Presidential Address to General Synod


General Synod

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, delivers his Presidential address to the Church of England on the theme of God Nudging Us To Hope.  The speech follows in full:

Seven weeks ago, on 19th May, at the wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, a bishop stood up to preach on Love. On the face of it, there was nothing unusual or unexpected in that. What was it then, that sparked the reaction of amused amazement, the rush of tweets, the media excitement?  The topic of his address was hardly controversial.

Was it that the bishop was an African American? That he smiled? That he looked around to make eye contact? That he spoke with energy? Bishop Michael preached on love and people were surprised. Many said they felt connected because of his style. And yet Bishop Michael is Anglican, from the Episcopal Church in America, and the content of his sermon was unremarkable to the ears of regular churchgoers!

In the face of this reaction, I asked myself what people had been expecting that they found this sermon so unusual. What is the perception of the Anglican Church, and in particular, the Church of England, that this event should have seemed so remarkable to so many?

Thirty-seven years ago, in this Hall, the Synod heard from a range of voices what the perception of the Church of England was in 1981, and what needed to be done to aid us in our mission of making Jesus Christ visible in all our parishes and chaplaincies.

The Synod had invited our ‘Partners in Mission’ to examine our structures and look at how our national bodies work for God’s mission.

These Partners were representatives from churches across the Anglican Communion, from other denominations in the UK, from voluntary bodies and from our own Dioceses.

Following the Consultation, they came to discuss their report with the General Synod and to give an account of their impressions of the Church of England’s approach to its work of mission. The report was called ‘To a Rebellious House?’.

The title of the report, as you will recognise, is drawn from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel[1].

Ezekiel’s task was to call the people of Israel to use their exile fruitfully in repentance and return to the Lord, so that they might be ready to return to their land and the city which God would restore for them.

The life situation of the people of Israel who heard Ezekiel’s message was one of slavery, poverty and political oppression; they had lost their sense of identity and had no real hope of returning to their past glory and security. And in their misery and rebellion, they had forgotten how to listen to THE GOD (YAWEH) of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But who was the ‘Rebellious House?’ which was being addressed in 1981?

Was it the people of the UK, who were turning from God and pursuing lives of selfishness and greed?  Or was it the Church whose people were failing to follow God’s commands to love one another and to take the good news to all the world? I think it was both.

What was the situation of the people in this country back in 1981? Were we suffering like the people of Israel in exile? Many people were.

There was political upheaval, with some members of the Labour Party splitting off to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

  • Troubles in Northern Ireland, with bombings, shootings and unrest in the Maze Prison.
  • Recession, poverty, pit closures and record unemployment of 2.5 million and rising, creating fear in the working population.
  • Racist violence from the National Front and oppression of minority ethnic groups, causing fear and anger in those communities.
  • Widespread riots across the country – from Brixton to Bristol, Southall to Toxteth – setting young black people and the police at odds with each other. The SUS Law (stopping and searching people on reasonable grounds to suspect the commission of a crime) was being used disproportionately and unintelligently against young black men.

People did not see much hope for the future, and many had embraced the ‘God is dead’ theology of the 1960s.

What prophetic voice could the Church of England bring to God’s mission to the people of God in this country. Were we equipped to be effective?

Did we have eyes but did not see the needs of the people, and ears to hear but did not hear their cries of despair?

At that Special Conference during the Group of Sessions of General Synod in July 1981, one particularly telling contribution from the ‘Partners in Mission’ Consultation came from a young woman from the Roman Catholic Church, Jenny Bond. She challenged us in particular – as the church claiming to be the church of all the people of England – about how little we reflected the people we ministered to in our parishes. Her perception of the Church of England was that our desire for respectability had shackled us. The lack of women, young people, minority ethnic people and working-class people in our congregations and in positions of leadership, were obvious areas of deficiency in our service and our calling to minister to all in our parishes.

At that time, the Church of England was perceived as the ‘Tory Party at Prayer’, self-satisfied, unadventurous, stuck in our ways. Could we hear the challenge? Could we change?

Of course, the Church of England can and does change – but it has been described as being like a large oil tanker, difficult to turn round. Change takes time.

But changes did happen after that Synod in 1981. We listened and we acted. In the NEXT ten years, the Faith in the City Report was published encouraging all churches to address the deprived and left behind in our inner cities - the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns pursued a programme of racism awareness, cultural diversity and involvement for CMEAC members of our congregations; the Church Urban Fund was set up to provide funding for projects in cash-poorer parishes; the Church of England Youth Council was set up to empower and develop the ministry of young people.

Women’s ordination to the Diaconate and Priesthood was embraced. And other initiatives have followed – supremely the Ordination of Women to the Episcopate and the Renewal and Reform Agenda. Last year this Synod gladly received the recommendations of the ‘Setting God’s People Free’ Report setting out a new way of developing the mission and ministry of lay people – seven days a week.

But are we still regarded as complacent because we are “by Law Established”? From the reaction to that wedding sermon last month, it seems that general expectations of life, excitement, witness from the Church of England are still low.

So what is our country’s life situation today?

Have our projects and programmes made a lasting difference?

Again, there is political upheaval, government uncertainty and conflict over Brexit and over public spending; there is a resurgence of Racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, violence in our cities, with disaffected young people turning to gangs and lives of meaningless destruction. There is the constant threat of terror attacks – threatened by bombs, knives, guns and vehicles used as weapons. Sexual aggression and abuse seems to be on the increase. Hate crime is on the rise. And there is bitterness and anger from hard-pressed families on poverty wages, who have suffered the worst of the budget cuts.

As in 1981, large sections of our people feel unheard and abandoned. Again, they do not see much to hope for.

What can encourage us to bring hope to the people we live amongst?

Let me read you a list of factors which have been suggested as impediments to our own desire ‘to proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand’:

  • Contemporary apathy;
  • Inability to express the gospel with clarity;
  • English reserve;
  • Divisions of race, class and churchmanship;
  • Lack of knowledge of Scripture and inability to share it;
  • Clergy who are more pastorally than evangelistically orientated;
  • Failure to see ministry as the work of the whole people of God;
  • The shallowness of much spiritual life and liturgical expression;
  • Resistance to the priority of evangelism;
  • Parish profiles summarised thus: “We are ready to accept change – so long as it doesn’t make any difference”.

When do you think this list was drawn up? Yesterday? Last year? No. It was part of the report I referred to earlier – ‘To a Rebellious House?’ presented 37 years ago.

Archbishop Stuart Blanch, preaching at the Synod Eucharist in York Minster in 1981 said, “This Partners-in-Mission consultation could mean much more than simply the reordering of our institutions. It could mean a revival of spiritual life within the Church and it could produce a new dynamic in the life of the nation. It isn’t just the Church that is calling to our partners ‘Come and help us’. It is the nation as a whole, so anxious, so conscious of its needs, so lacking in expectations, so fitful in achievement. I look for a revived Church of England in a revived England – nothing less.

And Archbishop Blanch quoted an unnamed cleric, who said:

I was ordained, so I believe, to be a fisher of men. My people want me to be the keeper of an aquarium”.

How can we overcome these impediments in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our neighbours?

What kind of message can we take to people struggling in the social and political uncertainties of this age?  What kind of hope can we share with people whose expectations are low, and whose faith is dying or dead, who have lost the sense of God?

The word of God never leaves us long without an answer. God is forever nudging us to hope.

That is what we all need right now.

We know most of us are finding hope difficult to sustain. The world is changing almost faster than we can bear, life is harder for our children than it was for us and, potentially, for our grandchildren harder still.

Yet the basis of hope is love – God’s love for us even when we fail to return that love: God always nudging us to hope.

Ezekiel’s own message was that even in exile, even in Babylon, with no Temple, there was hope: God was still with his people. It was that hope that enabled the exiled Jews to build synagogues. And the same hope that three years ago helped young Ethiopian Coptic Christians build a makeshift church in the migrant ‘Jungle’ outside Calais.

So, even though this Church of England may feel that its message goes unheard, there are words that can open even the most closed heart.

Namely, that God believes in us more than we believe in Him.

That there is objective hope even when there is subjective despair. As Jim Wallis of the Sojourners told this Synod in a Sermon in York Minster, ‘Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.’

His example was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, under house arrest in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town in 1989, dancing and joyfully imploring the security forces, three feet deep inside the Cathedral, “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked. So, since you’ve already lost, since you’ve already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”.

The second example of ‘Hope – believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change’ is also from the South African Cape. Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese navigator, who first rounded the Cape of Storms – a Cape that had defeated and killed many earlier sailors in their desire to get to India. Da Gama sailed to India, to the astonishment of many, in 1497, and in doing so turned the “Cape of Storms” into the “Cape of Good Hope”. Very much like our Lord turning the grave into a bed of hope by his Resurrection.

God believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. There is objective hope even when there is subjective despair.

That hope is that we – being made in the image and likeness of God – have more than selfwe have a soul.

And in the soul of everyone is a yearning, for the good, the right, the compassionate and the just.

That is why God nudges us to hope.

The Prophet Isaiah – like Ezekiel – brought a message to the exiled Jewish people. Martin Luther King Jr quoted this passage, from Isaiah 40, in his “I have a dream” speech. It is a message to all who feel exiled, lost, abandoned:

1 ”Comfort, comfort my people,”

for there will be

3 “A voice of one calling:

In the wilderness prepare

    the way for the Lord.”

Isaiah brings hope of rescue and a future; hope of a servant who will come to take on their pain. This is the great message of hope we hear each Christmas – and particularly up here in Yorkshire, when the Messiah is sung in our churches.

“Every valley shall be raised up,

    every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

    the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed.”

And he goes on

29 “He gives strength to the weary

    and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

    and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not grow weary,

    they will walk and not be faint.”

This is God nudging the exiles to hope then and nudging us to hope now. The hope that we all need and must share with everyone.

It is a message of hope that our fellow citizens throughout this country need to hear and know is for them. We are no longer in thrall to the powers of the world. Even if we are damaged like a broken reed, says Isaiah in 42: 3, still God will save us. Even if our flame is flickering very low, God will not blow it out. There is still comfort and still hope.

Comfort and hope for those who fear for their safety.

Comfort and hope for those who are struggling to make ends meet.

There is a positive attitude to the past, reconciled in Christ, which allows me to look forward.

There is a positive attitude to the future, opened by Christ, which allows me to concentrate on the immediate practical task while keeping the horizon in view.

In adopting these two attitudes I am involved both in reflective thinking and in decisive action.

Let us give comfort and hope to those whose hearts are dismayed by the uncertainty and turmoil of world events, and by the erratic actions of political leaders. Comfort and hope for those who fear for the future, whose experience of life is like Meatloaf’s song:

“It's like a storm that's never ending
It's like a shadow on the land and the sea
There's nothing so sad as
A tomorrow gone bad
The future ain't what it used to be.”

But what is our vision of the future. What kind of hope can the Church of England articulate to answer this kind of despair?

What does hope look like for the youngest of our children?

Answer: The security of a home and a family who will love and protect them. As I said in the preface to the Cahill Inquiry Report[2],

“28.   As forgiven sinners, and members of the Body of Christ, who are all in constant need of forgiveness, let us take to heart our Lord’s words about children and our responsibilities towards them. This means an institutional culture free of any systemic failure in relation to safeguarding children.”

Jesus welcomed children as members of the Kingdom of God, and said:

29.     Anyone who trips up one of these little ones, who believe in me, it’s better for that person to have a donkey’s millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea.”[3]

A Church has zero tolerance to all forms of abuse of children and vulnerable adults – in fact to everyone! Where there is a whiff of the smallest allegation of abuse, the Church – we -  must act to give assurance and hope[4].

What does hope look like for survivors and victims of abuse? Answer: “We are with you!” Total solidarity.

A willingness to stand in their shoes – which will be very uncomfortable.

Justice also demands that alleged abusers are presumed innocent until proven guilty but they must speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, because abuse is a heinous crime.

What does hope look like for our teenagers?

Answer: It’s the possibility of a job or an affordable course of study; the freedom from bullying and threat via social media; the ability to grow and be valued as individuals with new gifts, fresh generosity. Our teenagers’ lives must not become a zero-sum game in which they strive to see who can stay the longest on top of the pile, and at the same time are filled with a nauseating feeling that there will be no good outcome from their attempt to stay at the top.

What does hope look like for our young adults?

Answer: Excitement and discovery of what they are capable of; work in which they can flourish; love and the possibility of generous and creative relationships; a place to live.

What does hope look like for gay, heterosexual, lesbian and transgender people?

Answer: Freedom from bigotry and hatred; an environment in which we all can flourish.

For it is “In Jesus Christ” – and in him alone – “we know both God and human nature as they truly are”; and so in him alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ. ... . At the deepest ontological level, therefore, there are human beings, male and female, called to redeemed humanity in Christ, endowed with a complex variety of emotional potentialities and threatened by a complex variety of forms of alienation.”[5]

This means, therefore, that in the Church of England, there must be a continuing of serious conversations to find a ‘radical new Christian inclusion, founded on scripture, reason, tradition, theology and faith as the Church of England has received it.[6]

May I urge us all to be part of the wider participation and consultation on the House of Bishops’ Teaching Document, ‘Living in Love and Faith: Christian Teaching and Learning about Human Identity, Sexuality and Marriage’.

What does hope look like for our middle aged?

Answer: Surely a safe home with the love and support of others; a job which is secure and rewarding; and which leaves time and space for relaxation.

And what is hope for our older people?

Answer: Time to discover new gifts; good health; financial security; care when they are vulnerable.

Hope is also an end to all forms of isms. For the Church of England must embody in all aspects of its life that it is an Embassy, a foretaste of Heaven, where God’s will is perfectly done.

In all these depictions of what hope means for different people across the generations, there is one constant - the need for secure love, which gives hope for the future. We have that message of hope founded on God in Christ’s unconditional love which makes all this and more available to anyone who comes on board. The mission of God is to assure people of love, reconciliation, forgiveness and a secure future in him, sustained by his generous friendliness - not just now but for eternity.

So what is our response to the invitation of God which nudges us to hope?  How do we go about bringing this message of comfort to people?

It is through loving all people unconditionally ourselves and showing them that we do so. By inviting them to share our joy and our hope in Jesus Christ. By knowing the pain of their feelings of exclusion and abandonment, and compassionately reaching out to them with the good news that rescue and hope are at hand. It is by becoming that new creation – we in Christ and Christ in us. Being of one mind with Christ. Our mission being indistinguishable from his.

As David Bosch said in his book, ‘Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective’,

“If the Church is 'in Christ,' she is involved in mission. Her whole existence then has a missionary character.” [7]

And, as Dr Rowan Williams, put it: “It is not the church of God that has a mission. It’s the God of mission that has a church.”[8]

What is needed is for each member of our mission units to recognise the call to take on the very life of Christ, whose whole purpose was to spread the good news to all he met.

Amidst all the various schemes for the putting right of human ills, there is so often a whole dimension missing, the dimension of sin and forgiveness. It is this dimension of sin and forgiveness which the Body of Christ, the Church, must keep alive by living as an international community of forgiven sinners and of the forgiving Lord Jesus.

The Church follows Jesus Christ in the outgoing service of humanity, the poor, the hungry, the sick, the disinherited – with no motive but the compassion drawn from Christ himself and with the humility which banishes patronage or possessiveness.

The Church needs to be challenging the world’s assumptions and showing that the world’s greatest need is to be brought in humility and repentance into the love and obedience of God. Amidst its deep involvement in the service of the community, the Church must keep alive for its own members, and strive to keep alive for others, three unchanging, Gospel realities.

The first is the reality of divine forgiveness as providing the keystone of Christian ethics. That is to say, it holds our aspirations in place, gives them a stable relation to the ground on which they stand. The Christian community is the forgiven community; that is the ground of its relationship to God and the basis of the humility of its service of men, women and children.

The second reality is the Kingdom of God. God’s promised future gives meaning to our existence now; defines the infinite worth of every man, woman and child; and provides the perspective in which life’s problems are to be seen.

The third reality is worship. It is worship that is not apart from the life of the world but set right in the heart of that life, a practice of adoration and contemplation in the midst of the world’s busyness.

Committees can be good and useful things, but what God’s mission requires is for every member of the Body of Christ in this country to become that message, to be the word of God. We are made in God’s image. That means our purpose is his. His image isn’t a suit of clothes we put on each Sunday, or even each morning, it’s our whole essence, so that that’s what people see and hear.

Let me end by recalling what Bishop John Habgood, then Bishop of Durham, said in 1982, in his response to the debate on the report, ‘To a Rebellious House’. Bishop Habgood made a particular plea to the General Synod as they contemplated moving out in mission in a new way. He said:

I think we should understand very much better what the task in front of us is if we used perfectly ordinary, simple English words like purpose, task, aim, objective, growth, teaching, conversion. Whenever we find ourselves slipping into a piece of woolly ecclesiastical jargon and great glowing thoughts about ‘mission’, let us check ourselves and ask ‘What am I actually saying?”.[9]

Remembering his words, I believe there is no need to overcomplicate Christ’s Gospel. So I end with a plea that as we go out with a message of hope to the people we live amongst, we first search our hearts to know truly from where our own hope comes from, and that, as we deliver our message, we model ourselves on him from whom that hope comes. As the Apostle Peter told the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia:

“…. do not be intimidated, 15but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:13-16).



[1] Ezekiel 2: 2, 5 and 6; 3: 9, 26 – 27; 12: 3 and 24: 3


[3] Matthew 18: 6, Study Bible Tr. Nicholas King.


[5] Words borrowed from The St Andrew’s Day Statement: An examination of the Theological Principles affecting the Homosexuality Debate – November 30th 1995


[7] Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective.’ David J. Bosch, Pub: Wipf & Stock Publishers 16 Oct 2006

[8] Rowan Williams, “Foreword” to Mission-shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church House Publishing, 2004) 

[9] PIM Consultation, Report of Proceedings: 17 February 1982 (GS 514, p. 80).