Presidential Address to General Synod July 2019


The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, delivers his Presidential address to the Church of England. The speech follows in full:

Bible Text: Philippians 2: 1 – 11

In his address to this General Synod in November 2010, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams asked this question:

How can people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism come to strongly diverse conclusions about human sexuality?

Having discussed the issue of the ordination of women, he turns to the issue of same-sex unions:

The other issue, still bitterly divisive in the Communion, is that of our approach to same-sex unions. It is inevitable that, whether in open debate or in general discussion, this will be around during the lifetime of this Synod. I shall make only a brief comment here, having said a fair amount on the subject this time last year and in other settings. And it is that this has become a cardinal example of how we avoid theological debate. The need for some thoughtful engagement that will help us understand how people who read the same Bible and share the same baptism can come to strongly diverse conclusions is getting more urgent, because I sense that in the last few years the debate on sexuality has not really moved much. It is unthinkingly treated by some as almost the sole test of biblical fidelity or doctrinal orthodoxy; it is unthinkingly regarded by others as one of those matters on which the Church must be brought inexorably into line with what our culture can make sense of. Neither side always has the opportunity of clarifying how they see the focal theological issues – how one or the other position relates to our belief in a divine Saviour. And if we are not to be purely tribal about this, we need the chance for some sort of discussion that is not dominated by the need to make an instant decision or to react to developments and pressures elsewhere. [1]

Nine years later there has been little, if any, progress in answering it. In this Presidential Address I will offer some pointers towards an answer to Dr Rowan Williams’ question.

It has been said rightly that the church often has to wrestle painfully with issues that public opinion is prepared not to wrestle with, because public opinion can jump from one conviction to the opposite, and back again, without caring very much about consistency or fairness. Our disagreements can be a positive test of our faith - an opportunity to model difficult discussions that ought to be going on everywhere, but are not. But we cannot do that, if we cannot draw on the resources of faith, God’s word and God’s work.

The kind of disagreement we have is exactly the kind of disagreement one would expect to find in a church where the old habits of reading the Bible consistently and thoroughly, as part of a liturgical pattern or a pattern of private devotion, had broken down. The expectations we have of Biblical literacy - not only of laity but of clergy too - would strike most earlier generations of Christians as sadly low.

And if we do not read consistently, we shall not think consistently. This is the kind of disagreement one would expect to find in a church which has got used to jumping to conclusions quickly, driven by the need for a crisp soundbite, a church no longer capable of pursuing a question patiently and in hope. The church has come to rely on others to do its serious thinking for it - whether they are theologians, philosophers, scientists, sociologists, statisticians, or simply those with a story to tell. The church acts as an echo-chamber instead of an interpreter and guide to the problems others in our time face.

We cannot read well if we read only to solve a crisis, driven by anxiety. This anxiety is kept stoked up by the context of a world around us which simply does not believe in anything very much. In a disagreement such as this, each side suspects the other of colluding with this loss of faith - of substituting one or another kind of moralism for belief. To understand our opponents, then, we need to be able to understand how they believe the faith of Christ before we can question them on how they reach conclusions that strike us as false.

What is crucial is working out how we recognise in someone else the sincere will to love and serve Jesus Christ, for this is the deepest level of mutual recognition in the Body of Christ. For example, in Philippians 1: 18, the Apostle Paul writes, ‘What does it matter? One way or other, whether sincere or not, Christ is proclaimed; and for that I rejoice’ – which seems to say that even with doubtful motivation people can still be recognised as in some way proclaiming Christ; not to mention Romans 14 – which is not about a minor matter, given the context of the Apostle Paul’s overall polemic about the Law and his almost obsessive concern about table-fellowship and what it entails. Indeed, I suspect that the feeling around this matter in the Apostle Paul’s context (love respecting the scruples of others), with its deep entanglement with ethnic and religious identities is more of a precedent or paradigm than we sometimes realise.

To put yourself in your opponent’s shoes you need to believe that God is leading your opponent, too, on the pilgrimage of faith seeking understanding, and that it lies within the mind and purpose of God to reveal the points of authentic convergence for those who start from different initial experiences.

The power of faith seeking understanding is nourished by reading and engaging with the whole of Scripture and Scripture as a whole. In doing this, the Holy Spirit brings our minds and wills onto a convergent path. We need a  faith working through love (which has the capacity to seek for the basic point of unity), a faith which will make the rules of engagement.

The kind of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament):

Listen to these rules:

1.     You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly, that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2.     You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3.     You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4.     Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.[2]

Holy Scripture is capable of shaping our minds constructively and convergently if we read it not merely as a book of solutions to problems we have just come up with, but as a consistent guide to living which helps us understand what the real problems are. Then we should be able to re-frame the questions that the world puts to us in Jesus Christ shaped ways; and even if we did not immediately agree on their solution, we shall agree on the kind of approach they demanded of us. To disagree Christianly requires a common Scriptural perception of what is foundational.

As Cardinal John Newman helpfully insisted in his Grammar of Assent, the rationality of faith allows us to give weight to past experience and reasonable presuppositions. Since the mind is not a tabula rasa, and can never be, it is rational not irrational, to build on, and correct, the presuppositions formed by experience of God’s word and God’s work.

And as the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, said to the General Synod on the 6th of July 1986, during the Debate on The Nature of Christian Belief: Report by the House of Bishops:

We read the Bible in order to meet the living God who encounters us now and leads us towards our future. We read the Bible, in other words, as testimony, testimony within which history and interpretation are intertwined, and intertwined in such a way that it is, in most circumstances, extremely difficult to say precisely where history ends and interpretation begins.’[3]

And quoting Rabbi Magonet, he said, ‘The division of the Hebrew Scriptures into three sections, the Law, the Prophets and the Writings is not a question of classification…. For the prophets – which include books from Joshua to 2 Kings - you do not read from Joshua to 2 Kings just to learn bits of history and pieces about ancient history, you read them in order to learn what God is saying now (if you do not call them historic books but call them prophetic books). Similarly, if you read the first books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) as the Law, you are not reading this for ancient history, you are reading it in order to determine God’s character, his purposes and his demands’. If Christians had, in fact, read the Bible in this way, they would have saved themselves much agony over precisely how you interpret the early chapters of Genesis.[4]

Now then! Where do my pointers towards an answer to Dr Rowan Williams’ question he posed for us as a Synod in November 2010 lead us?

I suggest that they are pointing us to living such a life vividly described for us by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians, Chapter Two. A Chapter in which he incorporates an ancient Christian hymn – in verses six to eleven. In these verses we hear a clarion call to unity and humility. For the Church of Jesus Christ is a palpable community of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is the enemy of division and party-spirit.

Speaking personally, I need to remind myself constantly that my Christian character is still in the making and not fully formed. I intend to do right but many a time it does not come off. I intend to live reconciliation, but in what I say, I sow seeds of discord. And I know that I must be reconciled to God before I can reconcile others. And I hear constantly the Apostle Paul’s plea to me:

We implore you in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God! …. Sharing in God’s work, we make this appeal: you have received the grace of God; do not let it come to nothing’ (2 Corinthians 5: 20b and 6: 1).

The Holy Spirit is in my heart, activating me to live Christ and to do Christ-like deeds; and re-activating me to work anew. I also know that the Holy Spirit is doing a Christ-like work in me. Books, study, retreats, worship and witness can stimulate my living a Jesus Christ shaped life, reinvigorating my relationship with the Holy and Blessed Trinity as well as with my brothers and sisters in Christ. I now know that it is not how much I get through all this, but how well I get to know God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The clear sign of following Jesus Christ, discipleship, is our unity with the followers of the Lord. Living a Jesus Christ shaped life. ‘By thinking and feeling alike, with the same love for one another and a common attitude of mind’ (Philippians 2: 2).

Leaving no room for selfish ambition and vanity, but humbly reckoning others better than yourselves’ (Philippians 2: 3).

Put differently, ‘Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory’. This would be a good motto for all of us. Doing everything as unto the Lord, and as in his full gaze. This is living a Jesus Christ shaped life.

I want to plead that, beyond the criticism that we make of each other, we listen to the words of Jesus Christ himself. In John Chapter 10 verses 11, 14 and 15 he says:

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.’

Jesus Christ ‘calls his own sheep by name and leads them out to find pasture and brings them back into the sheepfold for safety: They follow him “because they know his voice”’. A true minister, a witness, of the Gospel will be one who can dare to say to others: “Follow me, as I am following Jesus”. That is a blood-curdling text for any witness, any minister of the Gospel. A true disciple, witness, minister of the Gospel must have such a relationship with Jesus Christ and with members of the Body of Christ that they follow Jesus Christ and enable others to be followers of Jesus Christ. What matters is not just that programmes should succeed, but that people should grow in holiness, wisdom and love. For the life of Jesus Christ was not written: it was lived. And that is the secret of every witness, every disciple, every minister of Jesus Christ – that the life of the Good Shepherd is being lived in them. Living a Jesus Christ shaped life.

Yes! ‘Look to each other’s interests and not merely to your own.’ (Philippians 2: 4). Our debates on human sexuality, gender and human identity (which began in 1987) have had a chilling effect on all of us – as we have participated in patient empathy and patient listening - and by God’s grace digested hurt. The urgent task before us is to find a trusting and tending way for the Church overall to support people on all sides who are experiencing the damage the debates have caused. We need to discover a proper empathy which does not diminish any one of us as members of the Embassy of Heaven – the Body of Christ, the Church.

I experienced, for the first time, unbridled hatred some years ago, when I appeared on a Kilroy Silk programme, exploring the refusal of a Vicar to baptise baby twins on the grounds that the parents were gay. I was invited to appear on the programme to outline the Church of England’s policy on infant baptism. My response was that children living in a parish should be welcomed and baptised after careful preparation of the parents and godparents; the issue of the parents’ sexuality cannot trump Jesus’ command to welcome the little ones in his name (Matthew 19: 14; Mark 10: 40; Luke 18: 16). Following the programme, I was astonished by the torrent of abuse and hate-mail I received from members of the Body of Christ - it wasn't just from this country but from all over. What disappointed me most was the deafening silence of the many who uphold the policy of the Church of England. No one came to my aid.

We should always consider how we can help others, and in what way we can help them to flourish, both in things of the earth and in matters of the Holy Spirit.

We are members of a body, so one member is not to think for itself alone. The unity of the whole body requires that every separate and distinct part of it should be in harmony with the whole. We are part of a symphony orchestra: none of us should play a discordant note; and none of us should ignore the conductor – the Holy Spirit. None of us is the centre of the universe. Jesus Christ is. And the Holy Spirit is the Director of Mission.

Take to heart among yourselves what you find in Christ Jesus: 6He was in the form of God; yet he laid no claim to equality with God, 7but made himself nothing, assuming the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, 8sharing the human lot, he humbled himself, and was obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross!’ (Philippians 2: 5 – 8).

This ancient Christian hymn exalts the saving work of Jesus Christ. But because it speaks of a Christ who ‘made himself nothing(v. 7) and humbled himself (v. 8), the Apostle Paul quotes it to set forth Jesus Christ as the primary example of humility which he urges upon the Philippians.

The first line presents a downward movement, from heavenly pre-existence to human life; the second line describes the exaltation of the obedient Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth humbled himself – made himself of no reputation – so do not be unwilling to humble yourself. What a cruel and ignominious death for the Son of God to suffer. Did he lose anything by going lower and taking the place of a slave? Do you think that you will lose anything by going lower like your Lord? Are you willing to take the place of humility in the Body of Christ, and render the humblest service? Count it to be an honour to wash the feet of the saints. Be humble in mind; nothing is lost by nurturing this spirit. This is living a Jesus Christ shaped life. Living as Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And see how Jesus of Nazareth was honoured in the end.

‘Therefore God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow – in heaven, on earth, and in the depths – 11and every tongue acclaim, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2: 9 – 11).

Raised him to the heights (v. 9): a contrast to the he humbled himself of verse 8. ‘The name above all names’ gives the title “Lord”. And ‘heaven, earth and the depths’ (v. 10) is all of creation – join together in concert confessing Jesus’ Lordship.

What we are taught here is the great truth that Jesus Christ, though once he stooped down to the level of the lowest slave, is now exalted to the very highest glory, and everything in the created order – and even the devils in hell – are compelled to bow down to the might of his power.

We also learn from these verses that the way to ascend is to descend. He who would be chief must be willing to be the servant of all.

The Father gives this gracious humbleness of mind, for Jesus Christ’s sake! And will lead us to participate in the unity he has given us as pure gift. It is this gift of humbleness of mind and oneness in Jesus Christ that will enable us to live a Jesus Christ shaped life. This is discipleship.

May this General Synod, as a palpable community of the Holy Spirit, find a way of thinking, reflecting and acting by attending to the whole of Scripture and to Scripture as a whole. May our reflections and actions grow from the saving history of Israel and through Jesus Christ, the New Testament proclaiming the fulfilment of the gracious promises of the Old.

What Scripture has to teach about the human body in particular can certainly not be overlooked, but neither can it be taken apart from “the whole counsel of God. And living in unity and humility, in a Jesus Christ shaped way so that people will ask, ‘what manner of people are these who love each other implicitly. Lives that are Jesus Christ shaped.

May this General Synod continue to think and act in catholic communion with the wider Church and in the pursuit of Christian unity, and especially in partnership with the Anglican Communion as it expresses its unity and humility through the Lambeth Conferences. And when we disagree, to disagree Christianly in a Jesus Christ shaped life. May the Lord bless us all.

[1] Rowan Williams, ‘Archbishop’s Presidential Address – General Synod November 2010’, URL:

[2] See Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2013), pp. 33-34.

[3] Report of Proceedings, Church House Publishing, July 1986, p. 482

[4] Ibid. p. 481