Diocesan Synod: Presidential Address

The Bishop of Bath and Wells has delivered his presidential address to Diocesan Synod. Read it in full below:

It is a particular pleasure to welcome Matthew Frost to our Synod today. Matthew chaired the Lay Leadership Task Group for the Church of England which produced the report, which we are discussing this morning, ‘Setting God’s People Free’. It is a report which focusses on lay discipleship and if it is embraced and implemented has the potential to significantly change the life of the Church of England and transform the communities we seek to serve.  But, as the authors of the Report acknowledge ‘we have been here before’.  Many of the things which this Report highlights and advocates have been said and advocated in the past.

There are some of us who have been around long enough to remember the Report, ‘All Are Called’ – Towards a Theology of the Laity’. In the Foreword to that Report it says ‘God’s call is there for all without exception. The young are called.  The elderly are called. There is no retirement from the Christian pilgrimage.  The beautiful are called, and also the unlovely.  The sick are called as well as the healthy and the energetic.  Activists are called and also quiet people.  We are called regardless of our intellectual abilities or our formal education.  We are called regardless of our race or nationality or social class.’

‘Women are called, and men are called.  The poor are called…yet God ‘has no favourites’ and equally calls to discipleship the rich and the comfortable.  We are all called no matter what our occupations may be. ..Cleaners and car dealers are called just as much as professors and lawyers and missionary nurses.  And unemployed people and redundant people, and ‘unemployable’ people are called just like everybody else.  Our human dignity does not depend on having a job’.

‘This call comes to all of us, for all of our days and years, and for all of our activities.’

Those are inspiring, encouraging and challenging words.  The problem is that the Report ‘All Are Called’ was written in 1986 and 30 years later it is not clear what difference those words have made.  What is clear however is that Christ died on the cross for us all. That he rose again from the dead for us all.  And that we are called to follow Christ, to become like Christ and to make Christ known in all that we do and all we say and all we are.  Our Diocesan Vision is that:  ‘In response to God’s immense love for us we seek to be God’s people living and telling the story of Jesus’.

From time to time at Deanery Synods or in Schools I am asked about my calling, my vocation.  And I often say I have three callings.  The first is that I am called to be a human being.   As a result of my birth I am called to live the best possible life that I can.  I am called to be the best husband and father and grandfather and friend and colleague that I can be.  I am called to be mindful that there is only one earth, that the resources of the world are precious and limited, and that every human being is a child of God and deserves the dignity, care and justice that comes from being made in the image of God.

My second calling comes as a result of my baptism.  Baptism signifies the glorious new life which Jesus spoke of when he said: ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’  In Baptism I acknowledge my need of forgiveness and I am called to pick up my cross, to deny myself and to become a follower, a disciple of Christ.

My third calling comes as a result of my ordination.  This is a calling to serve and care for the flock of Christ.  It is a calling to proclaim the gospel in word and deed and to serve as a herald of God’s kingdom.  When someone is ordained they don’t ‘enter the church’ as sometimes is said, nor do they stop being members of the laity, the people of God.  I can only be faithful as a priest, if I am faithful as a Christian.  Unless I am following Christ I cannot lead others to Christ.  Unless I am a disciple of Christ, I cannot disciple others for Christ.

And I cannot fulfil my calling as a disciple unless I am seeking to fulfil my calling as a human being.  To be the priest, or indeed the bishop that God wants me to be, I have to be faithful as a disciple of Christ.  And I cannot be a faithful Christian unless I am first and foremost faithful as a human being.  It is only as become the person God wants me to be that I can be the disciple or the priest that God wants me to be.  My ordination is dependent on my baptism and my baptism is dependent on my birth as a child of God.

So what has that to do with the Report ‘Setting God’s People Free’?

Well on 31 October 1517 Martin Luther (supposedly) nailed his 95 theses about indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg thereby starting what came to be known as the Reformation.  500 years on from that date we recognise that the effect of that Reformation has been incalculable and many people argue that the modern world cannot be understood without taking account of the effects of the Reformation.

Some of us here heard Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington, speaking about that at the Wells Literary Festival this week and in his lecture he quoted Luther as saying: ‘Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that (they are) a consecrated priest, bishop and pope… Therefore, a priest in Christendom is nothing else but an officeholder… there is no true, basic difference between lay (people) and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work., but not for the sake of status.”

Every Christian Luther said is a priest – because the role of the priest is to bring people to God and to bring God to people.  Priests he said are made by baptism not by ordination.  He was not reducing priests to lay people he was elevating lay people to priests.  In the floor of my chapel in the Palace are carved the words ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and he has given to us the ministry of reconciliation’.  (Words from 2 Corinthians 5: 19)

‘Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that (they are) a consecrated priest, bishop and pope’.  This means that by our baptism we are all priests, bishops and popes!  (We should all be wearing mitres!)  We sometimes speak today about the ‘priesthood of all believers’, but that is a fairly recent expression from the 19th Century.  500 years ago Luther was writing about ‘The priesthood of all Christians’ – which today we sometimes understand as ‘every-member ministry’.

As Luther said: ‘͞The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic labourer in the field, or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured by faith alone.’

That is what front-line ministry, workplace ministry, every member ministry, the priesthood of all believers is about.   And that is what the Report ‘Setting God’s People Free’ is seeking to do.  May the Lord set us on fire and set us free to serve him in the unique way in which we have all been called. I look forward to the presentation and debate we will have this morning.

Rt Revd Peter Hancock

October 2017

Back to top