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Archbishops challenge new Synod to be humble and bold

16 November 2021

We want the Church to grow, and even if it doesn’t, then let it be a grand operatic death

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Archbishops of York and Canterbury at the General Synod on Tuesday

The Archbishops of York and Canterbury at the General Synod on Tuesday

THE Church of England had gone through the greatest peacetime challenge in 400 years and emerged “forging ahead”, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the General Synod in a joint presidential address with the Archbishop of York.

But both men also acknowledged the Church’s failings, and its humbling over issues such as safeguarding and racism.

The institution was currently in a wave of change, Archbishop Welby said, something it had experienced ever since the Norman Conquest. With each wave came “a fear that we would lose the tradition”.

But change was not abandonment. The reality was that “a huge amount of work is being done at every point of this extraordinary Church for England, of which we are a part. People talk too easily of decline, but miss the energy that is spurring us on.”

Discernment and obedience, the Archbishop said, required decision and action, and needed vision and strategy. “So internally, the Church of England seeks to have a clear sense of what it is and where it is going.” The way in which dioceses worked together and shared resources was being challenged “and will change — slowly and gently and consensually”.

He acknowledged that safeguarding, racism, and “how we treat those with disabilities or anyone we see as ‘other’” were being tackled — “not nearly as well or as quickly as we all want, but we know that we go wrong and we seek to do better. There is a self-awareness that is real in this Church. We are a Church that can admit it is wrong, say sorry, and try — at least try — to do better.”

The Church was planting churches in new places, “casting the net in unlikely places and ways, perhaps as many as 10,000 new congregations in the next ten years. And essentially, because it is a foundation of this Church of and for England, it is putting fresh resources into traditional parishes.”

Archbishop Welby made reference to the renewal of chaplaincy ministry, the inclusion of the laity, and challenging clericalism. With Living in Love and Faith (LLF), the Church of England had done “the most theologically sophisticated work on human sexuality and identity of any global Church”. It sought “to model disagreeing well, for we are all different and disagreeing is human, but seeking to destroy and reject each other and exclude each other is less than human.”

He praised clergy and laity at the local level for their continuing “extraordinary” work through the crisis. “The Christ-centred steady, relentless, but wonderful work in parish and chaplaincy has just gone on week in and week out. The challenge for this Synod is to support and secure that ministry.”

Speaking next, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, insisted: “Synod means walking and working together on the way. The harvest is rich but the labourers aren’t few. We have a lot of labourers in the Church of England. The trouble is that the labourers are in the barn arguing what colour to paint the combine harvester. Like two bald men fighting over a comb.

“We are here because of our baptism to face the challenges of the world and then discern how best to steer and steward the Church of England. We are here to find a way.”

Archbishop Cottrell acknowledged that the Church was walking into the uncharted territory of living with Covid-19; the climate crisis; rapidly changing cultures; and the challenges of continuing numerical decline.

“Our job together is to draw the map, to work out what it means to be the Church of England in and for this day and in this age.”

In what he referred to as “the darkest days of last year’s lockdowns”, the Church had felt God calling it afresh to be Christ-centred and Christ-shaped — “something so beautiful and so profound that we will spend the rest of our lives learning what it means to know and follow Jesus Christ.”

If attention was not paid to proclaiming and teaching the gospel, “not much else is going to happen,” the Archbishop said. He repeated the “heart cry” of the Church at this time: “to be simpler, humbler, and bolder in our walking with Christ”.

Being humble had also meant being humbled, he said, with reference to looking at the “dark and terrible things about our history. And IICSA, and the report From Lament into Action, to name only two, have revealed our failing.” With the LLF process and working on issues to do with disability and inclusion, “We have a bold aspiration and it is to be a younger and more diverse Church.”

The vision and strategy process that he chaired was “not about managing decline gracefully”, he said. In an evident departure from the text, he proclaimed: “We want the Church of England to grow, and even if it doesn’t, then let our death be a grand operatic death. Let it be fantastic, and let’s not crawl into a corner. Synod, let’s put this simple and joyful focus on Christ at the centre of all our discussions, especially from time to time when we do see things differently.”

He addressed directly those Synod members elected on a “Save the parish” ticket. “I am with you and I, too, want to save the parish. As far as I’m concerned, you are not the loyal opposition waiting for your turn in government.”

The test of the work that the Synod had signed up for would be bigger than the survival of the institution or the parish, he concluded. And he invited members to consider how their time in office would be viewed. “How did you, in this quinquennium and the latest manifestation of this General Synod, serve the poor, bind up the wounded, bring home the excluded, renew the Earth?

“Did you spend every penny you received and use your gifts and time wisely in the service of the gospel, for the building of the Kingdom and so the Christ may be made known?”

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