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Seek the welfare of the city…

“Seek the welfare of the city…” 18th July 2015

“Is not this the carpenter? Mark 6.2

Two weeks ago a heart of steel was unveiled in the centre of Rotherham, outside the Minster.  The new heart is the first deposit of a major new landmark sculpture for the South Yorkshire region: the Yorkshire Man of Steel.

The Yorkshire Man of Steel will sit, 30 metres high above the M1 motorway next to the Tinsley Viaduct and above a new visitor centre.  The aim is to create a symbol of identity for South Yorkshire: to honour “the people and places that forged a lasting global legacy in coal, steel and manufacturing in this region and to signpost the new technologies that will secure the region’s future success”[1].  It’s a worthy aim and a bold statement.

But the Man of Steel will also ask a number of questions as he sits high on his podium looking over South Yorkshire.

  • What is the future of work in this region and across the world?
  • What role will work play in human life with the rise of technology and automation?
  • How can we help the people of this region prepare for a new world of work?

Work is never far from the news headlines.  On Thursday, Tata Steel announced 720 job cuts from its UK business because of high energy costs.  The losses are mainly in Rotherham.  The budget a few weeks ago turned around the question of work: the living wage; the reductions in welfare; the move to increase Sunday trading; the measures to support business; the questions about productivity; the aspiration to offer a living wage.  Technology is asking new questions about our working lives all the time.

The Church has a vital part to play in this conversation.  We believe that Almighty God took flesh and came to live among us.  Jesus lived most of his life not as a religious minister or teacher but as a carpenter, honouring skilled, manual labour.  The first disciples were fishermen: they worked with their hands and they ran small businesses.

We have much to give to a conversation about work.  There is a rich Christian understanding of the place of work in human life found in Scripture and the Christian tradition.  This understanding is rooted in the distinctive understanding of what it means to be human.  Women and men are never simply units of production. People are created in the image and likeness of God.  Each person is of infinite value.  We were created to be creative: to find satisfaction and fulfillment in our work.  For the Christian, work is more than paid employment.  It embraces the work of nurturing and caring for a family, voluntary work in the wider community, the creativity of hobbies or the arts.

Work is important but it is not the whole of life.  The notion of Sabbath plays a vital role in both the Jewish and the Christian tradition.  God gives to us time to rest as well as time to work.  Rest is vital not only for recreation but also for reflection, for looking back at what we have done, to give satisfaction and meaning to our lives.  One of the greatest gifts the Church has to offer the contemporary world is the gift of Sabbath and of a holy day, of one day in seven set aside for the worship of God, for rest and for reflection.

Pope Francis has recently written a letter to every person on the planet about the care of the earth, our fragile common home.  Central to his argument is his reflection on the future of work and the value of work:

“We were created with a vocation to work.  The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work for this would be detrimental to humanity.  Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment.”[2]

“Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world”[3].

Work and the future of work are a vital part of human living.  What then are we to say as part of Christ’s church about the role of work in this region we are called to serve?

The Yorkshire Man of Steel tells us what we already know.  We are a region in transition.  We need to honour our past but also look with confidence and creativity to the future.  The massive mineral deposits in the earth of coal and iron, combined with human ingenuity, have shaped our industrial landscape and the working lives of many thousands of people.

We need to acknowledge the pain of this transition for our communities.  The steel industry continues to change and evolve.  We no longer produce the high volumes of steel with the attendant large scale employment.  But high end steel remains hugely important to our economy.  The coal industry which has shaped this region so powerfully has now largely gone.  Just three weeks ago, the colliery at Hatfield was closed, the last deep mine in Yorkshire, with the loss of 430 jobs.

All of us are aware across the Diocese of Sheffield of the deep legacy of bitterness created by the premature closure of so many pits in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Those events still have a powerful effect on our region which goes much deeper than its economy.  The geography of many of our towns and villages, the social fabric, the key buildings in our communities, the identity and self understanding, and the location of our churches are inextricably linked with the history of mining.

The deepest wounds of all from that period remain unhealed and are hard to understand and articulate.  The closure of the mines was about more than this region’s economy or history or even our identity.  The closure of the mines, I believe,  was about decisions being imposed upon one part of our society and country by another without consent and due process.  It is that enforcing of closure and change thirty years ago which damaged something profound in the identity of our region: which destroyed trust, confidence and hope.  It is this sense of identity, trust, confidence and hope which most needs to be nurtured in the coming years, not least by the Church across this Diocese.

What then is the future of work in this region?  There are some clear signs of hope.  We have strong local leadership in the Sheffield City Region and an ambitious plan to create 70,000 new private sector jobs and 6,000 businesses over the next ten years.[4]  This is supported by welcome investment from central government.  Major investment in infrastructure is planned which will improve connectivity across the north.  The service and digital sectors of the economy are  flourishing.  There is a strong alliance between universities,  FE Colleges, local government and local industry.  The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is a national beacon of excellence.  There is a sense of people of good will working together for the common good of the region.

But no-one would pretend that the future is without challenges.  Continued investment in education and skills is vital.  That investment demands a close partnership between local government, industry, and schools, Further and Higher education.  A demanding future calls for engaged and highly skilled leadership in local and national government, in education and in business and industry.

More importantly still, all the lead bodies across this region call for a higher ambition and aspiration and a global vision of what can be achieved.

Finally, what is the role of the Church in encouraging and enabling a positive vision of work and a positive future for our region?

The Church has a vital role to play in building a common vision of prosperity and meaningful work across our society.  We are present in every community, seeking to lift horizons, to address the painful questions of the past, to build vital social capital and to help people look to a positive future.  We play our own part as an employer.  We are a key player in primary and secondary education and in lifting educational standards.

The Church has a vital prophetic voice, challenging local and national government about the meaning of work, about fairness in society, about proper investment in infrastructure and work in this region, about preserving space for Sabbath and reflection.

As a Church we are called to be salt and light in our communities.  Christian disciples are present in many different places of work, in positions of influence, all across the region and beyond it.  As a diocese and as a local church we seek to support and encourage one another in our engagement with places of work, through chaplaincy, through focusing on the workplace in sermons and in worship and in prayers.

Work is a vital part of human life now and in the future.  As a Church we need a vision for work as part of life which is reflected in every part of our life together.

Long ago, the prophet Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem to the first generation of exiles in Babylon.  His advice rings down the ages to God’s people as a call to be concerned not just for religious life in a narrow sense but a call to be concerned for the whole life of the places where we live:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.[5]

We are called as God’s people in this place to seek the welfare and prosperity of this city, of these towns, of these villages, of this region.  That means paying attention to the past, the present and the future world of work.  That means being alert to the regional and the local challenges.

“Seek the welfare of the city” today and in all the years to come.


[1] For more information see www.yorkshiremanofsteel.com

[2] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, On Care for our Common Home, 2015, 128

[3] Ibid 129

[4] Sheffield City Region LEP Growth Plan

[5] Jeremiah 29.7

A Heart of Steel

steel

Rotherham has a new heart and it’s made of steel.  The 2m high sculpture was unveiled in the gardens outside the Minster on Saturday morning.  The photos look great and I look forward to seeing it for myself over the next week or so.

The Heart of Steel is by the Sheffield sculptor, Steve Mehdi.  It will form one part of the Yorkshire Man of Steel: a massive, 30m high stainless steel sculpture and Visitor Centre which will sit on the site of the former Tinsley cooling towers, just next to the M1.

The Man of Steel is a landmark project for the region which honours the past and looks to the future.  It celebrates the people and places of South Yorkshire where so much was forged from coal and steel.  It signposts the new technologies that will secure the region’s future success.  You can read more here: http://www.yorkshiremanofsteel.com

But what does it mean to set a heart in the centre of Rotherham at the present time?  It seems to me to be a very powerful symbol.

The heart is a symbol for what is going on deep inside us: our thoughts, our emotions, our will, our inner life.  Ours is a world which focuses so much on external appearances: what we look like and how things seem.  Look at any rack of magazines and see the evidence.

But when God looks at you and I, God looks past how we look.  God sees right through our clothes and our bodies and the masks we sometimes wear.  God looks at us and sees right through to the heart.

There’s a story in the Bible about the prophet Samuel.  Samuel has to choose a new king for Israel.  God tells him to travel to Bethlehem, and to anoint one of the eight sons of a man named Jesse.

Samuel comes to Bethlehem and Jesse’s sons are brought before him one at a time.  Samuel looks at the eldest, Eliab and thinks to himself, surely this is the one.  But God says this to him:

“Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.  For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart”.

The heart is a symbol for self-examination: for having the courage to look inside ourselves and to see what is really there.  The heart in the centre of Rotherham is made of stainless steel .  When you look closely, it will be like looking in a mirror.  Ask yourself what is going on inside.

The Bible gives us words and pictures to describe our inner life.  According to the Bible, the human heart is a difficult place.  Sometimes it can feel like a desert: parched, dry and starved of affection .  Sometimes it can be a place where evil festers and grows and overflows into hurtful words and actions.  Sometimes it our hearts, our inner lives, become like stones within us: we become hard-hearted, stubborn, shutting out the love and light of others.

So how is your heart today?  It takes real courage to look inside ourselves. What are men and women to do when we look at our reflection and see that our hearts have become dry or dark or stony?

The location of the Heart of Steel is a very powerful one.  It stands next to Rotherham Minster whose spire points to heaven and to God’s great mercy and love.

God is in the business of mending broken hearts, of watering deserted hearts, of bringing light to the darkest places within us, of changing hearts of stone back to hearts of flesh.

I hope that many people will make the journey to the Heart of Steel and take a few moments to look at their reflection and look within.  I hope they will then find their way into the quietness of the Minster and sit and pray and open their hearts to God once again.

I pray that we will see hearts transformed by the love of God once more.

Here is a prayer you can say, taken from Psalm 51:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and put a new and right spirit within me”.


The story of Samuel anointing David is in 1 Samuel 16

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Prayers in Rotherham

This evening between 500 and 600 Christians from across Rotherham gathered in the Minster in the heart of the town to pray together.  It was a remarkable gathering.

Nine days ago an independent report was published.  The report revealed over 1400 instances of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2003.  The town is in shock.  People feel dismayed, ashamed, perplexed and angry.  The effects will be felt for years to come.

This evening the Churches came together simply to pray and to begin a process of healing and rebuilding.  There were two separate gatherings earlier in the evening in one of the local parks and outside the offices of Rotherham Borough Council and people walked from there to the Minster.

The ancient church at the heart of the town was full with standing room only.  Every stream of the Christian church was there: Methodists; URC; Baptist; Pentecostal; Black Majority churches; Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Coptics and Community Churches.

The gathering was not a service in the normal sense.  There was no singing, no sermon, no formal readings.  Groups of priests and ministers from the different churches led prayers from the heart in a whole variety of styles.

There was a whole range of emotion in the prayers.  People expressed anger, disbelief, compassion for the victims, care for the whole community, and questions of different kinds.  We prayed for the police and the local Council.  We prayed for community cohesion and for the Muslim communities.  We prayed for the welfare of the whole of Rotherham.  We prayed (movingly) for the victims and yet also for the perpetrators.  We prayed for a change of atmosphere across the town.  We prayed for the ministers and pastors who will lead their communities forward.  We prayed for the safety and security of children and young people.  We prayed for a new beginning.  We prayed.

Those who came were young and old, women and men, from different races and cultures and backgrounds.

This was the largest prayer meeting I’ve been in the five years I’ve been Bishop of Sheffield.  It was also the most heartfelt and passionate.  There was urgency and sorrow and hope.

It’s just a beginning, of course: the beginning of a long process of rebuilding.  On Tuesday the Minster will be open all day (as it normally is) but with an invitation to all the people of Rotherham to come in and sit for a while and pray and reflect on what has happened.  We will dedicate a special prayer space as a focus for the months to come.

It’s just a beginning but after nine days of reflection on these appalling events, it was a small sign of grace and hope and a willingness to see things change.  Please pray for Rotherham.

Remembrance in Rotherham

Highlights of the week included a visit to the primary school in the village of Laughton on Tuesday.  The school is the oldest school still in existence in South Yorkshire and celebrated its 400 birthday this year.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the oldest school in the County has a strong Church connection.  It takes the commitment of Christians to cherish and guard institutions from one generation to the next.  The school is small, warm and friendly with a really high proportion of special needs children (though I wouldn’t have known unless someone told me).  As well as celebrating a 400th birthday, I was also there to dedicate and open a new quiet space in the playground for children who want to sit and talk rather than run around.

On Wednesday, I led our final Deanery evening on Re-imagining Ministry for Mission in the Ecclesall Deanery in the city of Sheffield.  Lots of good people and lots of good questions.  More than a thousand people have come to this series of 12 evenings to reflect with the Bishops and Archdeacons on God’s grace and future patterns of ministry in the Diocese.  If you would like to know what happened and where we are going there is a PDF of the special booklet on our website here:  http://www.sheffield.anglican.org/index.php/follow-the-tour-2012

But the main reason for the post today is my visit to Rotherham this morning for the Remembrance Sunday.  There were around 500 people in the Minster for the special service and at least as many again at the Cenotaph afterwards for the Act of Remembrance.  There was a sense of reverence and occasion in the town as many different generations gathered.  These have been difficult weeks for Rotherham with some tough stories in the national press.  In those moments its important to record the good days and the normal days and the annual rhythm of the year.

This is what I was able to say in the Minster this morning:

“No-one has
greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13). The words of Jesus
Christ, spoken two thousand years ago on the night before he was crucified, the
night before he lay down his life for his friends.

 

The words have
echoed down the years and they continue to have a special meaning for those
caught up in armed conflict and for all of us today as we remember.  Today is the one
day in the year when we call to mind those who have given their lives in war,
those who have born terrible cost through injury or bereavement or through some
other great sacrifice.  It is one
day.  But that one day is a symbol for
all of the quiet, private acts of remembrance which happen in homes and hearts
throughout the year.  We owe a great
debt to the men and women of our armed services.  That debt is both past and present.

 

The first world
war is real to me because, when I was fifteen years old, I sat and listened to
my grandfather tell the story of life in the trenches, of how he was shot and
left for dead in no man’s land in the Battle of the Somme, kept alive by a
trickle of rainwater.  He was found and
rescued after three days.  He told me how
one of the stretcher bearers was blown up and killed on the way back to the
front line.  How he carried shrapnel in
his leg and head for the rest of his life and was never able to work normally
again.  Every family here
will have that kind of story and worse.
It wasn’t that my granddad was always talking of his war
experiences.  He told me once and that
was all that was needed.

 

And for many, of
course, the memories are much more recent and raw, more acute and vivid:
memories of friends and family who have been killed; of units facing action; of
loved ones in danger; of the uncertainty and risk, of courage and heroism in
Iraq, in Afghanistan or some other theatre of war. We make our solemn
act of remembrance today.  A symbol for
all the quiet, private acts of remembrance which happen in hearts and homes
throughout the years.

 

We live in an age
which does not find it easy to speak of death or suffering.  Most of the time much of our society is in
denial of the reality of death for all of us, not just those who die in
conflict.  We do not want to face it but
all of us will meet our death one day and we are afraid.  We cover up our
fear.  We pursue pleasure and prosperity,
we occupy ourselves with trivia, we worship fame and celebrity. But it is no
surprise that with every year that passes people have fewer resources within
themselves to cope with tragedy and sudden death.

 

Our society seems
gripped by mood swings.  For much of the
time, people give the impression that life is one long party.  Then a tragedy strikes and we see a vast public
outpouring of grief and questions but questions which find no easy
answers.  We must do better
for our children, for our young people, for the generations still to come.

 

I stand here to
remind you today that the Christian faith is the ancient birthright and
treasure house of this country.  It is
the faith which shaped our nation, our traditions, our heritage, our values,
our institutions.  The Christian
faith is the place where the deepest questions about life and death, suffering
and pain, meaning and purpose find answers which satisfy.  The Christian faith proclaims the love of God
for each person in creation, the equality and worth of every individual, the
value of sacrifice, the possibility of forgiveness, the offer of eternal life,
the wisdom to live well in good times and in bad, the strength to build
marriages and families and communities which endure.

“No-one has
greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13). In this Act of
Remembrance today we honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for
their country.  But in this Act of
Remembrance we dare to look further at our questions and our fears and our
hopes for the future.  And as you speak
aloud those questions and hopes, I appeal to you to begin the renewal and
rebuilding of your family and your community and your nation by turning again
in a deep and personal way to the ancient and ever new Christian faith, to
Jesus Christ, the one who laid down his life for his friends, to the only one
in history who has overcome death and who offers to each one of us eternal
life.

O God our help in
ages past, our hope for years to come,  Be thou our guard
while troubles past and our eternal home.