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General Synod digest: ‘First priority is to be a people of prayer’

04 December 2020

THE Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, outlined his vision for the Church of England over the next decade, in a presentation on Vision and Strategy to the General Synod on Tuesday morning.

Emphasising a new approach to church growth, he said: “No working party, no committee — rather a large, consultative, and iterative process of thousands of people, and engaging younger and more diverse voices.”

He recognised that this might cause some anxiety — “We have never tried this before and may never try it again” — and said that the project existed alongside and informed the work of other groups.

He dared to hope, however, that the Church might be able to discover what being “episcopally led and synodically governed” really meant. Bishops and diocesan secretaries had shared the vision that they believed that God had laid upon them, based on the text: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” (Corinthians 5.17)

There were no long documents for the Synod to study: instead, Archbishop Cottrell presented a single diagram (pictured) that he described as “simple, engaging, permissive, clear — with plenty of room to read between the lines”. Its central image of a small circle on a blank sheet could be interpreted as a target, the hub of a wheel, the “central rim of an ancient and expanding tree; a pebble, likely to bring reflection and disturbance in equal measure”.

Vision and Strategy was about moving from a task-centred to a Christ-centred approach at a time when the world was faced with the great challenge of Covid-19, he said. “Our first priority is to be a people of prayer, rooted in the love of Jesus Christ for us. We are called to be Jesus-centred and Jesus-shaped, a phrase used in many Provinces of the Anglican Communion to describe a life marked by the Five Marks of Mission. We may now wish to consider formally adopting these marks.”

The Archbishop asked the Synod to pause for private prayer and reflection on a painting of the Emmaus road, by Gillian Bell Richards, before he introduced the first strategic priority: to be “missionly disciples”.

The priorities were not intended to be “the latest set of witty managerial targets”, but a call to be witnesses and ambassadors, with a greater emphasis on catechesis and a deeper rooting in scripture, alongside challenging unjust structures in society. “The key performance indicator will be the number of feet we wash, not the numbers attending our services, though we hope by faith both will grow.”

The second priority was to be “a place where mixed ecology will grow”. Even St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was planted once, he said. The new communities of faith established online should not be forgotten; through the most vibrant and creative new expressions arose “healthy, flourishing parish ministries. We will see God raise up new forms of church and community life.”

Archbishop Cottrell noted the place of chaplaincy in this vision — “often neglected in our thinking. There is a growing demand for it and it will be a very important part of our future.” This might sound like “a tough job getting tougher”, and it would be a challenge, he said: “Painful, but hugely exciting for our future.”

The third priority was to grow a younger and more diverse Church, promoting leadership and better reflecting the communities served by the Church. He acknowledged the “prevalent whiteness” of ministry, and described diversity as “a biblical imperative: the means by which we will best be able to evangelise our nation. . . By making it a priority, we believe we can become a more diverse Church to serve this nation.”

All three priorities needed to be held together in unity in all expressions of church life, he said. Any vision and strategy was only as good as what it did in shaping the mission and priority of the local church. “This is the Church of England in all its glorious, every-inch-of-the-map-covered diversity.” It was not a series of tasks, but “a thousand tasks will flow from it” through church initiatives.

He continued: “We are not as big a Church as we used to be, and, yes, there might be too much bureaucracy.” He acknowledged that other groups were looking at governance structure and other aspects of church life together.

Another aspiration was to be humbler: “We are having to face our failures. The IICSA report has held up a very shameful mirror to the Church of England. We need to change our culture.” He also pointed out that the Church was “not the only Christian show in town” and must learn to work with others.

The Church must also be more bold, he said. “We minister in a world of much pain and confusion. We must show people the beauty and purposes of Christ.” The target of being carbon-neutral by 2030 could be the first gesture that the Church made to the world. “I want the Church of England to be a Church for all people in all places. I don’t know how God will bless these ideas or how you are going to respond to them; but they are simplicity, humility, and boldness. I offer them to you. This is the simple message I think God might be calling us to be. Things change and happen when we are rooted in Christ.”

The session was punctuated with three brief videos offering different perspectives from people who had been involved in the consultation, and was followed by breakout groups for discussion. There was no formal debate at this stage: priorities for action are to be put before the Synod in February.

The Revd Graham Sparkes (Baptist Union) highlighted the opportunities for ecumenical and international perspectives. “The Church of England has enormous reach around the world and in our own nation. We have a desire to enrich this process and be enriched by it. It is too important to be left to the Church of England alone.”

youtube/church of englandThe Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah (Universities & TEIs) reflects on Vision and Strategy

A lecturer at Lancaster University, the Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah (Universities & TEIs), said that the Archbishop’s enthusiasm was infectious. He noted, however, “as a theological educator”, that “the element of learning is missing. Do we need to add the virtue of of being prudent and wise through learning?”

Others spoke of the imperative not be an exclusive or isolated Church.

The Archbishop reiterated that this was beginning of a ten-year process and not the end. He summed it up as “a spiritual and theological renewal of our life in Christ”, and “a new way of working with a lot more people, which may bring us into a new and surprising place”.


Click here for more reports from the November General Synod, held via Zoom last week

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