When I was first a curate back in the last Millennium I remember taking part in an Ecumenical Lent Course called 'What on Earth is the Church for?' And what a good question that is. But if we are looking for a definitive and authoritative statement of what the Church of England is, let alone what it is for - it is not easy to find such a statement. However, part of the answer to that question is found in the Declaration of Assent: that 'The Church is called to proclaim the gospel afresh in every generation' which leads to the understanding that the Church of England sees its task as providing a Christian presence in every community - and 'community' does not just mean every 'parish'. It includes, schools and universities, hospices and hospitals, the armed forces, indeed wherever people meet, live and work. Those two statements are perhaps the nearest there is to a mission statement or strapline for the Church of England. But in recent years we have built on those statements. In an Address by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the General Synod in November 2010 he said that as a result of prayer, thought and wide discussions three main themes had emerged for the Church of England for the next Quinquennium. They were to Contribute to the Common Good; to facilitate the growth of the Church, numerically and spiritually; and to Re-imagine Ministry. Those first five years have now passed, but those three strands continue to provide a focus for the Church's activities. They have become both enduring and endearing.
In this morning's Presidential Address I want to say something about the Church's Contribution to the Common Good. One of the strengths of the Church of England is of course that we are rooted at a local level. Our network of parishes and schools provide a presence and witness across the whole of our nation. That means that we have the opportunity to engage with the lives of everyone. At a national level the Church has a presence in Parliament, dioceses relate to counties or perhaps to regions, whilst the Archbishops speak to and sometimes on behalf of the whole country. Despite what may be said in the media and despite the secular narrative which often prevails we need to celebrate the enormous contributions that Churches of all denominations, make to the public and private sectors of the country. This is in politics, the arts, industry, commerce, public services and through voluntary and charitable organisations.
So what does 'contributing to the common good look like?' Perhaps I can illustrate that by speaking about the Church's work in five areas. The first is by defending the cause of the weak and the vulnerable. In the Ordination of a Bishop the Archbishop says: 'Bishops are to have a special care for the poor, the outcast and those who are in need…they are to proclaim the gospel boldly, confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world.' The Church does that when it gives a voice to those who are voiceless and when it speaks into national policy debates on welfare reform, immigration and asylum policies. It does that when it speaks up against child trafficking, slave labour, exploitation and violence against women and issues of criminal justice. We do that when we get involved with Street Pastors or debt counselling or food banks. I hope you all noticed the collecting baskets for the Bishops' Lent Appeal at breakfast time. They will be available throughout the day and all the money that is raised will go to help refugees at home and abroad. Half will go towards supporting refugees here in Somerset and half will go to St Paul's Church in Athens to support their work in providing food, clothing and shelter for the thousands of people who seek help every day. And if you forgot to bring any money with you today - don't worry. You needn't miss out as you can give by text or online. More details are on the diocesan website.
Another important area of contribution to the common good is in the area of medical ethics and the Church makes a significant contribution to ethical debates around the beginning and end of life issues. Alongside this we celebrate the work of the Mother's Union in sustaining and strengthening family life and the work of the Children's Society in areas of child sexual exploitation, the mental health of children, substance misuse and children who go missing. I shall be speaking later this morning about the House of Bishops Report on Marriage and Same Sex Relationships and whilst that report has been criticised in some quarters I am sure we all endorse the first paragraph which speaks of reaffirming the key Christian understanding that all human beings are made in the image of God. This brings me to another hugely significant area where the Church contributes to the common good of our nation - and that is in the field of education. When the Archbishop came to Bath and Wells last November he said that the greatest contribution that the Church of England makes to the life of our nation was in the field of education. This includes but is wider than our commitment to Church Schools. This is what our Diocesan Board of Education say about their vision and approach: 'Central to the mission and work of our diocese is the belief that every child and young person with whom we work should have the opportunity for a life enhancing encounter with Jesus Christ. This aspiration drives us in the way we understand our call to serve our wide ranging and diverse communities around the diocese. Central to the mission of our education department are the words of Jesus Christ himself, found in the Gospel according to St John, Chapter 10 verse 10: 'I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.'
The fourth area which I want to touch on briefly is the significant role that our churches and church buildings have in the life of their communities. Bath Abbey has as their vision: 'Where earth and heaven meet'. And that is a good way for us to view our buildings. Our churches are places where we experience and participate in the worship of heaven and they provide welcome and hospitality for parents and toddler groups, bereavement groups, homeless people, uniformed organisations and occasionally even the local pub or Post Office. Opening our church buildings and making them accessible for both social and spiritual use contributes to community cohesion and benefits all those make use of them.
Finally, I would like to make reference to one of the Five Marks of Mission.
Or as this is sometimes represented - To Tell, To Teach, To Tend, To Transform and To Treasure.
I want to conclude by referring to the last of these: 'To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth'. How important this is.
One of the ways that the Church anticipates and makes evident the Kingdom of God is by championing the cause of environmental sustainability and by seeking to reduce its own carbon footprint through the Shrinking the Footprint initiative. By supporting the Millennium Development Goals, engaging with issues of climate change, by supporting relief and development organizations and by seeking to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us we are contributing to the common good of all God's creation and proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes again.
Rt Revd Peter Hancock