I am writing to invite every church, chaplaincy, small group and school in the diocese to do something very simple but life changing over the next year.
A few weeks ago I was invited to address the presbyteral session of the Methodist Conference meeting in Birmingham. The invitation came from my friend and former colleague, Roger Walton, the President of the Conference. This is the text of the address.
The Burning Bush
“Moses was keeping the flock of his father in law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God”.
The old shepherd limped across the desert with his flock, sticking to familiar pathways wherever he could. He’d spent most of his life avoiding responsibility and leadership. There had been ambition, certainly, in his youth. He’d tried to lead but it had all gone wrong. He’d been fortunate to escape with his life. He’d lived ever since far from his people, tending the flock of his father-in-law. He’d heard things were bad, of course. Some news reached him even in the desert. He prayed from time to time. But there was nothing he could do.
Until that day, on Horeb, when everything changed. His eye was caught by a bush on fire. He looked more closely. The bush was blazing. He saw the flames, heard the crackling of the wood, felt the warmth. The bush was ablaze, yet it was not consumed. Moses turned aside to see. God called him out of the bush.
My intention this morning is to explore the themes of vocation and ministry and leadership through the story of the call of Moses as told in Exodus 3 and 4.
I have had a growing conviction over many years that as a Church we need to reconnect in a much deeper way with the Scriptures and the tradition in our reflection on leadership. We have been distracted now for a generation by the bright lights of the business school and by all that the social sciences can teach us about the exercise of leadership in communities. There are clearly things we can learn from that source.
But we have neglected to explore the deep mine of our own tradition for those lessons on how to lead. We need to recover them for they contain vital lessons not only on the exercise of leadership in communities as ministers but lessons in leadership for headteachers and school governors; for politicians and business leaders; for vice chancellors and civil servants. Every time we address a congregation, we are addressing a group of leaders: people of great influence. One of our tasks as ministers of the word is to explore and expound this deep rich seam of reflection on leadership in the Old Testament and the New; in the early Father’s of the Church; in our history, our theology and our practice down the generations. We are part of the longest continuous tradition of reflection on leadership in communities there has ever been in the entire history of human culture. The entire story of Moses is a story of what it means to exercise leadership. Exodus 3 and 4 are where that story begins.
The elderly shepherd stands on Horeb, the mountain of God.
“Then the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up”.
Moses is living, as you will remember, in the place of exile and failure. Forty years ago he attempted to assume a position of power and influence among his people both as their protector and as their judge. He was rejected both by the Egyptians and by the Israelites. He fled to Midian, far away. He is living as an alien in the foreign land. The story of his call is a story of restoration as well as vocation.
When we first read the story and often when we interpret the story, we see the burning bush as a dramatic device. This is the way that God attracts the attention of Moses.
There is a bush fire by the roadside which draws the eye. Moses draws nearer. The bush is blazing but not consumed. It is this, not simply the fire, which causes Moses to turn aside long enough to hear the voice of God.
But down the years many of those who have gone before us have reflected deeply on this passage and they have found more in the burning bush than a dramatic device to hold Moses’ attention and curiosity.
We all know the principle of fire which needs fuel to feed it. In our house we have a log burner. It is at the very heart of our home. When they come home our four adult children love to sit in front of it and to gather around a living flame. But this fire will not work without fuel. On a cold winter’s afternoon, we can easily burn two baskets of logs. The idea that we could put the logs in, enjoy the fire and then take the logs out again and put them back in the garage is absurd. They are turned to ash.
But this fire in Exodus burns and is not consumed. How is that? Moses is curious and so draws near and hears the voice of God. The burning bush is a narrative device.
But the saints who have pondered this down the years have seen more. They have connected the burning bush with another fire which burns and does not consume: the fires of Pentecost, the flames which appear above the heads of each of the disciples. The flames cause them to burn with passion – with love for God and for others – but not to be burned up. The burning bush describes a profound mystery at the heart of the discipleship and ministry.
The burning bush and the flames at Pentecost are a picture of God’s love for us and for everyone God has made. God’s love is disproportionately passionate, burning, but not overpowering or consuming the object of God’s love. This is the love which sets our hearts on fire as we read the scriptures and celebrate the sacraments but which does not consume us. This is the passion which burns with love for God’s people, which hears their cries, and brings God to answer their prayers in his dialogue with Moses.
Passion is one of those beautiful English words. The meaning of passion combines strong love and and strong anger at injustice and suffering. There is a vital place for passion in our discipleship and in ministry. If we live with our eyes open, we will be deeply moved, often, by the suffering in the world, by injustice and by the state of the Church.
In our call to be disciples we are invited daily into a relationship with this God who loves us deeply but whose love does not overpower us or swamp our will or wipe out our personality. God is not the dominant husband or wife in whose shadow the other partner disappears. God sets us on fire but does not consume us. Christian discipleship is not about self negation of gifts or personality but about the flourishing of each individual.
God’s grace at the burning bush is a model too for our ministry. We are to be like that with others: to build them up to be the best they can be not to use them for our glory.
Passion in discipleship and ministry needs to imitate the burning bush.
In the words of an old ACCM selection document, one of the great signs of spiritual and personal maturity in a minister is to burn but not burn up – to burn but not to be consumed. We are called to a long steady love and a long steady deep anger at injustice but held within a confident vision of the God of order, of creation, the God who has won the victory.
That is not an easy vision to articulate or live, but it is a powerful vision of God’s passion and passion in ministry.
The great Christian tradition on how to lead in communities is based on a single, powerful insight about leadership which is deeply countercultural.
Our tradition is based upon the simple and deep conviction that leadership in communities is very, very, very difficult. That conviction is underscored more and more deeply for me the more I am called to exercise leadership and observe leadership in others.
The wisdom for leadership which has emerged in the last generation from the social sciences and from business can be very helpful. But it is based on the premiss that leadership is basically very straightforward. All you need to do is master a few basic disciplines and rules, usually all beginning with the same letter. All you need to do is read my book, attend my seminar, take an MBA and you will be equipped to lead others. The simpler we believe something to be, the more likely we are to fail.
Pope Francis gave a TED talk recently. It is well worth watching if you haven’t seen it. I found it very moving to listen to the Pope telling the TED community the story of the Good Samaritan as if they had never heard it before.
Francis best line is a quotation from an Argentinian proverb: “We have a saying in my country: the exercise of power without humility is like drinking gin on an empty stomach. We damage others and we damage ourselves”.
Francis takes us to one of the central reasons why the exercise of leadership is difficult. The exercise of influence is not a neutral thing. The exercise of power has an effect upon us: it touches and changes our inner being, our souls. Our experiences of leadership affect us very deeply.
The Old Testament narratives of leadership by and large offer us scores of different ways in which leadership goes wrong.
The patristic tradition on leadership is based on exactly the same conviction. There are four classical texts which carry the tradition. Three of them are written on exactly the same pretext. John Chrysostom writes On the Priesthood. Gregory Nazianzen writes On his Flight to Pontus. Pope Gregory the Great writes The Pastoral Rule, one of the most influential texts in shaping leadership in the western world.
All three write on this pretext: exercising leadership as a presbyter or bishop is so difficult, so very very difficult, so fraught with danger for your inner being and your soul, that it is much better to run away to a far country rather than be ordained to this ministry. All three claim that they themselves ran away.
It is an insight preserved in the Orthodox ordination services where the candidates do not process in with honour but at an appropriate moment in the service are discovered at the back of the assembly, like Saul hiding among the baggage, and dragged before the bishop to be ordained.
The leadership we offer is hard in itself: we are confronted daily by intractable situations; scarce resources; resistant communities; impossible tasks. We are confronted daily by our own fallibility. The leadership we offer and the way we offer it will over time distort and shape our personalities and our lives if we allow it to do so.
It’s my habit to reflect often on the leadership I offer in four domains. The leadership I offer in the world; the leadership I offer in the church; the way I work with individuals and teams; and the way I am watching over myself.
I have learned over many years that the place attention is most needed and the foundation of everything else is the diligence and wisdom to watch over myself, my inner journey, my character and disciplines for everything else will flow from that and the knots and problems of leadership will often but untangled in that deep inner dialogue.
Moses stands before the burning bush. He hears the very voice of God speaking to him. God introduces himself: I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob”. God has observed the misery of his people. He is coming to deliver them to bring them into a good and broad land.
Moses is invited into a profound and beautiful relationship of passion: for his heart to be set on fire again. He hears God calling him: “So come, I will send you to Pharoah to bring my people out of Egypt”.
But here is the second mystery in the story. Moses does not say yes to this call.
“But Moses said to God “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and bring the Israelites out of Egypt”.
You know the passage at least a little. For the remainder of Exodus 3 and most of Exodus 4 the dialogue continues. Moses offers not one, not two, not three, not four but five excuses as he attempts to avoid God’s call.
One of the paradoxes of the story is that Moses never actually says yes in the narrative. He is a reluctant leader. Moses offers the living God five different excuses.
Who am I? (verse 11)
God replies by simply saying I will be with you.
Who are you? (verse 13)
“But Moses said to God “If I come to the Israelites and say to them “The God of my ancestors has sent me to you and they ask me “What is his name”, what shall I say?
This passage links to the revelation of the divine name, the high point of the passage.
They won’t believe me (4.1)
I can’t speak very well (4.10)
O God please send someone else (4.13)
Moses debates and argues with the living God as he is to do many more times in the great narrative of the Exodus. In this very dialogue there is a living illustration of the burning bush, the fire which does not consume.
What is Exodus teaching us here?
First that God invites Moses first and foremost into relationship, friendship. This is not simply a servant and master relationship. There is dialogue, debate, argument based on mutual respect, even though one of the partners is the living God. God is patient, at least for the first four excuses. One of the themes of the whole Book of Exodus is the patience of God. God answers each of Moses’ questions. God nurtures Moses calling.
Passion is debate and engagement with God and in prayer. Passion is full of life. The opposite of passion is acidie. Spiritual listlessness neither being cold nor hot. The Psalms teach us to take our passion into our relationship with God. To lament, to be angry, to argue, to grieve.
One of the great privileges of ministry is inviting other people into this kind of service of this kind of living God. Helping them to foster this rich inner dialogue and encounter. One of the great privileges of Christian discipleship is this kind of debate with the living God as we wrestle to work out our salvation and our vocation.
The second lesson lies in the actual excuses themselves. I have found throughout my ministry that the same deep inner questions of character emerge and re-emerge at each stage of life and responsibility.
The deep questions Moses asks have to be revisited in internal and external dialogue regularly. They are not once and for all questions. I think the narrative shows that Moses himself will go on visiting them as the story unfolds as we do.
I am doing some work at the moment with a transition coach as part of my journey of letting go of my responsibilities and diocese in Sheffield and engaging with larger and different responsibilities as the Bishop of Oxford. I’m only part way through that process.
But it is largely an inner journey not an outer journey. It’s not primarily about learning new skills. It’s an invitation to go deeper in my understanding of God and my understanding of myself.
In particular I’ve had to confront in a new way a struggle that has been present for me throughout my ministry: with a lack of courage and self doubt. Who am I? I can’t do this. They won’t believe me. I can’t speak very well. O God please send someone else.
Naming and confronting my fears has been vital in that process of growing in leadership. The answer to them is, I think, that gentle dialogue with the living flame of God’s presence which burns but which does not consume: the call to know God better as the heart of our ministries and the leadership we offer.
How that dialogue happens is vital to the fruitfulness of our ministries.
One of the regular things that happens in ministry is not so much that we resign or withdraw from what we are called to do – although that does happen from time to time. It is rather than we resign or withdraw inwardly even through outwardly we continue to do the job. There is an inner abdication of vocation.
Outwardly we are in office but we are not in power. We disengage. It’s as if we are in a game of baseball. We stand on the batter’s diamond. But again and again we let the ball sail past with no intention of striking it out of the ground. Opportunities to do good come but we fail to respond. There is an inner weariness of spirit, a paralysis caused by fear, a lack of hope and joy in our engagement. We professionalise and bureaucratise our calling and the church. Our sense of being on fire for God diminishes. Our hearts are no longer strangely warmed.
If you find yourself in such a moment, individually and corporately, can I commend careful and prayerful engagement with the story of Moses in Exodus 3 and 4 and the two riddles it contains: the bush which burns but which is not consumed. The call which is offered but which is not answered.
Again and again in our ministries, God recalls us to the fire in faith and love and gentleness – rarely in the same ways, often in new and creative ways. We will be called to reflect on our own identity, on God’s nature and identity, upon our perception of the church, upon our perception of our own abilities, on the excuses we offer.
There is no way to engender passion for Christ, for the Scriptures, for justice in others unless you are first set alight by God and maintain that passion throughout your ministry. If you are to set hearts and lives on fire for God, as I hope and pray you will, you must first be on fire again yourself.
I was privileged to be the Anglican fraternal delegate to the Synod of Bishops in Rome on Evangelisation in 2012. It was a powerful experience and one that has stayed with me. There were 400 cardinals, bishops and advisors from all over the world sharing with one another how difficult it is to pass on Christian faith in the contemporary world. The most moving moment in the Synod came when one of the senior Vatican cardinals stood up and said: it is we who need evangelising. We need ourselves a deeper experience of Christ. It is out of that deeper experience of Christ in the Church that mission and ministry and good leadership will flow.
We end this session with the beautiful and powerful words of Charles Wesley which draw on this powerful image of the fire which burns but which does not consume and God’s gentle yet powerful call to service and to ministry:
O thou who camest from above
the fire celestial to impart,
kindle a flame of sacred love
on the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze,
and trembling to its source return
in humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire
and still stir up the gift in me.
Still let me prove thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.
Address to the Presbyteral Session of the Methodist Conference
23rd June 2017
A Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly” says the prophet Jeremiah of the leaders of his day.
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying “Peace, peace” where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8.11).
All those called to leadership in society and the church need to pay careful attention to the wounds of God’s people. God’s people in every part of the world. There are no simple solutions to those ills. There is no remedy in pious slogans. Reality is not changed by soundbites. The answer does indeed lie in peace, shalom, wholeness but words alone are not enough to mend the fractured earth. “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly.”
The world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 according to the United Nations. A terrible famine stretches across Africa from Nigeria to Yemen through Somalia and Sudan. The Disasters Emergency Appeal was launched at midnight on Wednesday. I hope we will respond generously as individuals and churches.
The commentators agree, these catastrophes are the direct result of human conflict: disastrous civil wars and rivalries; corruption and greed. Fragmentation, blindness and complacency in the developed world as well as the developing nations. On Thursday, in the midst of a humanitarian disaster the world’s richest nation cut its aid budget.
“They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly,” says the prophet. Our world is interconnected. We celebrate later this the Fair Trade Foundation’s plans for relaunch I am joining those who are supporting amendments to the Criminal Finance bill to make it more difficult for politicians in every country, including Africa, to launder funds and avoid the taxation which is needed to build local schools and hospitals and nations.
Parliament passed the bill this week to begin the process of leaving the European Union. The British electorate voted a year ago to change our relationship with Europe. There are different and legitimately Christian views on how that relationship is best re-imagined. As that process begins we need to be honest and alive to the dangers of fracture in our wider European relationships and fracture in our own United Kingdom.
There is a pressing need to reach deeper than the careless slogans which shaped the referendum campaigns a year ago. There is a need for a serious reimagining of Britain’s place in the world and our national identity and values. The wounds within our nation are real. The referendum exposed them. The Brexit process must now seek to heal them and to change but also strengthen European integration.
The Churches and the faith communities have a critical role to play in healing divisions and renewing political debate from the profoundly Christian foundation that every man, woman and child is made in the image of God and of inestimable value.
There is inequality and fragmentation within our own communities within this Diocese. According to figures published yesterday, there are now four million children in poverty in the United Kingdom, the highest since the 2008 financial crash. The Diocese is publishing today a powerful new piece of research, For Richer, For Poorer, Poverty and Livelihoods across the Diocese of Oxford.
The report compares statistics from neighbourhoods across the entire Diocese to build a picture of poverty and deprivation Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Bucks and Milton Keynes. The maps show fragmentation: wealth and poverty side by side. Poverty in relatively wealthy communities is often masked and hidden. The report exposes what churches in many of our communities already know: there is a need for foodbanks, for homeless provision, for work with refugees for engagement with children’s centres all across this Diocese.
We need to take great care in our nation and across the world. Inequality is growing. Awareness of inequality is also growing, driven by social media. In those conditions resentment and anger deepen and surface in unexpected ways. “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly.”
The world changes. Life grows more demanding for many, especially for those in work. I’ve heard much on my deanery visits of the stress created in families and individuals which is caused by the high costs of housing in this region, the need for both partners in a marriage to be working in demanding jobs, the accelerating pace of life and the fragmentation of families and individuals which is the inevitable result.
In this context we need as a Church and as the Church of England in this diocese to take ourselves much more seriously, if I may say so. What we are and what we do in every city, town and village is vital and transformative for individuals and communities. By the grace of God, we are making already an immense difference.
As we gather for worship in Lent, we sometimes use these words:
“We come from scattered lives to meet with God
Let us recognise his presence with us.” (Common Worship, New Patterns for Worship, A Penitential Service, Greeting).
Week by week, those who lead scattered lives in a fragmented world gather. We bring our wounds and the wounds of the world to God’s love and healing and grace. We find again unity and wholeness within our worship and prayer.
We find again the strength and vision we need to be people of influence, disciples and apostles of Christ in our families, in our communities, in our workplaces and in wider society.
This morning in our Synod we will consider together the report Setting God’s People Free on lay leadership and discipleship. Matthew Frost, one of the authors of the report will join us. The report calls for a change of culture in our common life: a shift to find a way to form and equip lay people to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life as disciples in our common baptism. There has never been a more important time for the Church to break free of clericalism and affirm the value of both laity and clergy in the mission of God to the world based on our common baptism.
The world and our nation need us to be the best Church we can be in this season and in our time. The wounds of God’s people are so great and so serious.
It is in that context that we need to set the deep questions with which we wrestle and this morning we will also spend some time reflecting on the current debates on human sexuality. Here too the wounds of God’s people are deep and serious. There is need for great care and tenderness in our dealings one with another, for careful listening and discernment. The Archbishops have called in their letter after Synod for a radical new inclusion in the church. I am personally committed to that vision. We will need to explore together in the coming months what that call might mean within this Diocese for lesbian and gay people, those who are bisexual, transgendered and intersex, both within and beyond the church.
“We come from scattered lives to meet with God
Let us recognise his presence with us.”
In the period since this Synod last met, I have visited 15 of our 29 deaneries. Thank you for your welcome and hospitality. Each day has been inspiring in different ways. I’ve come back full of joy and hope and stories to tell.
I’ve been learning much, not least that we are indeed a large and diverse diocese. No two deaneries so far have been the same. We are called to be the Church in so many different places and contexts and ways.
I have been asking two questions as I travel, what kind of Church are we called to be and what are we called to do together as a Diocese. What are our priorities?
I believe we are called to be a more Christ-like Church: the church of the beatitudes. As many of you will know, I’ve been searching for just three words which will capture that ethos for the next part of our life together: to bind the Diocese together in God’s mission and guide us forward.
The three words are settling now. I believe we are called to be and become a contemplative diocese, poor in spirit, rooted in God’s presence, in peace, and wholeness and stillness. We come from scattered lives to meet with God. In a wounded, fractured world it is only a deeply contemplative Church which can bring God’s grace and love to those who need it.
I believe we are called to be and become a compassionate Church: taking seriously the wounds of God’s people.
I believe we are called to be and to become a courageous Church as laity and clergy together: courageous in bringing peace; courageous in seeking justice; courageous in our witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ.
We will be gathering more than a hundred people from the leadership community of the Diocese in May to work on these questions: what kind of church are we called to be and what are we called to do together. Please pray for that gathering. I will report the outcomes back to this Synod in July.
“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, peace’ where there is no peace.”
We are to be people who take wounds seriously: in the world, in our nation, in our Church, in ourselves.
We are to be a Church of radical inclusion for all, cherishing the gifts of lay and ordained together.
We are to be a Church which is contemplative, compassionate, courageous.
We are to be a Church which takes herself seriously not for our own sake but for the sake of the world.
We come from scattered lives to meet with God
Let us recognise his presence with us.
18 March 2017
Psalm 96; Matthew 5.1-10
Thank you so much for your welcome. It is very good to be here.
I’m deeply thankful for the Church in these three counties. I have experienced good things over many years. I am enjoying working with Bishop Colin, Alan and Andrew and the rest of the senior team. I have come initially to listen and to learn. I am an imperfect bishop in an imperfect church but together we serve the God who makes all things new.
To all of you from across this county, clergy and lay ministers and wardens and officers and every disciple: thank you for all you give to the life of the local church and to mission in the new community. Please pray for me. It will take me a while to visit every place but I look forward so much to being with you.
This season marks a new beginning for me and a new beginning in the long story of the Diocese of Oxford. As Christians we should not be strangers to these new beginnings.
The Psalms mean a great deal to me as I expect they do to you. For this nine months I have been trying to dwell in a particular verse from Psalm 96 and to hear what God is saying to me through this part of scripture.
We heard it read earlier. This is my calling and our calling.
“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth
Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”.
The whole of creation is summoned to worship and to joy. The kingdom of God is breaking in: the kingdom of justice and mercy and peace.
One of the wonders of being alive is that life never stands still. Our lives are constantly changing. Each day there are new blessings to appreciate, new wonders to discover, new adventures to be had. There is nearly always a new song to sing.
I have recently taken up running for the first time in my life since primary school. It certainly surprised my family. I went to one of those fancy shops and bought some proper running shoes. I downloaded an app to my phone which claimed it would take me from 0 to 5 K in 8 weeks. I started very tentatively. Everyone thought I would give up after three weeks. Rather to my surprise, I’m enjoying it. I ran 5 K just this morning and completed the app.
A few weeks ago I sent a text to my children to say I’d been for a run and posted a picture of my muddy running shoes on our family Whatsapp. One of my sons texted back: “Who is this and what have you done with my dad”. My other new hobby for the summer has been learning how to make pies. The two things sort of balance each other out.
Sing to the LORD a new song, Sing to the Lord all the earth.
As God’s people we should be ready for new things. That is not always how people see us. There is a story told in my native Yorkshire about a dialogue between a Bishop and a Churchwarden. Bishop: How long have you held office.
Warden: About forty years Bishop.
Bishop: You must have seen a lot of changes in that time
Warden: Aye and I’ve opposed every one of them.
There is more in this text than the call to embrace change and variety and experience the richness of God’s love and God’s gifts..
Psalm 96 is not directed to the Church. Psalm 96 is a call to the whole world. Through the words of Psalm 96, God’s people are singing to all the earth and summoning the world to newness and to joy.
O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth
Sing to the LORD, we say to all who will listen, bless his holy name; tell of his salvation from day to day”.
Rarely has that new song been more needed in our nation and in our world. Year by year, the earth’s climate is changing. We are living in the midst of the greatest human migration in history. In every country including our own there are questions of identity. Who are we as a nation? Inequality grows year by year. The world faces immense challenges.
What kind of a song are we called to sing as a Church in such a time?
When the world is being shaken, we must sing a new song of hope
When the world is hurting, we must sing the new song of healing and salvation.
When the world grieves, we sing new songs of resurrection.
When the world grows more unfair, we must sing God’s new song of justice.
To those who are enslaved and prisoners, we teach new songs of freedom
To those who are afraid, we share our songs of courage
To those who are dragged down by sin, we sing of God’s forgiveness
To those who are confused we sing God’s clear new song of truth
In this divided world, our songs reach out to strangers, to welcome and build bridges.
In this restless world, our songs tell of God’s peace and our final rest in heaven
In this polluted world, we sing a new song of care for God’s creation
In this world of vanity and pride, we sing songs of humility and meekness
In a world which lives for itself, we sing of love of God and neighbour.
The song we sing is the song of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a song of great power and love. Perhaps we do not sing it very well or as clearly as we could. Perhaps we have forgotten its immense potential to transform human life. Perhaps we have lost confidence in the immense importance of the message entrusted to the Church. We need to find our voice again.
I look forward to working in partnership with all of you across this city in the coming years in all parts of the city. One of the concerns I will bring as Area Bishop here and as Diocesan Bishop is a concern that we teach the faith well to adults, to enquirers, in every context. I look forward to learning what you are doing now and to building together for the future. We need to find our voice.
[In 1963, at the height of the American Civil Rights movement, 250,000 people gathered in Washington to urge change and freedom in America. They were addressed by Dr. Martin Luther King. He delivered the speech which began: “I have a dream”. His song is inspired by scripture and by the Christian message. The trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, sang to the crowd. They sang Pete Seeger’s song, If I had a hammer. They sang of the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, the song about the love between brothers and sisters, all over this land”. Their song helped change the world.]
We need to find our voice again and find the confidence to teach the world a new song. In every part of this Area, God has called a community of Christians to be the Church. In every place, God calls us to sing a new song in the midst of this weary world.
We sing this new song as we gather Sunday by Sunday in every city, town and village. We sing this new song as we are scattered in schools and colleges, workplaces and homes. We sing this new song in the words we speak. We sing this song in the way we live our lives. We sing it as we live the beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel: as we are people who are poor in spirit, compassionate, full of kindness and mercy, hungry and thirst for justice becoming more like Jesus Christ.
And as we sing, and pray and serve and work so God uses our songs for good, to spread his love, to draw others into his family, to be the change we want to see.
“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth
Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”.
I look forward so much to working with you and getting to know you in the coming years. Please pray for me and I will pray for you.
I hope that together we will sing a new song to the LORD and to this needy world
For a clip of Peter, Paul and Mary singing in Washington in 1963 see Peter Paul & Mary Talk about The March On Washington & Sing
A Presentation to the College of Bishops
13th September, 2016.
The College of Bishops is the gathering of all the bishops of the Church of England. We met last week for two days with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish bishops. Each church presented something of their common life. I was asked to speak about Renewal and Reform from the perspective of the Church of England. My reflection is based on the story of Moses and Jethro told in Exodus 18.
In the story of the Exodus, after the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses leads the people of Israel through the desert to Sinai. His father in law Jethro comes to meet him. Jethro watches Moses at work as he struggles with the never-ending demands of leadership. The people stand around him from morning until evening bringing their disputes.
The Israelites have come out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. Moses is forming them into the people of God. But Moses is overwhelmed daily by the complexity and difficulty of his calling.
Jethro watches carefully and asks a very reasonable question: “What is this that you are doing for the people?” What exactly are you trying to achieve? Moses explains as best he can.
Jethro replies: “What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and this people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone”.
It’s good to have the opportunity to reflect together on Renewal and Reform as part of the Church of England’s contribution to this College of Bishops.
Renewal and Reform is a body of work which builds on 3 goals articulated by General Synod in 2010. To contribute as the national church to the common good, to facilitate the growth of the church in numbers and depth of discipleship and reimagine the church’s ministry. These goals emerged from a great deal of reflection on the mission of God over many years.
Renewal and Reform is grounded in hope in God’s purposes for the Church and the Kingdom. Our shared vision is
Helping enable the church to move to a place where:
- Followers of Jesus are faithful witnesses to the transforming love of God
- Churches are equipped to make and sustain disciples across all generations
- All forms of church are able to have the ministry and leadership they need
- Senior leadership is more representative and better equipped
- The whole church can confidently communicate our faith in a digital age
- The whole church is focussing greater energy on God’s mission
To help us get from here to there the Church has birthed around 7 different and related streams of work.
- Resourcing the Future
- Renewing Discipleship and Ministry
- Lay Leadership
- Discerning and Nurturing Future Leaders
- How the NCIs Work
Each of them has several streams within it. Scores of people are involved in each. Any one of them could occupy us for the whole time. I’m not proposing to explore them one by one this afternoon though feel free to raise questions about any of them.
Instead I want to take Jethro’s visit to Moses as a starting point and framework for what is happening now. In particular, I want to begin with the strains and demands and complexity of episcopal leadership. I identify very much with Moses’ dilemma in this passage. I am often overwhelmed by the complexity and difficulty of my calling. I sense that’s true of other bishops I meet across the United Kingdom though we don’t always find it easy to say that to each other. We are called to leadership in a moment of great cultural change.
We need wisdom from one another, from Scripture and from the world around us. The Fathers of the Church make a great deal of Jethro. Moses is receiving advice here from someone outside the people of God, from a priest of Midian. Truth is found and recognized outside as well as within the life of the Church.
Here the truth is that things are not working as they should. “What you are doing is not good”.
Renewal and Reform has been from the beginning a listening process. Those involved have tried to gather the perspectives of every diocese, to commission research, to gather data, to learn lessons from those outside the Church, to listen to different voices. We have especially tried to listen the voices of our senior lay leaders nationally and in dioceses.
Whilst there is a huge amount of good in the life of the Church and whilst we are deeply hopeful about the future, we also need to acknowledge:
- significant and continuing decline and ageing in church attendance
- significant decline in the number of available clergy
- unsustainability of certain patterns of ministry
- lack of strategic capacity in some dioceses
- lack of leadership capacity to respond effectively to challenges
- legal and cultural constraints and institutional inertias
The different elements in Renewal and Reform have been shaped to address exactly these concerns and build the foundations for a growing church in every region of England and for every generation.
Jethro watches and listens and offers Moses some advice. It would of course be simplistic to read across from Exodus 18 to our own situation. But there is an immense amount of wisdom to be drawn from this very short text. Jethro’s priorities are somewhere near the heart of what we are seeking to do, by the grace of God, in Renewal and Reform.
“Now listen to me. I will give you counsel and God be with you. You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their case before God” (19).
Jethro’s starting point is senior leadership. What are we trying to do? How are we trained, equipped and supported in our roles? What is our distinctive and necessary contribution? How can we better learn from one another and from others within our dioceses? How can we best be agents of grace and change and renewal? How do we invest in our senior leadership in the present and develop new leaders for the future.
To meet this need the Church of England has developed a new Senior Leadership programme for bishops and deans. We have developed a new way of identifying and preparing senior leaders for the future through a new learning community. We have run one inter diocesan learning community for senior teams in dioceses to reflect together and will run more over the coming years. We are developing a peer review process to build greater strategic capacity in dioceses and to support mutual learning. We have recognized the need to have a more diverse senior leadership in terms of ethnicity and we are taking steps to address this.
I’ve been part of a large cohort of 28 diocesan bishops on the senior leadership programme this year. It’s been a very positive learning experience. We have been exposed to the best of current thinking on leadership from the Jethro’s of their day. We have begun a conversation about how to apply all of this to the role of a bishop and we are resolved to continue that conversation.
Jethro’s second point is the critical role played by the communication of faith and teaching in the formation of the people of God.
“….teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do”.
Forming and sustaining disciples is key to the growth and life and health of the Church and the contribution we are able to make to society and to God’s world. As bishops and senior leaders we have an absolutely critical role to play as evangelists and teachers of the faith. The Bishops of the Northern Province are with us this week after sharing faith together over four days in the Diocese of Blackburn as part of the second Crossroads Mission there.
A major strand of Renewal and Reform is focussed on evangelism through the evangelism task group, through a new focus on digital evangelism and a new intiative on students and evangelism.
It is very clear that we need further research and reflection and action to encourage the renewal of discipleship: that we need to become more of a teaching and learning church in parishes and dioceses and nationally.
One strand of that work continues to be focussed on Pilgrim, the new resource for catechesis launched three years ago at this College.
There is some information about Pilgrim on the handout you were given as you came into the room. Over 130,000 copies of Pilgrim have now been sold. We know that at least one third of all Church of England clergy have used or are planning to use Pilgrim. Over 95% of users who responded to a recent survey a year go said they would run a second course and recommend it to others.
An American version of Pilgrim was published in April. We are now developing Youth Pilgrim.
We are also about to launch the new Pilgrim Catechism: a user friendly resource to help churches form disciples, developed by the four core authors of Pilgrim. We are aiming to produce this in digital and print form by Easter 2017 with all new interactive and video elements available free on line and in app form. This is a priority project for our new digital evangelism team.
We are hoping to bring together the best thinking and reflection about catechesis with the best digital communications thinking and invest to the right scale to make a lasting impact in our nation.
Jethro has a third strand to his Renewal and Reform initiative. He focuses first on senior leadership and then on the ministry of teaching and formation. His third strand is the renewal of discipleship and ministry. He says, remember, “You cannot do it alone”.
Jesus says “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the Harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field”.
“You should also look for able men among the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens”.
In the present day, of course, we include women as well as men among those offering leadership. Jethro advocates a massive renewal and expansion of ministry within the people of God to enable their formation and equip them to live the life God intends, to be a blessing to God’s world.
Renewing Discipleship and Ministry is a major strand of renewal and reform. The emphasis is on lay leadership and ministry as well as the ministry of the ordained. There are task groups focusing on lay leadership and lay ecclesial ministries which are due to report in the next six months.
We know we need a different mix of gifts in our ordained ministry over the coming decades. Dioceses have told us they need clergy who will be missional, collaborative and adaptable.
We have begun a significant review of our selection criteria which is now in progress, engaging with all bishops through correspondence and regional meetings. You have on your chairs two handouts which are the latest step in that process. We asked bishops to tell us about priests who inspired them – there are six vignettes on the first handout. We asked bishops about what criteria they want to highlight for us. The second handout offers an initial summary. We are hoping the new criteria can be agreed in May of next year.
Every diocese is seeking to be a growing church with a growing ministry. Because of projected clergy retirements, that will not be possible on current trends.
We are therefore embarking on a major vocations initiative, seeking to raise the number of vocations to ordained ministry by 50% throughout the 2020’s. We want to see far greater numbers of candidates from minority ethnic backgrounds and far greater numbers of younger candidates, especially younger women.
We have carried out extensive research into effective practice in vocations and we are now beginning to make that known. Dioceses are increasing their investment in vocations teams. The initial signs are encouraging.
Following Jethro’s lead, I’ve focussed on resourcing senior leadership, on evangelism and discipleship and on renewing discipleship and ministry. Those are three strands only of Renewal and Reform.
Time would fail me to tell of work done to redistribute resources to areas of poverty and to mission development; of the excellent work being done to simplify our structures; of reshaping the funding of ministerial education; of the review of our national church institutions and so much more. By all means ask or comment on any of that.
We don’t believe we have everything sorted. There is an ongoing debate around most of these areas. We do understand that the outcome of it all is in God’s hands. We do understand that we are privileged to be living in a moment of change and opportunity for God’s mission.
Many others in the room are involved in these various strands of work and I hope that they will feel able to respond to questions and comments. We in the Church of England would greatly value the wisdom of colleagues elsewhere and your prayers as we seek to enable the Church to be a blessing to the nation and the world in the coming years.
Easter Day sermon from the Bishop of Sheffield.
Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18
One of the great figures of the Quaker movement, Isaac Pennington, wrote these words in a letter to his friends in 1667. He is trying to describe what it means to be a Christian.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”
To be a Christian is to live a life of gentleness and peace and tenderness and mercy and love together.
Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4.5). As a community we are to be known for our tenderness. He writes to Timothy, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6.11).
As I have read the story of the passion of Jesus in John’s gospel this year, I have been struck very powerfully by this theme of the gentleness of Jesus Christ: it is a robust gentleness, a gentleness combined with steel but gentleness none the less.
There is gentleness in the way Jesus receives the gift of Mary, the sister of Lazarus. She anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair. There is gentleness in the washing of the disciples feet. Jesus moves around the group of his closest friends to wash to cleanse, to serve.
There is gentleness in his teaching at the Passover meal. Jesus speaks of their grief and fear, about the comforter who will come, about sorrow turning to joy. He tells his disciples not to be afraid. He prays tenderly for them and for us.
There is gentleness combined with strength even in the terrible narrative of crucifixion: in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in Jesus’ care for ‘his mother Mary and for the disciple whom he loved, in his final cry: “It is finished.
And the same theme of gentleness and kindness flows through the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene, stands weeping, alone outside the tomb. Jesus appears tenderly to her. There is no bright light, no clap of thunder, nothing to distress a woman’s grief. Jesus listens and enters her sorrows through soft questions. He tells her he is alive as he speakers her name with love and joy: “Mary”. He gives her a new calling to share his risen life: “Do not hold on to me….go to my brothers”.
Jesus appears gently to the disciples, in the upper room. His first word to them is peace and his second word to them is peace, calming their fear and healing their grief. He gives them the promised Holy Spirit but in John there is no mighty wind, no earthquake or fire. In John, the Spirit is given through a soft breath on the forehead, almost a kiss.
Thomas is not there, of course, but there is gentleness too in the way the Lord deals with his unbelief, a tender irony, a smile, an inner joy. And there is gentleness in the final stories by the Sea.
Jesus stands as a stranger on the shore. “Children you have no fish have you”. He gives them instructions, he blesses their labours, and then reveals that he has been there ahead of them. The risen Son of God makes breakfast for his friends. He came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish. He is taking them back to the feeding of five thousand.
And then after breakfast Jesus deals gently with Simon Peter who at the last denied him and who is broken by grief and by failure. Jesus restores him with his questions: “Do you love me more than these”. To Peter also he gives a new task: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.
The risen Lord we celebrate today is gentle, merciful, tender and kind. His character is consistent. It is not spoiled and made bitter by the terrible suffering he endures, by denial or betrayal. It is not changed by his resurrection, by his new and risen life.
Before the cross, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, washes the feet of his disciples. After the resurrection, Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, cooks breakfast for his friends.
Here is something to ponder deeply this Easter morning. Jesus Christ calls his Church, his friends to be like him in his gentleness and love.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”.
It’s very simple. At the foot washing, Jesus hands on the manifesto for the life of the Church: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this shall everyone know that you are my disciple, if you have love one for another” (13.34-5).
Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples with these words” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.
Jesus commissions Peter to the same gentle ministry he models: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in a world which is often harsh and often violent.
We have been reminded again this week of the terrible violence inflicted on the innocent when religion is twisted by forces of evil and destruction. This week the world witnessed terrible violence in Brussels. This week the world remembered the genocide in Bosnia committed against Muslims over 20 years ago. These acts of violence are renounced and condemned by all Christians, all Muslims, all Jews in the name of God as well as by all people of good will. As Christians we must commit ourselves to working for greater understanding between our faiths and communities in the name of our Saviour who washes his disciples feet.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy in a world which neglects those who have nothing. There is a challenge in our own day to care for the displaced of the world, to welcome the refugee and to care for the stranger. There is challenge to serve the most vulnerable in this city, through the Cathedral Archer Project and in many other ways. There is challenge to campaign and be involved in political life so that the tears in the net of Welfare in this country might be mended again.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness in a world in which so many are hurting and broken. Here in South Yorkshire we know a great deal now about such brokenness following the child sexual exploitation scandals. There are many lives and many communities which need gentleness and care.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy even as we face together issues on which we might disagree one with another. Our Church is currently wrestling with the immensely sensitive issue of human sexuality. My prayer for that conversation is we will be gentle one with another and bear with one another and help one another up with a tender hand.
The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness in our stewardship of the earth: to live gently and respectfully in creation, to be faithful disciples in our care for God’s world.
And the vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in the ordinary and extraordinary details of our lives: in the way we greet one another; in the ways we offer hospitality; in the questions we ask one another; in the time we give to listening; in the friendship we extend to others; in the way we restore people to fellowship; in the way we tell others of Jesus Christ;; in our welcome of little children. “By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another”.
We are the Church. We are called into being by Jesus Christ, who was crucified and rose again. The gentle, risen Lord. We are called to reflect his love in a world of violence, hurt, hunger and confusion.
If you own the name of Christian, you are called to reflect this gentle strength in all you do: in your work and in your leisure, in your actions and in your character, in your words and in your deeds.
We are called together to be like him in his gentleness: at the anointing, at the footwashing, at the cross, in the garden, in the upper room, by the lakeside.
“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against another and helping one another up with a tender hand”
A sermon at the Chrism Eucharist
Yesterday I was in St Peter’s Tankersley, one of the oldest churches in the Diocese.
My reason for being there was to dedicate new building works. There is a new heating system, a new kitchen and space for children, a new organ, more flexible seating in the north aisle and a church extension to make room for a toilet. I always enjoy the blessing of a new water closet.
It’s a great re-ordering. But what inspired me most was the vision which shaped it. Eight years ago, Mr Charles Round, a member of the church then in his eighties, wrote this to the Rector, Keith Hale.
“The lead theft and the unfortunate resulting water damage to the organ may be a blessing in disguise which opens the door to a better use of the considerable space which the present pipe organ occupies. May I put the following ideas for your consideration? Instead of repairing the organ, clear out the organ loft and install a new electronic organ. The created area would provide a versatile and much needed space for our growing Sunday School….I feel it is time for objective, unemotional and realistic forward planning in order to assure the future continuous growth of our congregation and its influence in this parish of Tankersley”.
Charles is not in good health now and was unable to be present yesterday. But if he had been, he would have seen as I did, a wonderful new facility, filled with young children and a church ready to welcome the next generation.
“Enable with perpetual light
The dullness of our blinded sight”
Where do these words come from? We sing these words at every ordination service. They are part of the great hymn to the Holy Spirit. They echo the prayer of blind Bartimaeus: “My teacher, let me see again”. They flow from the words of Jesus in Luke 4:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free”.
We gather together this evening to renew our commitment to ministry as lay ministers, as evangelists, as deacons, priests and bishops and as the whole people of God. Our prayer as we come, I suggest, should be the prayer of Bartimaeus: Lord, let me see again. For a vital part of the ministry we offer is vision: the ability to see a better future for the people of God and for God’s world.
“Enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight”. May the Lord help us to see again the purposes of God, the calling of the Church, the vision for our Diocese, the better future for our communities.
My God open our eyes and help us to see again a vision of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at the centre of our life together. In the routine exercise of our ministry, we become blind. Like the Church in Laodicea we come this evening to ask for ointment for our eyes so that we may see Jesus afresh in this Holy Week and understand again the depth of our salvation even as we proclaim it to others.
Where is the vision for our ministry? Have our eyes become blind and our sight dull over this past year? Where will we find our healing?
The Book of Numbers tells the powerful story of twelve who were sent by Moses to spy out the land. It’s a cautionary tale. God has brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. They have passed through the Red Sea. They have received the law. They have travelled through the desert, guided by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire and sustained by daily bread from heaven. Now they stand on the threshold of the promised land.
Moses chooses 12 leaders, one from each tribe, to be the first to enter. Their task is clear. They are to see. They are to catch the vision of a land flowing with milk and honey. They are to witness the goodness and fruitfulness of the promised land. They are to come back and inspire the whole people of Israel. The land is good. God is leading us on. It is worth persevering. There is an immeasurably better future than slavery in Egypt. There is an infinitely richer life than wandering through the wilderness. Keep going. Press forward.
But that is not what happens. These twelve, “every one a leader” of the people lose their vision. They spend 40 days spying out the land. They return and speak to the people. There is indeed a rich land ahead, flowing with milk and honey. See, the fruit is good. But fear has gripped the spies. Their hearts are poisoned with despair.
Listen to what they say. The inhabitants of the land are giants. Their cities are large and strong. There are too many obstacles in the way. This is the most telling phrase. “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers and so we seemed to them.” Fear has corroded their perspective and their very identity.
Only two, Caleb and Joshua, sing a different song. They plead with the people to hold onto hope and a better future. This people have seen God do so much. This is the generation which saw the plagues in Egypt, the Passover, and the Red Sea. They have seen water flow from rock. But now they are gripped by fear. Rumour and terror and despair are infectious. They sap our courage. They prevent all forward movement.
The failure is a failure of leadership and vision. Disaster follows. The people rebel against God. They cry out to return to slavery in Egypt. They plead to be able even to die in the wilderness. The present reality, a parched desert, becomes more attractive than the future hope.
God in his mercy grants their request. This is a moment of judgement. For forty more long years they will wander aimlessly in the wilderness, a people going round in circles, until a whole generation have died. Only Caleb and Joshua, the leaders the keepers of the vision, will survive to lead the people into Canaan. Moses himself will come only to the threshold of what is promised. Why? Because the vision of the leaders of God’s people failed.
So let me ask you this as you come this evening to renew your commitment to the ministry to which God has called you. I ask myself the same question I ask you. What has happened to your vision? What has happened to your hope? How are you passing on vision and hope to the people of God in your parish and deanery and to one another? What are you doing to rekindle faith, to lead God’s people into a better future? Are you with Caleb and Joshua? Or with the ten who spread despair and counsel God’s people to be content with slavery and satisfied with the desert?
Every priest is called to be a person of vision. In the words of the ordinal, priests “are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord.”
What are you doing to nurture the vision of God in your own life and in the life of your community? The God who has called you is the maker of heaven and earth, the God who breathes life into creation, whose very nature is love and compassion and mercy. The God who has called you is Jesus Christ, the wisdom and love of God made visible, Jesus Christ who lays down his life for the world, whose passion and death brings new life to humankind. The God who calls us is the Spirit, brooding over the universe bringing about the new creation.
What are you doing to nurture a new vision for God’s world in your community? A vision for which the world cries out: a vision of peace, of justice, of freedom from slavery, a vision of a world in which children do not die, old people live in dignity and people enjoy lives of purpose and the fruits of their own labours?
What are you doing to nurture and catch a fresh vision for God’s church? A vision which is richer and deeper than a group of people growing old together. We are called to be a church filled with God’s new life, constantly seeking ways to model our life on the character of Jesus Christ, continually striving to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation.
Each of us is called to different ministries. Each of us has been given different gifts. Some to ordained ministry and some to lay ministries. Some to be evangelists, pastors and teachers. Some to be deacons, priests or bishops.
Yet all of us are called to be women and men of vision, called to see a different future for the Church, called to watch for signs of God’s new creation, called to a vision of God at the heart of all our living.
As we come this evening to renew our commitment to ministry, as you come before God in the silence in these coming days of Holy Week, as you perhaps are led to seek prayers and anointing for healing, let this be the focus of our prayers: the renewal of our vision of God, our vision for God’s church and our vision for God’s world.
“Enable with perpetual light
The dullness of our blinded sight”.
“My teacher, let me see again”
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
+ Steven Sheffield
 Mark 10.51
The Seven acts of Mercy
Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod
27th February, 2016
“Blessed are the merciful” Matthew 5.7
Long ago, the church in England loved the number seven. In 1281, the Archbishop of Canterbury called together the English bishops at Lambeth. Together they agreed a pattern of teaching for every parish in the land. Four times a year, the clergy were asked to expound the faith. The Bishops defined what was to be taught: the creed and the commandments. Then a collection of sevens: the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; seven vices and seven virtues (the seven deadly sins still survive in popular culture). Then came the seven sacraments of the mediaeval church. And finally the seven acts of mercy.
These seven acts of mercy are probably the least well known part of the way the faith was taught. They are based on Jesus picture of the judgement of the nations in Matthew 25. You will remember the passage:
The Lord says, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me”.
These are the seven acts of mercy of the Christian tradition: to give food to the hungry; drink to the thirsty; to welcome strangers; to clothe the naked; to care for the sick; to visit the prisoners and the seventh, added by the Church to this list, to bury the dead.
They are not meant to be an exhaustive list of works of mercy, of course. They are not meant to be a way to earn salvation or to earn God’s favour. These acts of kindness are a way of responding to God’s grace. They are a way of living out our faith in practical ways through our care for one another and for God’s world. They are for all of us.
We perhaps take these acts of mercy too much for granted. How is it that mercy and kindness have always been such a deep, integral part of Christian faith? Our faith is not simply about what we believe or how we pray. There have been religions which have nothing to do with how people behave. The Christian faith is something we live through kindness and through mercy.
The Church is called to kindness, first of all, because we believe that the God who made the heavens and the earth is merciful and kind.
The world is not here by accident. We are not subject to cruel or random chance or to the movements of the stars as the astrologers tell us. The gods are not jealous or hardened to human suffering as were the pagan gods of ancient times. Nor are we subject simply to random physical events as the new atheists believe. God is love and mercy and kindness, and that kindness and gentleness should be the mark of God’s people. As Psalm 136 tells us over and over again, 26 times, God’s steadfast love, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy endures and endures for ever.
Second, we are called to mercy because of God’s gift to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3.16). Jesus shows us God. The God Jesus reveals to us is mercy and compassion and love. Jesus’ life and ministry are full of acts of mercy and more: food for the hungry, healing for the sick, freedom for the prisoners, new life for the dead.
In Jesus, God becomes a human person: the Word, God’s love, takes flesh. In this immense event at the centre of our salvation, Jesus Christ gives such dignity and value to every human person in creation. In the remarkable words of Matthew 25, Jesus says: “What you did to the least of these….you did to me”.
Kindness has not always been at the heart of human culture. The Greek and Roman gods were cruel. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes about how this one profound truth that God became a person has reshaped our view of every human person.
He writes:“…we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down’s Syndrome child, the derelict, the wretched or broken man or woman; the homeless, the diseased or mentally ill….To be able to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls”.
Hart argues that this revolution in human kindness and mercy springs directly from the Christian faith, from Jesus. He goes on to warn us that a culture which loses its hold on Christian faith will lose its hold on mercy. A society which becomes post-Christian will ultimately become posthuman. Kindness will begin to disappear from our institutions and our culture.
Third, as we look back through Christian history, the Church has returned again and again to the ideal of mercy. To be sure the Church has often and terribly fallen short of this ideal and does today. We should be sorry and repent where that has happened. But we should rejoice in the many stories down the ages and today of kindness and self-sacrifice, of women and men stirred up to acts of mercy in great multitudes of ways in every generation.
It is the kindness and mercy of God reflected in and through the Church which is the most powerful witness still to the truth of Christian faith.
The American historian and sociologist Rodney Stark describes how the Christian community expanded and grew to be the dominant religion of the Roman empire in less than three hundred years. He describes how acts of mercy played such a significant role in the growth of the church in the first four centuries, particularly in times of plague and desolation.
Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote these words in an Easter letter to his community around 260 AD following a great plague across the ancient world:
“Most our our fellow Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ and with them departed this life serene and happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains”
The Christians stayed in the city and cared for the sick when everyone else fled.
God is love. Jesus sets the pattern for our lives. The Church in every generation has cherished mercy. For all of these reasons, we need from time to time to remind each other that we are called individually and together to acts of mercy, not to earn God’s favour but in response to God’s love, and that these acts of mercy should be the hallmark of a Christ-like church, the kind of church we want to be.
There is always room to grow in love. But the principal thing I want to say this morning is that as I look across this Diocese, in the Church of England and in the other churches, this is what we see: Christians engaged in acts of mercy, individually and together. I do not want us to boast or become proud. But I do want to hold up a mirror and remind us all of the remarkable kindness and mercy which is shown by the people of God across this Diocese.
Together we are engaged in feeding the hungry and giving the thirsty something to drink, in welcoming strangers and clothing the naked, in caring for the sick and the prisoners and in burying the dead and caring for the bereaved.
We have recently done some fresh research. We know that there are 50-60 Food Banks across the Diocese of Sheffield. It would be excellent if none of them were needed but all of them are. Most of them are connected to churches and to other faith communities who supply volunteers and donations of food.
People use foodbanks when they do not have enough to eat, when they cannot feed their children, when they are faced with a choice between being warm or going hungry. Most people use them only a couple of times a year, in times of special need, when their benefits are sanctioned. They represent practical acts of kindness, God’s mercy in action, feeding the hungry and giving the thirsty something to drink.
Together we are involved and active as the Church in this region in giving clothing to the naked and shelter to the homeless. The Cathedral Archer project supports around 70 people each day in the centre of Sheffield. In the last year it has provided 671 food parcels, 606 nurse appointments, 144 dentist appointments. On average it supports over 1000 people over the course of a year. Mercy and love in action.
Together we are welcoming the stranger. The Churches are active in their support of Assist, the charity which works with asylum seekers. Assist is currently supporting 87 asylum seekers in Sheffield with weekly cash payments and bus passes. These are mostly people who have nothing, whom no-one else is helping. City of Sanctuary cares for refugees in a similar way. Many local churches offer a warm welcome across the Diocese for those who are strangers in this land or new to this part of the world. Project Paddington, started by a small group of Christian parents in Sheffield, has recently delivered 25,000 teddy bears to refugee children in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan and has raised £40,000 for refugee projects.
Together we are visiting the sick. We have over 27 ordained, licensed or accredited hospital chaplains in the Diocese together with over 90 volunteers working in hospital chaplaincy. Scores of clergy and lay ministers are involved in visiting and taking Holy Communion to the housebound and supporting those in acute and long term illness within and outside the Church community.
Together we are visiting those in prison. We have a prison population in this Diocese of more than 3,000 across four different prisons. They are served by three Anglican chaplains, when at full strength, together with scores of volunteers who give their time to acts of mercy.
Together we offer love and care in funeral ministry and in caring for the bereaved. Our clergy and lay ministers together take over 3,000 funerals each year, an average of around 30% of all funerals taken in the region. This ministry is costly when exercised year by year. Taking a funeral is about far more than officiating at a service. It involves care for the bereaved, often involving other members of the church or congregation.
Through our church schools we are teaching kindness year by year to more than 8,000 children. We are passing on to them not only the stories at the heart of our faith but a way to live in love of God and of our neighbour.
In some of these acts of mercy and kindness we act as the Church of England. In many we act with our fellow Christians in other churches or with people of different faiths. In many of the charities we act together with people of good will who may not share any faith. In all of them we offer practical love and service in every community and congregation to people of all faiths and of none.
This morning I simply want to give thanks for these ministries and record them as a quiet, daily, ongoing miracle happening all around us. As a Church we are doing our best to reflect the love and mercy of God, to increase the sum of human happiness, to pattern our lives around the life of Christ, to live as we are meant to live.
Of course there is much more that we could do. Of course mercy alone is not enough. We are called to proclaim the great message of salvation and the story of God’s love (and we do that). We are called to transform the unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation (and we do that). We are called to care for God’s good earth and be stewards of creation (and we do that as well).
But it helps me from time to time to remember, and I hope it helps you and the wider community we serve, to give thanks that these seven acts of mercy still form a large part of our core business. They stand at the heart of who we are, as we invite others in our community to come to know this God of mercy and love, the God of Jesus Christ and join in God’s great mission of love to our world.
One of my favourite windows in our Cathedral is visible from where I most often sit during services. I’ve spend some time pondering its images. It depicts six of the seven acts of mercy from Matthew 25. Next time you visit the Cathedral, give thanks for all the mercy which is shown across this Diocese and ask God to show to you and to us all, the ways in which we can extend and deepen that mercy in the coming years.
“I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25.35-36).
This morning I commissioned the new President of the Mothers’ Union in the Diocese of Sheffield, Pauline Reynolds (on my left in this photo with the rest of her team). This is the sermon I preached at the service. I focussed on the second of the Mothers’ Union’s five objectives and asked every branch and every member to reflect on what I said in the coming months. The Bible readings were the story of Samuel’s call from 1 Samuel 3 and Jesus’ meeting with Mary and Martha in Luke 10.
“One of my favourite television programmes as a child was Mission Impossible. I continued to like the more recent series of films. I love especially the part at the beginning where the team are given their clear but difficult task. The message always contains the words: “Your mission if you choose to accept it”. It always ends with “This tape will self destruct in five seconds”.
It is very good to be here with you in the Cathedral today for this special service. I would offer my sincere thanks to Sheila Wood for her leadership of the Mothers’ Union in this Diocese over the last three years. I am thankful for the gifts Pauline Reynolds will bring to this role and assure her of my prayers and support as she takes up this office today. My thanks also to the outgoing team and to the new team who will be commissioned later in this service.
And my thanks and appreciation to the Mothers’ Union for all that you do across the Diocese to serve others and to fulfill your objectives.
In the light of the readings you have chosen, I want to say two things to Pauline and to all of you as you look ahead over the next three years.
The first one can be said quite briefly, but I think it’s important. Don’t worry about your membership numbers and recruitment to the Mothers’ Union.
I say that not because Pauline is particularly concerned about this but because the Mothers’ Union generally, in my experience, can be more concerned about numbers and recruitment than about fulfilling its objectives. This is understandable. But I believe it is mistaken.
A smaller, active Mothers’ Union working towards the five objectives is worth more in a parish or in a deanery or in a diocese than a large Mothers’ Union which has a lot of people at meetings but does very little. A Mothers’ Union which is outwardly focussed and working on these five objectives together will attract far more of the right kind of members than a Mothers’ Union which exists simply to hold monthly meetings. A Mothers’ Union which is outwardly focussed and working on these five objectives together may not need to hold many meetings at all. The meetings they did hold would be focussed very tightly on these aims. But they may do a power of good in all kinds of ways.
So what are your objectives? What is your reason for existing? In different language what is your mission?
Your five objectives are listed on the inside back page of the service booklet. They are clear and vitally important for Church and society and for many individuals within it. They should be the reason people join the Mothers’ Union and the reason people hold office within it. Perhaps I should have arranged for the Mission Impossible theme tune to play at this point in the sermon.
You are committing yourselves today:
• To promote and support married life
• To encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children
• To maintain a worldwide fellowship of Christians united in prayer, worship and service
• To promote conditions in society favourable to a stable family life and the protection of children and
• To help those whose family life has met with adversity.
This is your mission if you choose to accept it.
I hope these five objectives are read regularly at Branch meetings and Committee Meetings and special events. I hope they shape your work. If it would be helpful, I would gladly spend some time working through all of these objectives with you as part of my own support for what you do.
Don’t worry about how many members you have. Read the story of Gideon’s army. A small committed group will always accomplish more than a large group that does not know what it is for. Focus instead on your unique mission – as you do that I believe the right people will want to join you.
Second let me say something to you at the beginning of this triennium and to your new President about the vital importance of the second of your objectives: your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.
There is no greater gift that we can give the children in our families, in our churches, in our schools, in our wider society than the gift of faith. The whole course of a child’s life will be affected by developing faith in childhood. What an immense gift it is to know that you are loved by God, the maker of the universe; to know that you are called to a lifelong friendship with your creator; to know that you are part of a worldwide family; to understand the great gift of prayer; to receive God’s guidance at life’s great crossroads; to develop Christian character; to become all that you are meant to be. All of these gifts and more are given through the development of faith in children. Lives are saved, deepened and enriched, families are transformed and the world is changed.
Samuel is nurtured in faith as a child through his mother Hannah who prays for him and prays with him. He is nurtured in faith as a child through Eli who instructs him in prayer and in listening to God’s voice. Samuel will go on to lead Israel and change his nation. But the foundations of his life and his friendship with God are laid in childhood.
Mary and Martha grow up in a home where they learn both to work and to pray. They are sisters. The foundations of their love for God have been laid in childhood and laid in the home. It is true that for one, Mary, prayer becomes her focus and for another, Martha, action takes priority. We know from the story that Mary has chosen the better part. But prayer and action both are needed. Our strength is born in God. Our faith is lived out through what we do.
Why do I focus on this objective today? Sadly, because your work here is urgently needed. The evidence is that Christian parents today are not developing the faith of their children.
These statistics were in research published last year . Anglican parents who say that religion is very important in their lives were asked these questions.
Is it important that children learn good manners at home?
94% said yes.
Is it important that children learn tolerance and respect at home?
83% said yes.
Is it important that children learn religious faith at home?
How many do you think said yes?
Let that sink in a little. Only one in three committed Anglicans believes that Christian parents should develop the faith of their children. As a Mothers’ Union that should disturb you as it disturbs me. I wonder what we might do about it?
Let me offer four things that you can do and can encourage yourself.
The first is to become more like Mary and Samuel. Set as a priority the developing of your own relationship with God, to listen, to be sustained, to draw apart often. A relationship with God is caught, not taught. It can only be taught from someone who is growing in that life of prayer themself. Set aside time each day to pray, discover how if you do not know how, go deeper into God. Weave that prayer into daily life, especially the saying of grace at meals.
The second is to teach the faith within your own family, to your children and to your grandchildren. Every Mothers’ Union member at least should be seeking to develop faith within their own children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, members of our extended families. We do that through our prayers, through conversation, through encouraging the parents, through providing gifts and resources, by inviting children into the family and fellowship of the church in different ways.
The third is to campaign together to ensure that every church which has a Mothers’ Union branch is friendly and accessible to children and families. I want you to be my allies here – God’s secret agents in support of parents and their children. I want to enlist your support in ensuring that every church which has a Mothers’ Union branch also has crèche facilities, a toddler group, a place where children learn on Sundays, family events at festivals, groups for young people, Messy Church, people who will befriend young families.
And the fourth is to campaign together to ensure that every church which has a Mothers’ Union branch is also teaching faith to the parents so that they can develop faith in their own children. The number one reason, I think, why parents do not pass on their faith to their children is very simple. The parents themselves don’t have the confidence to do so. They have not been taught. Will you work with me to ensure that in every church where you have a Mothers’ Union branch, there is an opportunity every year for adults to learn the faith from the very beginning .
Here are four things you can do to fulfill your second objective: to encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.
1. Deepen your own faith
2. Develop faith within your own family
3. Ensure every church is friendly and accessible to children and young people
4. Ensure every church is teaching the faith to adults
I will provide Pauline with a copy of this sermon. I would like you to discuss it at your next branch meeting and decide what you need to do to fulfill this objective in the coming year.
The Mothers’ Union has a vital mission. Focus on what God has called you to do. May God bless you in all your service in the coming years”.
“The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ….” Ephesians 4.11
Whenever I stand before a congregation, I try and remember two things. The first is that it is a wonderful privilege to preach the word of God. The second is that the people I am about to address are people of enormous influence. Each one of them is a leader.
Often they don’t think of themselves that way, of course. But that man over there by the pillar is a primary school teacher. He has 25 children in his class. Over the next ten years he will profoundly shape 250 lives and families for good. This elderly lady has eight grandchildren. She prays for them, she teaches them their prayers, every time she sees them she builds up their sense of worth. That man who is giving out the books this morning is a police sergeant. He is befriending the Muslim community in the place where he works. The person who leads the intercessions works in a large office. She is the person younger staff turn to whenever they need a listening ear. The lady in the overcoat is a Macmillan nurse. She will spend this evening with someone who is dying. This teenager who is assisting at the altar might be in a senior role in a major company in ten years time. In the meantime she will be the most remarkable ambassador for Christ in her own peer group: the only Christian these young people know.
These people in front of me this morning, whether it is fifty or five hundred, are not simply members of the Church. They are people of influence in their families, in their places of work, in their communities, in the whole world. My task, when I stand up to preach on Sunday, is to equip them for their task on Monday, whatever that may be.
Don’t just take my word for this. Listen again to the words of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount he says this: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world”. You are people of influence, spread across the world to prevent decay, to establish peace and justice (salt is both a preservative and a fertilizer). You are people of influence, showing the way and helping people to see in very dark places.
The calling of every local church is to form and build, sustain and support these men and women of influence whose task is nothing less than reshaping and transforming the world.
I don’t mean, of course, that the Church is only for important people. The Church is here for everyone. As in the Church in Corinth so in the Church in Hatfield and Wickersley and Millhouses: “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth”.
We are ordinary people, but called by an extraordinary God and entrusted with a unique and extraordinary message, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through that call and through that message, in the strength which God supplies, Christians become salt and light, people of remarkable influence whose calling is to change the world.
“The Diocese of Sheffield 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”.
You may have heard me say that on previous occasions. We seek as a Diocese for every church to be a place where men and women of influence, ordinary yet extraordinary Christian disciples, are formed and sustained and equipped week by week, month by month, year by year. God has not called us simply to increase the membership of the Church to make it easier to pay our bills. God has called us to make and grow and sustain disciples who will together make a difference through the way we live our lives, through the example we set, in many thousands of places throughout this region.
We are setting before this Synod today a revised strategy for discipleship, mission and ministry for the next part of our life together. It is called “Forming and Equipping the People of God”. It’s not a new strategy but an important revision of one of our four key documents.
The most important change is a greater focus on discipleship and on the whole people of God. We want to grow a culture of discipleship right across the Diocese, in every tradition and every kind of Church.
The Church is called to be a community of missionary disciples. We are called into discipleship through grace. In our baptism, the sign of that grace, we dedicate and consecrate the whole of our lives to God. We are called together to be with the risen Christ in the Eucharist and as we gather around God’s Word. As the people of God, we are sent out to live to the glory of God in every part of our lives.
In our recent Mission Action Planning exercise, 8 out of 10 churches said they needed help with making, forming and sustaining disciples. Over the next ten years we want to offer that help and encouragement and build that culture of discipleship in everything we do.
Every local church is called to be a place where new Christians are coming to faith and prepared for a lifetime of discipleship and service. Every local church is called to be a place where Christians are deepened and sustained in worship, fellowship, witness and service to the whole of society, through every part of our lives.
Much of this growth and development will take place in the life of the local church. Every parish and fresh expression will need to pay attention to its worship and community, teaching and learning, mission action planning, welcome and the nurture of new believers.
But as a Diocese we believe we need to support this in four key ways:
- By offering frameworks of support and patterns of life which help every church grow its own culture of discipleship.
- By offering training and support in discipleship to complement what the local church can offer.
- By identifying obstacles to growth in discipleship in our life and culture and developing strategies to address them.
- By helping to form lay and ordained ministers who are equipped to grow the church in this way.
If we are to grow the Church across this Diocese in numbers and depth and quality of life then we need to pay careful attention to growing our lay and ordained ministers to support that growth: the ligaments and sinews of the body of Christ.
To help us to do all of those things we are proposing to draw together all of our existing learning and teaching as a Diocese into a new learning community: St Peter’s College.
The purpose of St Peter’s will be to nurture and sustain the whole variety of ministry the Diocese needs to fulfill our shared vision.
The focus will be on equipping the whole people of God and on equipping apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers who will themselves equip all the saints for their work of ministry: the services offered in many different ways in many different places in the workplace, the home and wider society.
We want to go on equipping people to be pioneers to plant fresh expressions of church, children’s and youth ministers, Readers, worship leaders, spiritual accompaniers, lay evangelists and pastors. We want to offer the whole people of God help and support in discovering their call and vocation before God and how to best use their gifts. We want to offer some initial training for those preparing for ordination, though the majority of our ordinands will continue to do their initial training in colleges and courses as now.
We want to invest much more in the ongoing training we offer for our clergy and lay ministers so that we become truly a learning community. For that reason our second appointment to St Peter’s in the new year will be for a continuing ministerial development officer to focus on that ongoing equipping of lay and ordained ministers which is so vital for our future.
But all of those ministers who are called and served and equipped and sustained have one central purpose: they are themselves to equip the saints, the whole people of God for the ministry and service all of us are called to offer in the whole of our lives.
The draft of our revised strategy for ministry and details of St Peter’s College will be found here.
Our present strategy for ministry and our other three strategies are here.