Presidential Address – May Synod 2023
We find ourselves today at a significant point in the Church’s year. Just two days ago we celebrated the Ascension (or at least I hope we did – for me it was a great pleasure to celebrate it not once but twice, both in Helston and in Falmouth). And in just over a week’s time we will celebrate the great feast of Pentecost in which we rejoice in the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to his Church – and we stand now in between those two great festivals, in this period in which, particularly, we pray, ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.
So this is a significant moment for us, as we wait afresh for the gift of Pentecostal power from our ascended Lord. But what is that gift of the Spirit for? The answer comes loud and clear in a reading that you might have heard on Ascension Day and which we’re going to hear now: it’s the very opening words of the book of Acts: Acts 1:1-9:
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
So that’s what the gift of the Holy Spirit is for: that we may bear witness to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – which of course includes all of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and our two blessed parishes in Devon. That indeed is our calling as God’s Church: in our parishes and deaneries and dioceses, nationally and internationally: to bear witness to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.
The theme for this meeting of the Synod, drawn from five priorities of ‘The Saints’ Way’ is that we should be a church that is confident in its calling. In other words we should be a church that is confident in that calling: to bear witness to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.
And Synod, please do note one thing that is very clear from that calling. It is not me calling the Church to bear witness to Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth. That is the calling of Jesus Christ himself to his Church: it is therefore a calling to which we must be obedient and for which we must be fit.
And in fact so much of what we have been about over the last few years has been about helping us be in a better position to obey that calling.
To recap: we started with the development of ‘The Saints’ Way’ which set out a vision for us as Diocese, drawing on Cornwall’s rich and distinctive past. At its heart is a prayer that I continue to pray for us: that we become an ever more hopeful, confident church that seeks the mind, heart and will of God for Cornwall, for the communities he calls us to serve, and for the wider world beyond these shores.
Because of the work we have done through On the Way I can now pray that prayer more confidently, more hopefully. I have to say that praying that prayer before the work of ‘On the Way’ demanded quite a bit of faith, of faith triumphing over sight, for there is a sober background to the work of One the Way which we cannot ignore, That is a story of steady, and apparently relentless, decline in this diocese over several decades as congregations have become steadily smaller and older. Business as usual was doing little or nothing to arrest that decline, let alone put us in a position to be obedient to Jesus’ calling upon us, and that’s why we set ourselves prayerfully to seek a future for our deaneries that was both fruitful and sustainable.
That work – the work of On the Way – has been completed with the resultant plans now being implemented across our deaneries. Of course that implementation is not without its challenges but we are making progress and if you read the Church Times you will be aware that we are very actively recruiting clergy so we can put those plans into effect. I’m immensely grateful for the hard work, prayer and imagination that has gone into those plans. And I also want to say I’ve been delighted by the sheer creativity that those plans have evidenced. In most cases they have been far more creative and imaginative than I imagined they might be. So thank you so much to all of you have been involved in that.
Fittingly, those plans have not all been identical, because each place is different. What is right in one place may not be in another. Discerning how to be obedient to our common calling must be a local exercise. But discerning that calling locally is also I believe a liberating exercise because it allows church communities to identify what particularly they are called to in their context. And knowing that we don’t have to do everything, but do a few things well, can be very liberating – and, frankly, something of a relief too.
Post On the Way, the next stage in the process has been the development of the Diocesan Plan for Change and Renewal which the Bishop’s Council have adopted and which Hugh will be presenting to you later. What is critical is that it builds on the work of the deanery plans: they are its foundation – just as this year, for the first time, our diocesan budget will be based on the plans that have been locally developed in our deaneries, so we are continuing our commitment to ensure that the local drives the centre rather than the other way round. We are already using our assets to support the work of our parish churches and deaneries and, without pre-empting proper discussion, I hope in the future we will use more of those assets, in particular to keep MMF levels as manageable as possible, and to maintain our clergy numbers at the levels described in deanery plans, or even to grow them.
As I said just now, I can pray that prayer at the heart of The Saint’s Way more hopefully and confidently now than I could before, because I can see change all around us. If you asked me whether there is risk in what we have done, and in what we are doing, I would say, ‘Yes, of course there is!’. But the far more risky thing would be do to nothing or just do more of the same. And Jesus reserves harsh words for those who will not take risks for his Kingdom, but bury their treasure in the ground.
And we are seeing fruit all around us. We see significant change in the life of our Cathedral through Simon Robinson’s inspirational leadership as Interim Dean, and there are wonderful things happening across our diocese, in our parishes. One of the real joys of this year for Hugh and me has been to go to our deanery meetings and hear real good news stories of what people are doing in their own contexts. There are so many truly wonderful things happening across this diocese, from Morwenstow to the Lizard, from Scilly to the Rame peninsula. Do a quick trawl through the news section of the diocesan website and you’ll find stories about the wonderful church café in St. Ives; the warm space and warm welcome that’s been provided in Penryn (as with so many other places); the inspirational work with children and young people and families that’s going on in the Trinity Centre in St. Austell; and the amazing network of ‘Celtic Quiet Places’ that’s been established by the tireless and inspirational Pat Robson. And that really is only scratching the surface: all those stories are drawn just from the first page of our news section. We have some amazing good news stories to tell and I’m delighted that we have.
Sometimes, of course, those stories are written in people’s lives and it was an honour once again to present the cross of St. Piran in March to some amazing people in recognition of their exemplary service of the Church and community.
Synod, have no doubt that our God is doing great things amongst us, and so he will do too in the future. And I believe that in the future we will have many, many more good stories to tell.
As we approach Pentecost we are not far from the end of the great drama of salvation that begins at Christmas, as we celebrate the incarnation; that continues through Lent and Easter as we reflect on Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection; that takes us through his Ascension, as he ascends to be seated at his Father’s side, his work on earth completed; and as he sends his Spirit at Pentecost that we may indeed be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
There are two vital things to note about that great drama of salvation. First while I’ve described the sequence of the great feasts of the Church they are only the great feasts of the Church because they are the key stages in the story of Jesus. This is his story of salvation: and it’s a story into which we, gloriously, are caught up and included.
And the second thing is to note that this story remain unfinished. I’m not saying there’s anything incomplete in what Jesus has done. Far from it. But there is an open-endedness to this story. We heard how the Book of Acts starts: in a very literary, intentional way. But that’s not how it ends. There is something much more open-ended about how it finishes.
And that’s because the story hasn’t finished. It’s still being told, across the world, and here in this Diocese, as people obey Jesus’ instruction to bear witness to his love in word and deed in the places where he has sent them. And our job is to go on telling the story of all that our God has done in Jesus, in word and deed, to be part of the ongoing story of Jesus, as his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth: in Virginstow, in Linkinhorne, in Antony, in St. Blazey, in Kilkhampton, in Little Petherick, in St. Wenn, in Germoe, in Sennen and on St. Martin’s and in every place in between.
That is our calling. Let’s be confident and joyful in it. And this Pentecost may the Lord give us fresh power to be obedient to it.