On 19 March 2022, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol, gave the following presidential address at Diocesan Synod, held at Holy Trinity Church, Bradley Stoke.
"We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Cor 1.23, 24
Gathered from across the Diocese of Bristol we meet again in synod, syn hodos, followers of Jesus together on the way. Today we set down a marker on that way, as we set a direction for further work on our strategy. So, let’s pause and look at the view. We look backwards over the two years of conversation and consultation and the two recent months of intensive and detailed work. As with so much else during Covid it has felt like uphill work. We have felt helpless. We have had to dig deep, as followers of Jesus do: dig deep into the wells of love and joy and peace which are the gift of the holy spirit of Jesus.
And on this glorious spring day, we see new life emerging after a grey and gloomy winter, so since I have been allowed out of Bishop’s House, and as you have invited me, I have seen new life emerging in the parishes and communities of this diocese. Despite the inevitable sense of helplessness and fragility you have discovered a new hope and determination and confidence in your calling. Endurance has produced character and character has produced hope and hope does not disappoint us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
And as we plant a marker on this way this morning, we look around the horizon. I was determined, when we began work on our strategy, to have a big horizon against which to measure ourselves. Humanity reconciled, creation restored is a pretty big horizon, with rather more detail added since COP 26, the energy crisis and the invasion of Ukraine. Without that big horizon any strategy can lead us into idolatry, into dependence on our own efforts not on the power and wisdom of Christ.
This week I have had the words of Canon Malcolm Rogers running through my mind. He is Chaplain of St Andrews, Moscow in the Diocese in Europe, he is titled (rather grandly) the Archbishop of Canterbury's Representative to the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Area Dean of Russia and Ukraine.
He jokes that the job advert for his role included an opportunity to work for the peace of the world, and writes of the sense of utter failure and helplessness he now experiences:
St Andrew's Anglican Church in Moscow is situated only 10 minutes walk from the Kremlin, the physical and geographical centre of power. The Ministries of Education, Culture and Defence are near neighbours. We are in the centre of power and yet we are powerless.
Today, as many of our dear friends have left Russia, and as we nervously wonder whether or when we should leave, we are even more conscious of our powerlessness.
Conflict was predicted and we were helpless, unable to do anything to prevent it. Now that 'special military operations', as they are called here, have begun, there is nothing that we can do to stop them.
But it is precisely our powerlessness which means that there are things that we can do. We are gospel people, who serve a crucified but risen Lord. We are the 'nobodies' of 1 Corinthians 1, and it is our very powerlessness and insignificance and foolishness that can also be our strength, if it is handed to God.
First of all, we are simply here. We are a community of very messed up people, but as we gather together to hear the Word of God and to receive bread and wine, a community of Russians and foreigners gathered together, centred on and receiving from Jesus Christ, our simple presence can be a witness of what the world can be like, of the future kingdom.
Secondly, in our powerlessness, we can worship and pray. We pray for peace. That is far more than just praying for the absence of war. We praise God for the coming Kingdom, for the hope he has given usWe pray for the time when there will be no more 'fake news', lies, betrayals or violence, and no more fear and death. And it is our very powerlessness which opens to us our dependence on God and on him doing wonderful works.
Thirdly, we can still speak truth. There are some things that we cannot say in Moscow, but we can still preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen and reigning. We can call people to repentance and offer people hope. In my 30 plus years of ministry, I have never known a time and a place when people are more hungering for God.
And fourthly we can love and serve our neighbour. We read the news and feel powerless. Most of us are in no position to solve world problems or to bring peace. But we can make a difference where we are, and love the actual physical neighbours who God has given us.
So back to this diocese, and our task today setting out our own priorities for the coming years which have some echoes of Malcolm’s letter.
Through the conversations of the last two years, we have found a way of speaking of the core, the heart of what Anglican Christian parishes and communities are about, the idea which is, I believe the genius of the Church of England and that is ‘here with you’, gathering, praying, speaking the truth, serving our neighbours. ‘Here with you’ are the words we are using. Here because place is important. Not just the place of the church building (and our churches are crucial to mission) but the whole of the parish.
Here with you because our calling is to be with each other, and with the parishioners of our patch. Not superior to others, not inferior to others, but with others, sharing in the life which God in Christ longs to be abundant. Looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Here with you, with its echoes of Emmanuel, God with us, is at the heart of our life together in this new era as the church responds in a new way to the call of Christ crucified, and perhaps even enables our nation to begin to rediscover its soul. We are called, as Henry Nouwen put it in his Community Rule:
To follow Jesus closely
With him we will take the road up to Jerusalem,
The city of suffering and glorification.
On this road we are called to be least of all, not masters
to carry other’s burdens and not lay our own upon them,
to give freedom instead of taking it,
to grow poor in order to make others rich,
to take the cross upon ourselves thus bringing joy to others.
So let us keep Jesus before your eyes,
Don’t hesitate to anywhere he leads you,
don’t stay where you are and don’t look back,
but look forward with eagerness to what lies ahead.
That is the waymark we put up today, the transformative core of our vocation. We have some plans. God may laugh at some and bless others. Through the adventures ahead may Christ, in the gift and grace of his helplessness and hopefulness bless this diocese and all its people and renew us in faith and hope and love."