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Archbishop’s Charge to Synod

Archbishop Colin Johnson delivered his Charge on the first day of the 156th regular session of Synod, held in Richmond Hill Nov. 13-14.

Archbishop Johnson speaks to Synod. Photos by Michael Hudson
Archbishop Johnson speaks to Synod. Photos by Michael Hudson

By Archbishop Colin Johnson

Some years ago, Brother Martin Smith, former Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, gave a lecture at an event for the training of new bishops. They wanted him to talk on the Bishop as Pastor — you know: friend to everyone, carrier of the shepherd’s staff (or crozier), protector and unifier, and all that. He turned it all on its head.

He said, “It is an irony of language that one of the meanings of the word pastoral is ‘pertaining to a tranquil rustic scene.’ A pastoral painting depicts an idealized landscape of calm and beauty with nymphs and shepherds. Now our pastoral scene is in violent contrast, one in which we are coming to terms with the necessity of chaos and the inevitability of conflict in communities that evolve or perish.”

He recalled reading the sequel to Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, a novel called The Lost World, where one of the characters, Ian Malcolm, discusses how complex systems such as corporations learn to adapt or face extinction. [Malcolm] says this:

But even more important is the way complex systems seem to strike a balance between the need for order and the imperative to change. Complex systems seem to locate themselves at a place we call ‘the edge of chaos.’ We imagine the edge of chaos as a space where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy. It is a zone of conflict and upheaval where the old and the new are constantly at war. Finding the balancing point must be a delicate matter: if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away from the edge, it becomes frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction. Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish. “

Brother Martin Smith goes on to comment that this “is remarkably suggestive about the role of pastoral leadership. It is scary to realize that chaos is vitally central in God’s creation, and that is why leadership has to be pastoral, a ministry of encouragement and guidance. Pastoral leadership will take its stand at the place of discernment in this ‘zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war.’ The episcopal charism of maintaining unity will not consist in repressing the war between the old and the new, but encouraging and continually re-centering a community in which we know that both the resources of stability and the risks of change come from the Spirit. What kind of spirituality will enable pastoral leaders to live consciously at the edge of chaos?”

Brother Martin’s speech was directed at bishops and their role in leadership, but I think his words are equally applicable to us today as we gather as leaders of the Church in this Diocese, assembled in Synod.

And [Jesus] said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13: 52 NRSV)

Things old and new.

It sounds like a china cabinet we have at home, filled with family heirlooms that both remind us of our roots and give pleasure by their enduring beauty. And, every once in a while, we add to this collection new treasures that we have discovered on our travels.

That’s what it sounds like. But it’s not the Gospel. It does not match the dynamic energy, the powerfully unsettling turmoil of Martin’s image or indeed of the Gospel itself.

Synod members listen to Charge.
Synod members listen to Charge.

This saying of Jesus comes at the end of a series of parables about the realm of God, a catalogue of images that no longer catches us off-guard, putting our notions off-balance as they did their first audience. God’s kingdom is described not in terms of mighty acts of power or accomplishment, not in a calling to mind of the seven wonders of the world, but by ordinary things: yeast, seeds, merchants, widows, subversive behaviour, a lost coin, or, in a similar vein, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine, the water of a muddy river. The stuff of life and the ordinary folk who are caught up in something they think is so valuable that they give everything to pursue this thing that captivates their attention.

And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.'”

The scribe is the interpreter, not just a record-keeper, the one who pays attention, the one who stands in the present and joins hands both with the ancient tradition and the contemporary circumstances. The discerner who can search the witness of the tradition — who knows the scriptures and the Church’s commentary on them, who knows the lives of the saints shaped by faithful discipleship, who has been formed and informed by the inherited customs and their meaning. The scribe is the one trained who puts all this together with the teachings of Jesus, both as received through the tradition and from the living Lord speaking to the listening, arguing, praying, conversing community today in which the Spirit continues to dwell and work. The trained scribe is the one who knows the ancient stories — The Story — of God’s interactions with humankind so well that she or he can see the traces of the themes, the same patterns of relationship, in the new stories today and can name glimpses of God’s presence now.

The scribe is not a curator of a museum but stands on the edge of chaos seeking what was, and is, and is to come. (See Gary Peluso-Verdent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).

That’s where we are, I think, in this Diocese today: scribes trained for the Kingdom, standing on the edge.

We have not changed our focus in this Diocese. Our mission is to worship, proclaim, embody. We do that by seeking to build communities of hope and compassion through healthy, vital parishes and ministries. We are working to be a Diocese that is mission-shaped in all of its parts, responsive to the ongoing activity of God in healing and reconciling the world to Himself. We are invited to be partners in the Missio Dei, the mission of God.

This is not new. The Anglican Church, of which we are the local expression, is formed by scripture, shaped by worship, ordered for communion, and directed to mission. That’s the Anglican way. (See The Anglican Way: Signposts on a Common Journey, The Anglican Communion Office.) It was the ministry of the first Anglicans in this province. It was the vision of the first bishop of this Diocese. It was the driving force of those who worshipped, proclaimed, embodied their faith in the Triune God through the centuries. It has never been done perfectly. It has erred. It has been badly broken. But it has been incredibly gifted by God to serve and witness to his redeeming love.

We need to find encouragement here for the ministry we have traditionally done. We have a rich heritage on which to draw: a strong history of intelligent engagement with scripture that has undergirded our life and practice and links us to the history of God’s redeeming purposes; a luminous liturgical tradition that many non-Anglicans are just beginning to discover and appreciate, a style of worship that draws us into the holy mystery of God; a pastoral sensitivity that embraces widely diverse communities in God’s loving compassion; a model of governance that balances bishops and synods, leadership and accountability, the individual and the collective, direction and autonomy.

We all know that at its worst, the Anglican Church can be truly dreary! Let’s also remember that at its best, the Anglican Church can be astonishingly good!

Let me continue the list: word and sacrament, prayer and outreach, study and service, gathered community and civic engagement, a parish structure that identifies a whole region and not just the weekly worshippers as the field of mission, connections into the local community and connections across the world, talented clergy and dedicated laity —  these are “old” treasures of our church that we have in our storehouse. This is a valuable part of our missional repertoire. We have invested in these old treasures, and appropriately so. You can see both in the report card on Plans and Priorities for 2013-2015 and the proposals for 2015-2017, that with Synod’s approval, we are expending money and personnel in this.

Let me reiterate: these are valuable and indispensible gifts — tools for mission that we already know how to use, even if in our familiarity with them, we sometimes write off or diminish their significance.

But we are also called to constantly renew ourselves and our ministry. God is an ever- creative God, Christ is alive, the Spirit is active. God is doing a new thing. That is a clear word from our biblical heritage, our theological tradition and our prayed experience.

The world is changing around us, even as we are changing. People speak in new idioms. Technology has reshaped our patterns of connecting, opening up undreamed opportunities both intriguing and nightmarish. We need to respond to new ways of meeting, new moral dilemmas, new cultures, new alliances. We no longer share a common history or familiar stories.

The Gospel is not different, but how it is presented might be. Our innate human need to worship has not changed, but the models for how we do that might have to. The needs of the poor and marginalized remain, but how, and with whom, we engage in outreach might be different. Discipleship still is at the core of our relationship with God and each other, but how we are formed as disciples requires new practices.

So we, in this Diocese, are engaged in projects and experiments that take us beyond our comfort zone in order to reach out to others who would not otherwise come within our purview. You will see that, too, reflected in the budget and ministry priorities. You will hear it in the Missional Moments throughout Synod.

We have funded seed projects with Reach and Stretch Grants, started new congregations, re-thought education programs, found new partnerships for social justice ministries, authorized new pastoral responses, spent more time researching the needs and aspirations of our local communities. We are trying to listen creatively to the critique of those outside and to respond faithfully to the pain we have caused some. We are trying to figure out more effective ways to make disciples and form leaders. We must take some creative, principled risks for the sake of the Gospel, even if we make mistakes — which we surely will.

This does not mean that we jettison what is important from the past. But some of it needs to go; some of it is not important; some of it is stifling the Spirit.

It does not mean that we embrace everything new. Some of it is quite transitory; some of it is quite destructive and soul destroying; some of it is stifling the Spirit.

Which is which? That’s the point of discernment. It is not readily apparent, although it will be perfectly obvious to certain groups of people. Unfortunately, they will be on opposing sides. That is the difficult place on the edge of chaos. It is the creative place of discernment where we meet God’s Spirit. It is the place at the foot of the Cross. It is a place of uncertainty and loss, of grief and confusion, of conflict and pain. It is a place of hope and possibility, of faith and new life, of reconciliation and, yes, consolation. It is a place of waiting for what only God can accomplish, for what God will accomplish. It requires courage and encouragement — patient listening and persistent faith to stay long enough in that place to recognize the presence and the direction of the Spirit’s leading.

Not everything will work. That should not stop us. Not every experiment will yield the results we want. That should not discourage us. What did we learn from the attempt? Not every seed planted will flourish. In the history of the Church, many initiatives took years, even generations, to come to fruition, and often then, not in the form originally planned. “One sows, another reaps.”

Remember Brother Martin Smith’s point:

“Pastoral leadership will take its stand at the place of discernment in this ‘zone of conflict and upheaval where the old and the new are constantly at war.’ The episcopal charism of maintaining unity will not consist in repressing the war between the old and the new, but encouraging and continually re-centering a community in which we know that both the resources of stability and the risks of change come from the Spirit.”

“Encouraging and continually re-centering the community in which we know that both the resources of stability and the risks of change come from the Spirit.”

Re-centering.” Remembering what is at the heart of it all —  God’s unquenchable love for the whole of Creation.

And then Martin’s haunting question that we need to think and pray more about: “What kind of spirituality will enable pastoral leaders to live consciously at the edge of chaos?”

This is the uncomfortable place we are called by God to be as leaders of the Church in this Diocese at this time. By virtue of your office as members of Synod, you are the leaders — bishops, clergy and lay.

There is no quick fix. But I believe that we as Anglicans in this Diocese of Toronto are extraordinarily well positioned for this challenge — deeply rooted in a lively tradition, attempting to embrace a multi-dimensional diversity that is our social reality, still large enough and well enough resourced to be willing to risk experimenting, trying some new things and being changed by that. We really are being intentional about becoming a Diocese that is missional-focused in all its parts. We really are attempting to work out what it might look like in practice to be Archbishop Rowan Williams’ “mixed-economy church.”

Bishop Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, wrote a short article in the Church Times. (July 9, 2015.) I’ve changed the term he used, “priestly leaders,” and extend it to include all “Christian leaders,” for that fits with his intent.

 Priestly [Christian] leaders do not dominate: they mediate. By entering into the experience of others, they create and forge community by reconciling what would otherwise be at loggerheads, or separated. They make connections between unlikely people and institutions, and hold together communities that might otherwise break apart in disunity and division.

Priestly [Christian] leaders do not placate, they perfect. Rather than aim to keep everyone happy, they are fiercely dedicated, not to the furtherance of their own careers, but to the nurture, growth and development of those in their care, and the institutions they are called to preserve and develop, even when that means making tough and unpopular decisions. They keep their eye on the goal, the big picture, the ultimate purpose of all things.

“Finally, the purpose of their work is not self-glorification, but offering. They work hard, not out of some secular work ethic, but because they remember that the goal of their work as leaders is not ultimately the success of their organization, the year-end profit margin, or even the number of people affected, but to serve a much greater and higher goal: the creation of something good, life-giving, and worthwhile — an offering worthy of God the Creator himself. Human work is noble activity, ultimately finding its purpose in worship — the sabbath offering of all that has been done and achieved; the work of human hands, to the glory not of the creature but of the Creator.”

We cannot expect to agree on all things, but can we “enter into the experience of others” and “create …community by reconciling what would otherwise be at loggerheads?” What is the wisdom another brings that needs to be part of our flourishing? Where does my intransigence serve to block rather than to protect that flourishing? Who are the unlikely people here and at home with whom you can make connections for the sake of the Kingdom? How can you act to hold together communities that might otherwise break apart in division, because you are committed to a larger vision, a higher goal, and find your profound unity in Jesus Christ? In spite of our differences, can we make decisions wisely and courageously, not simply to achieve our own purposes but to “nurture, grow and develop those in our care” — the people, churches and institutions we are called to serve in Christ’s name. Can we glimpse the big picture, the greater goal: “the creation of something good, life-giving, worthy” — and make our endeavors “an offering worthy of God the Creator Himself?”

May that be the goal of our work during this Synod and in our Diocese over the next years.

A Prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Evening Prayer, p. 317