The Bishop of Fulham addresses the National Assembly about our future
We meet, as we must, as a Christian assembly, modelling something, we hope, of the true ecclesial characteristic of synodality: a taking counsel together, a walking together, bishops, priests and people, in the way of discipleship, the way of Cross and Resurrection, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We seek all of us to be formed by, and to reflect back to others, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, those crowning gifts of the Holy Spirit of which we have spoken and sung in this morning’s liturgy; and so we live out our baptismal vocation to be salt and light in the world. As we heard in the homily, as one very small part of the Church of God, the people of God gathered here this morning, we cannot but be conscious of the face of Christ in our suffering brothers and sisters, not least in Syria, in Egypt, and in so many regions of the lands of Our Lord’s birth and ministry, and the lands of the earliest spread of the primitive Church. Our consciousness of this truly universal, truly world-wide Church, and our consciousness of the suffering Church, can only help to keep our gaze long and our horizons wide, and these things must continue to characterize an organization which continues to stand under the strap-line, the banner, of the quest for unity and truth. All of this teaches us humility: humility which is learnt from the Church of the Ages, humility which is learnt from the example of the persecuted Church. From humility flows thanksgiving, for our own small part in the task entrusted to us: that of not only guarding the deposit, but handing on, handing over, as St Paul has it, that which we have received. That is our mandate, our mandatum, our new commandment; that is our agenda for mission.
Hurt and healing
So: a new Pope, a new Archbishop, yes, even a new Director of Forward in Faith. What a difference a year makes. In the body politic of the Church of England, and over that questionof holy order which exercises us so much, we might say that everything has changed and nothing has changed. A year ago we met a matter of weeks before a historic debate in the General Synod on Final Approval of draft legislation to allow the consecration of women to the episcopate. As we know, that vote for Final Approval was lost: lost by a handful of votes (in terms of the required synodical majorities) in the House of Laity, but lost because the middle ground of that House – representing very faithfully, I believe, the middle ground of the Church of England – could not see the ground being laid for the flourishing of the
-whole Church of England, in what was then proposed. Many of us here this morning, and many more of those we represent who are not in this church now, were put in a deeply discomfiting and even stressful position after last November’s decision in General Synod: a position misrepresented in some quarters of the press at least and taken up by many of those who think differently from ourselves. The story went something like this: the legislation had been brought down by those who were anti-women, those who had deliberately wrecked the credibility of the Church of England, those who are simply obstructive and reactionary. Well, we know very well that none of this was or is true: but it was said, and it hurt. It hurt many of our number. So let us not be afraid to bring that hurt to the foot of the Cross, and to ask for God’s healing.
Opportunity and hope
So: nothing has changed; here we are in a Church of England which, on paper, is just as it was on this question on 12 November 1992, the year before my ordination to the diaconate, that’s how long we have been living with this issue. But of course we know that in another sense everything has changed. The Church of England has quickly embarked on a fresh process, and it is likely that we will be back at the Final Approval stage of legislation, just as we were last November, within the next couple of years. Others will speak later this afternoon in much more detail, and with a much more informed perspective than mine, about this fresh process, and you as an Assembly will have the chance to make your voices heard in the debate which we shall hold. What I want to say now is this: I believe that it is hugely important for us to grasp that, in one key sense, everything has changed, and changed in a way which, extraordinary as it is to say so, can and must give us hope; hope that creates real opportunity for us under God, if only, under God, we can rise to the challenge.
Commitment and flourishing
The change is this, and it is embedded, if you want to look at documents, in that report that the latest Working Party on fresh legislative proposals brought to the General Synod in July this year. There we read, by unanimous agreement of the members of that working party which, as with all these things, had among it representatives of the spectrum of views across the Church of England, that catholics and evangelicals who are unable, on the grounds of theological conviction,
to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests, remain within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition; that the Church of England will be committed to their flourishing within its life and structures (a very important phrase, that, of which we’ll hear a great deal more later today); and that provision for them, for us, will be made without limit of time. Now it’s easy to say – words, promises, empty promises perhaps – and trust me, we will be watching like hawks to see that the promises, the commitments, contained in those words are honoured! But those words, those commitments, those promises, do potentially create the space for us in which we can go forward; yes, forward in faith.
Assurance and determination
I have said already that others will have much more to say later today on the detail. I just want to make two points. The first is brief, and it is this. It is a huge tribute to all those, including our many friends who are now in another and larger part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church; it is a huge tribute to all, who over twenty years and more have continued to present and to argue our case with clarity and courtesy, to put across our arguments over reception, over the limits of authority and the nature of development, over the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, over questions of assurance and symbolism in the sacramental economy; it is a huge tribute to them and to all that work that our theological position is being recognized by those who are charting the way ahead for the Church of England. We are determined to keep that work fresh and in the collective mind of the Church, and there are plans in train for a new project in this regard, of which more another day.
Building the Kingdom
The second and even more substantial point is this. If, and I repeat it’s an ‘if’, for we do not know the detail, if the Church of England really does mean what it says, that we are to be given the space, the tools, the means whereby we can flourish, then we had better grasp every opportunity to occupy that space, to grow the Church, to win souls for Christ, to serve the people of this nation, and to build the Kingdom of God.
Unity of Purpose
This is where the growing relationship between Forward in Faith and the Society, and its bishops, is really beginning to build. A much greater sense of collegiality and co-operation among the bishop, diocesan and suffragan, PEV or those with a traditional geographically bounded ministry; a more strategic understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the catholic movement, of our parishes, clergy and resources – human, built, and of course financial; a much greater unity of purpose beginning to show among the catholic societies and their various bodies of governance and trusteeship; a real sense of asking ourselves where we can pool our collective resources to reap the greatest harvest in terms of mission and evangelization; a zeal for evangelization in the hugely challenging multiple contexts of Britain in 2013; an absolute commitment to the highest standards of formation for our priests. I know very well, as they say in some advertisements, that ‘other products are available,’ but I am going to exercise my right to single out the work done by the Principal and his staff at St Stephen’s House, in forming a new generation of really able and committed and creative priests. We have a wonderful opportunity through creative engagement with something the Church of England is doing, the new validation pathways through the Durham Common Awards. We have a new opportunity to participate in the evolution of a link between training in the academic discipline of theology and training which is pastoral, applied and distinctively ministerial, which will surely bear great fruit in the future. Above all, and this is where every member of this Assembly has such a key part to play, we look for a renewal of our hearts and minds in the service of the Lord; a deepening of our prayer; a greater love for Jesus Christ, in the Blessed Sacrament, in the life of the Church, in the face of the poor.
Without all this, and much, much more, the efforts of our representatives in the political arena will be in vain, and we shall die not because of what the General Synod does, but for want of priests, for want of parishes which model beautiful and attractive Eucharistic community, which draw fresh Christians to the Lord, and for want of newly baptised women and men who are on fire with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
For the sake of the Gospel
I have – if you’ll indulge me in saying this – just a little bit of experience in the heat of the political kitchen in the Church of England. I’m sure that those who this time around are standing over the pots full of boiling water and the pans spitting oil are doing – as I did and those who went before me did – all this political work for the sake of the Gospel. It might not feel like it at the time. Others might not believe that that is our motivation, but it’s our job to prove them wrong. It is truly love for the Lord which inspires us, and love for his Church and for his people, and I hope that is what has inspired every one of you to come here today.
We have a mixed agenda this afternoon: some business which looks like housekeeping, but which is actually very important for the furtherance of the work of this charity and for the prosecution of our aims and objectives; some consideration of the political and synodical agenda; and what I hope will be a timely and significant presentation on the faith and life of some of our, very many, members who are women; and other bits and pieces of business besides. We shall end, as we always should, before the Lord, and perhaps after Benediction you could manage to slip away into the October night as quietly and prayerfully as possible, before continuing your conversations and your fellowship out there in the fleshpots of Holborn. Your fidelity inspires me and your Executive and your Council to serve you. May the Lord bless you, as you seek to follow Him more faithfully; and we pray that our day together will be richly blessed.