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General Synod digest: Welby calls C of E ‘to be gathered in the spirit’ in presidential address

17 February 2023
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Extracts from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address to the Synod:

I AM convinced that we are united in our desire for a Church that, in nature, truth, and holiness, testifies to the love that God has for us in Jesus Christ . . . and yet, and yet, the fears that attack many of us in this Synod are genuine fears. In almost all cases, they are both personal — borne out of deeply felt lived experience — and doctrinal.

Some fear that what we may or may not decide will be wrong and sinful, or that it might discredit the Church. Some fear that it will reject who you are, as God made you or us — thereby diminishing us all. Some fear that it will cause deep divisions here and abroad. . .

He read the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-9).

At Babel, we see an attempt by humans to stand by themselves without God and his ways. Humans gather and attempt to make a future for themselves — literally built on what they can construct themselves. . . We constantly face this temptation: to make something of ourselves, or to seek to impose our own unity through rules, hierarchies, and structures which become a way of controlling others.

The Church throughout history and in our day has so often given in to this temptation to become turned in on itself, narcissistic, imposing unity through force, and losing sight of its divinely ordained call to bring every person to a saving knowledge of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

Unity that we ourselves conjure up has, as its first casualties, those who are different. Look at the Church’s history of anti-Semitism, racism, slavery, and collusion with evil structures of power. Look at how we have, and do, treat those of different sexualities. But to be such people — directed by fear of the outsider, those who are different — is to be those who simply live to establish our purposes and not God’s. We become the very image of the world around us, not the icon of God.

Then, at Pentecost, rightly linked to Babel, God the Holy Spirit does something spectacular, something that creates possibilities beyond human imagination or ambition. Pentecost is not a gift of translation, but the creation of a new people grafted into the old. This is a gathering, not a scattering, but on an entirely new basis of gathering. Those gathered are gathered by love of Christ and by being saved. . .

We have a common language, but it is not a human language. In the Acts, the Christians are physically scattered, by persecution. By the move of the Spirit, they remain gathered spiritually to anoint those who will lead evangelism, and they gather new Christians as they scatter the gospel.

There is a dialectic of gathering and scattering. . . We have deep and passionately held differences. But let us not fall into caricaturing those among us who don’t agree with us as being those who are trying to construct their lives away from God. The evidence is far from that.

And this, of course, is why it is so difficult. The unity we desire is not one based around agreeing in everything. It can never be of our making or imposing. It can never be by forcing, it is always a gift of God’s redemption.

The difference from Babel is the Church is scattered but one, so long as we seek the glory of God and to obey the commandment to make disciples. But God is calling us to do more than listen and speak and act. He is calling us to more than simply choosing not to build our own edifices that are a memorial to ourselves. He is calling us to be sent to those outside the life of the Church.

They are genuinely the scattered, in every way except one, but that is decisive: God in Christ so loves them that he died for them, and our being sent is to live that love in word and deed and gather them. . . In simple terms, we are all equally loved, all equally to face God in judgement, all equally the object of God’s overwhelming love. . .

How can that be lived so that there is a true gathering, not compartmentalised Christianity, but a people gathered, different in so many ways, but gathered in a community of love? Because anything less is not Pentecost. Anything less is not speaking Christian.

Speaking Christian in word and deed rejects constructing ourselves, building our own narratives about our greatness and others’ lack, making our own Church: it welcomes being constructed by Christ.

Where people find it difficult to believe what Christians say about God’s great love for them because they have been excluded, or made to conceal their identity, or made to feel in some way less — they have not been spoken to in Christian. . .

We live in a time of danger and crisis, the greatest since the terrors of [the] Second World War. . . We are called as Christians to be gathered in the Spirit and to show in the life of the Church of England a passionate love for every person, a profound commitment to the proclamation of Christ. . .

That is the good news we carry. Whoever we meet, they are loved by God freely and completely. We may say it, we must live it, and how we do that is one of the great tests of these times of societal, national, and international division; for we live today in a time of war physical, and war cultural. We too easily import culture wars and lapse into their language. It is the sea we swim in. We do not need to drink it.

The Church is not called to avoid or to endorse wokery, but to be awake to the Holy Spirit, to show that no division is greater than the unity of our identity in Christ.

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