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Church’s vision is for more front-line ministry, not less, Archbishop of York tells Synod members

27 February 2021

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, explains the Church’s long-term vision to members of the General Synod on Saturday

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, explains the Church’s long-term vision to members of the General Synod on Saturday

NOTHING was being “decided centrally and kept under wraps” where the vision and strategy discussions were concerned, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, assured General Synod members on Saturday.

Press reports claiming so had been misleading, the Archbishop said in an informal Synod meeting held via Zoom. The ten-year plan for the C of E, unveiled at the November Synod meeting (News, 26 November 2020), had “landed well and seemed to capture the spirit of the Church”; but it was still, he reiterated, a work in progress.

“There has to be realism and humility,” he said. “It is my intention to be open and transparent about the full nature of the challenge. Many of us are exhausted. We don’t know what the Church is going to look like in the future, but we are very proud of what we have achieved as a Church” in the past year.

The initiative that the Archbishop outlined in November called for a simpler, humbler, bolder, and more diverse Church, in which the key performance-indicator, he had said, would be “the number of feet we wash, not the numbers attending our services, though we hope by faith both will grow”.

Synod members had raised concerns about references to “mixed ecology” as the future norm, amid suspicions that this would mean the dismantling of the parish system. Archbishop Cottrell said on Saturday: “It is categorically not about that. It is about parishes revitalised for mission, and the way we achieve this in our current context. We will develop pathways around where people are — home, work, school, leisure.

“We need priests — more priests. We will also need a huge flourishing of lay ministry and lay leadership. Let’s be clear: it’s challenging, hard, and difficult, but we want more church, not less — the ministry of the whole people of God.”

He went on to remind Synod members that the past year had brought the highest number of vocations to the ordained ministry in many years. “We need to find the right sustainable pattern of what the future will look like — teams of people working collaboratively, with priests having oversight.”

On the need for a more diverse Church, Archbishop Cottrell repeated: “We need to look like the communities we serve . . . facing up to our own failings to welcome under-represented groups.” That included a commitment to the Living in Love and Faith process, “so that LGBT people are in no doubt that they are welcome in the Church of England”.

The most consistent criticism of the initiative had not concerned the central vision — a Christ-centred and -shaped Church — but about what had not been said, Archbishop Cottrell said. Church buildings and structures and balancing budgets were not the primary concern of the shaping group; other groups were working on those aspects. He acknowledged that, with hindsight, it “might have been better to join things up at an earlier stage”.

The Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich was looking at central and diocesan structures; the Bishop of Leeds was chairing a group on governance; the Bishop of Ely was advising on episcopal ministry.

Many dioceses were having to review numbers of stipendiary clergy, Archbishop Cottrell said (News, 4 February). “We need to ensure that resources go to front-line ministry. This is a time when we need to look at how we order the whole of our life.

“I’ve asked myself: wouldn’t it have been easier to become Archbishop of York in less challenging times? This is my test. I want to be able to go to the poorest and most deprived parish in the Northern Province and assure them that we are spending the pounds given wisely.”

Structures had become complicated and cumbersome, he acknowledged. “We can do better. We should see this as one piece of work shaped by one vision, to put discipleship in Christ at the centre. Of course, we have done this before, but we need a fresh and radical call to a new springtime in our discipleship.”

He quoted Pope Francis on the prevalence of the voice of indifference, identifying pessimism and cynicism as being rife in Western society, ‘”shutting the door on the future”.

There were no live questions at Saturday’s informal meeting, but several Synod members had filed questions for the Archbishop in advance. These included whether “simpler” meant fewer people being given a voice. “That is not our intention,” the Archbishop said firmly. “Over-cumbersome structures limit participation — it is our intention to increase it, not limit it. We should be rightly proud of the simplification agenda, but there’s much more to do.”

Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves was the radical heart of the Christian proclamation, Archbishop Cottrell concluded. “If we don’t care about this as the Church of England, what is the point? We would end up being a sect. In facing it, we will discover new things about ourselves and the gospel.”

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