Transforming the communities of Essex & East London through Christ’s presence

Diocesan Synod 5 June 2021 Presidential Address by the Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani

5th Jun 2021

Diocesan Synod 5 June 2021, Presidential Address by the Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani.

It’s now nearly 7 weeks since I started in post as Bishop of Chelmsford. As you know, I’m still living in Loughborough, waiting for my children to complete their school year, before we move – as a family – to Bishopscourt. It’s a move we’re very much looking forward to and I want to say how grateful we are for the warmth of the welcome we’ve received so far. It’s still early days and I’m in listening and learning mode. I’m wanting to understand the culture of the diocese and hear about your experiences and I’m in the process of a whole series of meetings to help me do that.

But as I’ve started listening I’ve also realised there are some decisions that’ll need to be made sooner rather than later. I don’t have the luxury of simply pressing pause for several months while I take stock. So I’m trying to hold in tension my desire to listen deeply and carefully with the recognition that we can’t avoid making decisions.

I want to start by thanking each and every one of you for the part you’ve played in the life of the Diocese over the past year and longer. There are many wonderful things going on and I consider it a privilege to have come alongside you in ministry. As we look ahead, my approach is to build on the past rather than regret it or be critical of it. To my amazement God has called me to serve as your diocesan bishop. But my arrival doesn’t represent ground zero – we’re not starting from scratch; but together we are entering a new phase, building on that which has brought us to this point in all its complexity – good and bad, joyful and painful. Now it’s our task to keep our eyes on God, be faithful to our present calling and follow where the Holy Spirit leads.

I’m mindful that as a diocese we’re in a considerable period of change and transition and we need to give time for relationships to be forged and trust to develop. For now, let me give you a sense of what I’m noticing and some of the areas I think we might benefit from attending to. I’m doing a lot of wondering at the moment and when I say “I wonder” I’m not making a statement but asking an open question. I’m a great fan of asking questions and I often think of the quote by the American author Margaret Wheatley who said, “we move in the direction of the questions we ask”. I’ve found this to be a helpful moto. So, here are some of my wonderings:

I wonder if there’s work to do on how we understand better our diocesan identity. We have a strong Area Scheme and it works well in many ways and I want to preserve that. There are lots of good things going on in different parts of the diocese – I want to treasure and encourage those. But across this large and diverse diocese – what is it that connects us all and how do we demonstrate that in our shared life together. This is complex and the answer will be multi-layered and far from simple. But I want to share with you that I sense the gap between the so called centre and the grass roots is larger than it could be and I sense too that there are various other fault lines across which we might be building walls rather than creating bonds of understanding. And I have a conviction that if that continues it’ll be to the detriment of all of us. We are in this together – we serve one Lord, we have a shared mission and we are part of one diocesan family. I hope we can work on preserving and strengthening our relationships – creating a culture in which all parts of the body belong and are valued.

We may feel like a diocese under threat from sources beyond our control – we may be under resourced, we may have financial challenges, there may be all kinds of uncertainties as we emerge from the pandemic but in my experience: external threats to the church (whatever they might be) are never the real danger. Consider the church when it is persecuted and how its life often continues against all odds even in the most difficult of circumstances. Threats beyond our control can be disheartening and require courage, strength and perseverance but the real danger comes from internal disunity – when we start to blame one another, point the finger, find fault, seek to trip each other up. If we become disunited, with forces pulling in different directions; if there’s a lack of commitment to one another, each thinking only of our own needs and priorities, then we’re in real danger. Instead, if we’re able to consider the bigger picture, look from a wider perspective, put ourselves in the shoes of others, then we have a much better chance of travelling well and being fruitful in our mission to serve God, the church and our communities. I hope and pray we can find a way of demonstrating our unity despite our very many differences and disparate responsibilities. Something you’ll hear from me often is a desire that we would think and speak well of one another, across whatever our divides may be. That we would assume the best of each other and recognise that every one of us has a part to play and a contribution to make. How we are with one another affects the culture of our diocese and it’s the starting place for how we are towards those whom we seek to serve. We cannot love the world if we don’t first love one another.

Let me say too that I am noticing high levels of tiredness and of anxiety and I’m wondering how best we might address these in our shared life together. It’s hardly surprising of course – the events of the past 18 months or so have been unprecedented, putting strain on each of us personally as well as professionally and we don’t quite know yet how we’ll emerge. There are no quick fixes and I don’t have a magic wand but my brothers and sisters, we were never promised a comfortable or easy ride by the one whose faithfulness took him to the cross. I’d like us to explore further how we might address the area of wellbeing and it’s something I’ll continue reflecting on. I hope we can develop a culture in which we care well for one another whilst also each taking responsibility for our own wellbeing. And above all, I long for us to live as people of hope, free from fear. Our responsibility isn’t to be anxious about the future but to live faithfully in the present.

Let me now name, explicitly, our financial challenges, about which there’ll be more during the remainder of this morning’s synod. The simple fact is that we are running an annual deficit of over 3 million pounds and we don’t have the kind of historic assets that’ll help us plug the gap for much longer – we have no option but to find a way of living within our means. Over recent months there’s been an effort to rationalise our resources and look realistically at how many stipendiary clergy posts we can afford. A method of RAG coding was introduced in a situation where there were no easy options or straightforward solutions. I know the process has been difficult and I want to recognise that some have found it painful. Nonetheless something had to be done and the process forced us to face reality, providing us with useful data and has helped bring us to where we are today. Arguably, it was a tough tool which has allowed discussions and enabled us to see a fuller picture.

Now as we move forward, I want to draw a line in the sand and begin to leave behind the language of traffic lights and RAG coding and discern new ways of planning our ministerial deployment. Over the coming weeks and months I’ll be holding conversations and listening to people to discover what the next stage of the journey will look like. I understand that in some places work on developing the RAG outcomes into local deanery plans has already started and I want us to continue considering how we can give greater agency to local churches and deaneries to work with their Area Deans and Archdeacons towards reimagining patterns of ministry and ministerial roles. Make no mistake – this is not a reversal of the need to cut posts and we must follow through on closing those posts already identified. There are still very difficult decisions ahead and there is a need for urgency - if those decisions cannot be taken locally, or if there’s a refusal to engage, then we’ll have to find another approach. It gives me no joy to say that I can’t offer you an easy way out but I do want to give you an opportunity to become as fully involved in the decisions as is possible.

The reasons behind our annual deficit are multifarious and you know them better than me. Essentially, it’s the result of a combination of factors including underpayment of parish share and a change in the way dioceses are funded nationally which forced us to shift from a reliance on subsidy towards greater sustainability; all of which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. National funding we can do nothing about. But giving is in our power to change. I’m immensely grateful for the faithful generosity of so many who’ve made possible the mission of our diocese over the years. But our situation is now severe and so I urge us to press on further and share that call to generosity with all the people around us in our worshipping communities. It’s in living out our call to be generous disciples that we’ll see transformation in our financial situation. Our giving is our act of worship to a generous God and it enables us to serve our communities.

This is a theme we’ll return to I’m sure but for now let me say that if giving increases sufficiently over the coming year, we’ll be able to make fewer cuts. But – and this is really tough – if giving reduces from what the budget has planned for, then we’ll have no choice but to make further cuts. Please don’t hear this as a threat. Rather, I’m wanting to be absolutely honest with you about the gravity of our position and I’m working with our new CEO and Diocesan Secretary to find ways of communicating better with parishes and others so that understanding around this area can improve.

Friends, we live in a world that is crying out for healing, love, compassion, hope and reconciliation. It is our duty to be salt and light in our communities, demonstrating God’s love in word and action, in season and out of season, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and serving those who are most in need. I wonder, and here’s another of my wonderings – I wonder if it’s time for us, as a diocese, to “come to”. You’ll recall in the parable of the prodigal son that the turning point for the younger son - who’d left his home, spent his inheritance and found himself feeding pigs - the turning point came when he was at his lowest ebb and is described in Luke Ch 15 v 17 as the young man coming to himself, or, in some translations, coming to his senses.  This was the moment his eyes were opened. He saw that the person he’d become wasn’t the person he really was and so he “came to himself” - he came back to his true self and returned to his father. I hope and pray that we too, collectively, can come to ourselves – that we can see ourselves as God sees us: beloved and precious, and in so seeing we can notice God’s image in one another too.

And finally, some of you will have already heard me talking about a painting I’ve recently come across by the 18th century German artist Schmidtner. The painting is called Mary the Undoer of Knots and though I don’t care much for the image itself I’m rather captivated by the title. I’m encouraged by the idea of Mary, the one who knew the most extremes of joy and pain, encountering each knot within herself and her circumstances, patiently working to loosen the stranglehold and trusting in God’s timing.  I hope we can be patient, gentle and kind with one another as we journey onwards in faith. Please pray for me as I will pray for you.

+Guli Chelmsford