go fishing. There is no sense that they are doing the wrong thing. Like many here they have to earn a living – put food on the table – so they pursue their trade. In fact, the presence of Jesus hallows the pursuit of what they are doing. Nor is there any suggested rebuke in their failure to catch fish. It happens.

But to us reading, other stories of catching fish come to mind. Above all there is Luke’s account of a catch of fish in Luke chapter 5. More than that, in John’s gospel itself we think back to John 15:5: “apart from me you can do nothing”. Failing to catch is annoying. The answer to the question from the stranger on the beach is curt. “You have caught nothing, have you?” “No”. The irritation is clear, but the obedience is also clear, and the result is that in a few moments they go from no fish to more fish than they can handle. They cast the net on the right side of the boat, which is my text for this talk.

The greatest danger of a Synod is that it encourages us to think we are acting on our own, or in any case, that somehow we can do something without the intensive listening that is characteristic of the disciples after the resurrection, and is the call to all disciples today. 

As disciples of Jesus Christ, our first and foremost task is to listen to Christ, above all in careful meditation on the scriptures and in prayer. But also in listening to each other and in seeking to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit. 

The Synod is thus not only a parliamentary assembly, but also a place for encounter collectively with the Living God. Which brings me to the outlook at present, and our context in which we listen.

Numerically, the number of regular church goers has shrunk in absolute terms every year since around 1952, 70 years next year. As a percentage of the population of England, the Church of England was at its high point, when there were accurate records, in the 1851 census when we were about 20% of the population, roughly a couple of percentage points less than what were then called the non-Conformist churches.  We are today around about a little less than 2% of the population.

Institutionally, in the intervening years since 1851, we have gone through waves of change. And while we are currently in the midst of such a wave, and this Synod will be crucial in how we ride that wave and how we are shaped by it, in each one there has been a fear that we would lose our tradition, our history, our past. Ever since before the Norman Conquest, indeed going far back before that to the Synod of Whitby in 664, movements of population and the evangelisation of the nation have led to change. 

The parish in which I served was a church plant from the Priory at Coventry in the late 13th century. A record of the 1280-1285 General Synod shows that the notetaker reported “a most noisome uproar by those of ye movement to preserve our Priories”. (That last sentence is of course entirely fictional.)

In the 19th century there were creations of huge numbers of new mission churches and new parishes, or daughter churches to cope with expanding populations in urban areas. In the 20th century liturgical reform led to great protest and discontent. The parish communion movement altered much. There were profound changes in dress, habits of church going and models of church. I think it was as late as 1942 that women were permitted to attend church without wearing hats. In this century, as in the 19th, alterations in the nature of society demand change.

But change is not, must not be, cannot be, should not be, will not be, abandonment of our past. 
An extraordinary, courageous and compelling indigenous Australian pastor, Pastor Ray, whom I met at Glasgow the week before last and had met previously on Zoom calls – he worships at an Anglican church in Sydney Diocese – has struggled remarkably for indigenous rights in Australia. He is the seventh generation of indigenous people, of his family to be ordained, to be a pastor in Australia – and think back that it was only in 1967 that the clause in the Australian constitution that said that indigenous people were not recognised as human beings or citizens was removed, so generations before that. 

He said to me a couple of weeks ago, that his people talk about “walking backwards into the future”, so that they can see their past and retain that deep sense of what that past means to them. That is essential. They do move towards the future, but they do not lose sight of their traditions, their wisdom and their inheritance.

The Disciples are fishing, and yet they need the call of Christ, and the equipping of Christ and the work of Christ to tell them where to fish. They preserve fishing, but they have to listen to Christ for their fishing technique.

The reality is that a huge amount of work is being done at every point of this extraordinary Church for England of which we are a part. People talk too easily of decline but miss the energy that is spurring us on. 

Internally, we will be looking at reforms and changes aimed at focussing resources where they are most needed, at enabling support for anywhere and everywhere that shows signs of the blessing of the Holy Spirit.

Discernment and obedience, casting your net on the right side, requires decision and action, and they need vision and strategy. So internally, the Church of England seeks to have a clear sense of what it is and where it is going – Archbishop Stephen will speak to that in a moment.

We have gone through the greatest peacetime challenge in 400 years and emerged forging ahead. Effectiveness is being transformed, training is being rethought to work well in the very different patterns of population that we see today, and even more different that we see in the future. 
The way in which dioceses work together and share resources is being challenged, and will change slowly and gently and consensually. 

Our failures in safeguarding, in racism, in the way we treat those with disabilities or anyone we see – anyone – we see as other are being tackled, not nearly as well or as quickly as we all want, but we know that we go wrong and seek to do better. There is a self-awareness that is real in this church. We are a church that can admit it is wrong, say sorry and try – at least try – to do better. 

That’s all internal. Where we get to that border between external and internal: the Church has a clear and powerful vision for education of its more than 1 million people in schools and is expanding. It is planting churches in new places, casting the net in unlikely places and ways, perhaps, God-willing, as many as 10,000 new congregations in the next 10 years. And essentially, because it is the foundation of this Church of and for England, resources, fresh resources are being put into traditional parishes. 

Take Top Church in Dudley, there for centuries, liberal catholic in tradition (though actually they cross every boundary); a deeply hospitable church which, with the help of an SDF grant is re-finding its civic tradition, serving the poorest, welcoming those most on the edge, especially those often excluded, growing in numbers and growing in depth of worship. 

The Church of England is renewing ministry with Chaplains, also deeply part of our tradition and our history. It is including the laity – not so much part of our tradition and history – and it is challenging clericalism. 

It has done the most theologically sophisticated work on human sexuality and identity of any global church (that’s not my opinion, that is what others have said to us) and published a superb book, Living in Love and Faith. And we are seeking to work to discern how to act and how to love and how to include and to welcome in the model and image of Christ. 

We seek to model disagreeing well, for we are all different and disagreeing is human, but seeking to destroy and reject each other and exclude each other is less than human. 
The Difference course was launched last year, piloted around the world, and is now being used in 26 countries, with the number going up. Difference is a course developed not by me, but by colleagues working at Lambeth and other places, which encourages three reconciling habits – it enables us to disagree well, it enables us to live well together; it is based in scripture, it is lived in daily life. 

The habits are to be present, to be curious and to reimagine. All these are gifts to the world and models for it. Every member of Synod will be sent information on the Difference course, and we are seeking to make opportunities for all who wish to, to participate in it. 

As part of our contribution to changing the ethos in this church in which we work, at a time when disagreeing well in our country has seldom, in the last 100 years, been less strong, been weaker. I would encourage all members of the church, and of the Synod to take part in this.

I was, as I often am when I am asked to do a course, a bit grumpy about it, let’s be honest. And while I was on sabbatical I was told I needed to do it, because I was writing a book on reconciliation and I was going to write about the Difference course and being me I sort of thought well, if I skim the booklet I should be able to put in a couple of quotes that look as though I know what I am talking about. 
But I was told firmly by someone close to me that that was not how it was done, and I was to participate. So I did, and I have all the passion of the converted. It helped me see things in an entirely new way. I commend it to you very strongly. 

All these things that we are doing are gifts to the world and models for the world. How to disagree well. On this day where I heard during lunch, that this morning there were attacks across the Armenian border from Azerbaijan. Another reminder of war, struggle and suffering.

And in mission we are working creatively to implement the excellent Coming Home report on housing and affordable housing, to tackle housing poverty with houses that, in the theologically based words of the report are sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying.

We are working with a commission under Paul Butler to see how to support modern families and households, and another one on social care.  Health, education and housing are the three foundations of reform of our society.

But most of all, and here I speak to clergy and laity at the local level. Your extraordinary work through the crisis in which we still live has been exhausting, but it has been God shaped, Christ centred. The steady, relentless but wonderful work in parish and chaplaincy has just gone on week in and week out, and the challenge for this Synod is to support and to secure that ministry.

Our aim is to fish on the right side, to see people find faith in Jesus Christ, to proclaim the good news in word and deed. And it is happening. 
Our choices and discernments are not binary. To choose one does not mean to exclude all the others.

To save the parish does not mean to stop church planting. To church plant does not mean abandoning the parish. Far from it. If we take either of those binary decisions we will lose all of them – we will fail completely in every respect.

To support one place to fish, one way for fishing cannot mean rejecting all the others. It is all of them. And as we seek to see the most people possible caught up by the Spirit of God and finding the love which they are offered by God in Christ we must fish in every way, in every possible way we can, and we cannot look down on anyone as blocks, obstacles, or anything like that in any way at all, ever. To use the words used by Alan, they are sisters and brothers in Christ. 

This church is not on the way out. It may be navigating shoals and rapids, storms and disagreements. We may often be foolish, we are always sinful, but at every point, including especially here, we are needing to learn to listen to the stranger on the shore, telling us where and how to fish. Cast your nets on the right side.