Bluebells Bluebells

Bishop Guli’s Presidential Address to the June meeting of Chelmsford Diocesan Synod

15 June 2024

Good morning Synod. As always it’s good to be here with you and I’m grateful for the time and commitment you’ve each given to this important aspect of our shared life.

For my address today I’m going to offer several reflections and updates on a range of topics. There’s no particular thread connecting these other than that they are in my mind and seem relevant for us at this point in time.

General election

We’re all aware, I’m sure, that a General Election was announced by a rather rain soaked Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street on 22nd May and is to be held on 4th July. It goes without saying that this is an important event in the life of the nation, as every General Election is, and that as the Church of England – the Church for England – we have a role to play which we should fulfil prayerfully and with a sense of careful responsibility. Nationally, you may be aware that the Church of England has produced prayer resources, in particular, for the final three weeks of the campaign period which began yesterday.

Pray your Part is a little booklet providing 21 daily prayers and reflections. It is an invitation from all the bishops of the Church of England to encourage prayer and participation across our communities. Prayer is our particular USP – our gift to the nation and one which we should offer with humility but without embarrassment. If you haven’t already got hold of Pray your Part, do search it out. It’s available electronically as well as in hard copies, and at the end of my address, I’m going to read today’s portion which is Day 2.

Regardless of our own individual political preferences, as clergy in particular, it is never our role to tell people how to vote. God’s Kingdom, ushered in by Jesus Christ, does not conform to any human or political system but sits over and above them all, setting standards and holding us to account, whatever party we may support. But in an environment of political cynicism, disillusionment and low trust, it is our role to encourage people to have their say and use their vote. It is convention that bishops who sit in the House of Lords, along with other peers, refrain from voting in a General Election and there are good reasons for that, so I won’t be voting on 4th July. However, coming from a country like Iran, where the notion of a free election is dubious to say the least, I’m deeply conscious of the privilege of voting in a democratic system. And as a woman, I never take the opportunity for granted, always remembering those who fought and lost their lives to give the women of today an equal voice at the ballot box. But perhaps even more importantly, we should be urging people to vote because voting is a sign of hope. It demonstrates investment in the future and a belief that that future is worth working towards; and it says something about our desire and commitment to play our part.

The Church of England still has the power to convene; again this is a privilege not to be taken for granted or squandered. I very much hope you will have been proactive in making your church buildings available for meetings or hustings, where appropriate offering to chair these, and that in all debate and discussion you will promote fairness, kindness and honesty. Whatever happens on 4th July, Parliament and this country will have a new start. We need a reset in the tone and manner in which debate is conducted and as Christians we should be intentionally modelling standards through our own words and behaviours.

End of Triennium reflections on Synod

With a General Election on the horizon, I’m reminded too that we are approaching the end of the triennium and the life of this Synod. Indeed, this is our last meeting and the elections for the next Synod are already underway, with the deadline for nominations having closed last week. It’s not quite a General Election, you might say, but important in the life of our Diocese nonetheless.

I’m pleased that we have a little bit of time later on the agenda to pause and ponder our experience as a Synod over this past phase. But today also seemed like a good opportunity to remind ourselves about the history and purpose of Diocesan Synods generally. A relatively recent creation, Synods, which replaced Diocesan Conferences and inherited some of their functions, came into existence as a result of the Synodical Government Measure of 1969 and with the first meeting taking place in 1970. The Anglican Communion model of governance is described as the Bishop in Synod, from the Greek meaning assembly. So, the Diocese is led and governed by the Bishop acting on advice and with the consent of representatives, including fellow bishops, clergy and lay people. For those who might be a little anxious, let me reassure you that the Bishop’s powers are not unfettered, but, nowadays especially, subject to various statutory developments.

The Bishop consults Synod on financial and other matters of concern to the diocese, and Synod provides a connection to the wider governance bodies of Deanery Synods and PCCs. The coming together of Bishop and Synod is also an opportunity to pray and worship together, to enjoy fellowship, to receive reports and presentations about some of the things going on across the diocese and for members to ask questions. Our meetings are administered by officers including the Diocesan Secretary and our Head of Service Delivery, they are co-chaired by the Chair of the House of Clergy and the Chair of the House of Laity, all according to a set of Standing Orders.

So there is a fine line in all this between the legal duties and functions of Synod on one hand, and capturing something of the spirit of our wider life together on the other. Getting the balance right isn’t straightforward and it’s all too easy to tip one way or another. Too much deference is unhealthy and risks Synod not being robust enough especially in its governance role; lack of trust, at the other extreme, can lead to the erosion and straining of relationships, potentially introducing unhelpful levels of suspicion that can impact the wider culture of the Diocese. Synod, it is our shared responsibility to keep ourselves on the right track, avoiding unhelpful patterns of behaviour.

A brief word then, if I may, about the Q & A part of our meetings. It is right and proper that members have an opportunity to put questions to the Bishop and others on the Leadership Team. My sense is, however, that this needs just a little recalibrating. In recent times there has been an effort, encouraged by me, to ensure not only that questions are answered as fully as possible (which is quite right) but that we take a rather more relaxed approach to supplementaries. I never want to appear defensive and I’m eager to answer all questions honestly and openly and to the best of my ability. However, that’s meant that we have strayed somewhat in operating according to the rules as outlined in the Standing Orders which set boundaries around the nature of supplementary questions and what can be included in them. Whilst we’ve slipped into a rather more lax approach with the best of intentions, my feeling is that it is not proving helpful. If anything, it’s creating greater frustration and generating a more adversarial model. In light of that, and given that the rules are in place for a reason, I’ve asked both Chairs to give greater attention to the Standing Orders when considering supplementary questions. How they are interpreted is, of course, at their discretion, and those of us answering will abide by that decision.

So, as we approach the end of this triennium can I thank each of you sincerely for your contribution over the past three years. There are likely to be vacancies once the elections are complete and I invite you, if you haven’t done so already, to consider standing again but also to encourage others to stand, especially any who will help us reflect more accurately the diversity of our diocese in every respect.

Living in Love and Faith

Many of you will be acutely aware that conversations around Living in Love and Faith and, in particular, the use of the Prayers of Love and Faith continue nationally. In an effort to understand better the concerns of those in this diocese, two meetings were held in late January and early March in the Cathedral, one for clergy concerned about the proposed changes and one for those considering or intending to use the prayers, many of whom are concerned that things are not moving as quickly as they would like. I’m grateful to those who participated in these events and want, once again, to assure you that I and my colleagues have listened carefully and feel we have a deeper level of understanding. We want as many people as possible to feel they have a valued place within the diocesan family and we are seeking to find ways of taking the conversation forward, including a meeting later in June with those clergy concerned about the Prayers of Love and Faith who wish to stay within the current structures and provisions of the Church of England but need greater reassurance. We are eager to explore this area and find ways of working well together.

Alongside this, the Area Bishops are making themselves available to Chapters, Deanery Synods and other groups for conversations in their Episcopal Areas and as I continue my visits around Deanery Chapters also, there are opportunities there for those who wish to raise this matter. None of us knows at present what the outcome of the July meeting of General Synod will be and whether or not it will afford us greater clarity about the way ahead. As a Bishop’s Leadership Team we’ve committed to ongoing review of the situation and will be reflecting further after July.

Parish conversations

I’ve mentioned several times before that part of the Travelling Well Together vision is the need for diocesan wide conversations to help us understand better how to use our central resources in a way that responds, as much as possible, to the needs being expressed. The first substantial part of this Parish Support Conversation is gearing up to begin in the autumn.

In Chelmsford Diocese we are blessed with nearly 600 church buildings. Many are an important part of our heritage and have been at the heart of the communities we serve for hundreds of years. Most importantly they are sacred places of worship, mission and ministry.  Just as we are grateful for the buildings, we are grateful, too, for those who take care of their upkeep and development. I know that responsibility for a church building can sometimes feel more like a burden than a blessing. It is a challenging and often costly ministry. So over the coming months, we will be holding diocesan wide conversations about how we ensure those who care for our church buildings are given the support they need to maintain, manage and improve them. 

I want to take this opportunity to thank those from across the diocese who have given their time, wisdom and energy to help shape this new approach, some of whom are here today. This won’t be a short term consultation, but a new more conversational and collaborative approach to taking decisions and sharing resources that builds on the parish share consultation of a couple of years ago. It is, as I’ve said, an important part of the approach set out in Travelling Well Together and I’m sure as the process unfolds we’ll continue to learn from it. 

Do look out for more information about the Church Buildings Support Conversation and how people can get involved in Monday’s edition of The View.

Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment Board

In March 2024, as you’ll recall, the Diocese was successful in its application to the Church of England’s Strategic Mission and Ministry Investment Board (SMMIB), for an allocation of £2.2 million of central Church funding to further develop the deanery planning process across the Diocese, following a successful pilot in the Barking episcopal area. Building on the lessons we have learnt from our experience of missional projects funded by the Strategic Development Fund, we have used our Travelling Well Together approach, which is “to enable and empower parishes and worshipping communities to discern how they are to be God’s people in their own very different local contexts and as part of one diocesan family” – we’ve used this approach to inform how we’ve outlined the aims and intended outcomes of the capacity funding.

The funding is intended to achieve three main outcomes:  

  1. for the deaneries of the Barking episcopal area to continue discerning and developing their respective plans, with a view to being part of a larger Diocesan application to SMMIB, to be submitted in 2025, for further funding to deliver the plans.   
  2. for the programme management capacity of the Diocese to be expanded, so we can deliver well on this and any future funding awarded.  
  3. to enable the Bradwell and Colchester episcopal areas to be resourced in the discernment and development of their own approaches and vision for their deaneries, with a view to those plans also being part of the larger Diocesan application to SMMIB by the end of 2025. 

There are a number of roles that have been created to resource and deliver on this work.  You will see these advertised over the coming months as recruitment begins. I want to stress that all these roles are being funded on a fixed term basis by the national Church – not by the Diocese. For the sake of transparency and accountability, we’ll continue to report on progress through usual diocesan structures.  

Finally

As always I offer my reflections in this address, acutely aware of the wider context in which we operate, not just in Britain but across the globe. A recent brief trip to Israel and Palestine brought me face to face with the intractable nature of the tragedy in the Holy Land and the unimaginable suffering and trauma that so many are experiencing. For those who are interested, my reflections are available as a podcast, and in written form, on the diocesan web site. Whilst it’s important we continue to pray for justice and peace, in the end, we cannot resolve the complex and interwoven conflicts that exist in the Middle East and in so many other parts of the world. However, we can and should strive to be people of peace in our internal church life, amongst our family and friends, and in the wider communities we serve. This is no easy vocation but it is, I believe, the one we are called to ponder and embody.

I want to close now by reading today’s section from Pray your Part, which is entitled “Integrity”. I hope it will both challenge and encourage us as we hold in our prayers the whole nation and especially those seeking office in this next General Election.

 

Prayer from Day 2 of Pray your Part.

 

+Guli Chelmsford

Diocesan Synod Address

15th June 2024