Presidential Address by The Rt Rev. Dr Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston
Bishop Richard addresses Synod This Diocesan Synod falls, as they say, “in interesting times”. It is sandwiched between two events which both have major implications for our Diocese. Today, and yesterday, the Crown Nominations Commission met to finalise a preferred nomination for the next Bishop of Southwark. And on Friday the General Synod begins its session in which the complex issue of the Ordination of women as Bishops will be considered. We cannot know the outcome of either of them just yet. Both events have been surrounded by considerable media interest and speculation. Such a context can easily create a febrile, nervous and contentious atmosphere. Important issues are at stake and it matters how we conduct ourselves.
Hope and fear are two extremely powerful human emotions. They are often intertwined when we face major challenges in our lives. Both have profound effects as drivers of our actions and attitudes at all kinds of levels.
- Those playing in the recent Wimbledon tennis championships and the ongoing World Cup tournament have hopes of glory combined with fear of failure.
- Those recently ordained in our Diocese and elsewhere have their natural fears about whether they will live up to their calling linked with hopes of what they might be able to achieve by God’s grace in their ministries.
There are huge challenges facing our world:
- Tomorrow sees the fifth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings – just one element in the vast agenda of security and terrorism.
- Recently the leaders of the G20 nations revealed that there is no real consensus on how to achieve more financial stability and greater fairness across a world of such glaring inequalities in wealth.
- There is the ever-present issue of climate change and sustainable living.
- We live in a world of many cultures, faiths and world-views and there is a constant need to consider how we interact with one another when our backgrounds and views of life can be so diverse.
All too often our responses to these vast challenges are driven primarily by fear. Of course, we do need to be profoundly realistic about the dangers we face – we need to recognise and embrace our fears. But far more is needed.
I was very struck by the recent opening ceremony of the World Cup. It was a splendid spectacle, but importantly it appealed strongly to our deep human need for hopes, dreams and aspirations.
There are huge challenges facing our Church, as well as our world.
- Vast numbers of our contemporaries, especially in the West, are, at best, disconnected from Christian faith. And many see it as not just nonsense, but dangerous and divisive nonsense.
- Many regard our Faith as an irrelevance to the mainstream of life – OK for those who like that sort of thing, but of no real importance.
- Our Church can often seem irredeemably fractious and flawed. In the Anglican Communion debate continues about our developing identity and whether a Covenant will or will not be a good idea. In the Church of England we are about to have a major debate in General Synod on the Ordination of women as bishops. And in our own Diocese, we are now surrounded by substantial speculation about the next Bishop of Southwark.
In all of these challenges it seems to me that our responses are all too often driven by fear. This has a deeply damaging effect on the life, mission and ministry of the Church. Fear often leads us into reactions which can be;
- Myopic – we tend to see only our own point of view, and often caricature the views of others because we do not hear them fully.
- Machiavellian – we engage in all kinds of manoeuvring to get our own view to prevail.
- Megaphonic – we just shout louder in the hope we will drown out the opposition.
As Christians we should not be driven primarily by our fears. We are called, at root, to be people of hope. In the Ordination charge which I gave last Saturday evening to those to be ordained I began with 1 Peter 1 verse 3:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Our Christian hope is not a naive escapism which does not face our fears. It is deeply realistic and embraces head-on all the sinfulness, suffering, and mortality of our existence. It is based on the Good News of God’s transforming love at the heart of all things, which has the power to bring new life and hope to every situation no matter how grim it may seem to us. It is not the vague, aspirational hopes and dreams of the World Cup ceremony, but the Resurrection hope which is based on God’s revelation in Christ.
This Resurrection hope should pervade all that we say and do and are. The big question is how we achieve that in our Church life.
- As we go forward as a Diocese under a new Bishop, in all our variety and rich complexity, we should not avoid the matters that divide us, but we do need to ensure that we are not being primarily driven by our fears – that, to me, denies something fundamental in our Faith.
- A similar sentiment applies as we debate the issue of Women Bishops in the Church of England. My own view is in favour of the Revision Committee’s proposals with a Code of Practice, but I am very aware that significant amendments are being put forward – not least by the Archbishops – and they will have to be considered carefully.
- As we develop as an Anglican Communion in the 21st century my prayer is that we shall focus more on the enormous riches and hopes of our tradition than we have done in recent years.
In our Diocesan Synod tonight we are dealing with important issues which can easily evoke both fear and hope.
- We shall be receiving a brief update on the important matter of Safeguarding and Child Protection. There is a real need to ensure that our procedures are fully compliant with the law and we do all we possibly can to protect vulnerable children and adults. But that needs to be seen against the backcloth of the huge potential of our work with children.
- We will hear about the vision of the Board of Education for the next few years. There are those who think our Church schools are divisive in society, but my experience has always been that our schools do a huge amount to build hopeful and relational attitudes to life.
- We will receive the Diocesan Accounts for last year. It is not unusual to go into ‘fear mode’ on matters of money, especially given the current uncertainties. But again we need to ask ourselves what attitude should properly characterise the approach of the Church to our financial affairs.
- And lastly, tonight, we shall be listening to a presentation on Immigration and Deportation. That is a subject on which it is extremely easy to generate a climate of fear and uncertainty. I hope that tonight’s presentation will mean we will be better informed in our response and consider how our Faith shapes that response.
As Christians we are called to be, fundamentally, people of hope. Such an attitude was reinforced for me on my recent visit to our Link Diocese of Matabeleland. On one occasion we were taken to see a site (called a stand) for a new Church building at a place called Lupane, which is between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. We left the main road, which had tarmac, and proceeded for a few kilometres on the dirt roads. We then set out further into the bush with the trees and shrubs getting thicker and thicker. We were being led by Archdeacon Bafana in his car. I was with Bishop Cleophas in his vehicle. He was clearly getting more and more worried that the Archdeacon was getting us well and truly lost. We eventually came to a place where the vehicles could neither go any further nor turn round to go back. At this point the Archdeacon emerged from his car with an enormous axe, proceeded to cut down a few trees and bushes with a great smile on his face. And so we went on to the site of the stand. It consisted of four pegs driven into the ground which marked out the site. It was surrounded by bushes and shrubs and not much else. For me it was a symbol of the forward looking hope and faith of our brothers and sisters in the troubled land of Zimbabwe. Bishop Cleophas and his team were clearly planning in hope. Their situation and approach can put ours into a different perspective. But for them, and for us, we are called as Christians, to be people of hope.
As we heard from 1 Peter, God “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Let us pray that as we conduct the business of our Church at every level, that we may be led not by our fears, but by deep Christian hope.