Bishop Philip’s Presidential Address – November 19, 2022
It would be very easy to describe this meeting of the Synod as one in which, first, we are considering what it means for us to be ‘A Church that is Good News for the poor’, and then, secondly, we are approving the budget, as if the two were unrelated. It would be very easy to do that, but also quite wrong.
As we’re fond of repeating in this diocese ‘a budget is a plan in numbers’ and that is certainly true of this budget. It’s a budget that takes seriously, and reflects, the ‘On the Way’ plans that have emerged from our deaneries, and those plans frequently reference our need and desire to be good news for the poor in a way we are not currently. It also makes a commitment to use a greater proportion of our reserves to support local parish ministry in the delivery of those plans, to release our churches from some of the inevitable pressure MMF creates. And it’s particularly pleasing to see the Lowest Income Community Funding, which we receive from the Church centrally, properly used for the purpose for which it’s given. So there is, in many ways, just one vital theme for us today.
The Church of England describes itself is as ‘A Christian Presence in Every Community’. We are really the only church that can say that because of our commitment to the parish system. That commitment is rock solid in this diocese.
None of the On the Way plans propose closing any of our parish church buildings
There have been all sorts of ill-founded rumours about the ‘On the Way’ plans that have been circulated on social media and in the press that question that commitment, so I want to say clearly and unequivocally today, and for the avoidance of any doubt, that none of the On the Way plans propose closing any of our parish church buildings. I repeat: none of the On the Way plans propose the closure of any of our parish church buildings.
That’s not to say that there aren’t clear challenges in how we manage and fund the care of these buildings: buildings which point people towards God, and which together across the diocese, will cost us, collectively, more in 2022 than we will have spent on ministry.
And I also want to be clear that the word ‘church’ does not simply mean a building, nor a service in a building. Church is community of people: people who are called together around scripture and sacrament, to be shaped for service to the world that God loves and in which Jesus is at work – a world in which levels of poverty and deprivation are growing.
Present in every community in geographical terms… many communities we are very evidently absent
So there are no plans to close church buildings. But there are plans – creative, faithful and bold plans – to be a Christian presence in every community.
And we need to take those plans seriously, because we have no cause for complacency. Yes, we are committed to being ‘A Christian Presence in Every Community’, but whilst it might be true that we are present in every community in geographical terms (even taking into account the fact that some of our parish churches are in rather out of the way places) it is undeniably not the case in other ways. There are many communities from which we are very evidently absent: we are simply more middle-class, wealthier and significantly older than the majority of people in Cornwall. That is not true of all of our churches: there are notable exceptions, including, but not exclusively, our TM churches. But it is a very sobering fact. We have the oldest demographic of any Church of England diocese.
For all the exceptions, taken globally, we are very poor at reaching working class people facing poverty. We have to face those sobering realities. And we must take the Cornish commitment to ‘One and all’ seriously – because that is actually a gospel commitment: if we’re not good news for all then we’re not good news at all.
That is why the work of ‘On the Way’ has been so important, with the clear commitment in so many deanery plans to address those imbalances I’ve mentioned. However, I also want to celebrate what is already happening to address those imbalances. If there is one phenomenon that has excited and pleased me more than any other about the church in this country over the last 20 to 30 years it has been what you might call the sound of the people of God in this country rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck in to serving their communities in so many ways. And so much of that service is very evident across this diocese: in running food banks and memory cafés, in providing debt advice and street pastors, giving essential support to new parents and supporting vulnerable pupils in schools, to give just a few of many, many examples. We’ve also been vocal and active in the debate around the housing crisis in Cornwall.
Just this last week I heard of one of our TM churches that has grown from about 100 to 250 people in 5½ years – and much of that from people who are on the margins of society, let alone of church, and it’s been a huge challenge to that church to adapt its essentially middle class culture to welcome such people – but that is indeed what they have done not least through reflecting together on just what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of God.
All of that, that I’ve just mentioned, is wonderful, Jesus-shaped, ministry and service. Indeed to go back to those many Cornish community organisations that the Cornwall Community Foundation supports, which I mentioned earlier, whilst many of them are not ostensibly Christian in character, if you were to take the church members out of them you would not have much left in many cases.
There is another area where we are already very evidently serving our communities, including the most vulnerable and marginal amongst them, and that is through our Church schools. I’m in the middle of a programme of visiting a number of our schools at present and they are wonderful places that thrill my heart: places of genuine Christian love, care and community it’s a real privilege to visit. Those schools consistently express their gratitude for our education team under Katie Fitzsimmons’ inspirational leadership, and I’m particularly pleased by the way many of our deanery plans envisage yet closer links with our church schools.
I was also delighted to hear another piece of good news just this last Thursday. Canon Sarah Yardley, who many of you will know, runs regular events for young people across Cornwall called ‘Glow’. When she started there were no young people attending from any Anglican church. Last time they had young people from no fewer than six youth groups from our churches attending. And that’s not because they hadn’t heard of the event before. It’s because some of those youth groups just didn’t exist before and have only been set up over the last couple of years. And that growth just delights my heart.
‘Business as usual’ has not been evidently successful over the last 20-30 years
Please don’t think I undervalue what we are already doing. There is much that is very good going on already: I just want more of it! And the On the Way plans are a key means of enabling us to do yet more. Now that all the plans are approved I want to go on record and say how very grateful I am for the hard work that has gone on in deaneries to put those plans together to address these challenges I’ve outlined. And I’m also very grateful for the hard work that Deanery Implementation Teams are now undertaking to give shape and substance to them. There is nothing to fear in these plans. Yes, there is risk in them, but the riskier thing would be not to change. ‘Business as usual’ has not been evidently successful over the last 20-30 years in addressing those issues I mentioned just now. There is so much more we can and we should do.
And to enable us to do yet more you will be hearing later today about our emerging Diocesan Plan, which both Episcopal College and BDC have been working on. Hugh will be giving us a briefing on it, but in essence what it seeks to do is to draw together key elements of the Deanery plans, to address elements that might be missing, and to enable things that might be better delivered centrally. As I say, more of that anon.
It’s inherent in Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes that we heard earlier that we should do yet more. Jesus’ words are both a challenge and an invitation to us. They’re a challenge to us to be a blessing, to be a Christ-centred, Jesus-shaped blessing to the poor, to those who mourn, to the meek, and to the persecuted, remembering that there are two beatitudes, not one, dedicated to those who are persecuted.
That last thought prompts me to mention, in parenthesis, my recent trip to Lebanon, to look at how we might develop a link with that country, building on our very ancient links in the tin trade. It also gave me an opportunity to continue to address the critical issue of the persecution of Christians and the denial of freedom of religion or belief more generally which has become such a scourge of our times globally. This is a cause I believe God has laid on my heart to pursue – and I always do so mindful of our Cornish commitment to ‘one and all’: to seek the welfare of everyone who is our neighbour, remembering that Jesus taught us that our neighbours are those distant from us and different to us as well as those who are near us and like us.
Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes are a challenge to us to be a blessing; to be a Christ-centred, Jesus shaped blessing to the poor, to those who mourn, to the meek, and to those who are persecuted. But Jesus words to us are also an invitation to us to be blessed; to see ourselves as those who are in need of blessing. Yes, we are to be bless the poor – but we can only do that as first we see ourselves as the poor in need of blessing. I repeat again what I said at the meeting of this Synod in May: all that we are attempting as a diocese is impossible for us. We simply cannot do it by ourselves. We cannot do it. And nor should we even try, in our poverty. We can only do it with the help of our God. Which is why I have come to the conviction that above all else this is a test of faith for us; this is a test of our trust in our God: because, ‘what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ Change; fruitfulness and sustainability are not possible for the poor, but they are indeed possible for our God, and therefore for his Church, if we will but trust him.
So let us today place all our planning, financial and otherwise, all our hopes to bless the poor, in whatever form that might take, into the hands of our God. For we too are poor, but he is rich. So let us trust him for all that we need for the future, and for all that he calls us to be and to do as a church, in his service. Amen.