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The Hope That's Heading Towards Us

Rochester Diocesan Presidential Address November 2020


I was recently in a Zoom breakout room – which, if you’ve still not tried it, can be a kind of digital purgatory – and we were asked to imagine what life will be like ten years from now.


I haven’t a clue what things will be like ten years from now. You’re not supposed to say that in public leadership, of course. Everyone has to be sure where they’re heading and to lead from the front. But if anyone here thinks they’ve got a grip on 2030, let me take you back just twelve years.


Your 2008 self wouldn’t know there was about to be a huge global economic crash that nearly closed cash machines. Or what austerity would come to mean as nations retrenched. You would know very little about social media and nothing at all about how it would open up a world of relationships while also poisoning debate and blurring lines between truth and falsehood that you thought were fixed. Netflix and Twitter would have meant next to nothing; Facebook possibly a little; Instagram nothing at all. You would know Amazon only as an online bookseller.


You would be aware of climate change, but it was contested by more people then and they helped to slow down the response we needed to make. You might have thought polarisation was something to do with melting ice caps rather than the creation of two separate tribes on every issue going.


Brexit would have been meaningless, like a crossword puzzle. You wouldn’t have expected full-bodied authoritarian leaders to be in charge of countries inside the European Union. Or the emergence into global political leadership not of a new generation with fresh ideals, but an ageing cohort of often angry strongmen. Putting the words Trump and President alongside each other might have made you snigger. You couldn’t have imagined Syria and Libya collapsing into enduring civil war. Or the pandemic and the ravaging of human lives and economies.


Really, that’s only the beginning of the stuff we could talk about.


So tell me: what life will be like in 2030?


Let’s face it, at the start of 2020 alone you would have called the year ahead completely wrong.


So we’ll leave the future for the moment, and say something about the present. In the midst of the pandemic, our churches have responded with faith, imagination and courage. The steps you have taken have been loving and creative; kind and astute. It has been hugely stressful, yet you have adapted with grace and imagination. You probably think there’s a ‘but’ coming because there always is with Church. And that’s the problem. In many group contexts where we talk about the Church, we tend to run it down. Whatever good stuff might be going on, we always manage to find something we’re a bit rubbish at and obsess over it.


Bodies do well when they stick to a clear and manageable set of goals. Our goal is no less than the renewal of creation, which means in theory that everything from plastic litter in the south Pacific to slavery in Eritrea to the evangelisation of Generation Z in the UK is ‘something we should be doing something about – or praying about’. No wonder we feel weary and unfocussed at times.


Now I want to address something straight up. There are some things the Church has got terribly wrong that we must face up to squarely, the top of which is the abuse of so many children in our care. As the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) stated: our neglect of children and young people in favour of protecting our reputation was in defiance of our ‘explicit moral purpose’. When faced with a judgment as terse and devastating as this, the natural inclination is to distance ourselves from the failure: I didn’t sin. I didn’t know about it. I didn’t fail in any way. It’s an instinctive response.


Our models of faith have been built on personal responsibility, like criminal law which distinguishes the guilty from the innocent. We seek God’s forgiveness for what we alone have done. But this is sometimes insufficient. There is such a thing as shared repentance, where we bear the failings together, however painful it feels. If you doubt this, take some time to reflect on Daniel’s prayer in Daniel chapter 9. Daniel is one of the few people in the Bible whose character is beyond reproach. Yet there he laments before God and repents on behalf of his people for their pre-exilic failings. ‘We have not listened’ he says. ‘We have rebelled’ says the man who didn’t put a foot wrong.


Some people in the Church of England bear direct responsibility for failings in safeguarding those in their care, but we should all feel sorrow and shame and find honest ways of expressing this. Repentance done properly leads to an amendment of life and of shared culture. When we don’t do these spiritual processes well, we can put children and young people at greater risk. Without repentance, we lack a firm foundation for making the very practical changes we need to make.


So when I speak about running ourselves down cheaply, I am not talking about safeguarding. Instead it’s to do with our place in a nation that is now clearly post-Church. When we are made by others to feel silly and irrelevant – somehow on the margins of a party we can’t get noticed in. And that can show itself in collective low self-esteem.


Leading signs of low self-esteem are: sensitivity to criticism; social withdrawal; hostility; excessive preoccupation with personal problems; fatigue.


I think you get the picture.


The story told about us is one of decline: the slow dying sun of English Christianity. And we spend meeting after meeting beating ourselves up – or beating up someone we can blame – for getting us to this place.


As 2020 draws to a close, the people outside our doors need a different kind of Church. I believe we can be that Church and there are many signs we are.


The world is being re-shaped under our feet and at a speed not seen in history. Here are three things we bring to the race.


We are deeply a people of hope. At the turn of the millennium, there was a lot more hope across society. Whole nations were being democratised across Eastern Europe. The threat of war had receded. 9/11 was another unknown phrase. The Dot Com economy was bringing us a bright new future.


There is a lot less hope today. A prevailing sense of hopelessness has been especially hard for young people to bear, who have little life experience to call on, much more of their lives ahead of them and less security than their parents.


What is hope, anyway? For many it is simply a personality trait. An optimism that assumes things will always eventually improve. It projects the present into the future. Only that’s now run into the sand again. Christian faith does the opposite. It draws the future into the present. That’s hope. It speaks of a profound disruption to creation through the resurrection of Jesus. The idea that a new creation has begun in Christ, one we are being inexorably drawn towards. It defies the social narrative that we are doomed. And it challenges the spiritual story that we have failed. The kingdom of God is coming towards us like an icebreaker ploughing through the frozen waters of our despair. It’s time to reclaim the trendy term ‘disruption’ from the business world and the pandemic. The divine power that made this universe is rippling through the world in anticipation of a new creation.


Yes, some people think this is barmy. If we let them speak to our lurking low self-esteem, they will shut us up. If we hold to the vision of the Church as a royal priesthood, a holy nation, we will summon a new and unusual strength to say something distinctive within the UK.


Secondly, we should be a people who listen. To God and to others. The pandemic is showing us new ways of being Church. To be honest, it is also showing us new ways of being activist. We can cram even more meetings into the diary now we have Zoom. Martha syndrome besets us. Martha probably heard snatches of what Jesus was saying to Mary, but like a participant in a webinar paying more attention to the chat function than the speaker, most of his talk will have drained away. Culture and tech architecture have been deliberately wired to distract us. We are half-attentive to God because we’ve already got too much stuff swirling around in our heads. A new appreciation of silence, of listening, of Sabbath is the key to unlocking our future as a Church.


This includes listening to one another, both inside and outside the Church. We have recently been given the resources of Living in Love and Faith to encourage us prayerfully to reflect on scripture using our reasoning powers and our traditions; to listen carefully to the stories and the beliefs of people who think differently on issues of human relationships and sexual identity. Debates in society are shouty and aggressive. There is posturing, virtue signalling and demonising. Tribes are split and hate each other. The hatred burrows down because no-one spends much time in the presence of someone they disagree with anymore. We have a chance to show we can do this a different way. And this means coming with an open and generous heart to listen to people’s experiences and to what they dearly believe.


We don’t have to move a muscle to show someone we love them. We just have to engage our ears. And as we listen to the Holy Spirit, we will also find a greater prophetic urge. In some ways the world has darkened and we have to be able to name the idols around us and within us that distort and oppress human life. They are being added to at speed, and we need to wise up to fulfil that ancient calling in a post-modern world. It feels like we have become quieter round issues of justice, as if the complexity of life now prohibits our voice. The answer is not to withdraw, it’s to become spiritually smarter.


Thirdly, we should be a people who serve. Life lived rapidly in an advanced economy has made us careless. We have allowed market values to permeate where they do not belong. We relate to people instrumentally, selling ourselves and commodifying others. We’ve believed the lie that if everyone pursues their own self-interest it will benefit the whole community. That if someone fails, it must be their personal fault. That way, we can bask in our own success and feel no obligation to others when they lose out. I don’t think anyone listening to this today actually believes that - it is such a far cry from the Gospel. But it has stained our culture.


Words come cheaply now and they are believed less. People notice actions, especially when they are to bless the bodies of others. In the early Church, the followers of Jesus authenticated their message about resurrection and a new creation by miracles of healing and acts of charity. It showed the truth of their message and that they cared about the welfare of others. A Church emerging from pandemic should show its story of hope by its acts of service. When people see what we do, they are more open to what we believe. But we can’t bottle it when it comes to talking about Jesus; it’s our historic calling. Community engagement and evangelism should be like a ring on a finger where it is impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends, such is the link.


The distinguished and sympathetic historian Tom Holland, author of the recent bestseller Dominion, said recently that many think Church of England Bishops are just a branch office of the welfare state. OK, one to watch out for. But Bishops are here to do God. And so are you. In every creative and imaginable way possible. We are no branch office of the welfare state. We are ambassadors of an everlasting God. Ten years from now, that will remain so. And, pray God, much more so as the kingdom draws nearer.



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