JUST as the coronavirus has “stripped back” common life, so it has “purged” the Church by forcing it to consider what really matters, the newly confirmed Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, has said. He also spoke of its direct effect on him.
What mattered, he said, was not the future of its buildings pitched against the Church online, but fulfilling the Church’s “unchanging” vision for greater diversity and evangelism.
Archbishop Cottrell, who was confirmed to the archiepiscopacy on Thursday, was delivering his first presidential address via Zoom to an informal meeting of the General Synod, livestreamed on Saturday. The full meeting, originally scheduled for 10 to 14 July at the University of York, was postponed owing to the pandemic (News, 9 April).
The lockdown, Archbishop Cottrell said, “has been painful and illuminating in equal measure. Denied access to our church buildings, having to fast from the sacraments themselves, learning how to live with each other without being able to meet or touch, enduring long periods of isolation, we have come face-to-face with ourselves and through that discovered with alarming clarity that we are the places where God is to be encountered.”
He admitted to missing church buildings and liturgy, mourned for those who had died alone and those unable to hold funerals, weddings, and baptisms, and who experienced the pain of “economic hardship which is around the corner, and the devastating impact of this pandemic upon the whole life of our world.
“But neither can I deny that it has forced me to encounter things about myself which I had allowed to remain hidden behind the security of the things I have had to relinquish. The journey of the Christian life is a journey where, one by one, we learn to let go of things that we thought were so important until there is only Christ.”
The “weary debate” over whether the Archbishops should have closed churches, even to clergy, during the lockdown (News, 27 March) was not important, he said, because the Church could not be separated into the Church in buildings and Church online.
“I believe that God is calling us to be a Church of glorious and profligate diversity.” The Church was “still overly dominated” by white older men from privileged backgrounds, he warned.
Referring to the work of the vision and strategy group, which he chairs, to address this, he said: “The vision is the easy bit. It is unchanging. . .
“However, in every age, and with both the limitless resources of the spirit and the very constrained resources of our own time, abilities, and finance we have to make decisions about what our priorities should be and how they will work themselves out through the complex and dispersed diversity of a Church like ours.”
A recent media report suggested that the group planned to shrink the number of cathedrals, dioceses, and parish churches, in part because of “shifts in new technology” (News, 29 May). “What I can assure you at the moment is that we have reached no conclusions, but hope to bring to this Synod next year a number of propositions to discuss, and this is where decisions will be made.”
Archbishop Cottrell invited three members of the coordinating group to explain what they hoped to achieve through their work.
The Revd Dr Sharon Prentis hoped for greater diversity, and that “by being attentive to a variety of voices from different backgrounds, especially those who are not normally part of our consultative processes, we can truly be an intercultural.”
The Revd Ben Doolan hoped for a Church that was “more confident and more willing to take risks”, with an emphasis on engaging children and young people. “This is not because we want to see the average age of the Church of England come down, although we do; it’s not even because these people are the Church of tomorrow; but it’s because we believe passionately that children, young adults, and youth are the Church of today. They have so much to teach us.”
The Suffragan Bishop of Penrith, Dr Emma Ineson, called for “for an absolute focus on lay discipleship. . . The basic idea that God’s people will find a new confidence in the Bible, discover gifts and ministries, and be able to respond to the challenging issues of now — racism, mental health, the environment — with a Christian voice.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to respond to the presidential address. He agreed that the Church was being stripped away, “not just over this period of lockdown, but even more so, steadily, almost imperceptibly, over the last 70 years. It’s not something to worry about or complain about, it’s the work of God, and you have said so much about this previously and you continue to speak about it.”
He looked forward to working with Archbishop Cottrell, saying that it would be “a friendship based on difference” and diversity. “It’s in that rich diversity that we find the presence of Christ. . .
“We agree on the need to differ and love, we agree on the need to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ, we agree on the need for a simple Church. I think that the next few years are going to be a huge adventure – not a retreat, not a defeat, but an adventure of exploring our way into becoming a new Church in a new world.”