Presidential Address - Diocesan Synod, October 2019
I was rather young to be caught up in student protests in 1968. My student cousin took me to a rally. I think I rather stood out in my short trousers, gaberdine mackintosh and school cap. The next demonstration I participated in was with all the bishops of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic bishops, ands other faith leaders as we walked from the Palace of Westminster to Lambeth Palace to support Gordon Brown’s initiative to relieve developing countries from debt and to eliminate child poverty at home. The organisers wanted at least one very big bishop at the front of the March, so I was there until replaced by Cardinal Cormac.
The diocesan strategy and our regular public prayers call us to engage with our communities, both locally and globally, to serve the common good. The common good is not a slogan or a banner. It has deep Christian roots. It has three distinct senses. First, the common good is an aim, to bring the common good to a community. It is also a practice, namely, the collective activity for a common purpose. Thirdly, it is the conditions required for every member of the community to have flourishing life. We have a shared aspiration to serve the common good in Jesus’ name; but it has to land in practice in partnership with all people of goodwill; and it must exclude no one.
Climate justice is arguably the most pressing theological and moral issue for our generation. I have reflected on this as I have seen Extinction Rebellion protesting without violence. The opportunity for peaceable protest is a mainstay of our democracy. I am naturally more of a prefect than a protester, and I certainly do not advocate breaking the law. Nonetheless, I agree with a You-Tube message from Bishop Rowan that the rate of climate change could lead to human extinction, and beforehand to a long period of human wretchedness on a scale and depth that even the poorest nations do not yet experience. Projected world heat maps indicate that we in Britain could have the best climate in the world for a generation or two, with widespread vineyards and olive groves. This would be great, but for the great storms to destroy new crops and but for the heatwaves to increase the death rate among the very elderly and the very young. These disasters would all be exceeded by the disappearance under the sea of whole island nations, advanced desertification and mass emigration to find fertile land where there is food and water. Climate justice is going to be a key theme running through the Lambeth Conference next summer. We have a number of Eco-parishes in the diocese already. I give an undertaking today that climate justice will be a high priority for me in the years ahead.
I commend us all individually and as churches to redouble our efforts. Never has it been more important to exercise our visible and generous stewardship of God’s creation. I remember that when Dr Kolini was Archbishop of Rwanda, part of the witness of the church in Kigali was Christians collecting discarded plastic off the roads in the city. We could learn a lesson from that.
To engage with our communities is one of the three imperatives in our strategy. I was the principal speaker a few weeks ago at the AGM of Cambridgeshire ACRE which has been doing pioneering community development in rural Cambridgeshire since 1924. I shared with the gathering my views that – whatever deal may or may not be agreed today – BREXIT will pre-occupy central government and Parliament for years to come. We face the end of the beginning. Rather than despair or have dashed hopes, there is a real opportunity for us in our communities to renew our local and regional resilience and take even greater care of one another on a scale which is deliverable. It would be hubristic and quite wrong for the Church to think that we could step in and replace public services. We could and already do model a more humble and inter-personal approach to this by care for our elderly neighbours, through informal breakfast clubs in church schools with a high proportion of needy children, through food banks, debt counselling and credit unions. Our schools are already bearing the load of child mental ill-health. Many of us are now alert and watching for signs of people trapped in modern slavery. Natasha and her supporters in Thrive, are highlighting the deadly challenge of knife crime among young people. Jon Canessa leads the CCHP to good effect. The first phase of our market towns programme for change has already brought us into contact with 39% more people in those communities where we are seeking to transform the churches in Christ and to transform communities for Christ.
As we nurture a more confident people of God we shall, I pray, see more disciples making a difference in their communities and challenging the clergy to support them in prayer and wisdom. Bishop Nathan has the happy challenge at his cathedral of a congregation including many lay leaders in the nation’s life who want support for their faith to be at the forefront of their service. Thank God for that. We, with them, want to serve God’s kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven. This is why we pray to be visible and generous people of Jesus Christ.
The challenge and opportunities around BREXIT are not only economic and political. Cambridge is purported to be the most divided city in the country, and that’s about aspiration and access to opportunity as well as simply about money. It’s an increasingly diverse city ethnically and culturally and our churches are already involved ecumenically with ethnic churches and across faith barriers with Muslims and Jews and other world faith families. We have academics in Cambridge who are as worried as agricultural workers in the Fens about their settled status. Hate crime has noticeably increased across the region. Someone fatalistically observed to me recently that we who are currently adults will be labelled forever by how we voted in the 2016 referendum. I refuse to accept this. Our one indelible mark is the cross, the mark of our baptism. Our manifesto is the gospel and our reward will be heaven open wide. We are those who work for God’s peaceable kingdom. We can take heart from the response of our Anglican family in Rwanda to reconciliation after genocide. We approach being bearers of peace and bridge-builders within divided communities with a high doctrine of God’s mercy and forgiveness and a rueful understanding of our own divisions within the Christian Church. A friend of mine was described in a reference as a Bible-believing Anglo-Catholic with Methodist leanings. Bishop Nathan assures me that I am much more evangelical than I thought, or than he expected. Thank you, bishop. You can help us live beyond our labels.
Stephen Sykes, my late predecessor but two, wrote very wisely about power and conflict. He averred that conflict within the Body of Christ started when the disciples left the locked room after Jesus breathed peace on them. As we reflect upon what conflict feels like for us as Christians, would it not be transforming for us to find healing from paying that attention and move towards community division and suspicion with some hope and strength? In the coming years, this could be redemptive for all those on the journey of faith, serving the world for Jesus’ sake.
For us as Christians, food is very important. This is not just for daily sustenance. We believe at the heart of our faith that Jesus feeds us with himself under the form of bread and wine so that we become his body. Every part of us is fed by God’s living word in Scripture. What is more, hospitality and holding things in common is a profound sign of being the living Church. You can tell that I like pie. Hannah kindly made me corned beef pie recently which far exceeded my stringent requirements. I am very clear that a pie is only a pie when it has pastry below as well as above. Floating contents with a puff pastry lid is not a pie. If we were to imagine that the sustenance required to serve the common good was a rich and round golden pie, beautiful hot and cold, served in the round with decent portions for all, allowing God’s little ones to have the first helping, we might have a picture of what the common good might look like in a generous and visible way. So, get baking, think about the ingredients necessary for the common good and consider what diet of faith and love and justice we all need. Amen.