Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video. At the moment the river Wye behind me is flowing fairly gently. Just a few months ago I would have been 20’ underwater. The river back then was quite scary, uprooting substantial trees and spreading them downstream. Even now there are hidden currents powerfully at work under the surface where you need to take great care.
Power works like that in human relationships.Sometimes its obvious, coercive and damaging.Other times its more subtle, potentially as dangerous because its not so visible.
Trying to find where power to bring change lies within the Church of England is challenging. When I was a lay person I thought the vicar had it.When I became a curate I still thought the vicar had it, but when I became a vicar I discovered I didn’t have it. Then I thought the Bishop must have it, but when I became a suffragan Bishop I realised I didn’t have it there either – perhaps the diocesan bishop must have it.Now I have become a diocesan Bishop I spend a lot of time in Diocesan Bishops meetings asking who has it as well!Seriously, I do recognise I have a certain amount of power as a diocesan Bishop. But, quite rightly, there are checks and balances.I, with my senior staff colleagues do have a certain power of appointments and the exercise of clergy discipline, but its not absolute.Parish reps have a right of veto. I suppose we could appoint people willy-nilly, but the Diocesan Board of Finance would not be prepared to pay for them.If I really wanted to I could issue commands and in some cases I might get dutiful compliance, but that wouldn’t bring real change. It would more likely to cause angry resentment.
Power in the church of England is elusive, dispersed, accountable and full of checks and balances – its why we change direction like a supertanker.You can turn the wheel and nothing seems to happen for quite a long time.
Not recognising this creates all sort of problems.If you don’t understand where the power lies, you think it must lie somewhere.Perhaps it lies in that mysterious organisation – the diocese! Rarely has a word been so misused. Its revealed in phrases like, “what does the diocese want?” or, the diocese takes all our money! Or, what has the diocese ever done for us? But the word diocese used like that is a figment of the imagination.The diocese is us, together, parishes, people, clergy, lay leaders, central administrative staff that support frontline ministry. We bishops and Archdeacons provide (if we’re doing our job properly) a permission giving and empowering oversight that helps the whole function as it should. Budgets and parish share are in fact set and approved by democratically accountable bodies like Diocesan Synod and the Board of Finance. And we all operate within legal boundaries that cover appointments, parish boundaries, buildings and the like. That’s the diocese – its us, and one of my goals is that we stop using the word to describe an imaginary, disembodied tax collecting authority based in the Palace at Hereford and use it to describe us – a family of believers, seeking to live out the gospel in the diocese of Hereford.
When you use the word diocese in the wrong sense it facilitates a really unhelpful them and us culture.Using the word ‘diocese’ wrongly conveniently obscures the reality of our mutual interdependence. Its not them and us.Using the word wrongly leads to parishes sitting on substantial reserves reducing offer without thinking it will mean the sacrificial giving of others will have to pay for their provision of ministry instead.
Where then is the power to change things?Its fascinating how Jesus subverts the idea of power itself. When the disciples were having an argument about who should be foreign secretary and who Chancellor of the Exchequer when Jesus came to reign, he said to them that the one who rules should be like the one who serves. He redefined greatness by washing the disciples’ feet. In the stories of the crucifixion, on the one hand he is the victim of the power of others, and yet more in control of the situation than anybody. Jesus’ leadership was rarely directive. Instead he asked awkward questions.He remorselessly confronted people with uncomfortable reality. He wasn’t afraid to call out unacceptable behaviour – you couldn’t describe him as polite. But as he held out the offer of the gospel alongside the reality of the human condition an extraordinary thing began to happen.Hearts got changed.Crooked tax collectors gave back what they stole.People owned their situation and found in the way of Jesus forgiveness and a road to life in all its fullness. Jesus changed the culture.
A former Dean of Chichester once told me that Bishops are like bidets.No-one quite knows what they’re for but when you have one, it certainly raises the tone. I hope over the next few years of travelling together we’ll all play our respective parts in changing the culture and tone of the diocese to be faithful to God in this generation. From them and us to just us; from fearful to confident in the truth and transforming power of the gospel; from self-reliant to prayerful dependence on the grace of God.Above all from anxiety to joyful hope. Decline is not inevitable. May God give us the courage to change deeply that we are the generation to see growth return to our Church.
Have a good week and may God bless you and keep you ever closer to him.