Presidential Address by the Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, Diocesan Synod, 11 June 2022.
Since the last meeting of this Synod in February we have as a Diocese been through Lent and a period of Holy Sabbatical. This was an invitation to press the pause button; to enter into a different rhythm; to allow ourselves time for rest and refreshment; to come to terms with some of the challenges and pain of the recent past and begin to find healing. But crucially it was an invitation to spend more time doing the most important thing of all – bringing ourselves before God in prayer, with no agenda other than to hear the whisper of the Spirit beckoning us into the future. This period was bookended by two gatherings here in the Cathedral, for clergy and lay leaders to reflect and pray and discern God’s call. I’m grateful to all those who were able to attend and I hope we can build on those occasions with other similar opportunities in the future.
I was never sure what the impact of the Holy Sabbatical would be. Indeed, having an impact wasn’t its primary purpose. It was offered purely as gift, without any expectations in return. But I did also suggest that if we were to attend to God’s voice more acutely, there likely would be an impact, even if not immediately discernible. So what do I think now? To be honest, I’m not sure. I know that for me it was beneficial; I know that together with members of the Bishop’s Leadership Team, we appreciated the time we set aside together, I know that some of you were glad of the invitation because you told me or you wrote to me.
But beyond that, I don’t really know. And in a sense it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to know. That’s the reality in much of our work and ministry. We don’t always know the results, but we trust that God will use our good intentions and bless them. Instinctively, I sense that the Holy Sabbatical was a good thing to do and so I trust that God will have blessed it and us in the process. If it passed you by or you weren’t able to engage in the way you had hoped, please don’t feel bad or guilty. It’s never too late to recalibrate and set in place habits and disciplines that attune us more closely to the will of God and continue to reshape us more closely in the image of Jesus Christ.
So let me now say something about the process going forward. As you know, I didn’t come to this Diocese with a clear vision to lay before you, or a strategy to get us there. Indeed, as a rule I’m not so comfortable with that kind of language which is currently widely deployed in the church. It risks, it seems to me, 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, then we can solve the problems and challenges and ensure the future survival of the church, either much as it has been in the past or preferably producing a shinier, bigger, better version. The language of vision and strategy risks ignoring the reality of frailty, brokenness, sin – all of which can be redeemed of course. But it risks missing the blessings in that which is small and vulnerable and marginal, the unexpected, the surprising. It leaves us relying heavily on our own strength instead of remembering that everything depends on our faithfulness and our reliance on God.
Consider for a moment the story of Peter walking on the water towards Jesus. The disciples were on the boat in a state of great fear and agitation. Jesus calls Peter, who gets out of the boat and starts walking towards him. Peter then takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to concentrate on that which is all around him: the strong wind, the danger, the utter stupidity of the mess that he’s got himself into. It’s then that he begins to sink – his attention has moved from Jesus to himself and the mess he’s in. So he starts to sink. Now, the impression we have in reading the story is that Jesus is some way ahead of Peter. But then what happens is that the moment Peter acknowledges his need of Jesus, which is his moment of greatest desperation, he cries out for help, “Lord save me”, and Jesus is immediately right there beside him, lifting him out of the water and back into the boat. Jesus, who had seemed far off, was in fact always very near. Peter simply had to acknowledge his need and call for help.
Perhaps that’s exactly what we need to do more of. Some, I know, are close to feelings of despair and desperation. So this is the moment to cry for help. Not strive to find the answers through our human powers but acknowledge our frailty, “Lord save us”, and rely on God’s strength to lead us to a better place. I don’t mind admitting that there are days when I come to say my prayers in the morning when my mind is in so much turmoil, when I’m so conscious of not having the answers or knowing what to do, or of having failed, that all I can manage is a cry of “Lord help me, for I don’t know what to do”. Is that an expression of unforgivable weakness, or is it a recognition of where my strength will really come from? Well, each of you will have your own view. But I want to suggest that as a diocese perhaps we’re in that place where we will do well, collectively, to acknowledge our frailty and ask for God’s help and saving power.
We cannot move well into the future without recognising our own weakness and our reliance on God. That, however, doesn’t mean we have no part to play ourselves. It is not an invitation to passivity. Peter still had to step out of the boat. It means doing what we can, and not being anxious about what we can’t do. So, whilst a 10 step strategy with clear goals and outcomes along the way may not be the answer, I do believe we have to discern the direction of travel, and find a way of articulating that, whilst committing ourselves to travelling well together, in love, in kindness, in assuming the best of one another’s motives.
So, for now, we’ll continue to allow the echoes of the Holy Sabbatical to take effect in our lives for the coming weeks and through the summer. In the autumn the three Area Bishops and I are planning a period of 48 hours away together to begin to give shape to some of what we’re noticing and discerning, about our direction of travel as a diocese and about God’s call into the future. This will then be further refined by conversations in the Bishop’s Leadership Team, and in the late autumn and into the new year we’ll look to ways of sharing our thinking and seeking your views so that through an iterative process, tweaking and improving as we go, we can find a way of articulating our hopes and our commitments.
I don’t know precisely what this’ll look like and I don’t want to pre-empt too much. But let me say a few things. First, the final result, whatever it is, won’t be perfect, it won’t please everyone, and it won’t be the final word. It will seek to guide us into the coming phase, and you will each have to decide the extent to which you wish to join in or chose to distance ourselves. Second, I won’t be launching any new initiatives. Third, I’m committed to supporting and empowering, as best we can, each local context to discern for yourselves how you are to be God’s people in your bit of the world, always facing outwards to the needs of the community in which you are based and working in partnership with others. Fourth, I want to build well on the past and all that’s been good about what’s brought us to this place. And finally, I firmly believe that the way we travel is in the end more important than our destination. I know I’ve said this before and I’ll probably say it many more times. We will need good collaboration and appropriate accountability; we’ll need to develop much stronger trust; and, to be fruitful, the venture will need to be a shared one, each of us playing our part, not just thinking about our own needs, but always seeking the common good.
So as I begin to draw to a close I want to ask each of us to think about making a choice as we step into the future. Do we want to be victims who continually notice the deficiencies, find faults and look for places to lay blame elsewhere for every problem and imperfection? Or will we use the agency we each have, to notice what positive contribution we can make, individually and as communities, and so each one play an active part in shaping the future, not just of what the church will look like but how we can continue being a transforming and a gentle presence in the world, sharing the good news of the Gospel, speaking out and acting for justice and helping to make a difference in the lives of those who need it most?
The recent Jubilee celebrations provided for many a moment of respite, to look back with thankfulness for the life and contribution of Her Majesty the Queen and to celebrate the blessings of the past 70 years. And it’s really important to do that. To be grateful, to notice the good things. Let’s not forget, for example, that we’ve gained yet another City in this Diocese, and many congratulations to Colchester with whom we all rejoice. And there is so much else that’s good in our shared life that we can be thankful for. Our parish churches and fresh expressions, our schools and chaplaincies, continue to be a great blessing to the communities they serve. Every day, as I meet and speak with people across our diocese, I am given great cause for hope about the future, and my thanks to each one of you for the part that you play in that.
And yet, there is still chaos and despair all around us. The war in Europe continues to rage with all its devastating implications, the rise in the cost of living is crippling for many, millions are homeless or in unsuitable accommodation, and there are significant questions around the demise of integrity in the lives of public figures and, more widely, a hardening of attitudes and the way they are expressed especially through social media and the silos we create.
For us in the Church and in the Diocese, there will be difficult conversations ahead and differences of opinion. We can either use our energy to pull apart from one another or we can try to make a difference by bringing of our best, being people of grace and peace, forgiving and generous in the small things and the bigger things, and ultimately by recognising that all we have is a gift from God on whom we are utterly reliant.
Many years ago, Barack Obama was asked when might he consider standing for president of the United States and he said, “Sometimes you don’t choose the moment, the moment chooses you.” Brothers and sisters, friends, this is the moment that has chosen us. This is the time for which you and I have each been called. Not some other wished for time, but this one. I hope and pray you will join me as we seek to play our part and as we say together, “Lord help us”.
Diocesan Synod Presidential Address
11th June 2022