Below is Bishop Stephen's Presidential Address given at Ely Diocesan Synod on 15 October 2022.
More information on Synod can be found on the relevant pages of the website here.
By now Bishop Dagmar and I should have begun our further engagement with Living in Love and Faith in the first of three residential meetings of the College of Bishops. The first had to be abandoned because of the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth. We now meet twice before Christmas and once more before the meeting of the General Synod in February. I am unable to report on any progress; but +Dagmar and I will meet with our General Synod representatives early in January. We shall take up the conversation again in synod in March.
I may be stealing some of Geoffrey’s thunder in the environment debate later in the agenda. I apologise to him, but see it as being necessary to emphasise our commitment to be a carbon zero diocese. I shared in a school harvest thanksgiving in North East Lincolnshire on Tuesday. It was the first time I heard singing vegetables: there were red hot peppers, cabbages, a seven-year-old who insisted on a being a frozen pea because the church was so cold and a whole school who did not mind being Brussell sprouts because in Lincolnshire the brassica is king.
The children sang of the terrible toll of waste in food and production. Their testimony bore out the Children’s Society Good Childhood Report for 2022 which says that 75% of children consulted saw the environment as the big issue going forward and 16% saying that it was the biggest issue and they were afraid for the future. We are all aware of the environmental crisis with its twin focus on climate and biodiversity. We know of the dire predictions in official reports. We have first-hand experience of an extraordinary heatwave and personal insight and awareness that worldwide there is 70% less wildlife around. As new species are being discovered, they are being put immediately on the endangered list.
Global carbon emissions seem irreducible; but there is also the highly pressing issue of rising energy costs and a wider social crisis of poverty and over-stretched public services (also mental health, including that linked to climate anxiety). I acknowledge the letter from Christopher Townsend and others about the impact of the fuel crisis on the livelihood of our stipendiary clergy. There is support for clergy in need and there is a small amount of money from the national church coming to support churches running warm hubs and keeping buildings open this winter. But it won’t be more than a sticking plaster kind of encouragement. There are also likely to be pinch-points, where supply lines and shortage of resources will lead to evident empty shelves. The threat of power cuts this winter is in the news, whatever the Prime Minister’s denials.
There is also a societal crisis of division and political legitimacy, when about 200,000 people can vote to change the direction of government for the rest of us. And a society in which a series of surveys have revealed that 60% of young people under 35 opine that it would be better if Britain were governed by a strong person who did not need to bother with Parliament and elections.
This leads to an emotional overload and a fatalism of ‘what can I do?’ in such a world. (Hence, I suspect the wish of young people for someone to come along and just sort it.) Doing our own little bit, from recycling to installing roof photovoltaics, seems insignificant by comparison with what needs to be done. The real heavy lifting does need to be done by governments and big business. I am pleased that our local Gees Growers are an excellent example of regenerative farming, making good use of agricultural waste for bio-fuel to power their mushroom farm. They are committed to regenerative farming which restores soil quality. This is very important. I recently made myself miserable by reading Philip Limbery’s Only 60 Harvests Left. Geoff Dodgson is trying to cheer me up today by giving me a copy of a less fatalistic book, Land Healer by Jake Fiennes, who is head of conservation at the Holkham Estate in Norfolk.
As Christians we are not fatalistic but hopeful, looking for abundant life in Christ Jesus. There is the eternal hope and, meanwhile, we are led by the Spirit as we are part of the groaning of all creation.
We also believe that all our actions are of eternal significance before the judgement of God so that both our little contributions through lifestyle changes, however small, are worthwhile alongside our contributions to the Fourth Mark of Mission to Transform the Unjust Structures of Society and the Fifth Mark, To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth. The Five Marks are at the heart of the Church of England vision and strategy for the future and at the heart of my own agenda for us as a diocese.
Making changes in our personal lives and in the life of the church also gives us an authority to engage with those who are obstructing progress.
It is clear that alongside putting our own house in order, the Church needs to help people acknowledge what they already know within themselves. This is an exercise in informing consciences.
We need to commend the Diocesan Environmental Task Group and its initiatives (some of which it is still working on). All of these strands have ambitious possibilities, but also, importantly, achievable targets that are within the reach of nearly every parish. This needs to apply to the work of the Houses Committee which looks after vicarages and curates’ housing. I know they are looking into solar panels for vicarages which would add power to the national grid. A fresh approach to vicarage boilers will be in order, as long as we recognise that decent insulation may be the best environmental investment. My house will be a challenge!
We should “go for gold!” or at least start the Eco Church journey. The diocese wants to become an Eco Diocese, but as yet too few parishes are on the journey for that to be in sight yet.
To encourage bio-diversity, we will engage with the Wildlife Trust’s Churchyard Conservation Award.
In terms of energy conservation through the national “Practical Path to Net Zero” we shall reinforce the work of the DAC as they are still seeing applications where parishes have not demonstrated that they are taking the opportunity of building works to address the Net Zero challenge.
Most of all through you and our deanery synod members, we need to engage with congregations and communities to explore hopes and fears, disagreements and tensions, and potential actions. The Diocesan Environmental Group is working on a template for a conversation evening enabling parishes to convene gatherings for sensitive conversations around these and will be looking for volunteers to trial the template.
That is the global challenge. Our more local challenge is to push ahead with our deanery development planning. Hugh McCurdy will be on your doorstep soon if he hasn’t been already to animate your planning process. The Mission and Ministry Team will be on hand to encourage and support the godly ambitions of every benefice to serve every place being fully alive in Christ. I shall say more in the coming months about how we can reinforce that encouragement from our united parish support team who only exist to support the mission and growth of the local church. There is going to be new funding available from the national church, particularly to support our raising up of new ministers of the gospel and to grow our mission and ministry in rural parishes. I have already alerted the senior team for us to be on the front foot to win that support for parishes across the Diocese of Ely. I will press the point at every opportunity that we are in the business of growing and re-setting the whole economy of ministry which God is raising up in our midst. Prior to that is our calling to serve the Lord’s work of conversion of heart and life and growing disciples of all ages and social conditions. Ours are the voices and hands which are at the disposal of the Lord Jesus to encourage people in the faith and to raise them up to serve the kingdom of God.