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Summer Joy

I hope you had a very good summer.

Mine was full of good things. My youngest daughter Sarah became engaged.  Her fiancée, Simon, proposed at sunset in Florence.  I was able to spend two weeks with my grandson (mainly playing with trains and reading the Very Hungry Caterpillar).  I was inspired by the British Olympic team. We said our fond goodbyes to Sheffield.  I started to build a pattern of prayer for the Diocese of Oxford.  I was able to read and think and plan in the midst of sorting out and preparing for the move.  I took up running for the first time and learned how to make pies.

soul-survivor2

It wasn’t all sunshine and light, of course.  I was deeply grieved by the suffering of close friends.  I was moved to tears by some of the things I heard during the General Synod shared conversations in York.  It was hard, as it always is, to take in the suffering in Aleppo, in central Italy and in other parts of the world.  There were the normal frustrations and things which went wrong and the hard work of transition.
The very best moment of the summer (apart from Sarah’s engagement) came as I stood near the front of a very big tent in Somerset.  Our younger son, Andy, and our daughter in law Beth work for Soul Survivor, a large Christian youth ministry.  Soul Survivor runs festivals for young people and students every year.  This summer we were on site for two of the festivals looking after Josiah, our grandson.

Beth had a night off and so we shared in the first evening meeting of Week B.  Simply to be in a large tent with over 8,000 teenagers sharing in worship is inspiring.  They were all there as part of small youth groups and church parties, camping all across the Bath and Wells showground.  After the worship and the talk and lots of laughter, Mike Pilavachi gave an invitation on this first night of the festival for people to come forward to pray and be prayed for if they wanted to become Christians.  This kind of invitation to make a Christian commitment or to receive prayer ministry happens regularly during each of the festivals.

Scores of young people came forward (I think around 140 that night).  As is the tradition at Soul Survivor, the rest of the tent cheered and clapped and celebrated this very public act of commitment and dedication of their lives to Christ.  As I always do, I found the moment profoundly moving: holy ground.  There we were, in a very big tent in Somerset, and young people’s lives were being reshaped by God’s grace.

The same thing will have been happening in many different places over the summer in different Church traditions and in many different ways: at Walsingham and Keswick and Taize and New Wine, on ventures and in holiday clubs and pilgrimages, or simply in quiet retreat and holiday: God meets us as we step aside and draws us more deeply into love and joy and hope.  As the Church proclaims the good news of love and forgiveness and new beginnings, so men and women, children and young people, respond in faith.

Perhaps if you had been there (or even as you read this) you are wondering what these acts of commitment meant to these young people.  I was wondering too.  But my wondering is shaped by the fact that in recent years I have regularly baptized and confirmed young people who responded in this way at Soul Survivor or at other festivals. As I have talked with them it has been very clear: those moments of grace have been a key part of their journey to mature Christian discipleship and in the offering of their whole lives to God.  Such a moment was part of my own journey when I was 15 years old.

26,000 young people came to Soul Survivor festivals this summer.  Over 1,500 became Christians.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about the importance of that which is lost: a shepherd loses a sheep, a woman loses a coin, a father loses both of his sons (in different ways).  In each story, what is lost is found.  The common element in each story is joy.

“Rejoice with me for I have found my sheep which is lost”, says the shepherd.

“Rejoice with me for I have found the coin which I had lost” says the woman.

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice”, says the father, “Because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”.

I hope that in your life, and in your summer, and in your church, there has been this kind of joy this summer.

St. Hilda and the General Synod

Today is St. Hilda’s day and I’m on a train this morning travelling to London to the General Synod.  The Synod is due to debate and vote tomorrow on the Measure to enable women to be made Bishops in the Church of England.

The vote has been a long time coming.  It will be very close.  I found it strangely comforting when I was praying this morning that the Synod’s day of preparation is dedicated to Hilda.

Hilda is one of the great Saints of the north of England.  Her life is recorded in Bede’s history (mainly in IV.23 but with references elsewhere.  She died in 680 AD at the age of 66.  Bede tells us that her life was divided into two parts: she lived for 33 years “most nobly in secular occupations” and another 33 “even more nobly in the monastic life”.

Hilda founded a monastery at Monkwearmouth then a year later moved to the new community at Hartlepool.  Some years after that Hilda moved to Whitby to “found or organise” the monastery there:

“She established the same regular life as in her former monastery and taught the observance of righteousness, mercy, purity and other virtues, but especially of peace and charity.  After the example of the primitive Church, no-one there was rich, no-one was needy, for everything was held in common and nothing was considered to be anyone’s personal property.  So great was her prudence that not only ordinary folk but kings and princes used to come and ask her advice in their difficulties and take it.  Those under her direction were required to make a thorough study of the Scriptures and occupy themselves in good works to such good effect that many were found fitted for Holy Orders and the service of God’s altar”

The monastery at Whitby was a mixed community.  Hilda had authority over women and men.  She taught from Scripture, exercised oversight, counselled individuals and established institutions.  Bede goes on to tell us that no less than five men from this monastery later became bishops “all of them men of outstanding merit and holiness”.

Hilda’s reputation spread far and wide:  “she brought about the amendment and salvation of many at a distance who heard the inspiring story of her industry and goodness”.  For the last six years of her life her body was racked with a fever, “but during all this time she never ceased to give thanks to her Maker or to instruct the flock committed to her both privately and publicly”.

Hilda lived in a moment of great cultural change and great missionary opportunity.  Monasteries were alternative communities striving to set a model of radical discipleship.  They were lively centres of prayer and scholarship and mission and points of stability around which a civilisation was able to grow.  Hilda was not the only woman with the responsibility of leading such a community.  The names of other women in similar positions are scattered through Bede’s narrative.

1,400 years ago, at the beginning of the Church in these islands, the English church found a way to use the gifts of women in teaching from scripture, in leadership and oversight, in mission and pastoral counsel.

We live today in a moment of similar cultural change and great missionary opportunity.  We see the beginnings of alternative communities of mission.  The Church of England in our generation must not miss the opportunity to make the very best use of the women God has given to us in teaching, in leadership and oversight, in mission and pastoral counsel.  In our generation this means saying yes, tomorrow, to the Measure to enable women to become bishops.

Earlier this year, I was invited to lead a seminar at Soul Survivor, a Christian festival for young people, on women in leadership.  I shared the seminar with Jude Davis, a colleague from the Diocese of Sheffield and one of the youngest ordained women in the Church of England.  Soul Survivor positively encourages women in leadership and ordained ministry but many of those who come are from churches which are much more cautious (often on scriptural grounds).

Hundreds of young people, mainly women, came to the seminar.  Many of them were keen to serve God with the whole of their lives within the Church and in wider society in leadership roles.  Many of them were being held back by the hesitation they sensed in the Church towards women in leadership and, in particular, the Church’s hesitation about women as bishops.  How many of them, I wonder, were the Hildas of our generation with the capacity to lead many to Christ, to bless God’s church, to be leaders in God’s mission?

Of course we must respect those who cannot accept this move on grounds of their reading of scripture or tradition.  Of course we must make provision for them.  Of course we must build trust and behave in such a way as to deepen that trust within the body of Christ.

But there has been enough delay.  It’s time to move forward. 2014 will be the 1,400th anniversary of the birth of St. Hilda.  It will be a fitting year for the consecration of the first women as Bishops in the Church in her native land.

Eternal God
who made the abbess Hilda to shine like a jewel in our land,
and through her holiness and leadership blessed your church
with new life and unity:
help us, like her, to yearn for the gospel of Christ
and to reconcile those who are divided