I came back to Sheffield for nine days on Wednesday of last week to fulfil a series of essential engagements in the Diocese here. One part of my attention and prayer has been on what is happening in Rome and I’ve continued to keep up to date with the Synod through the daily bulletins on the Vatican website.
The Synod is mainly meeting in groups through these days and developing a series of propositions which will then be voted on in the plenary Synod before going forward as the basis of a message from the Synod to Pope Benedict XVI.
My public engagements in these eight days are in one way a normal snapshot of the life of a Bishop in the Church of England at the present time. In another they provide a good worked example of the ways in which the Church of England is engaging with the transmission of the faith in our present context.
I came back to Sheffield with a renewed appreciation of the significance of the Anglican experience in mission in the present moment. As one person said to me in Rome, we have been working at this question of the secularisation of society and appropriate missional and pastoral responses for a long time and in an increasingly intentional way. It is not, perhaps, surprising, that ways forward developed in an Anglican and British context would be relevant elsewhere to Churches grappling with similar challenges. The Roman Catholic Church has already acknowledged the importance of the Alpha Course in evangelisation. I’ve heard similar comments over the last few years from the Protestant Church in Germany and from other parts of the world about fresh expressions of church.
In my address to the Synod I talked about developing fresh expressions of the church for a new mission context. In the Church of England we have become used to talking about the mixed economy church: traditional congregations alongside fresh expressions of church within parishes or groups of parishes. The term mixed economy was originally coined by Archbishop Rowan Williams in his time as Bishop of Monmouth.
So what I have I been doing in this reasonably typical week? On Wednesday evening I attended and led one of twelve Deanery evenings across the Diocese looking at re-imagining ministry for mission. This one was in the Laughton Deanery, just south of Rotherham. I began the evening by asking people what questions they were wrestling with at the moment. They gave a particularly rich series of answers: how to pass the faith on to children, to young adults, to those beginning the faith. I felt as though I was in exactly the same conversation as the one I had left behind in Rome.
On Thursday evening, I attended the opening of a new building serving a community project led by Church Army Evangelists which relates to some of the most needy people in the city. The work is an attempt to serve and listen to and witness in a particular sector of city life through pioneer ministry. On Saturday morning I was with a local parish for a morning teaching on the beatitudes and the importance of being a Christ-like Church. On Saturday evening, we were at St. Thomas, Philadelphia for a gathering to celebrate the Forge Youth Ministries, which serve over 800 young people across the city in sports, in ventures of different kinds, in small missional communities, in discipleship and mentoring. On Sunday morning I was at St. Peter’s Greenhill on the edge of Sheffield where a year ago I instituted a young pioneer minister as Vicar and he brought a team of young adults into a traditional parish. A year on there has been significant growth both in the 9.30 traditional service and in the new 11.00 am informal worship. There were many young families and a new ministry with children. Finally yesterday evening I licensed new honorary canons in the Cathedral at a beautiful service of choral evensong.
As we reflect together on the transmission of faith in this part of the world, we need to begin from the point that we are increasingly a diverse society. To reach every part of that society we need many different approaches, many different pastoral responses, many different expressions of the church bound together by a common understanding, vision and goals. A diocese and a parish is increasingly made up of these many different communities and ministries.
But at the heart of them must be the call to go, to listen, to serve, to form community and to bear witness to the gospel in many different places as an ordinary yet extraordinary part of the life of God’s Church. And the goal for them all must be to become Christ like communities, a sacrament of God’s presence in God’s world.