Bishop Jonathan addressed Diocesan Synod on Saturday 4 November, as it met at Christ Church, Dartford.
In his Presidential Address, he took the opportunity to reflect upon some of the huge challenges facing the world and the Church at this time, and to unpack some of the thinking that is helping shape the development of the Diocese’s Called Together vision.
Drawing upon the reading from Ephesians 4:1-16 that was used during the Synod’s worship, Bishop Jonathan highlighted the important themes of our unity in the Spirit, including in relation to the forthcoming General Synod debate on Living in Love and Faith, and of the diversity of gifts given to the Church – ‘apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers’ – as being crucial to his thinking around what living out our diocesan, Change, Grow, Serve, agenda might look like.
In an often fearful and polarised world, Bishop Jonathan encouraged Synod to remember that:
“We need to model how people can live alongside one another and love one another even when they disagree.”
"I hope and pray that we will be able to rise to that challenge, to be a sign to the world of a different way of being, demonstrating the life of the kingdom of God in the way we love one another, serve the people and communities around us, and together bring the hope of Christ to an often fearful and, yes, lost generation.”
Read his address in full below or click to watch here - captions are available.
Bishop Jonathan's Presidential Address
Synod, the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the impact of the climate crisis, brought home by storms and floods here in the UK, and the potential threats posed by the rise of Artificial Intelligence. These are just three of the most obvious challenges that our world is facing today – and there are many more besides.
These are therefore also all matters that are and should be of grave concern to us as Christians, and it behoves us to keep them in our minds and in our prayers as we go about our business today.
I do not intend to comment directly at any length on these topics, but you will perhaps be aware of the appeal for the Anglican Hospital in Gaza that Bishop Simon and I have encouraged people and parishes in this Diocese to support, and also of the statement issued this week by the House of Bishops of the Church of England.
That statement called for an end to violence on all sides and the protection of civilian life, including through humanitarian pauses in the fighting, leading in due course to a ceasefire and an end to hostilities.
Any words we say are inadequate and cannot encompass the full complexity and horror of what is happening, but these words accompanied above all by our prayers are intended as a contribution to the search for peace.
With regard to the climate crisis, we will hear a little more, later in this meeting, about what is happening in this Diocese to help meet our environmental goals. Again, these may only be a small contribution, but they do represent our commitment to being part of the solution to the crisis, and a reminder to all of us of the Christian imperative to act as God’s stewards of the world he has entrusted to us.
Concerning the rise of Artificial Intelligence, I will simply note one thing that Elon Musk said this week, which is that there will be a growing need to help people discover meaning in the brave new world that is coming upon us – and that of course is very much the business of the Christian faith.
I have started with some of the enormous challenges that are facing us in the wider world, because we must keep these in mind as we go on to consider matters that can seem to be much more related to the internal life of the Church.
I will say something in a few moments about Living in Love and Faith and also about the development of our Diocesan vision and strategy – but before I do, I would like us to remember that these issues are deeply connected to what is going on in the wider world.
We are dealing here with people’s lives, with their closest relationships, and with the role of the Church in helping people to live well together despite profound differences, as well of course as helping people to discover meaning and purpose in their lives.
Turning to the subject of Living in Love and Faith, you will be aware of the letter which I wrote to accompany the statement issued by twelve bishops following the meeting of the House of Bishops on 9th October.
I am profoundly aware that my letter and the statement have been met with dismay and anger by many people, as well as resulting in a significant number of positive messages from within and beyond this Diocese.
I deeply regret the hurt and pain all this has caused, and I was very grateful to a group of representatives from the LGBTQI+ communities for coming to meet with me at my request to begin to work through some of this together.
You will also be aware of the furore that has followed the publication of the House of Bishops’ proposals that are to be debated at General Synod in ten days’ time. It would seem that yet again the House has managed to upset just about everybody in one way or another – some for having gone too far and others for not having gone far enough.
I am not going to attempt to go into the intricacies of the proposals and why in different ways they are so problematic for people coming from very different perspectives.
What I want rather to do is to explore the model of consensus which seems to underlie the whole LLF process thus far, and to explain why I do not think this model can actually enable us to address the key issues of difference between us and so to move forward together in a constructive way.
As I have said on a number of occasions, what has become increasingly clear to me is that we are dealing with two fundamentally incompatible visions of human life before God. To state this as briefly and dispassionately as I can (and please forgive me for over-simplifying this): one is rooted in the understanding of marriage as a lifelong union between a man and a woman, with this as God’s intended place for sexual relations.
The other is rooted in an understanding that human beings, regardless of their gender, should be able to enter into life-long, faithful relationships, which can have the same character as has been traditionally seen in heterosexual marriage.
Now both of these views are held by Christians who have reached their conclusions after deep and careful study of the Scriptures and Christian tradition, as well as taking into account the insights of science and other forms of knowledge.
But the reality is that after six long years of study and discussion, these two groups may understand each other better, but they are no nearer to finding common ground or being able to agree on a consensus – except that they continue to disagree.
I believe that is because the two sets of views are fundamentally incompatible – and that is the reality we now need to accept so we can begin to find a way of moving forward – for the sake of all concerned, for the sake of the Church and for the sake of God’s mission in the world – and doing that together as far as possible and as much as possible.
A big problem with the proposals being brought to General Synod is that they do not acknowledge sufficiently this situation of radical incompatibility.
Another is that they contain within them radical uncertainty, because they fail to do what was promised, which was to bring together in one package the three elements of the Prayers of Love and Faith, the Pastoral Guidance (including whether clergy can enter into same-sex marriage) and the Pastoral Reassurance (including any relational or structural arrangements for those who cannot accept some aspect of what is being proposed).
That is a real problem for people on all sides. There are signs that the House of Bishops and those leading on the LLF process may be starting to wake up and smell the coffee.
You will have seen the letter issued by 44 bishops affirming that the proposals do not go far enough, and it may yet be that amendments will be brought to Synod urging just that. And of course there are any number of rumours on social media about what has been said or promised since.
I believe there may also be the beginnings of proposals to work out what relational and structural arrangements may be possible to accommodate the fundamental differences that exist between us – and, as you can probably tell, that is the kind of direction I think we need to go.
Synod, as I said to the LGBTQI+ friends and colleagues with whom I met a few weeks ago, I am committed (as I always have been) to the Church of England and the Diocese of Rochester being and making a place for all across the spectrum of views on these issues.
There may be some who believe that if certain decisions are made that allow for different practice on marriage and sexual relations, then they will be obliged in conscience to leave the Church of England. That would sadden me deeply and be a huge loss to our Church.
I do believe, however, that it is going to be necessary to provide structures that enable people to receive oversight and support that enable them to remain and to flourish within the life of the Church of England – and for what it’s worth I also believe that should be within our existing diocesan structures, because otherwise we split the Church and that would bring an effective end to the Church of England as a single Church.
The reality is that in respect of these issues, no one person, no one bishop, can bridge the gap because of the fundamental nature of the differences among us – but collectively the bishops have a responsibility to do just that, in order to enable everyone to find their place and to flourish within the Church of England, within our Dioceses and within our parishes.
There will of course still be difficult questions to be addressed, and we will not be able to agree on some quite fundamental issues, but as we heard in our reading from Ephesians, unity matters and we are charged with maintaining the unity of faith in the bond of peace, not least for the sake of the mission of the Church “so that the world may believe,” as Jesus prayed.
The next few months (and maybe longer) will not be easy, but I am committed to helping to make this happen and I hope that as many people as possible across the Church of England will work together to do the same.
And that brings me to the other main subject I want to speak about this morning, which is our Diocesan Vision and Strategy. Claire Boxall will be giving a presentation about this later on, so I want simply to pick up on some of the key themes in our reading from Ephesians.
Paul talks about five ministries that God gives to his Church to enable it to grow – including in faith and maturity. Those gifts are: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
Now in the Church of England, we have on the whole been pretty good as pastors and teachers – our clergy and lay ministers faithfully preach and teach the faith week in and week out, and they offer pastoral care faithfully to their congregations and to the wider communities they serve.
But over the last few generations, certainly since the 1950s, that has no longer been enough to sustain and grow the life of our churches. Numbers have declined and people are no longer coming to us of their own accord, as they used to for baptisms, weddings and funerals. The old model is no longer working – even though it may still work in some places better than others.
We need to find new ways of doing things – new models of ministry that are more focused on us going out rather than on people coming to us. Except of course that this is not new at all – it represents a return to what God intended and commanded right from the start.
This is the world of the Great Commission – “Go and make disciples” – and it is the world of apostles, prophets and evangelists of which Paul speaks in Ephesians. These, Paul says, are the gifts that God gives to his Church, to enable it to grow in the way he talks about in the rest of this section.
And that suggests to me that God has given us these gifts – these people in fact – in which case the problem is that we are not identifying them, affirming their calling and equipping and releasing them to get on with the job – partly I suspect because we are so wedded to the pastor/teacher model of ministry, whether ordained or lay.
We need to change our paradigm and we need to find ways of encouraging new ministries, especially of an apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic nature.
By “apostolic” I understand principally the ministry of planting and establishing new church communities – and different church communities that are focused on making disciples, not just ones operating on the pastor/teacher paradigm.
I was so inspired by what I saw in Tanzania when I visited in August, where I saw Bishop Given and others operating in this apostolic paradigm – looking for signs of growth, taking opportunities to plant new churches, using resources to promote evangelism and discipleship – and only much further down the road getting round to putting up a church building.
This is flexible, fleet of foot, adaptable ministry and mission – and we need to find ways of encouraging and releasing the same kind of ministry here.
By “prophetic” I mean ministries that understand and speak God’s word into new situations and contexts – engaging with people that the Church has not previously reached by understanding what they are facing and what matters to them, by getting alongside them and offering them hope and meaning and purpose.
It is also about people who challenge the wider church about our complacency and failure to engage with these people and situations, as well as challenging our wider society about its neglect of important issues like racial justice, social inclusion or care for the marginalised.
We need to identify, release and listen to prophetic voices and ministries – when too often our time and attention is taken up with maintaining the status quo.
By “evangelistic” I mean identifying and releasing people who have the gift of being able to communicate the Christian faith in ways that people can engage with and respond to. I also mean encouraging our existing congregations and church members to find new ways of reaching out with the message of the gospel, by getting out into their communities, building bridges through service and community engagement, creating opportunities to talk about the hope that is within us.
One of the positive things that has come out of the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis has been the way in which churches have reached out into the wider community and established new links with huge numbers of people – that is a great start, and we need to build on that by becoming more intentional and less reticent about sharing our faith in Jesus Christ – because in the end that’s what people need most of all.
And that brings me to my final point, which is to take us back to the huge issues we touched on at the start – issues of war and climate change and technology. As Christians, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to bring the hope of the Gospel to the people of our generation.
In Jesus Christ, we have been given hope and meaning and purpose in this life and for the life of the world to come, and the people of today need to hear about that as much as or indeed more than ever.
We have been commissioned by Jesus to “Go and make disciples” not just so that our churches can grow (that is just a side-effect) but so that people can discover and experience for themselves the fulness of life that Jesus came to bring.
A big part of our credibility in communicating that message will be to do with how we engage with the world around us in compassionate and prophetic action, but it will also be to do with how we relate to one another within the Church, including when we disagree strongly about issues that matter profoundly and personally to each of us – such as the ones we are facing around Living in Love and Faith.
I do not know at the moment just how things will go at General Synod and after that, but I am convinced that one of the most important things will be how we relate to and speak about one another.
We need to model how people can live alongside one another and love one another even when they disagree. Our world needs to see that at a time when anger and outrage have been increasingly the currency of day-to-day speech, especially but not just on social media.
Synod, the world needs the Church, you and me, to be more Christian than ever – precisely at a time when that is probably more difficult than it has been for a very long time. We may no longer burn one another at the stake – but our culture is very good indeed at condemning and cancelling people with whom it disagrees!
I hope and pray that we will be able to rise to that challenge, to be a sign to the world of a different way of being, demonstrating the life of the kingdom of God in the way we love one another, serve the people and communities around us, and together bring the hope of Christ to an often fearful and, yes, lost generation.
And that has to start with us praying to God our Father as Jesus taught us – “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
- An overview of what else took place at Synod will be shared online shortly.