Packed Agenda at Diocesan Synod

by Gerry Lynch last modified 15 Feb, 2016 05:35 PM

Synod discusses social justice, church buildings, discipleship and growth with Sudan visitors attending

Diocesan Synod gathered on a wet Saturday in St Nicholas’ Church, Corfe Mullen, for its first meeting. Proceedings began with worship. Prayers and readings had a particular focus on social justice, as did much of the Synod agenda.

Bishop Nicholas’ presidential address was appropriately packed for a busy time in the life of the Diocese (read full text here). He began by thanking delegates for their support in his role as Church of England lead bishop for the environment, especially during the UN climate change talks in Paris in late 2015, which reached a ‘remarkable agreement’ between 195 countries. He endorsed the Big Switch campaign launched by Christian Aid, Tearfund and CAFOD.

17 people from the Diocese took part in shared conversations on human sexuality in November, along with representatives from Winchester and Portsmouth. They mostly gave a positive account of the process, but it is probably too resource intensive for us to replicate as a Diocese.

Referring to the Anglican Primates’ Meeting which took place in January, he noted that some church people were upset at the lack of progress, although others felt it miraculous they had managed to stay in the same room for a week. They also discussed things other than sex, such as evangelism, persecution of Christians, and climate change. It became clear during the course of the meeting that the Anglican Communion exists in its relationships. In that spirit, Bishop Nicholas welcomed three bishops from the Episcopal Church in South Sudan and Sudan to Synod, who had been attending a conference for new bishops in Canterbury.

In Sudan, around 10% of the population are refugees, while in South Sudan, 20% have been displaced by civil war and 50% will depend on humanitarian aid this year. In the Diocese of Duk, whose bishop, Daniel Deng Abot was in attendance, more than 90% of the population has fled the conflict.

Closer to home, Europe is in the midst of the biggest movement of refugees since the Second World War. The Gospel reading at worship, the Parable of the Good Samaritan struck home. “The Samaritan, an outsider, also taught the good religious insiders the true meaning of the Law by being merciful”, said Bishop Nicholas, “There is no simple answer to the present refugee crisis but we might want to think, pray and act about refugees by asking ourselves what it means to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves and to be merciful.”

The first item for debate was the Church Buildings Review Report recently published by the national church. Bishop Ed proposed a motion welcoming the report and opening debate; he commended the report warmly, albeit ‘not entirely without reservation’. The report spoke of of changing a mindset from seeing buildings as a burden to seeking to realise their potential, which he warmly supported.

This is not a report which calls for the closure of churches. The British Methodist experience over the past decades shows that closing churches is counterproductive in terms of evangelism. The situation in Wiltshire reflects that across the country - our churches have never been better looked after since they were built. Well beyond the 3% of the population who are regular churchgoers, there is huge support, including financial support, for their upkeep. “These buildings are loved”, he concluded.

A large number of speakers, almost entirely from small rural parishes, made impassioned contributions from different perspectives.

Charles Hodgson from Dorchester Deanery, for example, argued that although the burden of upkeep could be daunting, churches in small villages were dearly loved, and imbued with the prayers and hopes of countless people over centuries. Visitors books demonstrate that, “People of faith and no faith feel a strong sense of presence within them.”

The Revd Maria Shepperson, Rector of the Upper Kennet Benefice, spoke of the real “financial, emotional and spiritual cost” of maintaining and improving buildings in the face of “endless paperwork”, especially in relation to introducing new facilities and wider community use. She gave a broad welcome to the report and argued it needed to ‘have teeth’, while being critical of inaccurate and demoralising media coverage of its contents.

Richard Southwell reminded Synod of the excellent work done with Heytesbury and Sherborne Deaneries on ‘Rediscovering Our Parish Churches’.

Responding, Bishop Ed said that the Greek root of the word “parochial” in Greek, implies ‘for all those who are outside the household’, giving us an imperative not to be inward looking. He warned against seeking imposition of decisions from above, saying, “Diocesan strategies with teeth leave wounds!” Instead, we needed to improve how we share ideas and best practice.

The Archdeacon of Sherborne introduced the Annual Report of the Social Justice Group and presented the annual Social Justice Awards. A video presentation looked at people assisting in the refugee crisis from Blandford, Weymouth and Portland, and the Community Foundation for Wiltshire and Swindon. The Revd Jonathan Herbert, the Diocese’s new Chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers made a presentation about his work with the largest ethnic minority in the Diocese.

The three award winners were: Mothers’ Union, for their work with Syrian refugees arriving locally under the UK government scheme; St Thomas’ in Salisbury for their work in promoting public awareness during the UN climate change talks; and St Francis of Assisi, Weymouth, for long years of community engagement on the Littlemoor Estate, including the recent opening of a church-supported laundrette after years of planning.

After lunch, Canon Jane Charman, Director of Learning for Discipleship and Ministry, introduced discussions on discipleship. “It is our role to be baptised, disciple-making, followers” of Christ, she said. Developing discipleship was also, she said, key to church growth. “When discipleship is taken seriously, vocations arise, ministries are released, and when ministries are released, churches are well led, healthy and flourishing”, she argued, “Churches that are good at providing opportunities for people to explore and develop their faith also develop new vocations.”

Synod members then discussed more deeply in small groups what discipleship means and how the Learning for Development and Ministry Team could help parishes to develop discipleship.

Bishop Nicholas presented three papers supporting the Diocese’s strategy “Renewing Hope: Pray, Serve, Grow”. He said that storytelling is important in changing our culture – telling our own good news stories can make us more positive in how we approach the world. Church attendance in Salisbury is much higher than the national average, as in other largely rural dioceses, and there is clearly a dynamic about the rural church that needs to be better harnessed.

There is also a lot of positive energy surrounding Fresh Expressions, he said; yet lest we dismiss the inherited church, we should remember it has survived for 2000 years. He was clear that decline in attendance can be reversed. During his visits to Deaneries last year, nobody expressed an interest in managing decline or closing the churches that are least well attended.

Parishes have been using three questions from the those visits to shape thinking: “What do you pray for?”; “Whom do you serve?”; and “How do you grow?”

“What do you pray for?” is a particularly searching and revealing question – it tells a lot about where our priorities are.

Growing new vocations is a pressing challenge. Over 30% of the stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy in the Diocese will retire in the next 10 years. To sustain even existing patterns of ministry, we will need to grow a substantially greater number of vocations to all forms of ministry, lay as well as ordained. Lay and ordained ministries are not polarities; the aim is to grow both. The Diocese has set itself demanding targets for new vocations. Training these new ministers means that the decade-long run of share increases at or below inflation is likely to come to an end.

In his experience, if it is explained clearly to churchgoers why the additional money is needed and how it fits into an overall strategy, then people will contribute accordingly.

The significant number of new housing being built will have major implications for parochial ministry. 60,000 new houses are due to be built locally over the next decade. Poole is the biggest regeneration area in the South West and other substantial pockets of 1,000 new houses or more will be dotted right across the Diocese.

There was substantial discussion afterwards, which Bishop Nicholas said had identified some gaps and presentational issues which needed to be addressed. At the end of the debate, the direction and priorities were endorsed unanimously by Synod. Members of Bishops Staff will visit Deaneries to discuss the strategies later in 2016.

Photo 2: Joining discussions on discipleship, the Rt Revd Hassan Oman James of Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Kadugli, Sudan and the Rt Revd Abdu Elnur Kodi of the diocese of Port Sudan, Sudan.

Photo 3: Receiving a prize for their church commitment to social justice work on the Littlemoor Estate where they are based, the Revd Lorraine Dobbins and Darren Dalton from St Francis of Assisi, Weymouth.

Photo 4: Bishop Nicholas addressing delegates.

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