Diocesan Synod 11th March 2023
Click here for the Diocesan Synod 2023 Agenda
Bishop Ian’s Charge to Synod
Part I (morning session)
‘I am the vine,’ says Jesus. ‘You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.’
St Paul talks of the Church as a body, with its different limbs and organs and Christ as the head, the Body of Christ. John uses a different image for the Church, that of a vine. The vine was already an image for God’s People in Isaiah where it bears wild or sour grapes, and in the Psalms where it is ravaged by wild animals. In those cases, the vine is in trouble, cut off from the one who planted it. In John, however, the vine is tended by a caring farmer, God, who waters it and prunes it. But the true vine, says Jesus, is himself, and God’s People are its branches. They can only live and bear fruit because they are connected to the living stem and to each other. In John therefore the Church is not the Body of Christ but the Vine of Christ.
I love this vivid and organic image of who we are as a church, a diocese, and as each congregation. Like a vine, we may not be particularly gracious to look at – a vine is twisted, even ugly. But like a vine we are made to be fruitful, and can only be fruitful if we are connected to the rest of the vine like branches. Having life and bearing fruit come only if we abide in Jesus and are one with each other.
‘I am the vine,’ says Jesus. ‘You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.’ – is an image for every diocese, every congregation. We are not just an association of congregations, or societies of individuals. We are in the same vine, sharing the same sap, bearing the same fruit, pruned by the same farmer.
The vine depends on the farmer. But equally the farmer depends on the vine. For the vine can do what the farmer can’t do, it can take the rain that falls on the vineyard and turn it into grapes. And the farmer can do what the vine can’t do, by harvesting the grapes, pressing our the juice, and leaving it to ferment. In other words the farmer and the vine work together to turn water into wine. As at a wedding in Cana, so here, the vine is an image of transformation, and of abundance.
This is another reason why we need this image in every diocese and every congregation today. For so often our talk is not of hope, transformation and abundance, but of worries for the future, resistance to change, and scarcity of resources. Becoming more vine-like is essential, because for every branch of the vine it matters if the sap stops flowing, if the leaves and the flowers and the fruits stop appearing. Christianity is about life, new and abundant life, generous and overflowing life. There is no dried-up version of Christianity. Lifeless, joyless, soul-less Christianity, is not Christianity at all.
That is why the branches that dwell in the vine have to be pruned. Every year the farmer cuts off those which do not bear fruit, and prunes those which do. Pruning is not just hacking off a branch here and there for the sake of it. It is the careful cutting back at the right place and the right time, to enable better growth and more fruit.
In this Synod we have the opportunity to consider what this pruning means for us. For example, the pruning we have to plan as we aim for Net Zero in all our churches, to bear fruit for our planet. And the 5-10 year plans we make to ensure the future of each church, the things we must build up or let go now for the sake of that future. All of this is pruning the vine today so that it will bear fruit for others tomorrow.
People have always thought that the Church is just one generation away from either closing down or taking off. That is the nature of faith, it seems to me. But this is our generation’s time to think imaginatively of how God is calling us to prune our Diocese, our churches, and our patterns of ministry, so that future generations will bear fruit. It is not a time to be afraid. It is a time to look for hope, transformation and abundance.
In the end, however, Christian fruitfulness does not come from nervous effort or frantic worry, but from something deeper. Its roots are found in that word ‘abide,’ used so often by Jesus – ‘Abide in me’, he says, ‘and you will be fruitful’. We abide in him by attending to our life of prayer, our engagement with scripture, our service of those in need.
In other words, if we and generations to come are going to bear God’s fruit, more ‘abiding’ needs to be an integral part of our 5 to 10 year plans, and be an active part of the life of every church and every Christian. As with the vine, it is the fruits that count, but the roots that matter.
Click here to watch Part I
Part II (afternoon session)
I am sometimes asked questions like, “Does the Church have a future?” The question disturbs me, but my main feeling about it is that it is the wrong question. The real question seems to me more like, “Does the future have a Church? And what will it be like?” For me, it’s a better question because although I don’t know the answer, I trust in a God who does.
All over the country, churches of all traditions are facing questions like these, questions that arise from uncertainty about the future. We are all experiencing change in a post-pandemic, post-prosperity, post-Christendom world. And change pushes us into the unknown future, whether we like it or not.
In this Diocese, we have our questions about change and the future – Where will more people come from? Where will the money come from? How will we keep going?
These are very natural questions. But maybe there are other questions we could ask too. Not,“Does the Church in this place have a future?” but “Does the future of this place have a Church? And what will it be like?” Not, “When in the next 5-10 years will this church close if we change nothing today?” but “What do we need to change today for the Church to be here in 5-10 years time?”
There are many possible answers to these questions, because every place is different. The answers include congregations more actively supporting each other, forming more linked charges, making more of area councils, enabling full-time clergy to oversee several congregations and their trained and authorised local lay ministries, and leaving a costly building in order to worship in a shared or even secular space instead.
The kind of imaginative thinking this calls for may radical, it is never easy, and is not always welcome. We had prefer things to carry on as they are. But hardly ever will ‘business as usual’ be the answer to our questions about the future. The scale of the actions needed to achieve net zero, for example, shows that none of us is immune from change. In other words this is a time of pruning, of preparing the vine of our diocese and congregations for the new growth and its fruit that is waiting to come.
5 to 10 year planning helps us to ask, “What do we need to change today for the Church to be here in 5-10 years time?” Responding to this question does not have to be complicated. In fact, it should be kept simple. It could start by asking ourselves, “Where are we now? Where are we going? How will we get there?”
Questions like these will enable us to prune our branch of the vine, to decide what to build up and what to let go of, and what we need from each other as we work together as a diocese, like a vine sharing the sap that grows the fruit.
+Ian St Andrews
Click here to watch Part II