General Synod London Sessions, 15-16 November 2005 Archbishop's Presidential Address
Wednesday 16th November 2005The Presidential Address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
To begin by asking this audience, 'Why are you here?' may sound just a bit negative (shades of the wartime challenge, 'Was your journey really necessary?'). But it's meant as a serious and an open question. Why were you elected to this Synod? What do you and your electors hope for from your presence here?
Well, presumably, you were elected because enough people believed that you would defend and advance their vision of the Church, their sense of the priorities that confront us. And those who voted for you also voted because they believed that Synod was important enough to take time with – important enough to ask someone to sacrifice their leisure and energy over a substantial chunk of time. Both of those things ought to tell us that Synod is, in the eyes of at least some, a body that takes responsibility for the Church's vision of itself.
And that's why you're here. You're here to take responsibility for a vision. You have been elected, perhaps, to serve a particular kind of vision within the spectrum of our Church. But once you're here, you are also committed, just by being here and praying together, to listen and look for a vision that is that of the whole Church, a vision that is in accord with God's purpose for his people. Synod is, in the full, ancient sense of the word, a Catholic body, or it is nothing. It is an organ of the Church's constant search for a fuller grasp of the all-encompassing mystery in the middle of which it lives and prays.
Synod may be a legislative body; it may be a sort of parliament; it may feel variously like a debating society, an amateur dramatic society, an interminable revising committee or a scene from Groundhog Day, but before and beyond all of this, it is part of our Church's way of discerning God's purpose for us, and it is utterly meaningless if we lose sight of that. You are here to serve and to nourish a vision, to try and find for the Church of England a sense of its mission that is strong and deep-rooted enough to be owned by the whole of our community and owned as part of the work and witness of the entire worldwide church.
That means specifics, of course, not only aspirations, and I'll come back to what some of those might be in a minute. But I'd like to repeat something I've said before in this setting, asking your forgiveness for saying it yet again. To the extent that Synod is a gathering of Christians who meet for (among other things) prayer and reflection on Scripture, Synod is a sort of Church. And the ethos, the 'feel', of the synodical meeting can contribute, positively or negatively, to the feel of the whole Church. An inward-looking Synod, an anxious Synod, a suspicious, ungenerous or legalistic Synod, will have an impact on the kind of Church we become in the next five years. A Synod that is capable of patience where needed and impatience where needed, that is primarily concerned with honest and joyful sharing of what it has been given as part of Christ's Body – that too has an impact.
But of course it is a part of Christ's body; and St Paul's thoughts about the members of the Body are of great relevance here. Synod serves the Church's mission, but seldom carries out that mission directly in the way that local communities do. The day we go out to evangelise on the streets of Westminster we will become a very different body. Whether we are thinking about interfaith and ecumenical dialogue, the 'fresh expressions' agenda, church schools, community regeneration and the Church Urban Fund, or the simple and central work of continuing pastoral care from birth to death, what makes a difference in the Church's work is largely there on the ground, in the local gathering of believers. It is essential to recognise the quality and depth of so much that is done and never to forget that this is what we are serving; the vision we try to hold, we hold for that work to go on and to be better supported and resourced. We live in an age cursed by over-management and over-regulation, by a confusion about where decisions are best made, and Synod is not exempt from the general curse. We need a sober realism about what our importance is: the dignity of serving the Church's mission is great; we shouldn't have to entertain exaggerated ideas of this Synod as the engine of all change.
So: we are here both to hold and to shape a vision for the Church, to seek for ways of making more things possible for the Church in its local, face-to-face ministry and mission, and at the same time to look for ways of talking and acting that will somehow express what is universal and basic in our faith. We have to beware of 'poisoning the wells' by doing our business with suspicion and hostility or lack of mutual respect. We have to remind ourselves that the Church's central focus is not on its own housekeeping, necessary as that is, but on its communication of a revealed truth and hope to the world. Given the actual business that lies before us in the next five years, how does that translate into practical priorities?
Here are a few thoughts on specific matters.
(i) Everyone knows the threats that face us, internally and internationally, over divisions in the Communion. We are painfully aware of the quarrels over sexuality, and the tensions and complications around how we handle the question of women's ordination as bishops. I suggest two considerations for us. The sexuality debate is infinitely complicated by high levels of mutual ignorance and anxiety between 'North' and 'South', and by perceptions, not always unfair, about the uncritical use of power and influence by older and wealthier churches. If every member of this Synod made a commitment to make contact with someone in another province who is not likely to share their view, we might at least move away from demeaning caricatures on both sides. Similarly, in regard to women bishops, I suggest that we make some individual commitments. When my diocese in Wales was discussing women priests a decade ago, we arranged prayer partnerships between people on opposing sides, on the basis that we should need some ingrained habits of shared prayer and patience if we were going to carry on a common Christian life after a divisive vote. Are Synod members ready to undertake such a commitment and to commend it to the Church at large? And, in relation to the detail of the discussion on women bishops, let me simply say that I still passionately believe it is wholly worthwhile to seek for a structure that will allow what I have been calling 'interactive pluralism' in one or two recent lectures on politics – sorry about the jargon – that is, a situation in which difference is publicly acknowledged and given space, but not regarded as an excuse for 'ghettoisation' or exclusion from a serious degree of shared work, shared resources and mutual responsibility.
(ii) We have already made commitments to encourage new expressions of the Church's local life, and what has been done in a short space of time by Steve Croft and others is immensely encouraging (we already know of some 300 new initiatives, and calculate that about 20,000 people have been contacted through these initiatives; and this is only a small part of a picture whose details are being further uncovered every day). In this area, I suggest that Synod reminds itself annually about what is happening here, by some sort of report or, better, celebratory event, so that it may measure its work against the background of these new signs of what God is doing. Some of our legislative programme is about what could be called a principled and careful loosening of structures to assist the process. For this to be effective and to have integrity, we need opportunities to be clear about the difference between some of the basic principles of order in the Church and the fairly varied ways in which they are worked out. There are solid theological reasons for holding to our threefold ministerial order. But I suspect that we shall need a good deal of imagination to find appropriate ways of incarnating this order in new settings. A deacon is a great deal more than an apprentice priest, a sort of ministerial probationer. A priest is someone gifted by God with the authority to gather and give voice to the common prayer of God's people – not a leader or manager on a secular model, not even just a teacher. A bishop is not simply a territorial co-ordinator or even just a sacramental focus, but the person who makes a community of ordained and lay ministers of the gospel work effectively in mission. So if this Synod is going to give the support it should to the continuance of the Mission-Shaped Church agenda, let it be willing to use its imagination about ordained ministry.
(iii) This reinforces the need for Synod to model for the rest of the Church the need for Christians to be a learning community. We had yesterday a chance for a seminar on the nature of the bishop's ministry which I sense was well-received. I should be delighted if Synod could use this model rather more, and spend time in common reflection without votes, so as to let itself be informed and even inspired. I spoke earlier of how the very fact of being here commits us to finding a vision that is not solely ours or that of our 'constituencies'. This kind of common engagement would say powerfully to the Church at large that we do not solve our problems by slogans, and that we cannot assume we already understand our opponents' views better than they do themselves. And if, as I devoutly hope, the Church of England, in common with the Communion, is committed to improving theological education for the whole people of God, we as a Synod need to show that theology doesn't kill you – indeed, that it can be a source of life and health. And in our hectic, conflict-driven, short-attention culture, wouldn't this be one small contribution to being a transforming counter-cultural presence?
(iv) How do we carry through what we say? Synod has always been pretty expert at articulating ideas and principles, on a huge range of subjects. It would do us much good if we could, when we discuss public affairs, once again model something for the Church at large by making sure that we identify what action we can take that will change us as part of the solution to what we have spoken about. There is an obvious example in the debates about environmental crisis: We do largely agree when we talk about it that it is probably the most urgent public moral issue of our time. But what is pressingly urgent for us as a Church is to make sure that we are doing those specific things in our own common life that make whatever difference we can make; which means auditing our environmental policies and practices at every level and resourcing people who can identify further changes. But this is a more general challenge, if we are to have credibility as a moral commentator. Continuity isn't always something that Synod, or the Church overall thinks about; but in fact our past discussions and decisions can build up into a huge library of well-meaning hot air if we don't review implementation regularly and exercise some self-denying ordinances about discussion that doesn't have such change in view for ourselves.
(v) A last thought about the immediate future. Some of what I've said assumes that we shall have a creative and flexible and intellectually well-resourced body of clergy and laity. The hopes for such a laity without such a clergy are slender: can we be confident about clerical vocations? Well, God will always call those he needs for his work; the question is not about that, but about our own readiness to help in the discernment of the call and to give it voice. We are blessed by the readiness of older candidates to come forward and no-one denies their indispensable importance. But there is a challenge to do with how we really speak the language of a different generation, and it's often been said that we have let slip the priority of encouraging younger people to come and share in the work of ordained ministry. So, let's take it for granted that part of the new evangelistic initiatives we have taken responsibility for is the effective communicating of the good news to the young; then it makes sense to fill that out further by saying that it should include a challenge to think about the public ordained ministry. What would happen – a daring thought – if we set ourselves a target in this respect –whether through Synod, Archbishops' Council or the House of Bishops or all of them? If we said that by the end of the next five years we wanted to see a twenty per cent increase in the number of candidates for ordination coming from amongst the under thirties? Numerical targets are risky things, and they may be a way of inviting embarrassment – yet they may also be a way of expressing trust in God. What do you think?
There are many more matters on which we could reflect in this way. If the list I've given is dominated, in spite of everything, by concerns about the internal business of the Church (and it is, rather), that's partly because it is there that we can and must begin to change. But I hope that it may have given a few clues about how being a certain sort of Synod might help us be a certain sort of Church. Whatever we might like to think, there is no one sure-fire recipe to reverse the trends in the life of our Church that we might deplore; if our electors sent us here to do this, I'm afraid we are going to disappoint them. But I'd like to think that perhaps they also sent us here in order to serve something greater, to put ourselves at the disposal of the Kingdom of God. On the whole Synods don't renew churches – neither do archbishops, for that matter. God does, and he does so by the most extraordinarily unpredictable means and people, and our ingenuity and skill is sometimes best exercised by seeing how we can get out of God's way when he is moving. That depends a great deal on our working as a Synod in a way that suggests we really do believe that God exists; and what I have said is no more than a modest set of ideas for what this might entail.
So, in summary: take personal responsibility for maintaining communion as best you can in forming some new relationships, in the Church of England and more widely. Pray with people you might not otherwise pray with. Show that you are ready to learn from each other and from God, not least in how you think and plan about our ordained ministry. Work for a theologically educated church – a church that gives thanks to God and sings praise with mind as well as heart. Keep asking what visible difference (it doesn't have to be a huge difference, just a real one) any discussion or ideal or plan will make for the Kingdom of God – and if you can't answer, look again at the importance you're giving it. Find a voice to challenge younger disciples into deeper faith and fuller ministry. Above all, remember that you – we – are a community of people committed to seeing and hearing Jesus Christ Our Lord in one another.
Renewing wisdom is found in odd places. For me, one of the most penetrating spiritual commentators in the English-speaking world is the Australian cartoonist, Michael Leunig. I leave you with two extracts from a recent book of his prayers and meditations; looking for words with which to end, I found these were the ones that seemed to me to be possibly the sort of thing that our Lord might want a Christian Synod to hear.
There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
Love and fear.
Love and fear.
God help us to find our confession;
The truth within us which is hidden from our mind;
The beauty or ugliness we see elsewhere
But never in ourselves;
The stowaway which has been smuggled
Into the dark side of the heart,
Which puts the heart off balance and causes it pain,
Which wearies and confuses us,
Which tips us in false directions and inclines us to destruction,
The load which is not carried squarely
Because it is carried in ignorance.
God help us to find our confession.
Help us across the boundary of our understanding.
Lead us into the darkness that we may find what lies concealed;
That we may confess it towards the light;
That we may carry our truth in the centre of our heart;
That we may carry our cross wisely
And bring harmony into our life and our world.
© Rowan Williams 2005