Bishop Jonathan addresses Diocesan Synod

First published on: 26th June 2023

Diocesan Synod met at Christ Church, Orpington on Saturday (24 June). As part of the session, Bishop Jonathan gave his Presidential Address. 

In it, he reflected upon his first year as Diocesan Bishop, speaking of the 'dedication of clergy and lay people' that he has found in every corner of the Diocese.

"There has been so much in which to rejoice and for which to be encouraged."

At the same time, he recognised the challenges and opportunities facing the Church and society, particularly around the cost of living.

Bishop Jonathan spoke ahead of a presentation of the Diocese's Annual Report and Accounts for 2022, which are now available on the Diocesan website

Read Bishop Jonathan's address in full below.

Bishop Jonathan's Presidential Address

I sat down to write this address on the evening of Midsummer’s Day, looking out over the garden at Bishopscourt, serenaded by blackbirds and with the sun setting over the River Medway.  It was a beautiful evening and a wonderful reminder of the privilege of being here in the Diocese of Rochester – and Toni and I look forward to seeing many of you at our summer garden parties over the next two weeks.

It is now a little over a year since I legally became the Bishop of Rochester and a little under a year since we moved into Bishopscourt, and I made homage on the same day to the late Queen Elizabeth.   A great deal has happened in that year, and I am profoundly grateful for the welcome we have received and for all that I have seen across this marvellously rich and varied Diocese.

What has struck me most is the dedication of clergy and lay people alike in every corner of the Diocese to the worship of God, to the making of disciples and to service in and for our local communities.  There has been so much in which to rejoice and for which to be encouraged.  Yet at the same time, we all know that many of our churches have been facing major challenges, with the fall in church attendance since the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, which has both put up costs and sometimes reduced levels of giving.  

Our wider society has been impacted by many of these same challenges, and of course the Church of England as a whole is currently dealing with a number of very difficult issues – we all know what they are, so I am not going to name them, except to acknowledge the furore around the disbanding of the Independent Safeguarding Board by the Archbishops’ Council this week.

This has been a cause of deep concern – and much more than that – for many people, and it is essential that these matters should be fully and urgently addressed by the Archbishops’ Council. I have been assured this will be happening in the coming days and especially at the General Synod when it meets in two weeks’ time.

Neither I nor any of the officers of this Diocese have the information needed to address these vitally important issues, but what I can say is that we are utterly committed to the best possible standards in safeguarding in this Diocese, in particular to supporting and working with victims and survivors, and to making our churches the safest, healthiest places they can be.  

There is little more I can add at this stage, but I do want to acknowledge the anger and distress that many people are feeling and to say that we will consider how best to follow up on these issues once we have heard more at General Synod.

Synod, given all that is going on in the life of our church and nation, all the challenges that we are facing, it would be tempting, and in one sense quite understandable, to focus our attention on trying to addressing these wider issues directly, but important as these issues all are I do not believe that would be the right thing for us to do today.

Later in our meeting, we will be asked to think carefully about the financial position of our diocese and the need to address that issue both realistically and generously.  There will be some tough decisions to be made in the year ahead, and it is vital that we should approach the issues around finance in a spirit of mutual commitment and encouragement.

In the Body of Christ, it should never be a matter of Us and Them – because there is only ever Us.

This is not to say that we should not acknowledge both our difficulties and our differences, but it is to suggest that we have the best chance of dealing with these effectively and constructively if we focus instead on the core priorities that God has set before us.  After all, didn’t Jesus say something similar at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be given to you.”

That is why I will keep returning in different ways to the three themes that God laid on my heart as I was called to this ministry here in Rochester: Change, Serve, Grow – because I believe these can offer us a framework for addressing many of the huge challenges that our churches are facing in fruitful and productive ways.

  •  Change is about God changing us so that he can bless us and use us to bless others.
  • Serve is about an attitude of heart and mind that affects how we relate to one another and that spills over into how we engage with the world around us – over issues as diverse as racial justice, refugees, poverty, and climate change.
  • And Grow is about our learning how to be more intentional about making disciples and bringing more people, including younger and more diverse people, to faith in Jesus Christ.

I will keep on talking about these things because I think they are fundamental to our becoming more faithful and fruitful in our service of our Lord and of his gospel.

But talking about them is of course not enough.  We need to be doers of the Word and not just hearers.  And with that in mind I want to flag up in a very preliminary way some of what we will be doing to work alongside our churches to help strengthen them and to promote growth within them.

As we will hear shortly, the reality is that we have to turn around our Diocesan financial position over the next few years.  That is not simply the responsibility of Bishops and Archdeacons, Diocesan Secretaries, and staff at the Diocesan Office.

All of us here on this Synod and in our parishes are members of the Body of Christ in this Diocese – we are in this together.

Now in some cases, it may be that our churches really could do more, could choose to direct more of their resources to support the work of the Diocese – by which I do not mean those who happen to work in the Diocesan Office, but rather every single church and every single church member outside of our own church and parish.

That is about recognising that we belong to one another and are therefore responsible for one another.  It is an antidote to “parochialism” which is what happens when we decide that the only thing that really matters is our own corner of God’s acre – and that needs to be borne out in how we make decisions about parish offers and contributions to common fund.

But in many more cases, what is most needed is for us to find ways of encouraging and supporting growth in our local churches.  And one of the things we are going to be doing is seeking to identify the missional and financial strengths and needs of our parishes – with a view to seeing how we can support one another in seeking to grow our churches in numbers, diversity, finance, and missional impact.  I won’t say any more at present, but please watch this space.

As you will appreciate even more once you have heard the finance presentations, we simply have to grow our churches in these ways, or we will be facing even more incredibly tough choices about what we can continue to do and what we might have to stop doing.

And that of course brings us back to those three themes – the necessity for change, the power of service and the possibility of growth when we allow God to work in us and through us.

Synod, I am loving being part of this wonderful Diocese.  I am loving getting to know its people and places.  I am so encouraged by what I am seeing and hearing right across our Deaneries in our three incredibly different Archdeaconries.  

Yes of course there are frustrations.  I and my colleagues spend far more time than we would wish fighting fires and trying to help mend fractured relationships.  But these are as nothing compared to the joy of seeing what God is doing among you and through you for the sake of his kingdom.

However important many of the issues we are facing are, whether internal to the Church or in the wider world, let’s remain focused on the key priorities that God has set before us – to seek first
the kingdom of God, to love God with all our heart and mind and strength, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to make disciples of all nations – including younger and more diverse disciples.

These are the things that can unite us, and they are far more important than the things that might threaten to divide us.

Thank you for all you are doing in your churches and communities, in your Deaneries and across this Diocese – it is enormously appreciated.  I hope and pray that today’s meeting of this Synod will challenge us and encourage us to renew our commitment to God’s work and to seek God’s strength for all that lies ahead.

May the Lord bless us richly as we serve him together today, and always. Thank you.

The Rt Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs
Bishop of Rochester

June 2023

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