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

Diocesan Synod, 20 November 2021, Presidential Address by the Rt Revd Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani

20th Nov 2021

Revelation 7. 9-17

Matthew 28. 16-20

I want to use this opportunity to thank you once again for the warmth of welcome I’ve received since becoming your Diocesan bishop. I’ve been truly touched and humbled. I do realise, of course, that I’m likely still to be in the honeymoon period and there’s probably a sense in which many are still watching and waiting, reserving judgement until a little more time has passed. It’s inevitable that soon I will begin to disappoint some of you at least, and you will (if you haven’t already) come to realise that I don’t have answers for all the challenges we face. Once this reality has dawned, you’ll broadly have two choices, I guess. Either you can begin to voice your criticisms and express your disappointments in the face of whatever shortcomings you perceive. Or you might begin to recognise that it’s not for me alone to provide all the answers but for us collectively to keep asking the right questions so that together we can begin to discern some of the answers and start setting a direction of travel. I’ve said it before, and I will probably say it again – as your Bishop I may be chief pastor, and teacher and leader in mission; but I cannot do it alone.

I was very struck by a letter I received recently from +Michael Marshall who wrote to all bishops with a copy of his latest book on Edward King, one time +Lincoln, who lived at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries. Marshall wrote in his letter: “For [Edward] King, the Bishop leads from the forefront together with the clergy [and I’d want to add lay ministers] in a partnership of trust and mutual accountability … All growth is from the roots upwards, rather than from the top down”. This is not to minimise the enormous sense of responsibility I feel but to emphasise the shared nature of the task before us as the whole people of God and the vital importance of our local communities.

No amount of reorganisation or structural change will, by themselves, reverse the decline in numbers we (and let’s not forget, other Dioceses too) are facing. There are of course financial challenges as well and I would love nothing more than to be able to pour millions into more stipendiary clergy posts and paid lay appointments, as well as a greater number of diocesan support staff. And I will continue to be a voice that speaks, in particular, for greater investment in parishes where I can. But let me say loud and clear that it is not just about money and resources. No amount of money will on its own secure our future. Of that I’m sure. Changing hearts and minds is a work of the Spirit in which we must play our part.

In our gospel reading, Jesus sends the disciples out in community, a fragile group of people called to walk the way of Jesus together, trusting one another in their differences because they were united through the One who called them. Today, we too as disciples, need to demonstrate our commitment to travel well together, to develop deep trust and to know that if we are faithful God will work through us to serve our communities and ensure that a Christian presence will remain in every context across our Diocese. “Get the vision right and the money comes” Marshall writes in his letter and I’d want to go and say, not to sustain the Church as it has been but to enable the church to become what it is yet to be.

Getting the vision right is really hard because it’s about setting aside our personal longings and our individual circumstances, to discern the whisper of the Holy Spirit for our communities and for us as a diocese. And this discernment is not my task alone but all of ours, each according to our role and within our own context, accountable to God and to one another. For the one who has called us is faithful and good. God is our shepherd, who will guide us to the springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from our eyes.

So I will continue to consider my part and I encourage each of you to consider yours, within this Diocesan Synod and elsewhere. What can you do, that falls within your power and responsibility (however tentative those may feel) – what can you do, in smaller or larger ways, to improve the culture of our life together, to help us get the vision right and to ensure appropriate accountability? I’m not asking what you think someone else can do (we’re all quite good at that bit) but what can you do?

This is the first meeting of a new Diocesan Synod and one of the items on our agenda requires us to respond to the Report from our Racial Justice Task and Finish Group. Regardless of the details of the various recommendations, the challenges of how we might ensure these are followed through and how we might use our resources wisely to help that happen, at its heart this report is about how we live together well. It is common sense, it is deeply human as well as profoundly Christian, and it is for the good of all of us, not just for people of global majority heritage; it is for the good of the Church and the world. In our reading from the book of Revelation we heard again that vision of the great multitude, from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne of God. That is what we want for the Diocese of Chelmsford: all of us together, black and white and every colour between standing before the throne of God, rejoicing in our differences and repenting of our prejudices.

And the broader questions posed to us in this Report extend also to how we work across other differences between us, be they interpersonal or about the life of our diocese – differences of opinion over issues of finance, over church tradition, over how we prioritise resources, over how we communicate with one another and hold each other in mutual respect, and dare I say it, over how we interpret Scripture and understand Anglican ecclesiology. Are we willing to build trust? Will we be kind and gentle with one another? Can we assume the best of one another and not the worst? Will we seek to bring healing and reconciliation even when that might be costly?

The future is full of uncertainty – in the Church and in the wider world. The COP26 conference has shown us once more both the urgency of the environmental crisis and the challenges of finding and implementing good solutions. We are on a journey in this Diocese with some good examples of how to play our part in working for a sustainable future. Several churches have recently been awarded Eco Awards and our Cathedral is only the second to receive a Gold Award – fantastic achievements which we should celebrate and be encouraged by. And my thanks go to all who have worked hard towards these successes.

In our internal church life there is also much uncertainty about the future and the sands are constantly shifting – precisely how many stipendiary posts are we going to be able to afford, what is the status of the deanery plan you may have written, what is going to be the long term impact of Covid on numbers returning to Church and so on and so on …?  I do understand how difficult and frustrating it is to plan when there are so many unknowns. But friends, it is in this time and place that we have been called to faithful mission and ministry, not in some other imagined utopia.  And we put our trust not in the certainties of this life but in the promise of God which is eternal and unshakeable. The same promise that was given to the Disciples in the Great Commission and which we heard again in our Gospel reading just now.

Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples of all nations, to baptise and teach, not just when it was easy and the pathway clear, but to do so in season and out of season, when the winds were blowing with them just as much as when they seemed to blow against them. But in instructing them thus, Jesus left them too with a promise – a promise that he would be with them. I am with you always, he said, to the end of the age. And that “you” is, in the original Greek, a plural “you”. I am with you always. The consolation of the Great Commission is not for each of us individually but to be enjoyed collectively. And Jesus’ promise is just as true today, as it was back then, and it is on that promise that we build our life together, in certainty and uncertainty, in joy and sorrow, through all the ups and downs of life. Sisters and brothers, that is our calling, that is our hope and that is our conviction. We have a message to proclaim. Let us do so with confidence and in a spirit of gentle humility so that we might be a sign of God’s presence through our words and actions, in this Synod, in this diocese and in every context we inhabit.

+Guli Chelmsford