Bishop Paul’s Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod Virtual Meeting on Saturday 14th November 2020.
Full transcript below.
This is a time for living patiently. Whilst Coronavirus was already making significant impact in China and other parts of the world at the outset of the year none of us anticipated just how deeply it would impact our nation, and our own region. We are all slowly getting to understand that we have to learn to live with this virus into the future. Even with a successful vaccine, for which we all pray, there is not an end to this. It simply, like the flu vaccine, will enable us to learn to live with the virus in our midst. Like flu there might be several thousands of deaths every year for the foreseeable future. Until we reach that point though we all have to learn to live patiently with measures that enable us to get on with our daily lives. This I trust will include a fuller return to regular public worship, running activities for children, young people and the elderly and all that we are used to doing. But patience in reaching that point will be required. In our Remembrance last week I found myself being strongly reminded that World War One lasted nearly 5 years, and then there was recovery. World War 2 lasted 6 years and then the long rebuild. We are only a few months into this pandemic. I also remember that during World War 1 Women gained the right to vote and the development of petrol driven vehicles developed massively. During World War 2 the 1944 Education Act transformed our education system and the National Health Service was conceived and then brought into being in 1948 as part of national recovery. Times of patient waiting through pain, stress and difficulty can also be times of creative thinking and developing new ways of behaving as a society and nation. We should not simply live patiently but also seek ways to act bravely in setting out with learning to live with the coronavirus in the years ahead.
So, perhaps unexpectedly, I find myself turning to one of Paul’s exclamations of praise, ‘Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask, or think’. (Ephesians 3.20)
We serve the God who is able to do far more abundantly. This is where we start in our thinking and decision making. We follow and serve the God of all creation whose love revealed in Jesus Christ is way beyond our deserving and understanding.
So when we are faced by the stark realities of our human failings and frailty we take them deeply seriously but do so knowing God works in ways that go beyond these. As the Psalmist reminds us, ‘Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.’ (Psalm 20.7)
It is this that needs to guide us as we develop a new Strategic Plan, Plan on a Page, for the coming years. We plan seeking to discern what this God is calling us to do, knowing that if we seek to work in line with God’s call then we will see God at work beyond our own understanding.
THE WAYMARK PROCESS
We have travelled together through the Waymark Process. The work of the Strategic Think Tank is all about taking this forward and developing it into a clear strategic plan that will help us be clear about what specific priorities, and therefore what specific actions, we should put resources into for the coming five years.
Challenging Poverty, Engaging the Young, Caring for God’s World and Energising Growth need specifically worked through interweaving priorities themselves that flow into action in our schools, parishes and chaplaincies served by Diocesan based staff so that we continue to ‘Bless our Communities in Jesus’ Name for the Transformation of us all’.
I encourage you to pray about these. Share your ideas and insights. Talk with others about them. Feedback ideas and proposals. Ensure young voices are encouraged.
Then together when we come together in late January we will, I believe, have something on which we can all not simply agree but into which we can commit our prayerful energies.
EQUALITY, DIVERSITY & INCLUSION
These priorities have to be worked out across every part of the Diocese. So they must be worked out in ways that demonstrate true equality, diversity and inclusion. Since we met in September we have undertaken further work on how we take forward our work on these matters. We are moving towards finalising the appointment of a part time Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Enabler as a pilot appointment for 2 years from January 1st. This Enabler will work with a small group of 5 each of whom will take a lead responsibility for an area of inclusion. There will be a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic lead, also one on Disability; one on Deaf issues, one on Women’s issues and one on LGBTI+ matters.
In the coming year there are two areas in particular that we will encourage everyone to spend time on. The death of George Floyd, and much else besides, this year has had a major impact on our lives. Black Lives Matter, not as a specific political grouping and programme, but as a description of the wider movement seeking true racial justice has been one of the features of this Covid ridden year. We have to recognise our deep failings as a church, within the deep failings of our, and other nations. Repentance and change are required. So to aid us in this journey Remi Omole, working with others, is putting together materials that could be used in our parishes throughout Lent. I hope many of us will thus use Lent as a season for reading, studying Scripture, reflecting together and praying on matters of racial justice.
Then post Easter through to the middle of the autumn I trust across the Diocese we will engage in sharing together around the Living in Love and Faith book and wide ranging materials. This will give us plenty of time to explore together all the issues raised within these materials in ways that will allow us to feed into the national process taking place across all dioceses.
IICSA & SAFEGUARDING
Since we last met IICSA has published its final report into Safeguarding in the Church of England and the Church of Wales. It makes harrowing and very sad reading. Once the National Safeguarding Team, working with the Safeguarding Panel and Group, the House of Bishops and Archbishops’ Council have finished their work there will be an initial formal response to the recommendations. This will undoubtedly have an impact on how we deliver Safeguarding in the Diocese in the months and years ahead. There will be time for us to explore these together in due course. In the meantime I want to commend the work that our own Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser undertakes. Beth Miller does outstanding work for us. In delivering Training she is amazingly well supported by Sheila Bamber and Jill Webb. At Parish level we know that Parish Safeguarding Officers hold a challenging and responsible position. We are all grateful to them for holding this role. For at the end of the day it is in our children’s and youth work; in our work with vulnerable adults in the parishes, in our schools and through our chaplaincies that safeguarding is primarily delivered. It is a good for ensuring the very best for all whom we serve. Safeguarding flows from the gospel itself; it is about seeking life in abundance for all.
AND SO TO PARISH SHARE
Parish, school and chaplaincy based ministry is the heart of who we are and where the gospel is made known. This is where disciple making takes place. This is what those who work in Diocesan wide roles are all about; seeking to serve all living out the gospel ‘on the frontline’ in daily life. This is Everyday Faith.
This is why Parish Share matters so much. Parish Share is all about supporting mission ministry equipping us all to follow Jesus daily.
As a Diocese we are privileged to be supported very significantly by the wider Church of England through the Low Income Communities Fund. We receive around £2.2 million each year to support ministry in our poorest parishes. We have also now been further supported to develop 7 Resource Churches that will in due course plant out to revitalise or develop new congregations. One is a brand new congregation starting from scratch in Wynyard. Then we have been given significant resource to develop Communities of Hope in some of our most needy communities. These 2 Strategic Development Funds are contributing a further £2 million each year that allows increased capacity that otherwise simply could not happen. This helps us develop work around growth and planting across the whole Diocese not simply in these specific projects.
Parish Share is our own giving commitment to support mission ministry throughout the Diocese. We were clear with the new Guided Pledge System that we would need £5.75 million pledged in order to be able to sustain ministry at our current levels. We recognise that Covid has had a major impact on all of us. We are feeling bereft of meeting one another in ways that feel close and friendly. We miss receiving the eucharist completely or only in one kind. Some of us are wondering if we will be able to sustain our churches. It is tough. It demands tears.
We know also that Covid has specifically hit many of us financially. Parishes that have come to rely on income from the use of Parish Halls by a variety of community groups have been very hard hit. Those who have relied on regular fundraising events have also struggled. Regular giving through plate collections also naturally has been significantly hit, although there seems no reason why envelopes could not simply be gathered week by week and then delivered ‘en masse’ when we did reopen our buildings in July. Regular giving through banks has been maintained. A number of churches have taken the opportunity to move into online giving, successfully. Regular giving is always the primary way in which we express our discipleship through our use of money. From the outset of my Christian life I was taught tithing as the norm. I now have a more nuanced approach believing that tithing for those of us with wealth is rather less than we should consider giving in response to God’s generosity to us in Christ. For those on low incomes tithing is a genuine challenge. But I note again that it is often those who are poorest who are most generous in their giving. I reflect that someone on a State Pension at the standard level receives £175.20 per week. Tithing would mean giving £17.52 each week. Even at giving half of this to our local church would be £8.76 per week. This is actually above the average weekly giving in the Diocese at present. So I suggest we do not have a financial problem as a diocese we have a giving, and a generous giving problem.
The Guided Pledges have come in at around £4.5 million; this is over £1 million short of what we need to balance the budget for 2021 and £0.5 million below the 2020 pledges. Therefore unless we see a major change of heart, and I mean change of heart, which leads to a change of mind we have to reduce our spending. When 80% of spending is on people then it is inevitable that it means not being able to fill all the posts that we want to in our Deanery Plans. It also means looking hard at support costs at the centre. However we are already one of the very slimmest diocese in relation to this. We have legal responsibilities that must be maintained and so room for manoeuvre here is small.
Please let me now say loudly and clearly that many parishes have responded to the Guided Pledge amazingly. Some have significantly increased their pledge. Two Deaneries have as a whole made a significant overall increase. Sadly this has not been matched elsewhere. Indeed some have made pledges which are significantly lower, and I have to say that in some cases the reasons given appear to be seriously un Christian and show no commitment to true mutuality or generosity. We have made it clear throughout the process that there is an openness to conversation about the Guided Pledge, and to offer support to help where this is proving difficult. Where decisions have simply been taken to offer low, even very low pledges with no given justification I find it very hard to understand. It fails completely to recognise being part of a wider Diocesan family.
Early next week letters will be going to every parish explaining the situation. Letters will also go to parishes currently in vacancy explaining why we will have to continue to keep many of these on hold for the next few months. In most cases this will not be because of their unwillingness to engage with the Guided Pledge fully but because others in the Diocese have been unwilling to do so.
I am sorry that I have to be this blunt about this. There is no option but that the Bishop’s Council engage in conversation with some parishes about their reasons for offering such significantly low pledges. Some might be well founded, others already appear unfounded. Sometimes we have to challenge and admonish one another. This is such a time.
But in concluding I want to return to lifting our eyes to the God who is able to do far more abundantly. Indeed not simply to the God who is able but to the God I am sure wants to do so. What holds him back is our unwillingness to trust him. We keep trusting in chariots and horses, in our own expertise, our own strength and abilities. In what feel like dark and difficult times God is at work, as He has always been in such times. Now is the time to discern new creative opportunities for stopping some things and developing the new. This is the time to act courageously trusting in the God who is able to do far more abundantly. God calls us, like the young lad with his picnic lunch, to place our small offering, our 2 loaves and 5 small fish, into God’s hands. He longs to take, to bless, to break and to give in abundance. Think of the wine at the Cana wedding; think of the feeding of the 5,000; think of Lazarus coming out of the tomb; think of Jesus offering up his life on the Cross. Think of the resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit. Sisters and brothers now is a time to live patiently but in that patience now is a time to live boldly trusting in the abundant love of God.