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Diocesan Synod

March 2015

Presidential Address by The Bishop of Southwark, The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun

Bishop Christopher Chessun
Bishop Christopher addresses Synod
Apart from the Diocese of Southwark and its Bishop being in very good heart, this year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the fundamental charter of liberties in the principles that underlie its clauses.  In a later transcription in Canterbury we are told that King John sealed the Great Charter at Runneymede between Richmond and Staines, in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as well as the Archbishop of Dublin, a number of other bishops and of course his rebellious barons.   Some early records suggest that Stephen Langton was in league with the barons while modern research is a little kinder tends to suggest he was a peacemaker and reconciler concerned to bring justice and peace to the Kingdom.  Tradition, certainly local tradition in this diocese, asserts that the Archbishop then journeyed a little beyond Richmond to consecrate the newly enlarged parish church of St Mary's at Barnes.  I launched a year of celebrations in that parish just a few days after another very significant historical moment, the consecration of the first woman bishop for the Church of England, which saw large numbers of bishops journeying to York at the end of January. 

The anniversary of Magna Carta is a reminder that politics and religion have been woven together as part of our national life down the centuries. Indeed one of the few clauses of the Charter to remain part of the Statute Book is that guaranteeing the liberty of the English Church. It is good to note that this liberty is about the freedom to practise religion and to order the affairs of the Church. It is liberty within the life of the nation, not liberty from it. Indeed the continued recognition that the Church is an intrinsic part of the fabric of the nation reminds us of the obligation laid on the Church to speak into the life of our country. The Church is not a private members organisation, special interest or pressure group. It has a duty and an obligation to speak, according to its values, into national public discourse.

The recent publication of ‘On Rock or Sand’ edited by the Archbishop of York, with contributions among others from the Archbishop of Canterbury, demonstrates not only the continuing engagement of our Archbishops in our national life but the rightful place of the Church in the Public Square, not least in focusing on specific issues including economics, health and poverty which impact so much on our common life and the well being of the people of this nation. It was entirely predictable that certain commentators would assume that the essays had a bias to the political left and on this assumption were anti Government. In fact they were written by specialists in their various fields, and reflected a wide ranging approach, with no particular political stance, but a strong challenge to take responsibility for actions and policies as well as their consequences.

More recently, the publication of ‘Who is my Neighbour?’, the Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops to all members of the Church ahead of the General Election caused a number of politicians and journalists to criticise the Letter without seeming to know the content, rather than seeking to be informed before making comment. The content is in fact a seriously considered range of questions that might be asked on several issues, some more controversial than others.

The Preface sets the scene and purpose of the Letter rather well.  I quote:

‘How should Christian men and women approach the General Election to be held on 7th May 2015?  This letter from the Church of England’s House of Bishops is addressed to all members of the church. And, as the Church of England strives to be a church which seeks the good of all the people of the country, we hope that others, who may not profess church allegiance, will nevertheless join in the conversation and engage with the ideas we are sharing here.

This letter is not a shopping list of policies we would like to see.  It is a call for the new direction that we believe our political life ought to take.’

The purpose of the Pastoral Letter then is intended to be a considered reflection on political engagement and national life and some of the challenges we face in our contemporary context.  At 53 pages, thankfully it is more than a series of sound bites! It challenges the reader, indeed it challenges us all, as the members of the church to whom it is addressed, to consider important issues that are central to a healthy democracy.

A key element is a reminder that the number of people who actually exercise their right to vote is going down in percentage terms at each election.  Democracy has been hard won in this country, yet the stock of respect for our political life and institutions continues to diminish.  There is not as yet much evidence that the forthcoming General Election will have the same energy as the recent Referendum on Scottish Independence which saw a turn out of 83% and a very energised campaign as people took responsibility for marshalling their views on the future of the United Kingdom.

The Letter reminds us that in Britain many polls show that the expectation of voters is more of the same no matter who is elected to form a Government. What is required is a new vision for the creation of a healthy society in which everyone is treated with respect and empowered to participate fully in the political process.

In the last few days, Roman Catholic Bishops have issued a Pastoral Letter that focuses on specific areas of concern and suggests questions for candidates. At about the same time the document ‘Black Church Political Mobilisation’ a manifesto for action has also been published.  The Church of England is not alone in wanting to engage purposefully in these matters, though the press and media coverage in both cases was at a much lower level, even though both documents offer very forthright comments on controversial issues.

In all three documents the challenge that is recognised is that as a nation we need to identify a vision for the country that sparks a wide ranging discussion on the kind of society we want to live in and our moral duty to our neighbour.

The key message is the part we have to play in promoting the ‘Common Good’, in other words the principle that we should work for the benefit of the whole of society not only those with the financial means for their own well being. The good neighbour is the example for every one across all faith traditions and none.

A healthy society is also one where faith is accepted as making a contribution to the building of communities that live in harmony. In this context it is important that we recognise and encourage a better understanding of the fact that we live in a society in which different faith traditions live side by side.

I recently took part in the celebration of the allocation of the 800th grant under the Near Neighbours Scheme which is funded by the Department for Local Government and Communities through the Church Urban Fund. The celebration took place in Lambeth Town Hall and included presentations of faith groups working together to serve their local communities.

One example was of a partnership between Jewish and Muslim women another was a synagogue working with children with learning difficulties that welcomed children of any faith or none. The two examples are a sign of the good that can come when people of faith share together in meeting the needs of those who require extra support and encouragement.

The Bishops’ Pastoral Letter offers a challenge to all of us to be active citizens and not to take for granted the status quo in which apathy is the order of the day. In a civilised and vibrant society this simply is not good enough.  We share a mutual responsibility for one another and we have duty of care, with good biblical imperatives, for the alien, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the asylum seeker in our midst. In Luke 10, the Good Samaritan recognises this and comes to the aid of his neighbour in contrast with others who want not only to avoid engagement with the injured man but even to recognise him as neighbour in the first place.  Those voices in the Media and Politics, by no means the majority, who believe that the Church of England should not be contaminated or indeed contaminate politics are in truth wrong.  They certainly have little historical awareness or understanding. And it is of course especially important that we challenge those who promote polarising ideas that seek to exclude any of our fellow citizens who have equal rights within a democratic society.

We are called to be active citizens and active Christians.  This means being willing and ready and eager to serve and come to the aid of those who are needy, seeking always to serve the Common Good.  It also means being active in asking questions of our civic and political representatives, who are accountable for their actions and policies, but also remembering to pray for them and uphold them in their lives of public service. It is a very heavy burden on them.  We do this for the Love of God in Jesus Christ and for the Love of Neighbour.

The message of Magna Carta may have quickly been ignored by King John, but not for long.  It has become the bedrock of our political system and of our liberties and freedoms, including those of the Church.  In celebrating its 800th anniversary, let us recommit ourselves to thinking about the key political issues of today in the context of our daily life in the parish communities of this Diocese and in contributing to the building of the ‘Common Good’ for the well being of our nation and all her people.