PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS DIOCESAN SYNOD
In Rwanda and Burundi you will see coffee plants growing between banana trees on the hillsides because there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the 2 plants. Each flourishes better because of the presence of the other. Each is more fruitful because of the other.
In the New Testament’s use of the body image for the church there is also something of this recognition of not only needing one another but that of flourishing because of each other. We each need one another’s gifts and abilities to be the best that we can be. We need each other’s insights into God to deepen our love for God, his people and world.
Five Guiding Principles
The phrase ‘mutual flourishing’ has an important place in the House of Bishops’ Five Guiding Principles which are an important part of the agreement reached that enabled the General Synod to approve the legislation that opened the way for women to become bishops in July 2014.
3 years on it is very encouraging that we already have 13 women bishops; the latest being our own Helen-Ann Hartley returning from New Zealand to become Bishop of Ripon. Helen-Ann grew up in the Diocese and first sensed her call to ordination as a child here. It will be good to work with her along part of our southern Teesdale border and more generally for the good of the North.
I want to reaffirm my conviction that the 5 Guiding Principles are important for us all. Mutual flourishing here means that we all want those parishes who are unable to accept the ministry of women as priests to flourish; to be fruitful; to grow in Christlikeness; to see more people worshipping in them; to see them serving their parish communities well. Because as they flourish we will all flourish. Equally mutual flourishing means that those parishes and their clergy unable for theological reasons to accept the ministry of women as priests and bishops will want their neighbouring parishes and clergy, including all the women priests, to flourish in a similar way; they will want to see growth in numbers, depth of discipleship and engagement with community. They will do so because in their flourishing all will flourish.
But this is not simply around the question of ordination. Surely it applies to all parishes and clergy all the time. We should be about the mutual flourishing of all. So we should be praying for, encouraging and wanting to see our neighbouring parishes flourish in every way. We should long for the flourishing of our fellow clergy, however much we might diverge from them in our style of ministry or our theological convictions. We want each to be the very best they can be under God. We want flourishing, life in all its fullness, the fruiting of the vine, the overflowing of the fruit of the Spirit, in all.
This is why chapters and synods matter – because in and through them we can encourage and help each other flourish. When they are anything less than about helping each and all flourish in Christ they are not being all that they could be.
This is why our parish share giving is not simply about ‘our needs and our ministry’; at its heart it is all about seeking to help one another flourish. It is a common fund into which we all give and from which we all receive. Parish Share is about mutual flourishing and a very tangible expression of our commitment to such mutual flourishing.
Growing and developing each other’s ministries is about mutual flourishing. Clergy development and deployment are to be about mutual flourishing. We are all in this calling to live for the praise of God’s glory in the world together. None of us can truly flourish and be the fruitful communities we want to be without each other.
This too is where moving ahead on having a number of Resource Churches across the parish sits. It is not about simply making this small number of churches flourish. It is that through clear strategic investment of people in these specific settings it will enable the flourishing of far more than these churches. Of course this does not happen overnight; but over a five to seven year period these Resource churches will enable the flourishing of many churches in the area which they serve, or indeed helping elsewhere in the Diocese. Resource churches are about our mutual flourishing.
Mutual flourishing across God’s worldwide church
This truth applies across the wider world church. It has been my privilege in recent weeks to visit our partners in the Romanian Orthodox Church. Father Jeremy Chadd has helped keep this link alive and active over the past decade. It was a delight to travel with him. This is not a link in which large numbers can take part but it is an active reminder of the whole Christian body from which we were divided in the eleventh century. This is the dominant Christian community across much of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and parts of North Africa. For the world church to flourish this large part of God’s family needs to flourish. There is much for us to learn from them. I hope we can mutually exchange again in the coming years.
Then last weekend I was with 13 others from the diocese in northern Germany sharing with our Lutheran friends in the Nordkirche. We joined them as they come to the close of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We were with them during their Volkstrauertag, the day of mourning – the equivalent of our Remembrance Day. We spent 2 days sharing with one another our very different approaches to Confirmation for young people, and youth work more generally. It was a very fruitful few days where we learned much from one another.
I had never been to Germany before. I found visiting Lubeck, the first city we ever bombed in World War 2, personally more challenging than I had anticipated. It confronted me with my own wrong thinking about the German people. It made me reflect again on how easily we can justify our own attacks on others whilst condemning their attacks on us. It is never actually quite as simple as that. My sisters and brothers taught me something fresh about repentance, forgiveness and rebuilding in hope. They helped me with flourishing.
We also found ourselves in clear agreement that whatever particular views we might have about Brexit we are determined that our link should speak to both our churches and nations of the importance of our mutual care and concern for each other’s wellbeing; and of our steadfast commitment to peace and to the flourishing of our nations and continent. We think our common stand for justice, reconciliation and the health of the earth needs to be upheld firmly as part of our common commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of all.
Being part of a global church, the worldwide body of Christ, is part of our flourishing. Praying for the world and its needs, giving to support all kinds of mission work in and through our fellow churches, receiving insights and support from them, all helps us flourish in and for Christ. Every parish needs to find ways, even if small, of actively engaging with the world church – whether it be Romania, Germany, Burundi, other nations, or our friends in Lesotho where I shall visit at the end of January. Our Children’s Council showed us another example this morning in their support for Ephraim and his family in Malawi. Children leading the way.
Mutual flourishing for all our nation
We live in uncertain times. This was a refrain I heard in Romania and Germany. It is a refrain I regularly hear across the diocese. No one knows just where the Brexit negotiations will finally reach. In spite of all the clever calculations no one can be really clear on what the real impact will be on us all of leaving the EU; or of Donald Trump’s Presidency; or of our ever warming climate. Rightly people model possibilities, outline options and work is done in line with these. But all human history, even recent history, tells us there will be unforeseen events that will blow predictions out of the water. We are not able to control history – that is ultimately in God’s hands.
However God does call us to live in ways that seek the welfare of our nation and our world. One thing we need is a clear vision for the kind of nation we want to be post Brexit. I believe a nation committed to the mutual flourishing of all is one place to start that vision. Such a mutual flourishing will be about the fruitfulness of the lives of the most vulnerable and most needy in our society.
Amongst these first are those who come from religious, political and other forms of persecution seeking asylum in our land. Those who have to flee violence and terror as refugees. A good test of a nation is its readiness to welcome the stranger in need. This is why as a diocese we should engage in seeking to fight against human trafficking and modern slavery in all its forms. I commend Gemma Sampson’s leadership of this work to you all. I hope some will consider becoming involved.
It is why we must be at the forefront of welcoming and helping asylum seekers and refugees. I am proud of the way in which many of our churches and communities have welcomed many over these past years; in Sunderland and Stockton; in Darlington, South Shields and Hartlepool. In the past year the support given specifically to Syrian families resettling in Gateshead and County Durham. Huge thanks to Joanne Thorns and Val Barron for their leadership in this response. I sincerely hope that parishes and communities will now take up the possibility of Community Sponsorship. I hope in due course this might be extended to other needy communities alongside the Syrian need; perhaps Yemeni or Rohingya or Eritrean people might follow. God is the one who is the defender of the refugees; we have to follow his heart.
Looking to a nation that longs for the flourishing of the most vulnerable means also a nation that is compassionate for the poor not condemning of the poor. The Government is to be commended for listening to some of the concerns around the implementation of Universal Credit. The principle of UC is right. It is a long needed reform and the courage to undertake such major reform should be welcomed. But there are clearly problems. So the end to the 7 day waiting period, the changes to advance payments, and access to support are all very welcome. I believe that more could and should have been done; the wages taper should be at 55 pence not 63 pence and the freeze on benefit levels should be lifted. I also believe that national minimum wage set to rise to £7.83 next April should rise to the real Living Wage level of £8.75ph. On the latter of course medium and larger size businesses could unilaterally decide to do this and I hope that they will. We need to help the poorest flourish.
So examining if the proposal that Free School Meals will now stop for families (with children in Key Stage 2 and above) on UC earning more than £7,400 will undermine the improvements elsewhere is important. We have a serious issue around children’s health and eating; especially during the school holidays. The work many of our churches have shared in in seeking to alleviate the holiday need is superb. More could take up this way of helping children flourish. It is also to be hoped that Frank Field’s Bill on this matter will become law next year. I have agreed to assist the MP for Washington, Sharon Hodgson, with the All Party Parliamentary work of the Child Future Food Inquiry.
Our response to asylum seekers and refugee; to families in need through poverty; to the elderly lonely and to those with disabilities are all marks of whether or not we are building a nation and society with a true vision for the mutual flourishing of us all.
Jesus came to bring life in all its fullness.He poured out the Holy Spirit on us all so that we might bring forth the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. He created us as social human beings with a call to care for all; he recreates us in Christ to live his risen life for the wellbeing of all. We are called to be a people committed to mutual flourishing in all dimensions of life. May God truly help us to do so, for the wellbeing of all and the praise of his glory.