Bishop Viv's Diocesan Synod Presidential Address, 15 June 2024

First published 17th June 2024

The following address was delivered by the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol to the Diocesan Synod that took place at St Michael's Centre, Stoke Gifford on Saturday 15 June.

See I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? Isaiah 42:19

What was noteworthy for the Church of England about the year 1953?

It was the last year that an increase in attendance at worship was recorded, until last year  2023. I note that both were coronation years.

For the last three years, since the end of lockdown, there have been small signs of growth, and now for 2023 the returns from across England from all the Dioceses show a general and seemingly now established trend. Last year across the Church of England there was an growth of attendance of 5% overall and 6% increase in the attendance of numbers of children. That is the national report. It also happens to be the figure for the Diocese of Bristol. 5% overall attendance increae, 6% increase of children

I recognise that this diocese likes to see itself as extraordinary not ordinary, to lead rather than lag, but on this occasion it is good to be able to see ourselves at the heart of what seems to be a profound change which is becoming an established trend. Because for the whole of my life I have been told, and for the lifetime of most of the people in this synod we have been told the church is in decline. For the whole of my life we have been caught up in a narrative of reducing numbers and, even as we have dug deep, we have felt downhearted and dismayed, tempted into a spiral of retrenchment and defensive inward focus.

See I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up, do you not perceive it? 

Well like St Thomas, we do need to see, and to test the reality. And the reality is that the reported increase is set against a benchmark of particularly sharp additional declines through the Covid years, with some dioceses losing over half of their children, some dioceses losing a third of their adults between 2019 and 2023.

And like St Thomas we need to be curious. Why is attendance at worship growing now after 70 years of reduction? The answer is that we don’t really know, except that the work is that of the Lord. And we do have some working hypotheses. Here are some.

Firstly, and despite the national narrative of 70 years of declining numbers, we have, paradoxically, become more confident in Christ and in work of Christ’s church, growing as disciples and so more able to speak of our faith, to offer signs of hope and demonstrating our love.

I recently went to see the stage version of Boys from the Blackstuff, Alan Bleasdale’s television series of a group of scousers suffering the devastating impact of the 1980s recession. I began public ministry as the series was broadcast, and the world of Yosser, Loggo, Chrissie, George, Dixie and Kevin was the world into which I was called in 1982. A world where those without jobs had no income and those without income had no food. Alan Bleasdale is not unsympathetic to the church, or churches (his work is imbued with Christian narrative arcs) but his priests, catholic and Anglcan are, for these characters, no earthly use, offering platitudes which could not bring hope in despair. And there was real despair. As there is now, though for different reasons. In the world of the Blackstuff there were no foodbanks or warm spaces. Now, at least, there is that. And just a little more of a sense that we may have the vocabulary and emotional intelligence, the empathy and prayerfulness to convey how our faith may, in the worst of worlds, offer the way, the truth and the life. And that those who find their way to us, may find a welcome home.

So the first working hypothesis is that we have recovered our faith in Christ, and our commitment to convey the good news in word and in action for Christ’s sake

The second working hypothesis is that that growth is both the evidence and the consequence of life in Christ.

In those early years of ministry in North Liverpool the next door parish grew continuously. That parish was clear (and uncompromising) about forming missionary disciples in the catholic tradition and the legendary priest set himself the target of producing an ordinand a year. That clarity and intentionality, alongside embeddedness in the life of the wider community,  grew the church and I, formed in a very different tradition, internalised the challenge to inspire others to consider ordination I was challenged to discover an ordinand a year. And by and large and by the grace of God, have met that target (though as a Bishop I have the great benefit of sharing that task and challenge with a whole team).

Alongside increasing the number of vocations to lay as well as ordained ministry In the last two years, both in the national and the local church, we have deliberately planned and prayed to increase the number of children in our churches. So a shout out to those parishes and communities where there is already growth in numbers, from a whole range of traditions and contexts and recipes for drawing children into the life of the church. So a shout out for St Mary Magdalene Hullavington as well as St Paul Chippenham, to Easton Christian Family Centre as well as Christ Church Downend; to St Peter Bishopsworth as well as Emmanuel’s three worshipping communities, to St Augustine Whitchurch as well as St Nicholas, to St Mary Henbury as well as Swindon St Luke with Swindon St Saviour in the New Town Benefice.

Whay do churches grow? I don’t believe there is one reason. Not least because the Holy Spirit will move and prompt and breathe new life where she will. I have the delight of listening to the stories of those, and there do seem to be increasing numbers, who say ‘it was God who brought me here’. They come from different churches, with different traditions and different histories and different cultures and each will have different ways of journeying together as missionary disciples, but it is that clarity and intentionality which seems to be crucial.

And the third working hypothesis is that intention need to be supported by investment, financial investment. Which is where TC.T comes in.

Two years ago I wrote this in introduction to that strategy and our bid for national funding.

We have realised that Christ, the Lord of all, is stretching our hearts and minds to respond to the most vivid of visions, that humanity might be reconciled, and creation restored.

We have affirmed that the calling of each worshipper in the Diocese of Bristol is to follow Jesus, to serve others and to transform communities. We have discerned that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, this Diocese has values of openness, generosity, creativity, and bravery which we want to continue to nurture. We will steadfastly live out our commitment to our neighbours and communities to be ‘here with you’ for Christ’s sake. We expect to see considerable change within the five year time frame of this strategy,

Sisters and brothers, we expected to see change. We are seeing growth. The Lord is doing a new thing in our midst. Let us rejoice and give thanks.

Vivienne Faull
Bishop of Bristol


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