A sermon at the Chrism Eucharist

Yesterday I was in St Peter’s Tankersley, one of the oldest churches in the Diocese.
kitchenMy 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”[1].  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


[1] 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[1].

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”.[2]

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”[3]

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).

[1] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p.53

[2] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p.214

[3] Dionysius of Alexandria, quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 82

muservcieThis 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?
36%.

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:

  1. By offering frameworks of support and patterns of life which help every church grow its own culture of discipleship.
  2. By offering training and support in discipleship to complement what the local church can offer.
  3. By identifying obstacles to growth in discipleship in our life and culture and developing strategies to address them.
  4. 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.

My Lords,

May I from these benches warmly welcome the Sustainable Development Goals and the government’s commitment to them.

Like others I was initially somewhat sceptical about a document which contains 17 goals and 169 targets.  These are not even memorable or round numbers.  I have to say, however, I am inspired by the single vision for our world which drives and shapes these goals.  That vision is set out in the ambitious declaration which forms the preface to the draft document to be considered and I hope agreed at the September summit.

The language of the declaration is lofty and rightly so.  I quote: “Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda”.  And again, “We can be the first generation to succeed in ending poverty just as we may be the last to have a chance of saving the planet”.

The vision in this document of sustainable development, a safer world with more resilient institutions where no-one is left behind is one that is consistent with the Christian tradition and those of the major world faiths.  I applaud it, believe it and support it.

However it is a vision which needs to be communicated well and implemented with rigour and it is here I want to focus my remarks.

The single vision is broken down in the report into just five areas of critical importance.  These five areas are easy to name, to remember and to communicate:  People, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.  Preachers love alliteration.

I would encourage the government to place real weight on these shorter, more memorable and more accessible headings, for this reason.  These visionary goals for our world will only be realised as they are widely understood and communicated. This vision will never be realised if it is the vision only of politicians and NGO’s.  It must become the vision of all the majority of people on the planet, a shared vision of prosperity, peace and partnership.  The goals need to be spoken of in schools and universities and in the media.  There needs to be international debate.  Resources need to be invested here and elsewhere in education and building awareness of the values which underpin this vision which are no longer self evident in our society or across the world.

My Lords I was a member a few years ago of the city wide fairness commission in Sheffield.  I assumed at the beginning of the process, that fairness would be a shared concept among the population, that we were articulating a common vision.  On the day of the report’s publication I appeared on local radio.  The phone in responses revealed that my assumption was wide of the mark.  A big vision and detailed targets are both excellent but in between comes the harder task of transforming human attitudes and building deeper generosity of spirit: explaining the reasons why we seek a better world for all.  The churches and faith communities have a key role here. We understand we are global citizens. We share the deeper values which lie beneath these goals.

To quote from the report again: “…we are setting out a supremely ambitious and transformational vision.  We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease, and want where all life can thrive….a world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality….a just, equitable, tolerant, open and socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met….a world in which consumption and production patterns are sustainable”.

This vision is worthy of agreement and it is worth sharing and communicating throughout our nation and beyond it.  I hope the government will take this responsibility seriously.

It is also a vision which calls for clear plans for implementation.  Here I would encourage the government to pay careful attention to the plans for enacting this ambitious programme and for scrutiny and review.

May I therefore ask the Minister two specific questions:

Will the government commit to promoting the vision of the SDGs and to implement the agenda in this country in full.  If so how do you plan to do this?

How will the government use the high level summit to build support for an ambitious global climate change agreement in Paris in November and December.  If so what link does the minister see between the two summits?

We all listen more to those who practise what they preach.  The government’s rhetoric on climate change in the manifesto for the election was good.  The government’s record on climate change since the election is a cause of concern to many, myself included.

The independent Climate Change Committee have already raised the issue of a gap between the policies already in place and the policies needed to meet the climate change the government supports.

Many were therefore expecting a series of positive policy announcements to close this gap.  Instead, the gap seems to be widening.  The government has cut subsidies for solar and wind power, privatised the Green investment bank, is getting rid of the Green deal, has lifted the ban on certain harmful chemicals and has introduced a tax on electric cars.

Can the Minister confirm that the government will continue to hold to its commitments and support the positive and transformative vision of the Sustainable Development Goals with consistent, prompt and long term action especially on climate change?

 

+Steven Croft

17.9.15

Launch of the Crossroads Mission

Welcome to the Archbishop, to all of our visiting bishops and their teams on behalf of the whole Diocese of Sheffield.

We are delighted you are here.  We look forward so much to working with you and to your encouragement and friendship in God’s mission across this Diocese.

I want to invite all of the home team to express the warmth and appreciation we feel to those who have come to join us.

This Crossroads mission was born in prayer as the bishops met on Holy Island and prayed together for the north of England.  God willing it is the first of many, a symbolic new evangelization of the north.

Our hope for these four days is that we will together sow the good seed of the gospel, the word of God, in many different ways and many different places.  Through what we say, through listening, through the love we show, through being there.  In the scriptures we offer, through the text messages we will send.

We want to sow that living word with compassion, with gentleness, with courage, with imagination to many thousands of people across this Diocese.

This world God loves is indeed standing at the crossroads and so are many hundreds of thousands of people across this region.  Our task is to point them to the ancient paths, the forgotten wisdom of the Christian faith which lies deep in the rock and soil and history of this land.  Our task is to uncover the good way again and encourage people to walk in it and find rest for their souls.

We do well to remember as we go that the word of God which we sow is living and active.  God created the heavens and the earth through his word.  The promise of scripture is that God’s word moves heaven and earth still, especially when that word is proclaimed in the public square.

This seed we bear holds immense potential for life.  It will seem a small thing to hand someone a beermat, or offer them a gospel, or speak to them after an assembly or listen at the Show.  But that one text or conversation may be the turning point for the whole of their life and the life of their family.

As Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is like mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade”.  Who can know what will happen because of our work together over these next few days.

All of us, the home team and the away team, are bearers of the gospel.  Paul writes these words to the Church in Rome and to the Church down all the ages.  Let his words echo round this cathedral today as we go out in faith:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel.  It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith”.

In this mission we are saying together, Amen.  We are not ashamed of the gospel we bear.  We will carry this message to all whom we meet.  It is the message that the word of God, God’s very self, took flesh and became a man, Jesus Christ.  It is a message of his life and ministry, a message of love.  It is the message of his death on the cross for our sins.  It is the message of resurrection and new life and Easter joy.  It is the message of the gift of the Spirit, the transformation of human lives and the birth of God’s new people, the Church of Jesus Christ.

Thus says the Lord:

“Stand at the crossroads and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls”.

May God bless each of us as we go and carry this good seed, the gospel of God, to many, many different places.  May God bless these communities which we love and serve.  May God by his Spirit cause this seed to grow in many different lives in the months and years to come.

Amen.

+ Steven

 

In early June, 2015 I was invited to give an address to the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in Stuttgart.  The address was part of a workshop stream exploring Fresh Expressions of Church.  There is a growing interest in the German Church in new forms of church for a changing culture and many in Germany are keen to learn lessons from the experience of the Church of England.

1. A story from Acts

It is an honour to take part in the Kirchentag and thank you for your welcome.  It is good to be with you both to teach and to learn today.  I pray that all of us may gain a wiser heart in every way as a result of this conference.

There is a key moment in the Acts of the Apostles I would like to share with you.  It occurs in Acts 11 and arises from a time of great difficulty, a period of persecution which followed the martyrdom of Stephen.

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution….travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch and they spoke the word to no-one except Jews.  But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.  The hand of the Lord was with them and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.”

We are reading here of a spontaneous movement of mission, inspired by the Spirit.

“News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem….”  I wonder if you can imagine yourself present at that meeting as the apostles debate this development.  They ask the question: “Whom shall we send to explore what is happening?”  They looked round the room and, in a moment of inspiration, they chose to send Barnabas, the son of encouragement.

“…..and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”

Barnabas is here exercising discernment – seeing that what is happening is of God.  Goodness, the Holy Spirit and faith are needed.  These are rare qualities among those called to senior church leadership (according to Acts).  Luke singles Barnabas out as exceptional even among the apostles.

“Then Barnabas went to Tarsus and looked for Saul and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch.  So it was that for an entire year they associated with…..”  With what?  What do you think is the next word in the text?

“…with the Church” – ecclesia with the definite article.  Ponder for a moment what that means.  A new church has been created by the Word and by the Spirit and has been discerned, recognized and connected to the rest of the Body of Christ.

“…they associated with the Church and taught a great many people and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians”” (Acts 11.19-29).

2. What has happened in the Church of England?

Please hold that story in your mind as we explore together some of the lessons derived from the experience of the Church of England.

Through most of the twentieth century, the predominant culture in England has been a secularizing culture.  The reasons for that are complex and will be familiar.  But, if anything, secularization was as rapid in England as in much of Northern Europe.  Overall, the Church in England remains in significant decline.

As the water table of faith dropped in the population at large, the Church of England set itself to become a missionary church once again.  For three generations we have been a church emerging from Christendom into a different kind of community.  To be an emerging church has meant relearning many lessons from the past: about mission and evangelism and catechesis as core disciplines.

In the 1990’s we began to learn new lessons about forming new ecclesial communities through contextual mission.  At first our learning was informal and accidental, the gathering of fragments of stories as different pioneers were inspired to go to parts of the community which knew nothing of Christ not to draw people back to the existing church but to create new churches.

That gathering of stories led to an attempt to understand what was happening and to develop a vocabulary to describe it.  We called the new ecclesial communities “fresh expressions of church”.  As a Church we took a decision in 2004 actively to support the formation of new communities through contextual mission and to encourage a mixed economy of church for the new millennium.  Our mission context calls us to be more diverse.  We have encouraged the formation of fresh expressions in every diocese; we have identified a recognized focus of training for ordained ministry called ordained pioneer ministry; we have rolled out a training programme for lay pioneers and clergy; we have seen this movement expand internationally and ecumenically, for which thanks to be to God.  We have seen the movement challenged theologically and those challenges refuted[1].

Over the last 12 years this movement has grown and multiplied and has been resourced in different ways and different places.  There are now thousands of fresh expressions of church across every part of the Church of England. 10 dioceses (out of 42) were surveyed for a major study published in 2014.  In those dioceses:

  • Fresh expressions account for 15% of churches and 10% of attendance
  • In 7/10 dioceses growth of fresh expressions cancels out decline
  • In terms of numbers, these fresh expressions add a further diocese to the Church of England
  • 52% of fresh expressions are lay led
  • Most are small and growing and part of an existing parish

In the words of the report, “Nothing else in the Church of England has this level of missional impact and adding further ecclesial communities”[2]

I was for five years from 2004 to 2009 the first Team Leader of the national ecumenical fresh expressions team.  Since 2009, I have been Bishop of Sheffield and also since 2012 the Chair of the Ministry Council of the Church of England overseeing all selection and training for ministry.  From that perspective, I would like to offer you 9 short lessons for a church which wants to move in this direction.  The first three are grouped around mission, the second around ecclesiology, the third around encouragement and the ways it is given.

3. What lessons have we learned about mission?

i.          Mission is God’s Mission

This whole movement is undergirded, supported, held by a theological understanding of the mission of God: that God is a God of mission; that mission is the outworking of God’s love and God’s very nature; that God is deeply and profoundly at work in the whole world; that God is working already outside the Church; that mission is centred on discovering what God is already doing and joining in; that God is concerned most with those who are furthest from God’s love and light; that mission follows the pattern of Christ in both his incarnation and his character; that mission is about being sent by Christ in the power of the Spirit; that mission is about proclaiming the kingdom, teaching and baptizing new believers, service to the wider community; seeking to transform unjust structures, care for God’s earth and working for reconciliation.

This theological understanding of God’s mission has been rebirthed in the Church of England over several generations, inspired by the Anglican Communion, by theologians returning from mission elsewhere in the world, by the worldwide renewal of a theological understanding of mission, by discernment arising from study of the scriptures at the core of the Anglican tradition.

The changes we have experienced have arisen from this theological renewal.  They are not simply about pragmatism or what is effective; still less about what is fashionable for its own sake.  Much of the theological wrestling we have done are the core theological questions of mission – especially contextualization.  Do not attempt to encourage fresh expressions of Church without this serious theological undergirding.

ii.         The whole Church and every church needs to be mission-shaped

Once that work is done it is possible to see instantly that we are not talking about fresh expressions of church which do mission and parish churches which do not.  We are talking about every church engaging in God’s mission, whatever that means.  In developing fresh expressions we are not talking about questions of personal preference or taste, what some have characterized as boutique church – but about what is helpful and effective and essential for those who are coming to faith and growing in faith.

This is the vision statement of the Diocese of Sheffield which undergirds all we do in the Diocese and the reshaping of every parish church, every deanery, every fresh expression and every appointment:

“The Diocese of Sheffield is called to grow a diverse 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”

iii         The whole Church needs to invest in evangelism

To be fit for purpose every Church needs to invest in evangelism: communicating the good news to men, women and children.  Local churches which do invest in evangelism will grow, whether they are fresh expressions or not.  Local churches which do not invest in evangelism will not grow, whether they are fresh expressions or not.

Evangelism is a complex series of disciplines, often subject to caricature.  I was asked to be the Anglican Fraternal Delegate to the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops on Evangelisation in Rome in 2013.  In a paper for the General Synod in 2014, I attempted to describe 7 Disciplines of Evangelisation all of which need intentional investment and development across the local Church, by Dioceses and by the Church nationally.  The 7 disciplines are:

  1. Prayerful discernment and listening (contemplation)
  2. Apologetics (defending and commending the faith)
  3. Evangelism (initial proclamation)
  4. Catechesis (learning and teaching the faith)
  5. Ecclesial formation (growing the community of the church)
  6. Planting and forming new ecclesial communities (fresh expressions of the church)
  7. Incarnational mission (following the pattern of Jesus)[3]

As part of that investment in evangelism, the House of Bishops have developed Pilgrim to encourage catechesis across the Church of England, in all kinds of expressions of church[4].

4. What lessons have we learned about ecclesiology?

iv.        We need to think and talk about the Church

Developing new forms of church shifts ecclesiology to the centre of the theological agenda.  We need to reflect over and over again on what it means to be the church in different ways and different places.  Our experience was that our ecclesiological muscles were flabby and underdeveloped.  We had left ecclesiology to ecumenists.  It needs to become once again the province of missiologists.  The forms for Church need to be shaped by the mission of God.  Our understanding of the mission of God needs to be shaped by Christ and by our Christology.

The best resources here are short summaries of what is essential about the Church not long, dense studies.  What are the essential marks of the Church?  What does something have to be or to have before it can be called the Church?

v.         We need language to describe different forms of church working together

It is vital to develop a both-and approach to parish churches and to fresh expressions.  We must never set them in competition.  Each must use respectful language when speaking about the other.

The biggest challenge to the fresh expressions movement in the UK has come from not using language carefully.  Where fresh expressions have communicated that they are not a new thing to sit alongside the old but the new thing to supplant the old there has been resistance to change and a turning back to old ways.  The language which has worked best for us has been the language of mixed economy of church or mixed ecology of church.  Both forms of church are missional, both need each other, both serve different purposes in an increasingly diverse society and mission field.

vi         We need to enable and encourage fresh expressions of church

Within the context of the mixed economy, fresh expressions need positive encouragement and endorsement by senior church leaders and by the wider church if they are to flourish.  These are tender, delicate plants.  We have moved as a church in twenty years from hostility and suspicion, to tolerance, to permission giving, to active blessing, and in some cases to resourcing and integration of the new with the old.  This has not always been an easy journey.  It has not been the same journey in every diocese.  Some are very much ahead of the others.  But the greater the encouragement, the greater the fruit.

5. What lessons have we learned about encouragement?

Finally and briefly what lessons have we learned about how to encourage fresh expressions of church within a mixed economy.  How can we be Barnabas in this contemporary Antioch?

vii.       Encourage fresh expressions as you do fresh expressions

We have learned to encourage fresh expressions in the same way as we do fresh expressions.  We have learned to be light touch, responsive to what God is doing, courageous and risk taking, listening and finding out what works.

It was tempting in the beginning to set out a great denominational structure, a programme of activity, a demanding syllabus, great files of policy.  Wherever we developed them, they were like David trying on the armour of Saul.  What was needed was blessing, simplicity, eyes open, listening ears, time, prayer, an openness to the Holy Spirit.

This movement is of God and is still in its infancy.  We need to be sensitive, flexible, humble and discern what God is doing.  We are not rolling out a programme.

viii.      A principled and careful loosening of the structures

The best policy we have developed has been about removing obstacles rather than creating templates or strategies.  Rowan Williams, the last Archbishop of Canterbury, did a huge amount to encourage fresh expressions.  One of his many helpful phrases was a call for this principled and careful loosening of structures to give the new ecclesial communities space and time to grow.  We need possibility and creativity more than we need regulation and adversity to risk.

ix.        Relationships are vital

Finally and very briefly, relationships are vital and particularly relationships between denominational leaders and pioneers, the loyal radicals of the Church who want to see change but to remain part of the denomination.  These relationships are vital in both directions.  The pioneers need the denominational leaders to remain connected and also to provide support in brokering new opportunities. The denominational leaders need the loyal radicals so that we continue to be challenged and refreshed by the very edges of the life of the Church.

This is exactly what is happening when Barnabas goes to Antioch.  The centre is going to meet the edge.  The edge is meeting the centre.  In the dialogue between the two there is creativity and life and the recognition of a new form of church.


[1] For a developed account of this see “Fresh Expressions in the Mission of the Church”, Report of an Anglican Methodist Working Party, Church House Publishing, 2012

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

“Is not this the carpenter? Mark 6.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid 129

[4] Sheffield City Region LEP Growth Plan

[5] Jeremiah 29.7

Combatting Climate Change: the Paris Summit and the Mission of the Church

I am very grateful for this debate, for the work done by the Environmental Working Group and the lead given by Her Majesty’s Government that we heard about earlier.  I wholeheartedly support all parts of this motion.  Together with other northern dioceses, Sheffield has supported the Hope for the Future Campaign, which has been one of the campaigns encouraging lobbying of MPs and candidates which continues its work.  I want to address my remarks especially to what used to be clauses (d) and (e) and are now (e) and (f).

As Chair of the Ministry Council I wholeheartedly support the call of the Anglican Communion Environmental Network for programmes of ministerial formation and in service training which address this issue, and I will willingly ensure there is an audit of the way ordinands and others engage with these issues in the coming year, and I expect to find a great deal of good practice already in our Colleges and courses.

Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, calls for nothing less than an ecological conversion of individuals and communities, and I love that phrase ‘ecological conversion’.  He quotes Pope Benedict: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast” and he writes “a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion.”

The strength of Laudato Si’ is the deep rooting of the environmental crisis not in some esoteric branch of theology but in the centre of the Christian vision of God and the earth, the centre of what it means to be human and the centre of a theology of hope.  Limiting carbon emissions is absolutely vital but will not in itself address the whole problem.  The environmental crisis, as we have heard, is also a social crisis and a spiritual crisis and the roots of this crisis lie, according to Pope Francis, in what he calls the omnipresent technocratic paradigm, in the cult of unlimited human power and in the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s immediate interests.

So I am cautious about a new branch of theology called eco theology and a new branch of ethics called eco justice.  We simply need to rediscover the ecological imperatives at the heart of all Christian theology and all Christian ethics, and set these perspectives at the heart of all Christian formation in catechesis, in schools, in local churches and in all forms of ministerial education.

One of the pieces of work I have done over the last few years is on the Lord’s Prayer and I have become more and more convinced that the petition ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is not a petition for God to give us things but it is a petition to learn contentment in all our lives and in every day that we ask each day only for enough for that day.  Thank you.

The Bishop’s charge to those about to be ordained deacon and priest

3rd July, 2015

Every year those to be ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese share in a retreat together immediately before the ordinations.  As part of the retreat, the bishop offers an address, called a charge.  This is my bishop’s charge for this year, on the theme of courage in ministry. 

“Rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands”

2 Timothy 1.6

“Will you then, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known amongst all whom you serve”

Two years into my curacy, I was asked to give the opening speech at the annual summer fair at the local Church school.  The Vicar was unable to be there.  It was an opportunity, he said, to say something Christian to those who gathered, to communicate the gospel.

It was a fine summers afternoon.  There were scores of people milling around.  I asked the headteacher when and where I should speak.  I expected that there would be a stage, a microphone, a clear introduction.  “That’s up to you” she said and handed me a megaphone.

I wandered round the stalls for a while in my clerical collar with this megaphone dangling by my side.  There didn’t seem anywhere obvious to stand or anything obvious to say.  After about half an hour, without any ceremony, I put the megaphone back in the school office and slipped away.

Basically, I funked it.  Here was a chance to say something to a group of parents and children on the edge of the life of the church I’d been given.  Permission, encouragement, opportunity and means were all there.  But my nerves got the better of me.  I let the moment pass and hoped no-one would notice.  My courage failed me.

The theme of my charge to you this evening is the place of courage in ministry.  My hope and prayer is that through the years of ordained ministry ahead, as deacons and priests, your lives and ministries will be marked by courage and, particularly courage in proclaiming the gospel.

It’s my practice when preparing this annual charge to read through the ordinal to reference the theme.  I found surprisingly few references to courage in ministry.  I suspect this reflects the settled mentality of Christendom which lies beneath much of our liturgy.  The reality is that we live in a post Christian, pluralist world in which the Christian faith we represent is deeply contested.  Courage is a key component in the ministries to which we are called.

However, I did find three references which I want to explore.  In the ordination of bishops, the candidates are urged to proclaim the gospel with all boldness, referencing Acts 4.32 and elsewhere.

“Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles, they are to proclaim the gospel boldly, confront injustice and work for righteousness and peace in all the world”.

I take this to apply no less to deacons and priests than to bishops.

As you know, the Bishop will ask the candidates a series of questions before the ordination.  The final question in all three services for bishops, priests and deacons references to 2 Timothy 1.6.  The bishop asks:

“Will you then in the strength of the Holy Spirit continually stir up the gift of God that is in you, to make Christ known among all whom you serve”

In its biblical context, this is clearly a call to courageous ministry.

The third reference is in the questions to the congregation.  After the ordinands publicly answer the great questions, the bishop asks the congregation three questions.  The third question asks this:

“Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry”

I want to argue that this too is a reference to courage.  It’s not as clearly rooted in a single biblical passage but the story the verse brings to mind more than any other is Joshua 1, where the people urge their new leader at his commissioning, above everything else to be bold.

These three references in the ordinal stand in contrast to the many references to courage in ministry and leadership in the scriptures.  We might think of the courage of Joshua, of Hannah, of Sarah, of Elijah and Elishah, of David and of Mary the mother of Jesus.  We might reflect on the courage of Jesus himself in confronting the scribes and the Pharisees, in setting his face towards Jerusalem, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the cross.  We might reflect on the many acts of courage in the Acts of the Apostles or the great list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.  That list is provided for us “so that we may not lose heart” (Hebrews 12.3).  It is for our en-courage-ment.

Before we explore these three passages and themes in more detail, let me explore for a few moments the reasons why I want to encourage you to reflect on this theme of courage in ministry.

A few weeks ago the Diocese of Sheffield held its first residential conference for twelve years.  Those of you about to be ordained priest were there together, most of the clergy from across the Diocese and about seventy lay people.  The conference was, I think, a really significant moment in the life of the Diocese.

The overall theme of the conference was discipleship in a Christ-like Church.  But the theme which emerged most strongly over the three days was the need for courage and confidence in our discipleship and ministry at this particular moment in this particular Diocese.  Our agenda was discipleship but I think part of the Lord’s agenda was courage.

My own address to the conference was focussed on the low self-esteem which is a deep part of the culture of South Yorkshire and of this Diocese and of many local churches.  I talked about the battles ministers and disciples face with fear, anxiety and self doubt and the need to overcome these things, to be a Church confident in the love and grace of God and able to minister to the communities we are called to serve.

Paula Gooder expounded the theme of discipleship in Mark 4, 5 and 6.  One of the major themes of Paula’s exposition was the timidity of the disciples and Jesus call to them to be people of faith and courage.  Martyn Atkins addressed the theme of discipleship and the church.  One of his central points was that we know all that we need to know about making and sustaining disciples.  What the Church lacks is courage and confidence in the gospel to act on this information.  Bishop Peter led a session in which three business people spoke about their faith and their work.  Again the theme was courage.  David Ison and Alison Morgan again referenced the need to be bold and courageous in our discipleship.  For those not able to be there, all of these addresses are available on the website.

Through all of these references to courage, I believe that there is a word from the Lord for the Diocese at this time to recover our courage, not least as we prepare for the Crossroads mission with the Northern Bishops in September but also as we prepare for the next chapter in our life together: living and communicating Christian faith in the communities we serve with clarity, compassion and confidence.

I also believe that courage is an important theme for you to ponder in these final days before your ordination as deacon or priest.  It would not be unusual if at some point in these days or the next few weeks you come face to face with anxiety and fear.

So let’s attend to these three passages, brought to our attention by the ordinal.

“Following the example of the prophets and the teaching of the apostles they are to proclaim the gospel boldly….”

The specific reference here is to Acts 4.29-31.  Peter and John have been arrested, tried and released following the healing of the lame man at the beautiful gate.  The believers gather for prayer.  It is remarkable that according to Acts, they don’t pray for safety or deliverance.  They pray for boldness.

“And now, Lord, look at their threats and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hands to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through name of your holy servant Jesus”.  When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4.29-31).

The word translated boldly or with boldness is a recurring word in Acts: parresia.  It’s used about ten times either as a noun or an adverb.  Parresia is especially linked with preaching and public testimony.  It is important not only for its frequency but because Luke makes it the penultimate word in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the final scene of Acts, Paul has at last come to Rome.  The gospel has travelled from Jerusalem to the heart of the known world.  What is Paul doing as we leave him in Rome?

“He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28.30-31).

What does this word translated boldness actually mean?  Parresia does carry the meaning of courage in the normal sense.  But it also has a wider range of meanings drawn from the world of Greek rhetoric: the art of public speaking.

The apostles are praying for courage as we mean it, certainly.  We need the normal kind of courage in ministry. But they are asking for more than this.  They are also praying for certain qualities to be evident in their service of the word.  I’d like to pull out four strands of meaning.  I don’t normally do alliteration but these all begin with “p”.

They are praying for grace so that they may speak plainly first of all.  That is the meaning of parresia in John 15.29 where the disciples say to Jesus “Now you are speaking plainly not in any figure of speech”.  It is vital in our preaching and teaching to speak in ways and language that people can hear and understand.

The word originated in Greek political life with the fundamental meaning of declaring the whole truth without fear or favour.  Telling it like it is.

The author Henri Nouwen, I am told, labored and labored over his books with one aim, to make them shorter, sharper and clearer: more plainly understood.

It’s a serious thing to preach in such a way that people cannot understand you.  Sermons like that leave people feeling that the Christian faith is complicated and impenetrable.  It can leave them feeling ignorant and stupid if you use words which are hard to understand.  Speak plainly.

Second, the disciples are praying for the grace to speak persuasively.  They are praying that their arguments will be clear and persuasive and logical and winsome.  They are praying that their preaching will win hearts and minds as they present Christ on every opportunity.

As the words from the ordinal make clear, we need the boldness of the prophets and the apostles. The boldness of the prophets is the courage to speak truth to power in difficult circumstances.  But the parresia, the courage of the apostles in teaching is learned in the schools of the philosophers as much as the prophets: a clear and open argument to convince our hearers.

Too often we become lazy in our service of the word.  We repeat stock formulas and old arguments instead of working to craft words which will persuade and convince through reason that Jesus is the Son of God.

Third speak publicly.  It’s an obvious but constant theme in Acts that the message of the gospel is carried beyond the Church both in conversation and in proclamation.  “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”.  But we do more than tell that message over and over again to each other.

Where does public proclamation feature in your lifetime calling to speak the word?  Where will you look to make your contribution, speaking to the wider culture we are part of?  In the whole history of the Church, particularly in the great Methodist revivals, the power of the gospel is released in new ways when we proclaim our faith in public.  John Wesley’s ministry took a new and powerful turn when he went outside the Church to preach to the miners in Bristol and elsewhere.   As you enter the Cathedral tomorrow and on Sunday, you might recall that Wesley was famously banned from speaking in Sheffield Parish Church, by the then Vicar and instead spoke in the open air, to greater effect than if he had been locked up inside the Church.

How will you proclaim the gospel publicly in the coming year, with courage.

Finally, the apostles are praying for the grace to preach the gospel persistently, in season and out of season as Paul himself charges Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim 4.1-2).

Here is the first part of the charge to ponder about courage which applies especially to your service of the word. Preach the word of God with boldness.  Labour for the gift of plain speaking so that everyone can understand what you are trying to say.  Work hard at your preaching and teaching so that what you say is persuasive, well constructed, within the community and outside it.  And resolve to be persistent in what you say, in season and out of season.

Make no mistake.  You are being ordained to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to preach the word of God.  Pray for boldness in that calling all the days of your life.

I’m going to ask you to reflect, in second place, on the courage envisaged by that final question in the ordination service.

“Will you in the strength of the Holy Spirit, stir up the gift of God that is in you to make Christ known amongst all whom you will serve”

To understand the question, it’s important to reflect on the context of these distinctive words in 2 Timothy 1.

“For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self control” (1.6-7).

My own understanding of the context of 2 Timothy is this.  I don’t believe 2 Timothy is general instruction from an older to a younger minister (although 1 Timothy and Titus can be seen in that way).  I believe 2 Timothy is a genuine Pauline letter written at a particular time of crisis in Timothy’s life and ministry.  Timothy has been somehow caught up in one of the sporadic waves of persecution which are a feature of first century Christian life. In that wave of persecution, Timothy had the opportunity to make the good confession, to stand up for his faith in Jesus Christ. For whatever reason, his courage deserted him and he failed the test.  He is in a place not unlike Peter the apostle after the denial.  2 Timothy is written in this moment of great crisis to restore Timothy to his vocation, to help him find his courage again in these moments of despair and failure.

We are talking about prophetic courage here: the willingness to pick yourself up after a bad fall when you messed things up personally or professionally and get back on the horse.  The courage to get back into the pulpit after the family service went drastically wrong; the courage to go back a second time into the unruly classroom or assembly; the courage to say the really difficult thing at the PCC meeting or in the pastoral encounter; the courage to step up to the plate of costly, difficult, demanding ministry situations again and again and again and again.

Christian ministry would probably be very easy if we were perfect, balanced, gifted people. The reality is that we are imperfect, disordered, temperamental so and so’s trying to do the best we can.  For most of us most of the time, our ministry will be punctuated by those moments when we didn’t speak or act, when we let the opportunity go, when we try and fail, when we are on the batting plate but ball after ball sails past us.

How does Paul respond to Timothy, his child in the Lord in this moment of crisis.  He responds first with love and affection.  This is the most passionate letter in the New Testament I think. “To Timothy my beloved child” (1.2).

He responds with prayer: “I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day” (1.4). There is urgency and desperation here.

He reminds Timothy of God’s grace in verse 6.  Through the rest of the letter Paul gently restores Timothy’s vision for ministry and sets before Timothy both his own example and that of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is trying to encourage Timothy, to put courage into him, to enable him to engage again with the task to which Timothy has been called.

One of the themes I would encourage you to reflect on in these days is how you believe God responds to you when you lose your courage, when you have those moments like the one I described and many more much worse than that.

Will God respond in any less a way than Paul does to Timothy: with love, with prayer, with grace, with gentle rebuilding, with vision and example.

The rhythm of lifelong ministry is one of failure and restoration.  If that’s not the whole rhythm it will be part of it.  The long term fruitfulness of your ministry and mine depend in how you deal with those situations of failure and remaking.

That is why this final question is at the heart of it all.  It presupposes moments of failure.

“Will you in the strength of the Holy Spirit, stir up the gift of God that is in you…..”

Why does the gift need stirring up?  Because the flame has burned low.  The gift is dormant.  The Greek word at the centre of 2 Timothy 1.6 is anapourizein.  It means to catch fire again.  To burn again with the love and passion of God.  Will you rekindle courage and hope in your ministry again and again and again and again through all the years ahead?

This request to stir up the gift of God that is in you is not a once and for all request to speak sternly to yourself on the day of ordination.  It is a commitment, like the other commitments you are making in these questions, to habits of life.  And one of them is the habit of continually stirring up the gift of God that is in you: catching fire morning by morning.

“Rekindle the gift of God that is in you through the laying on of my hands….

Finally and very briefly the third passage from the ordinal: the third of the questions the bishop asks the congregation.

“Will you uphold and encourage them in their ministry?”

We are not called to serve alone.  We serve as part of the Body of Christ, the people of God.  As the Body of Christ, the people of God, we uphold, encourage and support one another in every part of what we do.  I hope that will be true of your relationships within this group, within the deanery in which you serve and within the congregation.  We receive as much as we give in ministering to others.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given as a deacon and priest I pass on to you.  When you are feeling sad or depressed or down in your ministry, no matter what it’s about, go and pay someone a pastoral visit. You will almost always come back with a changed perspective, upheld and encouraged by the grace of God.

At the end of our diocesan conference, it happened to be the Feast of St Barnabas and I named Barnabas as an additional patron saint of this diocese in the coming years.  I enrolled everyone there into a new Society, the Fellowship of St Barnabas and enrol you all in it as well today.  It has one purposes, to build each other up in courage and boldness in our discipleship and ministry now and in the years to come.

Preach the gospel with boldness: plainly, persuasively, publicly, persistently.

Continually stir up the gift of God that is in you.

Be a son of encouragement to others and allow them to encourage you.

May God bless you richly in these final hours of preparation before your ordination as priest and deacon and in all the years ahead.  I look forward to serving with you.

 

+Steven Sheffield