Bishop Paul's Presidential Address - Diocesan Synod March 2021

First published on: 17th March 2021

 

Text of the address

 

First of all I want to thank Synod for its share in the leadership of the Diocese over the past few
years. This is the last Synod before the elections, and it may be that some of you will be retiring or
will not be re-elected; I do want to thank you in particular for the work you have done and for your
prayerfulness and readiness to play your part in shaping God’s church for God’s future in very, very
difficult days.


And to all in the House of Laity I would say, as the Annual Meetings in most parishes draw near;
please ensure that all in your church are aware of the importance of the elections that form part of
these meetings, and in particular for this purpose of the elections to the Deanery Synod, which is the
electoral college for this Synod and also for the General Synod. Please make sure that those elected
from your parish genuinely represent the people of the parish.


A few moments ago we were discussing the approach we’re taking to the future of the Diocese, as
the pandemic unfolds and the long history of England and its church continues. This involves, as
Archdeacon Simon said a few moments ago, remembering and refreshing the story that we believe
God is telling us, and we’re telling one another.


In the Diocese of Liverpool we continue to say that we’re asking God for a bigger church to make a
bigger difference, and we say: more people knowing Jesus, more justice in the world.


And so we’re asking God for grace and strength to fulfil a four-fold mission: introducing people to
God in Jesus, deepening discipleship, developing Christian leaders, and working for justice.
And when we speak of deepening discipleship, we do so by going on an inner journey and an outer
journey, as we are called by God and sent by God. Called by God to pray, read and learn; sent by God
to tell, serve and give. This is the Rule of Life which this Synod shaped over eighteen months, a few
years ago, and is closely linked to the national steer described in Setting God’s People Free and its
neighbouring projects and initiatives.


Now in this address I’ve asked myself a question. What do I, myself, need to do, what virtue must I
practice, to play my part in bringing this vision to pass in the post-COVID world?


And as, like you, I have endured the last year of lockdown and anxiety and sorrow and bereavement
I have asked that question of myself. What virtue do I need most by God’s grace, to survive and
flourish in these days and in the days that are unfolding now, and especially in the face of mounting
and endemic aggression in the world?


Aggression has marked much of our inner conversations nationally, as a people and also as a church.
In the United States we have been shown where the road of political aggression leads - to am
embittered and toxic partisanship which denies the very possibility of cooperation and mutual
learning, and to a disregard for shared truth and a lack of respect for the experience of others.

This aggression is reflected in our behaviour in disregarding the experience of others or in seeking to
launder the world so that those who disagree with us are rendered invisible.


More fundamentally it rests on the historic and unexamined uses of power by the powerful - and
speaking as a white male bishop in a post-colonial episcopal church I recognise acutely my own
involvement in, and indeed complicity in, the structures of power of which I speak. And as Bishop of
the Diocese I recognise that my own complicity in these things is greater than anyone’s here, and yet
all of us, we who are members of the Church of England by law established, all of us need to check
our privilege if we are indeed to be part of the solution, and not simply aggressive parts of the
problem, a point that remains true even though the normal mode of aggression in this church is
passive aggression - which can be as hurtful or more so than straightforward in-your-face hostility.
The series of lectures arranged by Dean Sue and her colleagues at the Cathedral, “Liberty to the
captives”, is offering us an opportunity to see the fruit of abuses of power as the city of Liverpool has
enjoyed them, built on the oppression of the slave economy.


The recent death of Sarah Everard, and the outpouring of anger from so many women as they
connect again with living in a world where routine precautions need to be taken for safety and
security by half the human race against the possibility of the violence and humiliation inflicted by
men - this is another example of the necessary but painful business of recognising, naming and
addressing power structures and the pain they cause. In that regard I quote these words of the
Archbishop of Canterbury, with which I fully agree:

“I am heartbroken for the family, partner and friends of Sarah Everard, and all those whose
lives she touched. They are in my prayers. May they know the suffering God alongside them
in this unimaginable pain.


Testimony after testimony from women over recent days have shown us something we have
known and ignored for far too long: the profound impact of the sin of male violence,
intimidation, harassment, sexism and abuse carried out against women. It is these sins - and
the culture that perpetuates and condones them - that need our urgent repentance, our
fervent prayer, and our resolute action as men.


So the imbalances of power, and the abuse of aggression, magnified by the stresses of the pandemic,
form the context of our life as a word, and as a church which is part of the world; and indeed is
reflected in the life of the church itself and in the routine experience of so many women, people of
colour and LGBTI+ people in the face of often unconscious, routine aggression from their Christian
neighbours.


This road of unhelpful aggression must be resisted, and yet human aggression itself is part of who
we are and as Christians we need to channel it rightly. And that points us to one virtue in particular.
Surely it is the virtue of courage.


“The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. ... Courage originally meant
"To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." Over time, this definition has changed, and
today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic...

With these things in mind the Roman Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe says:
“Courage is a disposition of our feelings of aggression which inclines us, characteristically, to
face up to and deal with difficulties and dangers for the sake of doing what is good: a
courageous person... is angry about the right things at the right time and is prepared to
suffer patiently when it is necessary, and even to die for the sake of justice or in witness to
the gospel.”


We’re in an unknown world, that’s why we need courage. It’s by no means the first time that God’s
people have been in an unknown world.
Haggai 2:1-5


...in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by
the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah,
and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say,
Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now?
Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take
courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the
land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the
promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not
fear..


For us in the church of England at this time a test case for courage is provided by Living in Love and
Faith. Lack of courage produces scratchiness in echo chambers. Pretending that I and my friends are
all there is. The joke about the high wall in heaven, and the new arrival who asks St Peter what it is
and receives the response: “Shhh. That’s the Anglicans [or Catholics or Baptists or liberals or
conservatives; take your pick.] . They don’t think there’s anyone else here”.

The alternative to that echo-chamber scratchiness is good disagreement, and the genuine desire to
see people flourish with whom you disagree. Those involved in our own conversations will have
learned from Mal Rogers and/or Sarah Hills that the concept of “safe space” where good
disagreement can flourish is being complemented by the concept of “brave space” - space where
courage is nurtured and honoured. This same nurturing and honouring needs to apply to our
conversations about the shape of the church, or our preferred way of worshipping, or our readiness
to live with those, candidly, whose salvation we may doubt, because of what we may describe as
their bigotry or as their unfaithfulness to the gospel.

As my old professor of mission, Walter Hollenweger, said: “Quarrel belongs to the church”. But
courage can come to our aid.

In the Chrism Eucharist sermon this year I shall be speaking from Luke’s gospel about the tendency
of the first disciples to love disputing, and our tendency to copy them, and the response of the Lord
to this - if you want to think further about that, read Luke 22:24 onwards.

But as this Synod comes to the end of the life, and we stand once again on the threshold of a new
beginning, we shall remember that we who are the people of God are not called to echo chambers, nor to the love of dispute. We are called to be people of heart, people of courage, as we lead the Diocese forward.

I commit myself to ask God for this virtue as I ask for the bigger church that makes the bigger
difference. And I charge you in your turn to ask God for grace to exercise this virtue in your own
leadership, as we walk together into the unknown future.


Let us pray. A prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition:


Dear God, give us courage,
for in these days perhaps we need it more than anything else.
We need courage both against the threats and against the seductions of the world.
We need courage to bear unkindness, mockery and contradiction.
We need courage to fight against the devil, against terrors and troubles, temptations,
attractions, darkness and false lights, against tears, depression, and above all fear.
We need Your help, dear God.
Strengthen us with Your love and Your grace.
Console us with Your blessed Presence
and grant us the courage to persevere
until we are with You forever in heaven.
And may Almighty God bless you all, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.


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