Diocesan Synod Presidential Address September 2022
A church which unashamedly embraces an innovative, pioneering culture
Constant change, they say, ironically, is here to stay, adding, just for fun, that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. And we do of course live in a time of significant change. With the death of the late and much-beloved Queen a page of history has turned which can never be turned back. Now we have a new King and from henceforth every new Vicar will take an oath of allegiance swearing that they will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles III, his heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God. A page has indeed been turned that cannot be turned back.
We have set up a fund for clergy to help meet increased heating bills
The world has also changed significantly in other ways in the last months, with the war in Ukraine driving up fuel and other prices and leading to a cost of living crisis and inflation on a scale not seen in a long time. Of course that impacts our churches, in terms of their fuel costs, and our clergy too, and today I remind you that we have set up a fund that clergy can draw from to help meet increased heating bills, and we will keep this scheme and the demand for support under careful review. Furthermore our assumptions about the 2023 budget assume a significant increase in stipend levels. And looking at this in wider context you will have noticed that clergy wellbeing is a significant element in our discussions today.
Dean Roger’s retirement
And as we are thinking about change we need to note too that this is a moment of significant change in the life of our Cathedral too, with Dean Roger’s retirement. I’m delighted that Roger led our worship just now, and I do want publicly to bear witness to the way he and Lois have generously lavished love on the Cathedral and its community over the last 10 years. And I also want to say how grateful I am personally for his support and friendship. It has been very much appreciated. There will be a fuller farewell at the Cathedral tomorrow at which I will have something else to say, but. Roger, on behalf of the whole Diocese we wish you and Lois God’s richest blessing for your retirement, and do please know you leave with our love and our thanks.
David is the longest serving vicar in this diocese
We also need today to mark the fact that this is David Miller’s last Synod. David is the longest serving Vicar in this diocese and has been here since 1993. David we wish you and Becky all God’s best for the next phase of your ministry in Southampton. You go with our love and thanks.
There is one other recent-ish event I want to mention though it doesn’t really fit under this broader heading of change, and that is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mission here back in June. It really was a wholly wonderful weekend and I have never felt prouder of this diocese. The Archbishop spoke with passion and conviction in so many different contexts – but these were not specially prepared contexts for him: he was joining in with what people of this diocese were already doing in the community, demonstrating so much love, care and support, particularly to many people on the margins, in the name of Jesus. To do so wasn’t special or exceptional, in that sense: it was normal – but it was also deeply and profoundly impressive.
Our theme for today in its broadest sense is change. More specifically, we are thinking about the Saints’ Way commitment to us being ‘A church which unashamedly embraces an innovative, pioneering culture’. In helping us think about that I want to draw on the passage we read earlier: Isaiah 43:16-21. This is the passage which immediately sprang to my mind when I thought about our theme for today – but only after I had done so did it occur to me that I often speak on it at licensings and installations of new clergy – for reasons which I hope will be obvious.
Isaiah was writing for a people long ago and far away, but they too were a people who had faced very significant change and were wondering what might come next. They were in exile in the land of Babylon, wondering what might on earth be coming. And they, perhaps like us, would have undoubtedly been tempted to nostalgia. They would have looked back enviously to their previous, far more comfortable, life in the land of Israel. And they would have looked further back too, no doubt with wistfulness and nostalgia, to that time when their God had done something truly wonderful for them, and rescued them from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea in the Exodus. And Isaiah indeed makes specific reference to that great event. Listen to what he says:
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.
That’s the Exodus that Isaiah is describing. But what does he go on to say? Listen again to his words:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
I’m sure you can see what Isaiah does there. On the one hand he tells the people to look back to the great events of the Exodus when God has stretched out his hand to rescue his people. But as soon as he’s done that, and in case they do get nostalgic and wistful, he says, ‘No! Don’t get stuck in the past. Our God is about to do a new thing. He will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’
Indeed Isaiah deliberately repeats that word ‘way’. Once upon a time he made a way through the sea. Now he will make a ‘way’ through the wilderness. He is in the business of making a way, and he always has been, even if this new way is a wholly new way, wholly unexpected, unlike anything they’ve seen before.
And that has something really important to say to us today. Our God has been in the business of ‘making a way’, and ‘doing a new thing’ in Cornwall for some 1,500 years. This is a place which has known God’s blessing; this is a place where people have trusted him, found faith in him, and found him to be faithful. This has been a place of love, of worship, of change and transformation. This has been a place where heaven has touched earth and earth has touched heaven. Our God has made a way here in the past. And so he will in the future. So he will in the future.
It will be a new thing God does here
We don’t exactly know how God will show his goodness, his faithfulness and his love in Cornwall in the future – though the dreams we have been dreaming and the plans we have been preparing through On the Way have perhaps provided us with a glimpse. We don’t know how he will make a way here, or what that way might look like. We do know though that it won’t be a simple repetition of the past: some sort of ‘copy and paste’ job. It will be a new thing God does here; it will be a new way that he opens up for us – even if there is something recognisable about it, because it will, inevitably, have, as it were his fingerprints all over it. But our God will do – he is doing – a new thing here, because it is what he promises: that is simply what he’s in the business of doing.
Isaiah has this strange way of mixing the old and the new – of pointing back to the past in order to point straight to the future. And as with Israel so with us. The more we look back to the past in Cornwall, the more I believe we are pointed towards the future. Because the past to which we look is not of something settled and comfortable, but one of pioneering, risk, adventure and innovation – and so therefore should our future be too.
Being pioneering is simply being true to our heritage
Being pioneering is simply being true to our heritage: the Celtic Saints who we celebrate, and after whom are churches are named were pioneers and innovators to a man and a woman: they came at great risk to life and limb to make the good news of Jesus known here, setting up their wayside crosses to point to him. So we are inheritors of a great Cornish tradition of pioneering mission, represented not just by the early Cornish saints, not just by people as varied as Piran and Petroc, Ia and Adwenna, but by Henry Martyn and Billy Bray and countless others too.
Pioneering and innovation are very deeply wired into Cornwall’s DNA. This has been a place of astonishing creativity and innovation in the arts and in industry and in mission – and in many ways it still is. This is natural place for innovative creative people to come and to flourish – indeed they still come, to be innovative in mission here and it’s a delight to welcome such people among us as I do, very regularly. Pioneering and innovation are a key part of our heritage no less than they are of the Biblical narrative into which we also need to step.
You may have heard me say this before but traditionally Cornish miners earned their money by one or other of two systems: ‘tut work’ and ‘tribute’. If you were paid by ‘tut work’ you were paid by the amount of ground you dug irrespective of how much ore was in it: no matter, in other words, what its quality was. But if you paid ‘tribute’ you bought a pitch, and whatever ore you dug from that pitch was yours to keep and profit from. So paying tribute encouraged miners to be innovative, to be pioneering, to dig deeper, to take risks, to discover a richer seam. I can’t think of a better metaphor for our calling in our Cornish context today. We are called today to dig deeper, to go deeper, to discover a richer, riskier seam. And by God’s grace may we today, in this Synod, be inspired ourselves to do just that.
The best way we can honour the great heritage in which we stand is not by resisting change
The best way we can honour the great heritage in which we stand is not by resisting change, but by looking faithfully into the future, seeking the new way our God is opening up for us. This is not innovating for the sake of novelty; nor is it a case or replicating what others do elsewhere, for that is not innovation but replication. But this is a prayerful, faithful, courageous process of re-imagining in the Spirit just what might be – which is just, I believe, what On the Way has been all about, in giving us permission and opportunity to engage in that very process. The challenge we face is not to ask what was the Church of the past was like, but rather to ask what the Church of the future will be like? What exactly will be the legacy we leave, to which others in their turn will look for their inspiration?
My former Bishop, Roy Williamson, used to say that the problem with the Church is not that it’s in crisis but that it doesn’t know it’s always supposed to be in crisis. And when he used the word ‘crisis’ he used it is its stricter sense: of a moment of risk, and possibly danger too – but a moment too pregnant with possibility and potential. A crisis is thus not something to step back from, but, by the grace of God, to step towards: with courage, with faith and with hope.
Maybe we are in crisis: but maybe that’s just were we’re supposed to be, that we may be the creative, innovative pioneering church that we are called to be. So may our God give us the courage, faith and hope as a church we need for the change we face – for such a time as this.