Diocesan Synod, March 2023, Presidential Address by the Bishop of Chelmsford

18 March 2023

Good morning. It is, as always, good to gather with you here in the Cathedral. Thank you for being here and for your ongoing commitment to the life of the Diocese.

We are, of course, in the season of Lent. A time for reflection, self-examination, repentance, abstinence and a closer walk with God. Mindful of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, each Lent we enter our own wildernesses once again – aware of the trials in our lives and of the temptations that keep us distant from God. God ever present walks alongside us and yet so often we refuse to notice and we continue trying to go it alone. Driven by a human desire to prove our worth through what we do, the danger is that we continue working harder and harder to fix the problems and control the outcome.

I hope that during this period you will each be taking the opportunity to disrupt your usual patterns and instil spiritual disciplines that allow you intentionally to make more time for God – for listening attentively to what God might be saying to you personally, your local church context and to us as a diocese. Doing so without injecting our own agendas is challenging but that is part of the discipline – genuinely laying ourselves open to the unexpected and to what the God of surprises might be calling us towards. This was a process we began last Lent during our Holy Sabbatical – if you can remember that far back. But it is never a process that reaches completion. It is something we have to come back to again and again and Lent is always a good time to start. 

One of the ways I’ve sought to disrupt my regular patterns this year is through my Lenten Pilgrimage around the Diocese. Over the course of 13 days scattered throughout Lent, if all goes to plan, I will have walked in the region of 70 miles, visiting churches in all three episcopal areas, seeing what God is doing through people and in places that are as diverse as you might imagine. It has been an absolute joy to get away from the desk and to see good people doing good things, faithfully present in their communities, serving, witnessing, loving, caring. I have met many people, prayed and walked with them, enjoyed welcome and hospitality, listened to stories and shared hopes and fears. It has been a privilege and one which, 7 days in, continues to shape and inform my personal faith journey as well as my ministry here among you. 

I’m grateful to Philip Need and John Bloomer who helped plan and organise the pilgrimage, and to all who’ve got involved in any way including the Area Bishops and other members of the Bishop’s Leadership Team who have joined me at various stages. I have valued the experience and each of the conversations I’ve had along the way immensely. It has filled me with hope for the life of our diocese.

The pilgrimage has had its challenges, and I’m not just talking about the weather. Whilst I’m taking time out to walk and listen, to pray and share in fellowship, the emails don’t stop coming in and events continue unfolding. I have often returned to the office weary, damp and muddy only to be met by a reminder of the things that still need doing and the emails which must be dealt with. There are no easy answers to this conundrum – constant demands that clamour for our attention. I know many of you feel this too. I don’t have the answer but it feels like at the centre of the conundrum there is something that is gently, softly, trying to gain our attention and I wonder if it has something to do with kindness – greater kindness towards ourselves and towards one another. Kindness in what we expect of ourselves and of others, in how we deal with failures, both our own and that which we perceive in others; kindness in the assumptions we make and the judgements we arrive at; kindness in the emails we send and the way we hold our conversations. It seems like such a simple thing but one we find so very hard – to think kindly towards one another and to be kind to ourselves. Kindness is an underrated virtue and one which could and should mark out the Christian community – we have recently named it as one of our diocesan values. Leaning a little more intentionally into greater kindness could transform our lives, allowing us to demonstrate a different and distinctive way of being; one which is not driven by fear or anxiety or the need to be proven right; a way of being which has no edge and doesn’t seek to make a point; a way of being that begins by putting others first but also recognises the need to be kind to ourselves. 

Most of you will be aware, I’m sure, that a few weeks ago the Area Bishops and I issued a Pastoral Letter in which we articulated our hopes and shared our thinking about the direction of travel for the diocese. If you haven’t already read the material I hope that you will consider doing so and that you will be willing to explore the process which seeks to honour the diversity of each local context and invites you to discern for yourselves how to demonstrate love for God and love of neighbour; how to witness to your Christian faith in a way that is distinctive and might resonate within your wider community. This approach, which we’ve called Travelling Well Together, sits within a theological framework and identifies a series of Values which have been discerned through an iterative process. You are invited to use these values to aid conversations locally, in your churches, PCCs, deaneries and other groups as you seek faithfully to be God’s people. 

If you think this approach has merit, then please do engage with the material. It won’t work magically if you leave it sitting on a bookshelf or filed on your computer somewhere. You’ll need to pore over it, bring it into your preaching, your discussions, your prayers. Be challenged by it but also encouraged as you discern your shared vocation locally. In the summer or early autumn we will begin a wider process of consultation about what support you may need from those of us with diocesan wide responsibilities so that we can ensure we use what resources we have to come alongside you in ways that are most helpful. But please be aware, we won’t be able to do everything and we are unlikely to satisfy all your requests. Our resources are limited, both in terms of people and finances, but we want to use what we have wisely in such a way that supports, enables and empowers you locally.

The observant among you will have noticed that Travelling Well Together was communicated concurrently with the Living in Love and Faith material prepared for General Synod by the House of Bishops following a six year process of listening, praying and discerning. While these proposals included the pastoral provision of draft Prayers of Love and Faith for same-sex couples marking a significant stage in their relationship, they also affirmed that the doctrine of marriage remains unchanged, and at the same time emphasised the Church’s welcome for all people and apologised for the way that LGBTQI+ people have too often been treated.

Let me make very clear that the coming together of Travelling Well Together and Living in Love and Faith was not something we had carefully planned. It was, rather, an extraordinary coincidence – depending on your way of thinking, either providential or terribly bad timing. I had always made clear that our discernment process locally, which began with myself and the Area Bishops would go for further consideration and reshaping to the Bishop’s Leadership Team, the Area Deans and Bishop’s Council, before being shared more widely. That is exactly what we did and it just so happened that the process was completed just as the conclusions of Living in Love and Faith were made public and so the two sat side by side in our Pastoral Letter.

I know there are some who have found this difficult. Those for whom the material does not go far enough and those for whom it has gone too far. I have sought to listen carefully to the distress of those who are struggling with the proposed way forward. I have read your letters and had conversations with a number of you. I have held you in my prayers. I have heard what you are saying to me; in some cases, that you love the Travelling Well Together approach, but not for this one issue. That when it comes to disagreements about the nature of same sex relationships, you cannot or will not walk together with those who differ from you. And some of you are frustrated with me repeating again and again the importance of Travelling Well Together.

I cannot control the outcome of this process nor do I seek to change anyone’s mind. But for me the coming together of Travelling Well Together and the conclusions of Living in Love and Faith did seem providential. A sign from God, if you like, emphasising the importance of seeking unity, even when it seems too hard. And isn’t that the whole point? We don’t need Travelling Well Together when things are easy. We need it when we’re struggling and don’t know how to walk together. Jesus never avoided the hard places or the dark places. He walked and talked and shared food with saints and sinners alike, calling everyone to repentance and inviting them to take their place in his Father’s Kingdom. As Jane Williams reminded us on the recent Bishop’s Study Day – we’ll all end up at the judgement seat of God, whether we choose to travel together or separately. Judgement is God’s business, not mine or yours. And so I can do no other than to keep encouraging us to travel well together, each seeking to be faithful; and may God have mercy upon all our souls.

You will be aware that we are still awaiting Pastoral Guidance from the House of Bishops to accompany the Prayers of Love and Faith. Guidance that will bring greater clarity about the way ahead. Currently we are in a period of uncertainty and I know this is causing anxiety for some. Living with uncertainty is never easy but it is the Christian calling to live through periods of uncertainty well because doing that requires us to trust and surrender the unknown to God. I urge those who are anxious not to be fearful – not to worry about what may or may not be, what may or may not happen. All we need to do is take one day at a time, feel our way into the future, knowing that our Lord is always one step ahead, guiding and leading us into all truth. Let us be intentional about moving from fear to hope and demonstrate to the world a different way of being community. 

I want to assure you that as your diocesan bishop I take very seriously indeed my responsibility to be a focus of unity – to create space for those with very different views to belong, for everyone to be valued and cherished as part of one family. I am of course also a human being with my own views and a theology that has grown out of faithful engagement with Scripture and tradition, through the lens of my particular life experiences and, as you know, I am supportive of the proposals that were agreed by the House of Bishops and by General Synod. But I feel heavily the weight of the calling to hold space for all those whom the broad and diverse Anglican tradition wants to keep together. I will continue holding out the hand of friendship and fellowship towards any who will grasp it. I will rejoice with those who are rejoicing and weep with those who are weeping. No one will be pressured to use the Prayers of Love and Faith and you have my word that I will support you in your decision. 

Neither, however, will I be distracted by those who seek to change, condemn or judge my personal views, often on the basis of mistaken assumptions or the kind of black and white certainty that leaves no space for questions, for alternative understandings, or for authentic engagement with the many silences we encounter in Scripture which can only be navigated through the ongoing work of the Spirit.

So the future of the Church and our Diocese is in God’s hands, thank goodness, and I encourage all of you to live faithfully in the present, without fear, expectant for all that is to come, walking with one another in love and striving towards unity.

Though there is much we cannot control there are some practical things that we can do as we seek to move forward together. 

From my earliest days in the diocese, in recognising the reality that stipendiary posts have been reducing to enable us to live within our means, I have given an assurance that we would also look at Diocesan posts and consider ways of reducing central costs.  

With the retirement of Archdeacon Vanessa, it is therefore right that we don’t rush to appoint a new Archdeacon of Harlow but pause and assess the options.  I am grateful to the Archdeacons of Barking, Stansted and West Ham, and to the Area Deans of Epping and Ongar and Harlow Deaneries, for their support in agreeing to cover the Harlow Archdeaconry vacancy, on an interim basis, from the 1st April, to allow that broader review of the post to take place.  Details of the cover arrangements for the Harlow Archdeaconry were provided in last Monday’s edition of The View and further information about the review of the Archdeacon of Harlow post will be brought to the next meeting of Diocesan Synod.

Meanwhile, as we prepare to say farewell to Archdeacon Vanessa in a special service on the 26th March, we have also recently welcomed Paul Kennington as interim Dean. I’m grateful to Paul who brings a great deal of experience to the role, including as Dean of Montreal. I’m expecting Paul to be in this Interim role for approximately 18 months or so. Do please keep both Vanessa and Paul and the Cathedral in your prayers. 

And finally, as my Lent book this year, I’m reading The Falling of Dusk by Paul Dominiak who reflects on Jesus’ last sayings from the cross and through them engages with some of the great doubters in history, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and Siegmund Freud. In exploring the third last word, where Jesus speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple, “Here is your son” and “Here is your mother”, Dominiak is in conversation with the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins and the other three Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as they are known. The New Atheists not only deny the existence of God but argue that religious belief causes all kinds of social evils including provoking hatred, violence and war. In taking seriously their criticism and facing it honestly, Dominiak then turns our gaze back towards the cross and reminds us of the new way of being, the new vision, that Jesus points towards in this third last word - a new family founded in and by Christ; what Dominiak calls “a radical reorientation of community” that embraces diversity and lets grace disrupt our fears and divisions and gives birth to a new kind of kinship. 

My prayer for us this Lent is that in walking through the wilderness we might come to know Christ more fully and through him be drawn closer to one another, living in the hope of resurrection and offering to the world a new way of being.

+Guli Chelmsford


Diocesan Synod Presidential Address

18th March 2023