Presidential Address – Monmouth Diocesan Conference 12th October 2002

Presidential Address – Monmouth Diocesan Conference 12th October 2002

I hope that it doesn’t seem too strange to unite the Diocesan Conference
with a Diocesan celebration! I realise that celebration isn’t always
the first word that comes to mind when the conference date comes round;
but in fact this is a rare opportunity to remember at the conference what
we are meeting for, and to put the conference in the context where it
belongs – not simply the AGM of an organisation, but a grateful
review of what God has done for us in our diocesan life, and a commitment
to open ourselves afresh to what he wants to do.

Many of us will still have a vivid memory of the ‘God at Work’
gathering a couple of weeks ago in Griffithstown, a meeting which I was
tempted to describe as the real diocesan conference! It drew such a variety
of people and in such utterly unexpected numbers that it was for a lot
of us one of the most powerful affirmations of the real life and vitality
at grass roots level of our diocese. It was exactly what such an occasion
should be – a sharing of good news: no blueprints or external solutions
or five point plans, but a variety of testimonies to how God was bringing
growth to very different communities by very different methods. There
is so much to build on; and I know that there is now some planning as
to how another such gathering might focus more on rural issues. And this
reminds me to underline the fact that, if we count in the several new
congregations now up and running alongside the usual Sunday services,
we can report for the first time in some years an overall increase in
worshipping numbers in the diocese, as well as a quite healthy level of
confirmations over the last few months.

So it is worth celebrating our diocesan life. But I want to take the
opportunity of asking a bigger question: what is there to celebrate in
being an Anglican diocese here and at this moment? As you can imagine,
I am having to think a lot about what being Anglican means, and I hope
you’ll allow me to share something of my musings on this today,
as a bit of a farewell offering to all my dearly loved colleagues and
friends here.

Anglicanism, in a nutshell, was what happened to the Church in England,
Wales and Ireland during and after the Reformation. It didn’t begin
with a theological theory – which means it didn’t try and
invent the Church again from scratch. It said, ‘Here is the Church
of Christ – it’s in a mess, it needs changes we haven’t
begun to understand, but there is reality here in what we have received,
and we shan’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.’ So the
Reformation here was a slow and untidy matter because people disagreed
about the kind and extent of changes needed. What was agreed, though,
was the recognition that the Church had stopped asking itself awkward
questions – or, more seriously, stopped letting God ask it awkward
questions. The great Reformation insight was simply that, when you looked
seriously at how and where Christianity started, quite a lot of things
in the Church as it was didn’t look all that convincing.

So the Reformation was a colossal and liberating discovery of the Bible
as the place where God’s challenges were to be heard. Here was the
first and fullest witness to what God wanted and what God did; here was
the book that defined the world in which God’s people had to live.
The Reformers believed that the world of the Bible was the real world,
and that the world of the Church had to test its reality and honesty against
this standard. All Reformed Christians agreed with this, including all
Anglicans (and quite a few Catholics as well until the waters froze over
a bit after the Council of Trent). The trouble was that some in Britain
as elsewhere took this to mean that the Bible was first and foremost a
blueprint (for how the Church was to be run, for instance) – some
even argued that the Law of Moses ought to be the law of England and Wales
– think about that next time you eat a prawn cocktail! Others argued instead
that the Bible was a touchstone, a rule in the sense of a standard rather
than a legal regulation; so that you had to give a substantial place to
history and common sense in thinking about God and the Church, listening
to what earlier readers of the Bible had said and to what the best of
human wisdom and knowledge could contribute to reading it. For people
who believe that – and I think specially of the great Richard Hooker
at the very end of the sixteenth century – what was needed was not
enthusiasm for orthodoxy in all respects but a high degree of patience
with the past as well as enthusiasm for purity.

This tension surfaced early on in quarrels between Anglicans in the late
sixteenth century, and it was part of the background of the Civil War.
It meant that the Anglican Reformation was always in some respects unfinished
business – and the tensions are still there today. However, I’d
want to say that it is not fair or accurate to see this as a quarrel between
people who do and people who don’t take the Bible seriously, between
people who think the Bible is just a human book and people who think it’s
inspired. To be personal for a moment: you might have thought, from some
of what has been in the press lately, that I regard the Bible as an outdated
text with no more authority than last week’s newspaper. I hope that
isn’t what you have heard me say as a pastor and teacher in this
diocese. I believe that the Bible tells us what we could not otherwise
know: it tells us that God, the maker of the world, is committed to that
world and desires with all his being to save it from disaster and the
imprisonment of sin; that he does this by calling a people to witness
to him by their prayers and their actions, in obedience to what he shows
them of his will through the Law; that he brings this work to completion
when God the eternal Son, the eternal Word, becomes human as Jesus of
Nazareth and offers his life to destroy or to ‘soak up’, as
you might say, the terrible consequences of our sin; and that Jesus is
raised from the tomb to call a new people together in the power of the
Spirit, who will show what kind of God God is in the quality of their
life together and their relation with him. This is revealed in the acts
of God in history and it is once and for all set out in the Bible. There
is no going round this or behind it.

This is the world of the Bible into which the Church has to be brought
again and again. Christians have to be in the habit of looking into Scripture
to find where they are failing to understand and trust the God of the
Bible and living in such a way that no-one outside the Church would guess
what kind of God they served. Nowhere else do we find the questions of
God put to us so authoritatively and directly. To say that the Bible is
inspired is to say at least that God’s Spirit comes to us through
the text to call us to repent and be converted. Some would want to say
further that we must also say certain things about the absolute accuracy
of every detail in Scripture if we believe in inspiration. I understand
that impulse, but I don’t think it is a view on which Anglicans
have ever wholly insisted or agreed (nor did the great Reformers on the
Continent, incidentally). But I can say with complete conviction that
a Church that does not listen for God in the Bible, and treat the Bible
as the unique touchstone of truth about God and about us is losing its
identity, its raison d’etre.

And before I leave the subject of recent reports, may I add one more
thing? If the Bible requires us to live so as to show the character of
God, we must live in a way marked by faithfulness and patience. This applies
to our most prosaic relationships; to our business commitments; to our
approach to charitable giving and to our support of each other as Christians;
and to our sexual ethics. Once again, I hope I can make it clear that,
whatever reports may suggest, I have always been committed to the Church’s
traditional teaching on sex before marriage and adultery! It seems to
me obvious that if we are to show God’s costly commitment in all
areas of our lives, this applies here as elsewhere. We may want to be
compassionate and realistic with people coming from a setting where these
ideals are remote or completely unintelligible – but the last thing
I’d want to do is to weaken the challenge and excitement of that
traditional view that says we can and should demonstrate God’s faithfulness
in our bodily lives, and that this is the meaning of Christian marriage.

Enough of this (I say it with feeling!). I want to pick up what I think
is central in all this for our contemporary lives as Anglican Christians
in this diocese. I’ve described the Anglican vision as one in which
there is patience with the past – but also patience with exploration
and experiment. Often in Anglicanism patience with the past has dominated;
but there is equal danger in becoming impatient with it. So, for example
(repeating a point I’ve made many times) to say that the parish
system is outmoded ignores the ways in which it can and does still work
for the Kingdom – as was clear at Griffithstown two weeks ago. But
those for whom the sytem works must be careful not to be impatient with
the new experiments springing up and, as we’ve seen, already bearing
fruit – the church plants and incipient mission districts. Mutual
patience will let us see how all these can work effectively for the gospel. The only thing we are entitled to be impatient about is a situation
where no-one is asking what works for the Gospel
– and that’s
rather like the situation into which the Reformation first came, a situation
where people are no longer letting God ask them awkward questions, where
the Bible is silent in their lives. By all means be impatient about that!
and work to become literate in the Bible and accustomed to measuring your
vision of God and yourself and the Church by the Bible.

I hope this diocese will go on being a place where such patience and
such impatience will exist side by side. Mutual patience with the past
and the future, with those for whom the parish works and with those for
whom it doesn’t, with the new and the old, with sacramental worship and
with new forms, with tradition and with experiment – which also
means patience with each other – even with your bishop! It really means
– to use again language I’ve used before – approaching our
situation, and therefore every person in it, with an expectation of meeting
God and being called further towards him. Impatience with lazy thinking,
lack of questioning, lack of eagerness to meet God and know God.In last
year’s presidential address I talked a bit about possible futures,
which was heard by some as too slanted towards impatience, and as a sign
that it was time for me to take a break…Little did any of us suspect
that God’s idea of giving me a bit of a change would be what it
turned out to be! But I shan’t be too sorry if that was what was
heard. Urgency is a dominant note in the Bible, especially in the gospels.
What would be quite wrong would be to let urgency become feverish busyness,
or over-anxious planning and calculating, or contempt for the good that
exists but we need to accept the urgency of Christ’s Coming and of Christ’s
questioning which is not the urgency of having my plans adopted and received.

This is a Christian family I am proud to belong to – the Anglican
family and that corner of it called the diocese of Monmouth. You have
taught me so much, stretched me so much, maddened me so much and supported
me so much, and I’m deeply glad for it all. My successor will be
fortunate. I hope you will greet him with the expectation I have just
been talking about, and that he and you together will show the divine
patience and the divine impatience alike. ‘The Lord is patient and
longsuffering’, ‘The Lord waits to be gracious to you’;
yes, and also, ‘His mercies are new every morning; great is his
faithfulness’, and ‘Behold, I make all things new’.