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Angela Tilby: Dr Francis-Dehqani’s calm voice of hope for the C of E

08 July 2022

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, speaks during a General Synod debate on reducing the wealth gap, last November

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, speaks during a General Synod debate on reducing the wealth gap, last November

AS THE General Synod gathers at York this week, I am reminded of the Bishop of Chelmsford’s address to her diocesan synod last month. Carefully, and without drama, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani distanced herself from the one-sided language of mission and growth which is so embedded in church-speak.

She said: “The language of vision and strategy risks ignoring the reality of frailty, brokenness, and sin . . . missing the many blessings in that which is small and vulnerable and marginal.”’ (Quotes, 17 June). There was danger in putting “too much emphasis on our human powers — that if only we try hard enough and pull together well enough and all follow the same programme . . . we can ensure the future survival of the Church, either as it has been in the past or preferably producing a shinier, bigger, better version”.

It is not the first time Dr Francis-Dehqani has spoken with a clear and distinctive voice. In her maiden speech in the House of Lords last December, she urged the Government to pay its debt to Iran to progress the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe (News, 3 December 2021). The speech was erudite (mention of the religious tolerance of Cyrus the Great with a reference to the Cyrus cylinder in the British Museum); personal — she alluded to the persecution that her family had suffered in Iran; and challenging — British values were being betrayed while Nazanin remained captive.

Dr Francis-Dehqani’s contribution shows the importance of diversity for the Church. Her former appointment as Suffragan Bishop of Loughborough made her the first minority-ethnic woman to become a bishop in the Church of England.

But the diversity that she brings is also a diversity of intellect, experience, and style. Perhaps it has something to do with the horrors that her family faced in Iran, or her recognition of what it means to be part of a small and unfavoured minority, that she can look with a certain detached equanimity on the survival issues facing the C of E.

Her approach should give some encouragement to those of us who question the current drive towards church growth at all costs, the closing of small churches, the suppression of humble, difficult ministries, the gobbling up of parish share to feed sprawling diocesan bureaucracies. Look at Lincoln, Leicester, and Liverpool, where ordinary church life is being submerged by ever larger structures demanding money and compliance. The urge to “colonise” is strong in the C of E’s leadership. She knows about imperial ambition, where it comes from, and where it can lead. I hope that she is reversing the cutting of clergy posts in Chelmsford.

I met her once, when she was Chaplain of St Marylebone C of E School, in London, and she invited me to preach. I have no idea of what I talked about, but what I took away from the service in St Marylebone Parish Church was an impression of her calm, composed, watchful presence. She gives me hope.

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