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Overview of Diocesan Synod, 25 November 2023 

[Please note, this article offers highlights and general commentary of the meeting, with useful links and downloads. It is not a replacement for the minutes.]

The meeting opened with Bishop Pete welcoming people before handing over to the Revd Matthew Rhodes, Vicar of St John’s Ranmoor, to lead the opening worship. The worship included the choir from the church which was noted by Bishop Pete as a welcome variation to Diocesan Synod worship, and a reason to hold meetings in different churches around the Diocese.

Dr Jackie Butcher Chaired the meeting. She started proceedings by welcoming people again before noting apologies for absence. The minutes from the previous meeting, held on Saturday 15 July 2023 at Christ Church Pitsmoor, were accepted and signed.

First, the report from Bishop’s Council was accepted by the Synod, one question was raised relating to the DAC and the recruitment process of a new Chair and Vice Chair. The Archdeacon of Doncaster is the Interim Chair of the DAC while this process takes place.

Jackie then passed the Chair to Canon Ian Walker for the finance report. Ian introduced Katie Bell, Chief Executive, to present the budget for 2024. She started by giving some wider context of diocesan finances in terms of the strategy and also national funding developments.

The Revd Canon Mark Wigglesworth, Interim Head of Finance, then ran through a more detailed review of the budget. Following this, Katie Bell talked about the reserves – giving an update for 2023.

View all of the slides used for this agenda item from Katie and Mark.

Following the presentation, a Q&A took place. Ian Walker then moved that:

“THAT Synod, sitting as the DBF, approves the Budget of the Diocesan Board of Finance for the twelve months ending 31 December 2024 as proposed by the Finance Committee and authorises the DBF to work to a deficit Budget of net (outgoing) resources, after transfers, of £2.074m.”

The budget was approved.

Jackie took the Chair of the meeting, back from Ian, by introducing the Ven Javaid Iqbal, Archdeacon of Doncaster, to present the annual report of the Board of Faith and Justice. He highlighted lots of work carried out by the board in areas such as racial justice, Net Zero and the Faith Leader Forum.

View slides used for this agenda item from the Ven Javaid Iqbal

Next was an item presented from David Castle, the Net Zero Carbon Project Officer. He presented the Diocesan Action Plan to Net Zero. David gave a powerful presentation on why we need to take individual and collective action. This is part of the dioceses’ wider work on the environment and climate change. He presented data that showed the top carbon emitters around the world, and then data to show the parts of the Earth most likely to be affected by changes to the climate. The contrast is stark. Following the presentation, the Chair moved “That this Synod welcomes and adopts the Net Zero Carbon Action Plan. It encourages parishes, schools and other parts of the Diocese to continue their Net Zero Carbon, environmental and Eco Church work and form their own plans consistent with the Diocesan Action Plan.” It was passed by all but one abstention.

Before people were released into the break, the Revd Canon Toby Hole gave Synod an update on the Lay Ministries Review. To help with this, he introduced the Revd Phil Barringer, a House for Duty priest in the Rivers Team. Phil explained that he works in secular employment four days a week. Then oversees the ministry of four churches constituted as a single parish, one PCC. Until February, he was the only ordained person in the team so had to rethink how go about ministry – and for him the answer is lay leaders. Three of the lay leaders from the Rivers Team were there to talk more about their calling. One was a primary school teacher overseeing children’s work in church; another was an authorised pastoral worker doing bereavement work and also running the Wednesday lunchtime service; and the third had felt called to being creative and had found a release of this in planning for online services using illustrations and animations.

Phil then explained that there are a couple of people in his mission area doing the Diocesan Foundations Course at the moment. He looks at who feels called and has a gifting. Then just encourage, encourage, encourage!

Running nearly 30 mins behind the agenda, a refreshment break was taken with people making their way to the community hall for a much needed comfort stop!

The Safeguarding report was presented as read with no questions asked. The Chair was delighted to catch up 10 mins on the agenda!

The General Synod report was given by the Revd Rick Stordy. General Synod met in London earlier this month and discussed a range of topics. All papers are publicly available for this November Group of Sessions.

Following on from the General Synod report from Rick on Living in Love and Faith matters, Bishop Pete and Bishop Sophie led the Synod in a session using the Pastoral Principles cards. Each Synod member had been handed a card on entry and they were encouraged to take part in an exercise to talk to a neighbour about a situation they could apply that card to. The cards were commended for use in churches.

Bishop Pete delivered his Presidential Address. He spoke about his reasons to be cheerful and hopeful despite what he sees as a difficult time for the Church of England on some matters at this time.

The meeting concluded with a blessing from Bishop Pete.

The next Diocesan Synod will take place on 9 March 2024. Details of the meeting will be given nearer the time.

You can find the full transcript of Bishop Pete’s Presidential Address below:

Friends, I’ve heard it said all too often the relationship of the Bible readings to the sermon resembles the relationship of the national anthem to a rugby match.  It is entirely accepted as the conventional means of getting things underway but it would be a major surprise if it intruded any further on proceedings. 

But this is not a sermon.  So I intend the passage I am about to read to frame this address, even though I am not going to make any attempt to expound or apply it.  This is the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians, chapter 1, verses 15 to 23, the appointed Epistle reading for tomorrow, the Feast of Christ the King: ‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

My dear friends, it was in my equivalent address to this Synod a year ago, that I put on record the story of my cancer and of my colostomy.  So let me begin by assuring you that I continue to enjoy robust physical good health.  And let me also say how much I have appreciated the feedback from that address, which came especially in the first few weeks afterwards, but which has continued throughout the year. 

This afternoon, I hope you will indulge me if I again offer you a rather personal address.  In the context of a climate emergency, in the context of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and renewed instability in the Middle East, in the context of a crisis of confidence in politics in this country and an impending General Election, in the context of the continued cost of living crisis and an impending winter, I do realise this could be seen as an indulgence.

But at the end of this year, I shall be six and a half years into my tenure as the Bishop of Sheffield.  Then from Boxing Day, I shall be on sabbatical for three months, with Bishop Sophie stepping up to serve as the Acting Bishop of Sheffield.  I plan to return on the Eve of Palm Sunday 2024, in time for Holy Week and Chrism Eucharist.  And at that point, there will be about another six and a half years before I expect, assuming the Lord grants me continued health and strength, to relinquish this role. 

So this morning, with, as I say, your indulgence, I would like to take stock of where I think we are, as a Diocese, and to look forward.  Because in spite of everything – by which I mean, in spite of the state of the world and in spite of the state of the Church of England, I am actually feeling cheerful and hopeful.  Let me try to outline why.

1.  Taking Stock – reasons to be cheerful

          To begin with, in terms of reasons to be cheerful, I want to offer you three things.  The first is best summarised as progress against the 3Rs strategy, adopted 5 years ago in 2018.  Despite the combination of the pandemic, despite the cost of living crisis and now despite the divisions over the proposed Prayers of Love and Faith, none of which is especially conducive to the stability and cohesion, let alone the growth of our Diocese, I am encouraged by the progress we have made. 

We are being renewed, by the grace of God, and that process is being supported and advanced by a community of people, now numbering over 1300 people across the Diocese, who are committed to praying daily for the Lord to pour out his Holy Spirit afresh upon us, to revive and refresh us in our calling to grow a sustainable network of lively, Christlike and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our communities and God’s world.  Now, I doubt very much that every one of those people is praying fervently every single day.  I am one of the 1300 and I don’t quite manage that, I have to confess.  But I would rather have 1300 people trying faithfully to fulfil that aspiration than to have no-one praying daily with any such expectation.  And if you are not yet one of those 1300, it’s by no means too late to join.  I am immensely grateful to John Hibberd for his endless patience in commending this prayer community.  We still long, by 2025, to have 2025 people committed to this daily discipline of prayer. 

Then, I do believe we are more fully released than we were 5 years ago.  Our Lights for Christ initiative, summoning every baptised person to live up to the fulness of their baptismal vocation has real traction within the Diocese, and outside it is now receiving real interest, as part of the vision and strategy of the national church to nurture missionary disciples, thanks in no small measure to Hannah Sandoval.  Oversight Ministers are increasingly focused on mobilising the whole people of God for the whole mission of God, embracing their particular calling to be developers of people rather than mere doers of tasks; and the Resourcing Mission and Ministry team, lead by Toby Hole; and the Mission Area Support Team, led by Libby Culmer, are offering targeted supported to parishes in areas such as mission action planning, enabling lay ministry, buildings maintenance, accounts and generous giving.  More and more of you are benefitting from these teams, but the teams still have more potential to release the members of our congregations to give their best energies to the mission of God in the world. 

And we are being rejuvenated too.  The Centenary Project, now under the able leadership of Sarah Beardsmore, continues to go from strength to strength, and has recently begun to attract overdue attention from other Dioceses – so much so that Sarah and Mike North recently led an online webinar and an onsite exploration day to see if our experience could be replicated elsewhere and the indications are good.  Meanwhile, we have successfully applied for funding to establish a Growing Faith Hub in this Diocese, led by Elise Deput, to help us to maximise the potential when local school, local congregation and parents are all actively engaged in the nurture of our youngest disciples.  And then there is our latest successful SDF bid, to further the revitalisaiton of the Diocese through church plants and grafts.  Our church planting and grafting story is an increasingly encouraging one, but (as others of you have heard me say in other contexts) it remains too much led by white evangelical men and too centred on south west Sheffield.  But this latest bid is enabling us to go further, faster, diversifying in the process and I am grateful to John Marsh for his work in this regard. 

And across the Diocese, new disciples of the Lord Jesus are being made.  Between Easter and Pentecost this year, Bishop Sophie and I confirmed adults in unprecedented numbers and (although I confess I have not done a careful count since the summer) my impression is that that trend has continued into these autumn months.  For every single new follower of Christ, wherever in the Diocese they are to be found and however they have come to faith, the Lord be blessed and praised. 

So much for the 3Rs: renewed, released and rejuvenated.  But let me offer you two more reasons to be cheerful about the present before I look to the future. 

The first of those relates to ordinands and curates.  Credit here, without any shadow of a doubt, belongs to Bishop Sophie and her vocations team.  In the past three years, this is an area of our Diocesan life which has burst into glorious bloom.  By God’s grace we ordained 18 deacons in 2022, 10 of them stipendiary; and in 2023, another 11, 8 of them stipendiary.  These are numbers we have not known for years and they offer a glimpse of an extremely encouraging future.  Nationally, it is reported that numbers of those entering theological college to train for the ordained ministry, stipendiary and self supporting, has declined in the past two years.  I am glad to report that in Sheffield, that seems not to be the case.  We continue to see robust numbers of people, men and women, from diverse backgrounds, exploring a possible vocation to ordained ministry, for which we again give grateful thanks to God.

And finally, in terms of reasons to be cheerful, let me mention two areas of vitality which were not in our strategic priorities in 2018, but which, quite frankly, should have been: racial justice and the climate emergency.  In both areas, we are among the first Dioceses to have attracted dedicated funding from the church commissioners, to increase our capacity to make long overdue progress – in relation to the climate emergency, to achieve net zero across our churches, vicarages and schools by 2030; and in relation to racial justice, to achieve a lay and ordained leadership more fully reflective of the communities the Lord has called us to serve.  I am utterly delighted by this progress, for which I want to pay tribute to Cathy Rhodes and David Castle in relation to climate justice, and to Miriam Cavanagh and Anesia Cook, in relation to racial justice — though in both areas I recognise we have a long way to go. 

So, these are reasons, why in spite of everything, I find I am cheerful and why I hope you might be too. 

Now let me offer you three reasons why, in spite of everything, I am hopeful as well – and why I want to encourage you to be hopeful too.

2.  Looking ahead – reasons to be hopeful

          The first reason has to do with changes in the national church and its funding streams and to do with our engagement with them.  Some of you will remember, I expect, that the Archbishops of York and Canterbury announced together, in Balby, in 2022, an uplift in the disbursements to be made by the Church Commissioners, to support the mission and ministry of the local church, by 30%, an increase of £300m to £1.2bn for the three years 2023 to 2025 with a commitment to maintain this increased funding for the triennia 2026 to 2028 and 2029 to 2031, with a bias to those Dioceses which have least in the way of historic endowment and most in the way of deprived communities.  You will know that our Diocese ticks both boxes. 

          So I am grateful to Archdeacon Malcolm and to Alex Shilkoff, our Director of Strategic Programmes, for the work they are now doing to engage deaneries and others in a strategy refresh which will inform our triennium funding bid.  We have now conducted 6 of our deanery days (in West Doncaster, Wath and Tankersley, Adwick, Laughton, Attercliffe and Ecclesall) and we have the remainder to do before Christmas, including two next week, in Doncaster and Snaith and Hatfield.  When we have framed our bid, about this time next year, I fully expect us to attract more than our fair share of funding and for that reason I believe this represents a once in a generation opportunity, humanly speaking, to advance the revitalisation of our Diocese – recognising, of course, that in the end that will depend not on any financial investment but on the work of the Holy Spirit of God.  This gives me hope. 

          Secondly, I want to note the election to the Board of the Church Commissioners, of both Dr Cathy Rhodes and myself.  Cathy was elected by the House of Laity at the General Synod, from the House of Laity at the General Synod; and I was elected by the House of Bishops from the House of Bishops.  There are 33 Church Commissioners in all, responsible for the stewardship of its £10bn and more of assets.  I don’t suppose the Diocese of Sheffield has ever had 2 voices at that table before and I am hopeful that Cathy and I will be able to hold before the Commissioners the needs of Dioceses like ours.  This also gives me hope, because we have been elected at a moment of highly significant movement.  I sense that Cathy and I join the Board of the Church Commissioners at a most opportune moment.

          And thirdly, and finally, I want to say this: it is my privilege to lead the finest senior staff team in the Church of England, bar none.  I have become rather used to the expression I see on the faces of those who encounter our team, of impressed astonishment.  Somebody said to me recently, when yet another aspect of our strategy was being extolled in a inter Diocesan forum, ‘Bloody Sheffield’.  This mock frustration is partly a reflection of the calibre of the individuals God has called to the leadership of our Diocese at this time, but is also a reflection of the coherence we have achieved together, and of our shared investment in and ownership of the Diocesan vision and strategy.  Visitors regularly remark on the fact that we are ‘all in’ – they mean we are ‘all in’, in the sense that each one of us, for all our diversity, is committed to the common goal, and all in, in the sense that together we are fully committed to that goal.  We are indeed all in. 


          So, dear friends, I realise that on all sides, the Prayers of Love and Faith in particular is a focus of considerable anxiety for many of you, for many of us.  None of us feels especially safe or secure about our place in the Church of England right now.  But I want to urge you please to remain engaged.  I believe we have the opportunity, not despite the peculiar make up of our Diocese (and in all honesty, it is peculiar), we have the opportunity not despite the peculiar make up of our Diocese but because of it to deliver something transformative for the Church of England.  I will continue to give myself to that vision of revitalisation, that vision of a Diocese which is called to grow a sustainable network of Christ-like lively and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world.  I’m all in, for the coming years and I hope and pray you are also.  This afternoon, in spite of everything, and even before my sabbatical, I am cheerful and I am hopeful.  And perhaps you are too.