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General Synod digest: Archbishop of York on Vision and Strategy

16 July 2021
YouTube/Church of England

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, delivers a presentation on the emerging Vision and Strategy for the Church of England

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, delivers a presentation on the emerging Vision and Strategy for the Church of England

THE Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, delivered a presentation on the emerging Vision and Strategy for the Church of England. It began by asking “What kind of Church is God calling us to become?” After a wide-ranging 18-month consultation across the Church, the answer came: “To become a more Christ-centred Church.”

The Covid pandemic had influenced this, Archbishop Cottrell argued, fostering a yearning for simplicity and to return to the centre of the faith. As the Church emerged out of Covid, it must become younger and more diverse, a safe place of welcome for everyone, and “a mixed-ecology Church where we reach and serve our nation in many ways”.

The parish system was at the centre of this, Archbishop Cottrell said, and he was “dismayed” that anyone could think that the Vision and Strategy efforts would abandon the parish. This was clearly aresponse to the recent furore over plans for 10,000 new lay-led worshipping communities (Comment, 9 July).

Of course, ministry through chaplaincies, church-plants, fresh expressions, and schools would continue to grow, and ambitious targets were being set for new Christian communities. “But we also know these things will flow from parish churches serving local communities,” Archbishop Cottrell said. Even those initiatives that were lay-led remained at all times under the oversight of an incumbent cleric, whose cure of souls was shared by the bishops, and governed by canon law.

Most of what would be discussed by the Synod was not “initiatives emerging from head office”, but an opportunity for the whole Church to reshape its priorities and strategies. All of this would be run locally, he promised. There would be central reform, too, under the heading “Transforming Effectiveness”, to ensure that all the historic resources of the C of E would be directed squarely at this new Vision and Strategy, emerging from the parishes.

“I am enormously excited. For the first time, the Church of England is putting children, young people, schools, families, and households at the very heart of its strategy.” The “simpler, humbler, bolder” rubric overarching this work had been received well, Archbishop Cottrell said, judging by how it had been repeated back to him endlessly — and even turned into jokes.

“This isn’t top-down, but neither is it bottom-up. It comes from the centre. That’s not Lambeth Palace, Bishopthorpe, Church House, or the General Synod. It is Christ.”

The Synod was then shown a film of clergy, diocesan staff, lay leaders, and others in the Church reflecting on what Vision and Strategy meant to them.

The Archbishop of York then moved that the Synod take note of the report. He said that he wanted to hear how the Church had already taken hold of the vision, but also what Synod members believed had been missed.

“This Vision and Strategy came from the body of the Church. Any initiatives which flow from it will be discussed by the national Church, but most of it is going to happen in the parishes and dioceses.”

Sam Margrave (Coventry) raised a point of order to move that the debate be adjourned and resumed in February 2022. He argued that the item should be deferred to the newly elected Synod, so that small-group work could take place as had been originally planned before Covid restrictions had made that impossible.

“I am aware the bulldozers are waiting outside many of our parishes, waiting to tear them down physically or spiritually,” he said. “If we pass this report, we are handing a gun to the dioceses to kill off the Church as we know it.” The Synod had been sidelined, he argued, and usurped by the national Church.

In response, Archbishop Cottrell said that the report was not an attack on anything precious to the Church: it was about revitalisation. Taking note of the report was simply entering into discussion: it did not prevent breakout groups in the next Synod, which could continue to shape this work, he argued.

When the motion was put to the vote, it was clearly lost by 268-24, with 12 recorded abstentions.

The Revd Barry Hill (Leicester) said that he was particularly excited by how Vision and Strategy renewed focus on the parish. Huge progress had been made in recent years in overcoming the “sin of congregationalism”. Anglican theology said that parishes existed to serve all of those in the community, not just those already part of the congregation, but there was a constant temptation to neglect those outside.

Mr Hill said he was excited, however, to see so much work already under way in parishes to start new initiatives to reach those beyond the church walls. “We can go down as a Church in a quasi-orgasmic criticism-fest of one another, which makes us feel better for a few minutes, but burns the very thing we need — grace.”

The Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah (Universities and TEIs) reflected on the difference between a mixed economy and a mixed ecology, and called for more thinking about what models of community drove the “ecclesiological imagination”.

The Revd Jackie Doyle-Brett (York) said that the Vision document had helped her diocese to reimagine its local vision, and also to streamline church meetings to release her to spend more time on mission and ministry. None of this undermined her priesthood or the parish, she insisted. She hoped that this strategy would not be ignored or filed away, but would be the catalyst for a “changed era” in the Church.

Heather Black (York) spoke of the need to invest in lay people through training and discipleship, which was starting in her diocese. She was not motivated by targets or large numbers, but, trusting in God, it did seem reasonable to believe that many parishes could launch new mission initiatives in the coming decade.

Anne Foreman (Exeter) praised the Vision and Strategy webinars, which had taught her how the vision could be adapted in local contexts, not simply adopted. But more recognition of the distinct rural Church was perhaps necessary.

The Revd Andrew Lightbown (Oxford) said that he had had discussions with both Archbishop Cottrell and his own bishop about his concerns regarding the place of the parish in the Vision and Strategy. “I believe in the parish and in parish priests, some of the most remarkable and selfless people I know. They would not recognise a limit if it were staring them in the face.”

He was deeply angry about the language used at the recent church-planting conference MultiplyX, which undermined parish priests, he said. He demanded that the mixed-ecology approach not circumvent Anglican polity, and that the parish system be not only protected, but enhanced. “I believe I have received their assurances,” he concluded.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North (Northern Suffragans), said that 25 per cent of those coming to faith were doing so in new church contexts such as church-plants. He wanted to reassure those worried about the Vision and Strategy that it was not tribally Evangelical or a threat. There was a huge history of Catholic planting, particularly in urban areas, and a fresh need for it again, he argued.

There was work to be done in training Catholic ordinands for mission, but, most of all, for Catholics to “grab hold of these opportunities by the scruff of the neck”. The “one-size-fits-all parish-mass-or-bust approach no longer works in every context”.

Mary Bucknall (Deaf Anglicans Together) said that deaf churchgoers must be considered in new initiatives. Dioceses were cutting back on specialist ministers and chaplains leading ministry in British Sign Language, but she was encouraged that much of the material coming out of the national Church was now subtitled. Zoom was a significant mission opportunity for deaf people — who were often the last to hear the gospel message.

The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, said that he was glad about the focus on children and young people. What really counted for youth work was intergenerational relationships rather than lumping all the young people together in one place.

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) asked: if the Church of England were to be started from scratch, what would it be like? Might it look like having a building in every community, led by a cleric? She believed that there was no intent to sideline parishes, but the more effort and money poured into extra-parochial work, the less there would be to go towards traditional parish ministry, she warned.

She could not take note unless there was “real evidence” of an intent to treasure the parish system.

Alison Coulter (Winchester) noted the importance of returning to basics after Covid. But there was a long way to go in helping everyone to understand that they were the Church, Monday to Saturday, not just on Sunday. She strongly supported the Vision and Strategy overall.

The Revd Dr Christian Selvaratnam (York) welcomed the report as a “breath of fresh air” for the C of E. He reported that a range of groups had praised the Vision and Strategy, which, he said, perhaps had the greatest aspiration for mission in England since Augustine of Canterbury.

Responding to the debate, Archbishop Cottrell said that he actually agreed with Miss Dailey: it was all about releasing the clergy so that the parish could be revitalised. As a “fairly unreconstructed Anglo-Catholic”, he emphasised that there were many ways to be a mixed-ecology Church through parishes. If he thought for a moment that this was about undermining the parish, he would also refuse to take note, but it was not.

In a vote of the whole Synod, the take-note motion was carried by 285-8, with 17 recorded abstentions.

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