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General Synod: Archbishop remarks in the debate on the Mission-Shaped Church

Tuesday 10th February 2004

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the General Synod in London.

Mr Chairman: the Synod will, I hope, remember some of what I was trying to say in my address at the July meeting in York about some of these themes. And I won't now try to rehearse those points, but I'd like to pick up just one thing which the Bishop of Maidstone said at the end of his introduction, and then make three other points which are in fact quite close to some of what's been said by the previous speaker. I'll try not to repeat what's been said.

But the point that Bishop Graham made, which seem to me absolutely crucial for this Synod to grasp, is that we do stand at something of a kairos moment. A number of things are coming together for us; this report is before us, the review of the pastoral measure is before us, the willingness and eagerness of the Church Commissioners to sign onto this agenda has become very apparent, and one could go on. We're also at a crucial point in looking again at our methods of theological training. So this is something of a moment of decision.

I don't want to get too apocalyptic about it, but the point is that God has opened for us a door of opportunity for the growth and maturation of our Church. And so the first thing we ought to do is to thank God for that, and then thank Bishop Graham and his group for giving us such a wonderful and comprehensive overview of those opportunities that lie before us. And, of course, although it's a few years ago now, the report of section 2 of the last Lambeth Conference underlined very strongly the role of the bishop in mission and much of what is before you now in this report has some roots there as well.

But three specific points: one is a very obvious one. The report sets before us some of the actual effects of new expressions. In other words if the now familiar definition of mission is watching for what God's doing and joining in, is true, there's a great deal to watch for, a great deal happening. And so we can say that already, already, new kinds of church are appearing, and they are appearing often without our overt encouragement or sponsorship – whether we are bishops, Synods or whatever – they are just happening. The great grace we've been given is the opportunity of knitting some of this up into a bit more coherence, a bit more mutual communication, and that has to be for the good.

The second point which struck me very much as Bishop Graham was talking was how much the agenda represented by this report cuts across many familiar polarisations. This hasn't got anything much to do with churchmanship; what's more it hasn't even got anything much to do with the sometimes rather acrimonious exchange of views about large churches versus small churches, and which large churches are good churches and which large churches are bad churches and which churches is growing and which aren't. In a sense go round that whole debate; go round and see not what are the existing congregations that are growing, but where is the Church growing, and in what forms. And that seems to me a challenge well worth taking on board and recognising as something which can liberate us from a little bit of a stand off on some of these other polarities.

It's even a report which, I think, cuts across the parochial / non-parochial divide. It's been said absolutely rightly that this is not an attempt to subvert the parochial system, but to ask what are those questions which the parochial system now is not answering. And that means that there's much within the parochial system that continues to work and to work brilliantly. But I remember a priest in my former diocese in Wales saying to me on one occasion rather bemusedly that he has inadvertently started a church plant by reintroducing a service of Prayer Book matins for the elderly at a convenient hour – rather like what the previous speaker was talking about. These things happen in the most unexpected ways; people are drawn back into the life of the church, discover their own spirituality, their own relation with God in quite fresh ways. So bear in mind that if we digest this report, as I think we should, it will spring us from certain rather sterile oppositions which sadly we're so used to living inside.

The third and final point is one which again has been touched on briefly by the previous speaker, but I wouldn't like us to lose sight of it. And it is that this does have implications to do with training and the style of ministerial education and ministerial practice. It puts quite tough demands on those in full time ministry: bishops and others. Initial training and continuing ministerial training need to take account of this and so, of course, does the whole process of selection. We may find ourselves in five or ten years looking for candidates of slightly different timbre from what we've been used to. And that means looking at people who have certain co-ordinating skills, whose leadership is exercised in certain ways, and I think that would be good for all of us.

So bearing in mind that this springs us from some of those unhelpful stand-offs, that it requires certain kinds of freshness in the exercise of ministry. That it requires of us, as has been said, a deep level of trust – maybe we can say that what's before us now is an opportunity to become in every way a more adult church. That is taking responsibility, exercising trust, living with some uncertainty and in every way therefore growing up into the Christ that we seek to serve as Church. So I very, very warmly commend the report to you. I look forward enormously to working with its recommendations and finding out how exactly we implement this exciting and deeply disturbing, properly disturbing vision.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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