Presidential Address Focuses on Valuing Every Person

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The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham gave his presidential address to the Synod of the Diocese of Durham on Saturday 20th May 2017 where he spoke at length on ‘Valuing Every Person’.

Framed within a contemporary but thought provoking theological context, Bishop Paul touched on areas including: General Synod debates on ‘Setting God’s People Free’ and Human Sexuality; Poverty and the 2017 General Election.

Introducing his themes he said: “All human beings are made in God’s image. We bear something of the mark and likeness of our Creator. The classic texts that describe this are the opening two chapters of Genesis. But reflect too on Psalm 8 & 139 where we are reminded that everyone of us is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. This makes every person utterly unique, irreplaceable and therefore of infinite value.”

The complete address is presented below. The complete text can also be download here: Presidential Address 20-5-17 Final.docx

Text of Presidential Address

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS – DIOCESAN SYNOD

May 20th 2017

I began thinking about this address before we knew that we would be in the midst of a General Election campaign. So I have had to consider whether to abandon my original thoughts, ignore the General Election, or somehow reframe the original ideas. I have gone for the third route. It would seem inappropriate not to say something into the election alongside my already planned themes.

The twin foci of our Synod today are the Church of England report, ‘Setting God’s People Free’ and reflecting on one of our three priorities on our Plan on a Page, that of Poverty. We also meet after the General Synod voted not to ‘Take Note’ of the Bishops’ report on Human Sexuality. Since then, as the Archbishops requested, I have met with the General Synod reps and most of those from the diocese who took part in the ‘Shared Conversations’. So I want to say something about all three of these and the General Election. But I want to set them all within the same theological framework: how we are to understand the human person in the light of Christian faith? What’s known as theological anthropology.

ALL MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE

All human beings are made in God’s image. We bear something of the mark and likeness of our Creator. The classic texts that describe this are the opening two chapters of Genesis. But reflect too on Psalm 8 & 139 where we are reminded that everyone of us is ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. This makes every person utterly unique, irreplaceable and therefore of infinite value.

ALL SINNERS, SINNED AGAINST AND CAUGHT UP IN A WORLD INFECTED BY SIN

Yet at the same time as being made in God’s image we have to recognise that this image is marred and damaged. We are all sinners, rebels against God. As St Paul makes clear writing to the Christians in Rome using the words of Psalms 14, 53 & 36, “all … are under sin, as it is written, ‘None is righteous no, not one; no one understands …. There is no fear of God before their eyes’. … For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3.9-23)

This means though that not only are we all sinful and in need of forgiveness, it also means that we all get sinned against. We will not only think, say and do things which show our selfish hearts we will also all be on the receiving end of such wrongdoing. We will always then be in a world, a society, a culture, and indeed a church, where wrong happens; where people get hurt and damaged. We do no one any favours by trying to pretend that everyone is always wonderful because they are made in God’s image but ignoring that they are equally caught up in this broken world.

ALL PEOPLE FOR WHOM CHRIST DIED

‘But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5.8)

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved -” (Ephesians 2.4f)

“For the love of Christ controls us because we have concluded this: that one died for all, and therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on therefore we regard no one according to the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 5.14-16)

Every person is one for whom Jesus Christ hung on the cross and died. So we look at everyone not simply as made in God’s image; not simply as sinners and sinned against but as one for whom Christ died; one whom God loves so deeply He wants them to know and experience forgiveness and new life.

Christ does not set a KPI and say, ‘if I seek and find 85% of the lost, that’ll be okay.’ Not even 99% will do because Christ leaves the 99 to look for the one lost sheep. He seeks everyone.

ALL CHRISTIANS CALLED TO BE DISCIPLES WHO SERVE / MINISTER

But it would be inappropriate, indeed disrespectful of others beliefs, to describe everyone as Christian. A Christian is one who is seeking to follow Jesus; who has placed their trust in God through Jesus Christ. The covenant mark of the new life in Christ is baptism. Baptism symbolises the repentance, trust, washing, renewal, death and resurrection that is all part of being ‘in Christ’. All the baptised are thus equal members of the body of Christ; equally living stones in God’s temple; equally members of God’s household and family. So all in Christ are in the Spirit; all are called to follow Jesus; all are gifted by the Spirit to be able to serve others; all are to be treated as valued members of God’s people.

So how does this play out as we consider our agenda today as a synod?

SETTING GOD’S PEOPLE FREE

‘Setting God’s People Free’ seeks to outline the implication that every baptised member of Christ’s body is gifted by God to serve God in the world. The focus is on Discipleship lived out in everyday life, in school, college, workplace, shops, sports club, sheltered housing, old people’s home; anywhere and everywhere that we involve ourselves is to be a place where we live for Jesus and show his love by our good deeds, our kindness and care, our words and our prayers. We are not to focus on ‘what people can do in church’ but what church people can be and do in the community. Our worship is not only how we sing and celebrate as we gather around God’s word and the sacrament of bread and wine it is how we offer our lives in service of God through service of others.

So that how we live alongside our neighbours; how we interact with the person serving us at the shop till; how we are involved in local community activities are all marked by recognising in others that they are valuable to God because they are made in God’s image and because Christ died for them. We will recognise that they are broken people like ourselves because they are sinned against and sinning, just like us. So we will recognise brokenness when we see it and seek to share God’s love to bring healing and wholeness where we can. We will see that this is as much our calling as anyone else’s and thus take responsibility to live for Jesus in the world, and notably in our response to those most in need.

POVERTY

Poverty is often a mark of human brokenness and sinfulness. It is primarily caused not by the fault of an individual but by the wrong structures that have developed in our world. So trade systems and rules often favour the already rich and powerful nations rather than the poor. Whilst it is excellent that all main parties have committed to maintaining the Overseas Aid budget at the 0.7% of GDP we have to recognise that trade is more significant than aid. So let us ask how parties plan to use the 0.7% and ask them what approach they will take to making trade fair for the poorest nations on earth, not simply what is a good trade deal with Europe.

Political and social choices we make lead to low wages for professions like care workers, nurses, teaching assistants and prison officers; wages which in no way reflect the true value of the work being undertaken. The true value of this work is in recognising the continuing value of each and every person whatever their health and ability might be; and whatever age they are. When the market alone is allowed to decide pay levels and profitability is seen as the crucial factor it is inevitable that non economically productive work ends up being undervalued unless the society itself chooses to value care of the person highly. This then requires government to act on society’s behalf. It also means that the society must be willing to contribute effectively to enable that recognition to happen. Justice for the poor has a cost; care is costly. Taxation is the most effective redistribution of wealth mechanism we have found. So if we want decent healthcare, education, social care and social benefits we have to be willing to pay for them; all of us, as individuals and as businesses.

At a local level our response to poverty, a stark reality in many of our communities, demands active engagement through practical work like foodbanks, holiday hunger programmes, night-stop schemes, recovery groups, credit union involvement, toddler groups, child support, home visiting, drop in advice and so on. We should work closely and carefully with others in offering such service in our communities. As church we might take the lead at times, at others we should come alongside others who lead. We will recognise that tackling poverty together involves us all. We will also always be committed to ‘being with’ not simply ‘working for’ those in most need.

Yet we must also ask the questions, ‘Why is it this way?’ and ‘How might it be better?’ We must engage in the wider social and political debates on poverty in our nation, and in the world. Worldwide poverty is being effectively tackled in many places, but there remains a long way to go.

Our engagement will include seeking to work from the biblical vision of abundance in creation rather than lack. It will also include seeking to recognize that ‘enough’ may not fit well with theories of ever higher levels of economic growth that leave us never satisfied with the abundance that we have.

It will also mean recognising that not all poverty is wrong. Jesus chose to live in poverty. He said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. When we reflect on our wealth as a nation and as individuals we might choose to live more simply that others might simply live. Chosen poverty which seeks to release resources to others; which seeks to ensure fairer shares of the world’s food, water, energy and the like is good poverty.

So how might we stand with the poor, recognising their full value as equally human and equally loved, and strive for their wellbeing and justice? Where might we choose poverty in order that others might be lifted from poverty?

HUMAN SEXUALITY

So to turn to the human sexuality debates. Well the core theology of all people being made in God’s image and people for whom Christ died must mean that everyone is respected and valued, whatever their sexuality. The reality that everyone of us is broken and marred means that in some way or another all sexuality has a brokenness about it. Within the church recognising that everyone in Christ is equally a member of Christ’s body must mean that everyone is respected and welcomed within this body. These have to be our starting point.

Yet this equality in our humanity and in Christ does not mean either that we are all the same, nor that there are not boundaries and limits. The image of God in Genesis 1 is connected with being created male and female. Indeed some argue that the image of God is only seen in male and female together. Gender is a reality of creation not simply a social construct. Some argue that Paul’s words in Galatians 3 that ‘there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ break down any gender reality. There is weight in this argument when we consider Jesus’ words about marriage in the resurrection. However it is I believe to push the words in their context too far. Paul and the early church wrestled with what ‘neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free’ also looked like but it did not lead to suggesting all recognition of either Jewishness nor employment status was completely lost from life. No we are gendered beings and biology is part of our God given human reality.

Marriage has undoubtedly been expressed in many cultural forms through the ages and across cultures. It has certainly been expressed in different legal formats. However the core of the biblical material is about man and woman becoming ‘one flesh’. There is something deep about this intimacy of one flesh; it is part of Paul’s argument against intercourse with a prostitute in 1 Corinthians 6. The whole use of the image of God as husband and his people as bride through both the Old and New Testaments; the imagery of Israel’s idolatry as adultery all creates the image of marriage as deeply about intimacy, faithfulness and exclusivity. Every married person is valuable as made in God’s image, broken, for whom Christ died and whom in Christ finds new life.

Our Lord Jesus was single; he was the most fulfilled human being to ever live. So marriage is not a requirement for fulfilment as a person. Singleness, and with it celibacy, is to be honoured and fully respected, never treated as lesser or second class. Everyone is to be recognised as valuable as made in God’s image, broken, for whom Christ died and whom in Christ finds new life.

Alongside this there is the reality that some people find themselves to be gay or lesbian; some view themselves as bisexual; some wrestle with whether they might have been borne with the wrong body and see themselves as transgender; some are intersex. There is a growing number who choose to self define their sexuality in other ways, or simply refuse definition. Self determination and definition is the order of the day. Everyone is to be valued as made in the image of God, broken, for whom Christ died and whom in Christ finds new life.

Now I remain convinced biblically, theologically, anthropologically and philosophically that marriage is ‘a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God.’ It is intended to be lifelong, exclusive, monogamous, loving and between a man and a woman.

I recognise though that some gay and lesbian people, including those who follow Jesus Christ as Lord, enter into relationships which they equally intend to be lifelong, exclusive, monogamous and loving. I see evidence of this reality and see children raised well within such relationships. I see God’s love reflected here, as I do in many varied human relationships that feature fidelity and selflessness. I cannot see the logic of redefining marriage to include these relationships as they do have a fundamental difference. But I do want to find a way of recognising what of God is in these relationships and families. I do not yet personally see the best way of doing this but want to keep wrestling with finding a way forward.

Part of the reason for this is because I want to help us recognise as a society that at the very heart of society stable family life is critical to the wellbeing of children and all of us. I want to hold out to young people as they explore their identity, including their sexuality, that true identity is found in Christ, not self-determination. I also want them to understand that there is a wholesomeness and fruitfulness in exclusivity, faithfulness and love that holds fast through thick and thin. Further, that this is actually the best way, rather than having multiple partners and forever being unsure where true love and stability is to be found. Such fidelity in human relationships is part of our bearing the image of God’s fidelity to us as his people.

Inevitably for many in the LGBTI+ community as a whole, and indeed in much of the wider community, the church will be seen as repressive if it argues for anything other than much greater sexual freedom. This is not new; just read 1 Peter 4.1-6 as a reminder that the early Christians lived in a world where they were seen as strange for not living in a highly indulgent way in relation to food, alcohol, sex and more besides.

We are then all part of a church within which different views are held, but within the common bond of commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. I want to find ways of moving forward which see us respecting one another in Christ, and holding our unity in Christ, whilst recognising our differences. This applies equally to being part of the global Anglican Communion. These worldwide relationships are too precious to be lost. There is no easy way forward; but all of us need to prayerfully commit to keep seeking to find ways which maintain mutual respect, and where kindness and grace mark our speech.

CONCLUSION

So in concluding what happened to my remarks on the General Election?

Well reflect back on all I have sought to say about how we value every person because of God’s image in them, and love for them. Reflect on the reality of brokenness and living with it as part of our society. Reflect on seeking to enable all people to use their abilities to the full in the service of others. Reflect on poverty, tackling it and living simply. Reflect on how as a society we value, or fail to value, professions which are about the care of people, especially the vulnerable. Reflect on world poverty and trade deals. All I think speak into the questions we face as a nation, and the kind of questions we might want to ask of party policies.

Above all else as we approach this election we must pray for our nation, and keep praying for it. We must continually commit ourselves to reflect into our nation the true value of every human being made in God’s image, broken but loved so fully that Christ died for all.