Diocesan Synod 2013

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undefinedBishop Peter presents the presidential address at Diocesan Synod of 22 June.

It has been my custom to give an address each year to the Diocesan Synod, setting out briefly my view of some of the key issues which currently confront us. Let me say at the outset that there is much in the Diocese, in particular, which can be an encouragement to us.

Overall, I regard the Diocese as on a fairly even keel. Numbers attending our churches, and numbers of confirmation candidates, have been broadly stable for the past 5 years: the number of confirmation candidates, for certain, because Bishops count their heads one by one; broader attendance figures are subject to hundreds of individual counting exercises, guesstimates and estimates, and precise figures over a period are doubly unreliable with these uncertainties at compounding both ends of the period in question.

But overall trends can be assessed, and there is certainly a greater stability now than at any time since the 1950’s. That said, the age profile of regular attenders is older, and that remains a huge challenge for us, and for so many other churches too. And the picture is uneven from parish to parish, within the overall stability.

Some of our church buildings have been closed, but relatively few, because local members are generally very committed to keeping places of worship open. There is a gentle but gathering process of pastoral reorganisation across the Diocese, which generally results either in the amalgamation of parishes into larger units or in the emergence of part-time, or house-for-duty ministries. One feature for us has been the effectiveness of many of these part-time ministries, as older clergy, usually with a secular career behind them, enjoy the challenges and opportunities of parish ministry.

The Diocese of Chester has been a pioneer in developing flexible patterns of ministry. It is not uncommon for someone to be ordained as a SSM in their 50’s, but successfully to take on an incumbency in their early 60’s, on either a part-time or indeed a full-time basis.

Under the new Common Tenure arrangements there is still a normal, and enforceable, retirement age of 70 for all licensed clergy, but we are happy to use our powers to extend licences beyond the age of 70, on an annual basis, where the circumstances support this. After all, what is ‘three score years and ten’ these days?

The ordained ministry of the Diocese has also been supported by a significant rise in the number of ordinands who are sponsored by us. It is now some years since we sought to appoint to curacies ordinands who were not sponsored by the Diocese of Chester. It appears that currently we have a natural self-sufficiency in new clergy, embarrassingly so when the numbers in a given year are rather higher than our budgeted number. That is one factor which has put pressure on our budget in recent years, but it’s a good factor, rather like ‘good cholesterol’ in our blood tests.

It is a real encouragement to us, because a supply of able, committed, enthusiastic new clergy is crucial to our future. Our ordinands cover the full age range, and recently there seems even to have been a trend towards more younger candidates.

Financially, as we have heard, we are emerging from the prolonged financial crisis on a positive trajectory, although we need another year or two before we can expect a fully balanced budget. Where other dioceses often manage their finances through top-down cuts in stipendiary clergy, we have a self-balancing mechanism through our parish share system, which allows local parishes a full participation in the decisions which affect clergy numbers. This can be somewhat slow and unresponsive, compared with top-down planning, but over the medium-to-longer term it enables our parishes to help plan their own future in a mature way. The net effect is that our clergy numbers have been maintained at comparatively higher levels than in our neighbouring dioceses.

Let me conclude my remarks about this Diocese by referring to two important developments.

Firstly, our new Church House, centrally located in the Diocese, will be more efficient and effective in a whole host of ways, compared with any of the previous arrangements.

Secondly, a new Warden of Foxhill, Canon Taffy Davies, and a new team, begins work next month, and I am sure that we will progressively unlock the potential at Foxhill which the recent major refurbishment has created.

Both of these developments signal new opportunities to support the life and work of the Diocese, and they will reinforce each other, given the short distance between Foxhill and Daresbury Park.

Let me turn to the wider Church, where we have the benefit of new leadership under the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has begun his ministry with considerable vim and vigour. I would like to offer a comment on three issues.

Firstly, same-sex marriage. Many of you will have read the reports on the debate in the House of Lords, and my own speech is available in the Lords Hansard for 3 June, cols 994-996. I was one of the nine Bishops who voted against the Bill, but the majority in favour of the Bill proceeding was overwhelming: nearly 3 to 1. Taken together with the similar voting patterns in the House of Commons, there seems little doubt that the Bill will become law.

One way or another, the Church of England will have to come to terms with the new situation which we face, but our greatest concern, in my view, should remain with marriage itself.

In Christian terms marriage is important for two related reasons. Firstly, it generally provides a stable environment in which children can be conceived and nurtured. Children can be raised in other family arrangements, but generally these are not so stable or conducive to human flourishing.

Secondly, the relation of husband to wife, or parent to children, is employed in the Bible as a basic metaphor and analogy for God’s relationship to the world. But the analogy presupposes difference: between God and the world on the one side, and between husband and wife, or parent and child, on the other. To introduce same-sex marriage disrupts this parallel, and I believe this is the underlying reason why so many people of religious faith feel so strongly about the issues. The Government’s position is that the differences between a man and a woman are fundamentally no greater than the difference between people of different ages. So, the fact that a same-sex marriage cannot naturally produce children is no different from the fact that a marriage involving an older woman with naturally be infertile. But can the difference between male and female be minimised in this way?

Constitutionally and legally, introducing a form of marriage which the Church of England is barred by the State from conducting is a new development. Paradoxically, the bar by the State was requested by the Church as a form of protection. It doesn’t sound a very stable situation to me, and I will return to church-state relationships more broadly in a moment.

But on the issue of same-sex marriage itself, I would only say this: it does not strike me as currently the greatest threat to the place of marriage in our society. I do believe that same-sex marriage will contribute to an undermining of marriage as properly understood, but marriage has already been greatly undermined by the chaos in heterosexual relationships which we see all around us. That, I believe, remains the greater threat, and we should not allow the introduction of same-sex marriage to divert our attention from this greater problem.

Secondly, I need to say a brief word about the ongoing issue of women bishops. As you will probably be aware, a new working party has drawn up four options as to how legislation might be reintroduced. The House of Bishops has declared a preference for the simplest approach, in the sense that it would be the approach which left to more informal arrangements the pastoral provisions for those who do not wish to receive the oversight or ministry of women priests or bishops. In effect, it is an invitation to the Church to trust the Bishops to make suitable local arrangements. This might involve a new Act of Synod, or just guidelines issued corporately by the House of Bishops.

This, and the other options, will be discussed at length in small groups by the General Synod three weeks today, and on the following Monday the Synod as a whole will be asked to give formal approval to the preparation of legislation. The plan is to keep the legislative process moving as quickly as is reasonably possible, with the prospect of a vote on Final Approval probably in late 2015 or 2016.

The immediate question appears to be this. If the legislation fell last November on the votes of a group of members of the House of Laity who did not believe the safeguards for those opposed were strong enough, what will happen to legislation in which, in legal terms, the safeguards are even weaker? Or will the tide of opinion which favours women bishops simply set such considerations aside?

We shall see, and we shall hear more in due course when the new legislation is referred to the Dioceses for their opinion – probably in late 2014, or in 2015. Finally, I want to return to the constitutional, church-state issues which, for me, have been raised in recent months.

Following the rejection of the Women Bishops’ Measure there was a debate in the House of Commons in which considerable anger was expressed about the Church’s failure to open the episcopate to women.

On several sides there was the threat that, if the Church couldn’t sort this out for itself, then Parliament would have to legislate for the Church. It was clear that many speakers regarded the Church of England as essentially a ‘state’ Church, which should be subject to the will of Parliament in its internal affairs.

I found this talk rather alarming. The State ceased legislating for the internal arrangements of the Church of England over 150 years ago. The last attempt of Parliament to do so was when it blocked the introduction of the revised Book of Common Prayer in 1928. Then, the response of the Bishops was to issue a statement to the Church saying ‘use it anyway – ignore Parliament’. The thought that in the 21st Century we would return to Parliament legislating for the internal affairs of the Church of England seems to me to be quite bizarre – but that is what a cross-section of Parliamentarians seemed to be envisaging.

Along with this there is the popular misconception that the Queen is the head of the Church of England. This is not true: she is our Supreme Governor, a constitutional rather than an executive role. Henry VIII had claimed the title ‘Supreme Head’ of the Church, but Elizabeth I wisely rejected this in favour of being the Supreme Governor, thereby acknowledging that the Church was not fundamentally under secular control.

The so-called ‘establishment’ of the Church of England is essentially a recognition of the Church by the State for certain purposes. The nature of that recognition has evolved over the years into a much looser relationship. But the Church of England has never been part of the State as such, and not least today, when the relationship is much looser than before.

This loosening in the relationship between Church and State is illustrated by the Same-Sex Marriage Bill which, for the first time in our history, envisages the Canons of the Church of England, which specify that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, being in direct conflict with statute law. As I say, this has never happened before.

I can only conclude that it is time to look again at fundamental aspects of Church-State relationships, before we drift into a situation which is both conflictual and incoherent. I am not arguing for full disestablishment as such, but for a principled review of the relationship, in the light of recent events, but also bearing carefully in mind the self-declared secularisation of our society. In 2001 72% of people claimed to be Christian; in 2011 it had fallen to 59%. I do not see this review as a threat to the Church; indeed, I believe such clarification would be likely to strengthen the Church.

So, whichever way I look, there is plenty to engage us, but overall I believe we can face the future with confidence and conviction, ready to meet whatever challenges come our way.

Bishop Peter