Diocesan Synod Presidential Address

Bishop Paul highlighted the diversity in the country at this moment and the role that the church and Christians can have in bringing healing and reconciliation.

Friends, we live in a country marked by deep division. Our differences over Brexit have issued in political uncertainty, and political uncertainty is producing discourtesy and discourtesy, giving birth to wilful misrepresentation and division, leading to social fractures that go far beyond Brexit and that may take a generation to heal. Those who flourish in times like this - illiberal populists - are making the most of their opportunity. Aggression and intolerance are being fed by those who may well benefit from them in the short term. Racism and xenophobia are being stoked under the guise of national self-preservation.
 
One example. Thirty-nine people, at the time of writing understood to be Vietnamese people, died in the back of a lorry this week and Kate Wharton tweeted as follows in response: "Utterly tragic news from Essex. Prayers for all involved. I highly recommend that you don't read the comments under any news report on this story, as it will make you despair of the human race." Why despair? Because many of the comments were full of glee or satisfaction at these deaths.
 
Bewailing these things is necessary, but for us as people of faith who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit it is not sufficient. As the wartime Cardinal of Paris, Cardinal Suhard, said: we need to live our own lives in such a way that they would make no sense if God did not exist.
 
It's with all this as the backdrop that I'm using my presidential address today to commend a piece of work to you. The work has been done by the Pastoral Advisory Group of the Church of England, and it's called "Pastoral Principles for living well together".
 
Now most of you will know that the Pastoral Advisory Group was set up by the Archbishops in tandem with the process called "Living in Love and Faith", to address the tense conversations in our Church over human sexuality. The Pastoral Advisory Group is chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle and includes people representing a wide range of opinion on many things but especially on our approach to same-sex relationships. Its job is to provide resources that will (as it says) "hold people together in the love of Christ".
 
The Pastoral Principles therefore have a focus on sexuality, but they are of far wider relevance. Ed Shaw is a member of the Group, a conservative evangelical (whose book "The Plausibility Problem" was given me as a gift by the people of St Philemon Toxteth for which I remain grateful). Ed spoke to the General Synod about applying the Pastoral Principles in his church. He chose to do so, not on the question of human sexuality but on the question of vegetarianism, which he though would be an easier nettle for his community to grasp. But Christians feel very deeply about a whole range of things, and so Ed found that honest and robust conversations on vegetarianism needed the Principles every bit as much as those on human sexuality!
 
This is not to say that the Pastoral Principles are vague and general. They focus, as the Church asked the Pastoral Advisory Group to do, on the welcome given to LGBTI+ people, which remains a touchstone for our credibility in much of the nation beyond the church, where we are - all of us - perceived to be homophobic. It's not for nothing that Ed's book is called "The Plausibility Problem". So there is an edge to these Principles which I do not want anyone to blunt. But they have a far wider application nonetheless.
 
With all this in mind I commend the Principles to the Synod, and through the Synod to the Diocese. We need to learn to love each other as we disagree. Mutual love demands care and discipline. It means more than agreeing to differ, as if an outbreak of passive aggression will fulfil the law of Christ. It means the honest sharing of opinion and of wisdom. It means listening with courtesy and speaking with truthfulness. As I've said elsewhere, sometimes it means not just making a cup of tea for a polite conversation. To make a cup of tea you need hot water, and sometimes the Christian call is to get into the hot water, sometimes up to your neck, to know where you stand and stand there. But whatever opinion you have on this or any matter, no amount of rightness, or righteousness, or self-righteousness, gives you the right to abandon the command of our Lord that we should love one another.
 
Here then are the principles, which are commended to the Anglican family in England not as a nice little booklet for the back of church, but as a workbook to increase our love, and which (if we dive deeply into them) will equip us to be Gospel people, fit to stand for Jesus in this woefully fractious nation.


 
Let me repeat that these principles are not designed to make us all agree, and certainly not designed to stifle disagreement under a cloak of passive aggression dressed up as 'niceness'. Still less are they designed to help us depart from one another. I do not believe that that is our calling. God knows, in the long history of the Church people have departed from one another too often.
 
Instead let us sit at the table together, and look one another in the eye, and learn together. These principles will help us all with that, but whether or not you use the Principles, you are called, and as your bishop I give you a charge, to be people of peace - the peace of which St Paul spoke when in 1 Corinthians 14, in a passage which itself provokes disagreement on the place of women in the church's ministry, he says "God isn’t a God of disorder but of peace." As my old professor of mission used to tell us, the passage doesn't say "God isn’t a God of disorder but of order." Sometimes peace is messy, because we are free people who are guided by the Spirit of God, not soldiers to be told what to do by the officers of the church.
 
So we are called to find ways of living well together, and each of us is called to play our part in that calling. If we do, we will bless the nation richly. If we do not, our Gospel will be dismissed as hypocrisy, and we will have nothing to give to this broken England.
 
So, synod: be people of peace. Observe these principles. And may God's blessing go with you.