Bishop Paul gave his final Presidential Address to Diocesan Synod as they gathered today at Newton Aycliffe. Bishop Paul is to retire at the end of February after nearly ten years as Bishop of Durham. In his speech, he touched on LLF, the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and reflected on his time in the Diocese and his great optimism for the future. The full text of his speech is below.
PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS 18th November 2023
My dear friends, sisters and brothers, this is my final Presidential Address to you as the Diocesan Synod. It has been an enormous honour to serve as Bishop of this great and ancient Diocese for the past, nearly, ten years. I do not want this final address to be too much about what has happened. I want to help you keep looking forward.
To this end let me begin by saying how confident I am in the leadership team that will take you through the vacancy. This is not a Prime Ministerial ‘full confidence’ but a genuinely held conviction. Do uphold +Sarah in prayer in the months ahead. She will lead you with clarity, prayerfulness and love. We are served by three fabulous Archdeacons in Libby, Rick and Bob, a wonderful Diocesan Secretary in James, a great new Dean in Philip, a brilliant Chair of Finance in Mags, a wise Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion lead in Remi, an inspiring DDE in Gill, a superb Communications lead in Rod and by an excellent Transformation application lead in Duncan. They work well as a team. Uphold them in prayer – and have a little patience when some things might just take a little more time. I would also like you to remember the Bishop’s Office Team, Chris as Chaplain, Jo as PA and Office Manager, Ann and Rachael; along with Sarah who is +Sarah’s PA. They are superb. The months ahead will pose fresh challenges for them too.
Pray too for the Vacancy in See Committee as they undertake their work of seeking, with the Archbishops and others, the person who should be my successor. I know you will all play your part as consultations get underway sometime in the New Year.
We have over the past 10 years first developed a Diocesan strategy, with our vision to ‘Bless our communities, from the Tyne to the Tees and the Dales to the Sea, in Jesus’ name for the transformation of all’. We had three priorities of Children and Young People, Growth and Poverty. We also began to work with the national church to support us financially in developing our first Resource Churches. We then moved on to develop Communities of Hope and a church planting strategy, under the title of Cultivate. Half way through we took time to review where we had reached and what changes might be needed from our learning and discerning. This was the Waymark process. It led to us reaffirming the Vision and the three priorities but adding a fourth, highlighted by our children and young people, that of Care for God’s Creation. Since then we have continued to develop the Communities of Hope, seen further Resourcing churches develop and begun to see new church plants happening through Cultivate.
However, the Covid pandemic hit our parishes hard, like everyone else in the region and nation. It has been very difficult to help churches recover from the Covid impact on our lay leadership and numbers overall, particularly amongst the frailest elderly and the young. The biggest lesson learned from all of this is, I think, the need to recognise that we need to be willing to engage in transformation across every parish and church in the Diocese. What this will look like will vary from place to place, even within the same Benefice. However the commonality is the need to focus deeply on every one of us being missionary disciples who invite others to become fellow pilgrims with us following Jesus together. They will in turn be inviting others to join in the pilgrim journey. This will always be rooted in worship and prayer. Our chief end, after all, is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.
So as we take the next steps in the whole Diocesan Transformation process, being worked on as a 10 year programme overall, all I can do is urge you to first, keep looking up to God in worship, prayer and listening through the Scriptures, our tradition, reason and learning from what God is doing amongst us.
Then, second, keeping looking out to the world that God loves and which we are called to serve. Be outward facing, outward focussed and outward serving. Then, third, do attend to one another in prayerful, pastoral support and encouragement of one another to keep walking with Christ together continually growing in love for God, God’s people and God’s world. Be brave in planting new worshipping communities, both using existing buildings, and exploring taking risks at planting in new places – schools, FE colleges, local community centres, care homes, out in the open air. Planting new places will both reach new people and build up the existing worshippers as God is seen to be active and alive across our diverse communities. Do give a priority to the younger generations – that does not mean forgetting the older ones – it is simply a question of where the priority is placed. Keep tackling poverty together with others – both in the practical expressions like food banks, warm spaces, lunch clubs, asylum seeker and refugee welcome and in the whole business of seeking justice for the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities. Here I believe greater collaboration with Tyne and Wear Citizens would be valuable. Do all of this attending to playing our part, through our churchyards and community spaces, in encouraging bio-diversity, and working to move to Net Zero in all our varied buildings. Keep being very clear that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’. Let us always work so that ‘All creatures of our God and King’ will ‘Lift up their hearts and with us sing, O praise God, O praise God, Alleluia.’
LIVING IN LOVE AND FAITH
For a large part of my ten years the Church of England has been going through the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process. I am sorry if I failed to lead this as well as I could within the Diocese. I wish more parishes had engaged in the course and fed back into the process. Forgive me if I have failed to listen carefully enough to those who are Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex or Asexual. I know you are not a category but each one a person made in God’s image and for whom Jesus Christ died, just like every Heterosexual person. The church has often hurt you and failed you badly. I am deeply sorry for this, and for my own contribution to that hurt – for I am a frail sinful person so know that I will have done so unwittingly. Equally forgive me if you continue to uphold a traditional orthodox view on marriage and have a deep concern that your own position within the Church of England is under threat. I am sure I have also not listened to you as well as I might have done. What I, working closely with Bishop Sarah, have been seeking to do is seek to be bishop to all the people of the Diocese. This is, I am convinced, an important part of what it means to be a bishop of the Diocese. The cure of souls is shared with all the clergy. The pastoral care is to be for all the people – both those who worship with us regularly and the large majority who do not, but for whom I have been given a spiritual responsibility and authority by my consecration and office. The call to serve God by serving you all has been at the heart of my longing and actions.
At the General Synod this week a motion was passed that encourages the House of Bishops to continue its work of implementation following on from the decisions made in February. This will mean the commending of Prayers of Love and Faith for use in parishes, but only where the incumbent and PCC agree that they will opt in to use them. It also encourages the bishops to look again at the use of services for an experimental period. This motion was passed only narrowly in both the House of Laity (104 – 100) and the House of Clergy (100-93). Unsurprisingly there was a larger percentage in the House of Bishops in favour (23-10). However it also worth remembering that the looking again at services had earlier only been passed by the laity with a majority of 1 and there were 2 abstentions ; and only by a majority of 7 in the house of clergy. Now if you came to an Archdeacon or Bishop Sarah or I after a particularly contentious issue seeking advice because a proposal had only been approved by 1 vote at a PCC meeting, or an annual parochial meeting, I think we would all be advising you to proceed with great care and caution not simply race ahead to crack on with the decision being implemented. So, whilst the decision should not be blocked, in the short term great care needs to be taken. We were encouraged a lot as bishops to be transparent in our workings. So let me be transparent with you. I could not vote in favour of the experimental services at this stage and so could not support the main motion as it had been amended when it came to the final vote. However my note about taking great care about how to proceed when a matter is so finely balanced would apply if I had voted in favour as this is about wise leadership and governance not the rights or wrongs of a decision. We will have to see what steps the House of Bishops make, and when. I remind you that +Sarah and I have set up 2 evenings, on December 13th and 14th for people to come and talk with us about these matters.
This leads me also to ask all clergy and PCCs to act with prayerful, thoughtful caution. There are those calling for rapid alternative options to be taken. There are those who want to simply crack on with using the prayers and services. I would encourage everyone to consider carefully their actions. In particular I would encourage us all to reflect afresh on how St Paul urged the Christians in Rome to treat one another over their strong and deep differences over food in Romans 14. It is not the same but it bears prayerful reflection. I encourage us all to consider how all our churches offer welcome to all who choose to come and join us. I encourage us to think carefully about how we speak to, and of one another; let us always seek to ensure that our ‘speech is always gracious, seasoned with salt, so that we might know how we ought to answer each person’. In the coming months we will have to work through just how any further decisions from the House of Bishops are worked through in the Diocese. Pray for wisdom in that decision making.
One of the reasons I know that I have struggled with working out how much time to give to Living in Love and Faith has been my conviction that actually for the majority of our churches it has not been at the top of priorities. There has been much more concern about declining numbers, and about the challenge of the poverty found amongst so many in our communities. There has also been a desire to ensure good welcome to refugees and asylum seekers. So part of why I have focussed on these issues locally and nationally has been because it has felt like these are the higher priorities in most parishes. Likewise our relationship with Lesotho, that of some parishes with Kilimathindi, others with Sudan and the growing number engaging with Burundi has meant that their experience of the impact of climate change and the even deeper challenge they face with poverty means this has been more of our global concern. You might tell me I got the balance wrong. But I don’t think I got the priorities wrong. Another factor has been my Co-chairing of the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households. This has been one of the greatest privileges of my episcopal life. The Commissioners were a wonderful group of people with whom to work. The work we saw and learned about around the country with families was awe inspiring. Our call was to address all family life in England. This we sought to do. The response our Love Matters report has received from across churches, other faiths and the whole children and family sector has been enormously positive. I am convinced that in every parish we can serve families well by simply doing some basics well. Our schools can serve families well by offering high quality relationships education rooted in our Christian commitment to love and family life. I hope that this will be taken forward across the Diocese simply in reaching out to families of all sorts to keep on loving one another, after the example of Jesus himself.
UKRAINE AND ISRAEL / PALESTINE /GAZA
Mentioning some of our global connections I cannot end this address without reference to both the ongoing war in Ukraine and the horrific events in Israel and Gaza. It now feels that the Ukraine war is grinding on. Winter will mean more of a pause again, but not a cessation. Next spring will probably see renewed intensity. It is essential, I think, that our Government continues to support Ukraine in defending itself, and ensures that all the Ukrainians who fled here and were welcomed well continue to be assured that they are welcome to stay as long as it is necessary until it is safe for them, and their children, to return to their beloved homeland and homes.
In relation to Gaza and Israel there is no doubt that the terrorist killings and hijackings undertaken by Hamas on October 7th were horrific and utterly wrong. Israel rightly wants to see the hostages released and returned to their families. Israel rightly wants to defend itself and ensure Hamas can never undertake such outrageous killings again. However like most people I have watched the destruction of so much of Gaza with deep shock. The number of children and innocent civilians who have died is appalling. The failure to allow adequate humanitarian support in is deeply mistaken. There does need to be more than short term humanitarian pauses, and the quantity of daily supplies being delivered clearly needs to increase significantly. Surely now a ceasefire to allow those in hospitals who are there for treatment, or simply safety, need to be given adequate time to move to safety. The hostages need to be released. Israel needs to ponder carefully what they will do to ensure that the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank are able to live in a true just and lasting peace beyond this current period. This will have to include the rebuilding of homes and infrastructure. We must keep praying that the violence will end soon and we must hold onto hope for the future.
In our own nation antisemitism needs to stop, as does Islamophobia. Both are pernicious evils. We need to stand alongside both our Jewish and Muslim friends and ensure they know they are fully equal citizens of our land.
As I draw to a conclusion I want to return to this beautiful Diocese. Rosemary and I came here not really knowing the people and the places. We came with a deep sense that we were responding to God’s call through God’s church. It was a surprise and it was not an easy move to make. It has never ceased to be challenging. It has always also been deeply rewarding and an immense privilege.
You have been wonderful people with whom to walk together as pilgrims. The communities across this Diocese are amazing. Our congregations are led by wonderful clergy working with retired colleagues, Churchwardens, PCCs, licensed lay ministers and a huge number of volunteers. As Rosemary and I move away to Newark on Trent we will carry you in our hearts, and be assured we will continue to hold you in our prayers.
Thank you for helping me be your bishop. You have helped me grow as a pilgrim and follower of Jesus. For at the end of the day all I have ever really wanted since the day I found God had hold of me in His loving arms is to be a faithful follower of Jesus, the Lord and Saviour of the world