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

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It is often said that General Synod is the Parliament of the Church of England. This is not necessarily a helpful analogy. It is an elected representative body. It is a legislative body. But it is a synod, not a parliament. There is no government or opposition. There are no chief whips. We sit in the round. Synod means walking and working together on the way.

As Pope Francis has said, “the aim is not to reach agreement by means of contest between opposing positions, but to journey together to seek God’s will, allowing differences to harmonize…. To meet each other with respect and trust, to believe in our unity.”[i] The unity that we have in Christ because of our baptism, the baptism of the wonderful people of God.

Critically, as Archbishop Justin has outlined so powerfully, we walk together, responding to the great challenges facing our world. Synod, we have already met one bearded, bald man today – here is another one. The harvest is rich but the labourers aren’t few. We have a lot of labourers in the Church of England, the trouble is that the labourers are in the barn arguing what colour to paint the combine harvester. Like two bald men fighting over a comb.  We are here because of our baptism to face the challenges of the world and then discerning how best to steer and steward the Church of England. We are here to find a way.

We work in this space and in this time, but as Archbishop Justin has also said, we walk forwards backwards, mindful of what has gone before us, where we have come from and what we decide to take with us.

This Synod, therefore, builds on the work of other synods. We welcome new members and we hope that you will soon feel at home. But we also welcome back old ones, who carry that story and who bring experience and great wisdom.

We are walking into uncharted territory:

The uncharted territory of living with COVID-19.
The uncharted territory of climate crisis
The uncharted territory of rapidly changing cultures, and the questions those cultures pose
The uncharted territory of our own continuing numerical decline and all the challenges, not least financial, that go with it.

We don’t have a map.

There is a clue in the title. It is uncharted territory.

Our job together is to draw the map, to work out what it means to be the Church of England in and for this day and in this age.

But we do have a compass: an utterly reliable source of comfort and guidance, by the Holy Spirit, the one who has told us that he himself is the way (see John 14. 6).

This is the reason, drawn out in the darkest days of last year‘s lockdowns when everything else that was comforting and familiar about our discipleship was stripped away, when we were in isolation, when our churches were closed. It was in those days that we felt God calling us afresh to be a Christ centred church and Jesus Christ shaped church, which is as old Synod members will have heard me say before the most obvious thing that anyone could to say about the Church. It is so beautiful and so profound that we will spend the rest of our lives learning what it means to know and follow Jesus Christ. We are simply trying to recognise what is most basic about us, what Bishop Michael Curry calls a Jesus people, and what Provinces as diverse as Canada and Kenya call a Jesus shaped life.

And at the heart of this we put the five marks of mission as the agenda for the Church’s faithfulness to the call of Christ, remembering that we need all five.  You can’t do this as a Myers Briggs exercise on the five marks of mission – I’m a three sort of person, no it is a totality. And, if we don’t attend to the first two – proclaiming and teaching the gospel – not much else is going to happen. As COP 26 has shown us, there is still much work we need to do to safeguard the integrity of the creation and sisters and brothers we really need the wisdom of the gospel the new humanity shows us in Christ, to be able to rise to this challenge and the church to take a lead.  

As we have travelled, three words have emerged that seem to capture the heart cry of the church at this time: to be simpler, humbler and bolder in our walking with Christ.

These words, and the aspirations and agendas that will flow from them, build on the work of previous synods. We walk forwards, looking backwards to that work. 

Simplification has been a grass roots Synod initiative for some time, challenging us to simplify and align all our resources around the life and witness of the church in the front line in our parishes, chaplaincies and other worshipping and witnessing communities. I pray it continues. There is still much work to be done.

To be humble, we must acknowledge, has also meant for the Church of England, being humbled.  This has been unbearably painful for us, especially those of us who God has asked to carry responsibility for the leadership of the church. We have had to look at dark and terrible things about our history. And IICSA, The report From Lament into Action, to name only two, have revealed our failings. This Synod will work at these things. With the LLF process and working on issues to do with disability and inclusion, we have a bold aspiration and it is to be a younger and more diverse church. I want to stand here and say that this is something I am proud of the fact that the Church has said that we need to listen to the voice of the young, and let the young lead us.  And we need to recognise our failures on issues of diversity and inclusion. But of course, these flow from the very heart of the gospel and the new humanity we have in Christ. 

But to be simpler and humbler is also a description of the Christian life itself as we learn to live differently and distinctively in an age of climate emergency and to live and share our faith with authenticity. 

Then, also, bolder. 

Our vision and strategy is a vision and strategy for growth. It is not about managing decline gracefully. We want the Church of England to grow and even if it doesn’t – then let our death be a grand operatic death, let it be fantastic and lets not crawl in a corner. Let us declare the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and do everything we can to align all of our resources, to make that happen in our local churches, whatever that local church is. We believe the Church of England can grow. And even if it doesn’t, for in the end (and with some relief) God is the evangelist and God is the Lord of the harvest, not us, I am determined to play my part in leading the Church of England joyfully, without anxiety about the institution and with the song of the gospel on my lips. Synod, let’s put this simple and joyful focus on Christ at the centre of all our discussions, especially from time to time when we do see things differently.

And if the five marks of mission continue to shape our life together, we will become a church of missionary disciples. This too builds on the last synod’s exciting agenda of Everyday Faith and Setting God’s People Free.

And because we live in rapidly changing and fearfully anxious times, and because we live our lives in very different ways and in very different places, in virtual as well as actual space, I think you all know this but no one size is going to fit all. We therefore need to care for the whole ecosystem of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ.

In the Anglican tradition place has always been very important.

All clergy are ordained to a title parish, that is to a place. Ordination is not a general passing out parade. We are called to serve in a particularity.

This is even more important today as the foci of these particularities expand and diversify. This is why we talk about mixed ecology. Not because we intend to downplay parish, but because place and all places and all people are so important.

We therefore honour the vital ministry of chaplaincy, one of our biggest growth areas in recent years. If we are going to grow younger, school, university and army chaplains, and I think that maybe that they will lead the way, and they have much to teach us. I have recently moved to Yorkshire and have received the gift of the Spirit, it is bluntness.

Therefore, I want to say quite directly to those of you who have been elected on a save the parish ticket, I am with you and I, too, want to save the parish. As far as I’m concerned, you are not the loyal opposition waiting for your turn in government. The heart cry of your movement echoes in all our hearts and reminds us of the centrality of place, the importance of the local, of the continuity of tradition and service and why our resources must be focused on this, the local church of missionary disciples. 

However, I must also say that from my observation of just about everything else in the world, and especially the story of the growth of the Christian Church from Pentecost onwards, things survive because they learn how to adapt. It is through adaptation to changed circumstance that new flourishing occurs.

Please, please, let us work on this together. Let us never doubt that we all want the same thing – the flourishing of the church so that the gospel of Jesus Christ may be proclaimed. This will mean different ways of being the church flourishing within the mixed ecology of a revitalised parish system and – as has always been the case – the most innovative new ways of serving and reaching people will almost certainly emerge from parishes.

The boldness of our vision is that we are praying and working for more church, not less, so that more people can know Christ. Sisters and Brothers, that’s what you have signed up for in this Synod.

But the test of this work will not be the survival of the institution, not even the survival of the parish. Our vision must be bigger. It will, as Advent approaches and our thoughts turn to last things, be what did you do for the least of these, my sisters and brothers? How did you in this quinquennium and this latest manifestation of the General Synod, serve the poor, bind up the wounded, bring home the excluded, renew the Earth?  Did you spend every penny you received and use your gifts and time wisely in the service of the gospel, for the building of the kingdom and so the Christ may be made known? This is what I get out of bed for in the morning. And it is because we often fail to do it, that sometimes I am kept awake at night.

Dear friends in Christ, let us work together for this. Put out your nets on the right side.