The following address was given by the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, to the Diocesan Synod in June 2021:
Charism, Covenant, Contract
In recent weeks as the lectionary has encouraged us to reflect on the story of the early church told in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, I have found myself intrigued by its glimpses of their life, and particularly intrigued by the encounter between Cornelius (not just a centurion, but a centurion of the Italian cohort, used to being at the heart of empire) and Peter (a fisherman from Galilee lodging in Joppa with Simon the tanner, whose occupation put both Peter and Simon on the margins of Jewish life). Cornelius and Peter have gender in common, but little else…until the spirit intervened and, driven by an angel and a vision, Peter unlocked the barrier of faith and culture and welcomed Gentiles to be baptised asserting, in words which would become fundamental to Christian theology in the thinking of Paul ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’. And so a community’s assumptions were disrupted and of course Peter had to explain himself and of course there had then to be a meeting (of rather more import, and probably less certainty of outcome, it has to be said, than any G7 assembly). And after the meeting there had to be years of theological reflection, resulting in the creeds which offer us pillars for the church’s faith in God, father, son and Holy Spirit.
So from a profound, and profoundly disruptive experience of God in the power of the Holy Spirit came a new covenant between God and the followers of Christ, and then came new definitions of and boundaries to faith, definitions repeated in worship and passed from one generation to another. And at its core the affirmation that in Christ God shows no partiality.
This week, at the non-residential for the Bishop’s staff Simon Taylor alerted us to a paper by Sam Wells, written for the national church under the title A future that’s bigger than the past: renewal and reform in the church of England. It’s not exactly poolside reading, but it is important reading as this diocese reflects on the last (now) nearly 7 years of Renewal and Reform under the banner of Creating Connections, and, as in the next weeks, we continue to reflect on what we have learnt from the Engagement part of Transforming Church. Together, and what we discern to be emerging as our vision and purpose for the coming years.
Sam’s paper concludes by thinking about three important tasks (or concepts and even languages) for the life of the church. Each of these is there in the story of Cornelius and Peter. There is Charism, the gifts of God in the power of the Holy Spirit, gifts which so often come at a time when the church discovers its need of God. For Peter that meant an openness to visions which transformed reality. For Cornelius that meant baptism as a culmination of a journey of faith. For us it might mean that, in place of a sense of scarcity we perceive and receive abundant life. For both of them and for all of us, it means that the future can be so much bigger than the past.
Alongside Charism was Covenant as Cornelius and his relatives and friends join the great company of saints, with the mutuality of that extraordinary early Christian community whose funding activity was to sell their possessions and giving to those in need. The outcome was an interdependence which propelled the community outwards and which turned the world upside down. And it still can. Our churches have dug deep into that covenantal life during Covid 19 as you have set up support networks, wrapped and delivered food parcels, sourced computers for schools, struggled to find ways to support those in care homes, attended to churchyards as places of refreshment, made the best of the constraints around weddings and funerals so they could be moments of blessing and so strengthened the bonds of faith and trust within our communities where we can be present and receptive and an ongoing source of blessing.
Alongside Charism and Covenant was Contract, as early Christian communities had to get their heads around their theological and ontological relationship with their Jewish forbears and neighbours and to establish Christian distinctiveness. From that claim to distinctivenss emerged not just expectations but agreements. Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about their giving (pretending generosity whilst withholding wealth) discovered that they were subject to contract and were penalised with death. You and I are probably glad that Parish Share assumes covenant not contract relationship. Though there are moments….
And over the recent years this diocese has learnt the need for each of Charism and Contract and Covenant. Some brief examples.
Very recently we have learnt, belatedly, how the covenant between parts of the Anglican Communion was put to the test by the arrival of the Windrush generation, invited to our islands to enable our nation to recover from war. Holy, gifted Anglicans, with a discipline of faith and a charism which our church so needed, arrived at our church doors and were turned away because they were black. Our churches failed the test. The covenant was broken. The church said the right things. But did not do them. So the recently published national policy drafted under the title from Lament to Action has set out actions against which this diocese will have to report so that, pray God, there will once again be Angels and Visions in our land as Charism is revealed again.
Another story surrounds our safeguarding failures where the gift of vulnerability offered by our sisters and brothers in the community of the church has been horribly abused, often, though not always, by leaders who seem to have great charism. We thought for several decades that abuse could be prevented by making covenant relationships stronger, by emphasising the need for mutual respect and re- emphasising the need for honesty and penitence. But there was little change. We are human, and each of us sinful, and deluded about that sinfulness. So the church had to move from covenant to contract, to enforcing change through the law and its rigorous application. And it is the law which may, in the end, having established new norms, allow for covenant to be re-established and grace be restored.
And there are also joyful examples. The creation of St Nicholas and the Pattern Churches have been works of the Holy Spirit and one of my abiding memories of this Synod was the film of their life, and their transformative power. They are works of Charism. And they breached the contract established by parish boundaries. As I arrived, there was still great anxiety around this breach. Yet by the grace of God, and the grace of Toby and Joel as leaders of these resourcing churches, new covenantal relationships have been established, and what might have been destructive competition has, for the most part, emerged as fruitful collaboration and a recognition of deep charism.
So back to today. The tasks of Diocesan Synod include the oversight, at governance level, of contract and covenant and charism. Our meetings allow us to see the new things that the Spirit is doing in our midst, and rejoice. Our meetings allow us, even when constrained by meeting online, to strengthen the bonds of peace and of our common life. Our meetings allow us to debate the commitments expressed in annual budgets, to make policy commitments (most recently to our response to the Climate Emergency and our commitment to paying the Living Wage) and to establish diocesan wide plans and actions. Each of these depends on the covenantal relationships between the networks formed by our parishes, our communities and our chaplaincies. Our meetings enable us to ratify and publicize (to promulge, as the legal language puts it) the laws passed by the General Synod, most recently the Cathedrals Measure which will create the framework to enable our cathedral to flourish greatly in the coming era.
At the heart of that synodical work has, for the last seven years, been Oliver Home, holding the tension between contract and covenant and charism on our behalf with huge commitment, intelligence, skill, humour, agility and humility. Oliver thank you for all you have been and done, which does now enable the Diocese of Bristol to dare to imagine a future that is bigger than the past and to trust God for that.
Oliver, as President of this Synod, I invite members to use reaction buttons and at the same time unmute and to applaud as, from across the diocese of Bristol, we offer you our deep gratitude and our ongoing prayers.