Today was our Diocesan Synod in Sheffield and this is the text of my Presidential Address on the theme of nurturing our vision as a Church. Like many other dioceses, we face a number of challenges in the present moment. The way through them lies in remembering and knowing more deeply who we are in Christ.
Nurturing our Vision of the Church Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod 16th February, 2013
Dear Friends I want to spend some time this morning in the midst of the detailed business of this Synod to refresh our vision of the Church. I hope these words will be something of a tonic and a source of joy and hope for the Synod as we meet and for churches across the Diocese and beyond at this present time as we grapple with the challenging issues of the day. The more problems we are called to face, the more we need a clear vision of our calling. The more challenging the questions, the more we need a crystal clear vision of what it means to be the people of God in the local community and in the world.
All of us here are part of local church communities and so we know that church life is always a mixture of joy and blessing on the one hand intermingled with problems and disappointments on the other. All of us in this Synod are part of the diocese, a wider family and network of churches. We are aware that as a Diocese we have many good things to give thanks to God for. Many churches are taking new and bold initiatives of faith. Many are seeing very, very good fruit. I was reading this week an immensely encouraging paper telling the stories of Christmas services and church attendance across the Diocese which lifted my heart. We will receive this morning the reports of our Boards and Councils which detail just some of the good work which is done month by month across our Diocese in and through and by the local church and by the Diocese. This week Bishop Peter has been on a deanery visit to Hallam and I spent Thursday on a deanery visit to Rotherham. We both witnessed so much that was good. But we are also all aware through this Synod that we face significant challenges of finance and faith as we face the future together.
As a national church too there is much to give thanks for as the Church of England begins a new period of its life as Archbishop Justin begins his ministry. You don’t need me to remind you that there are huge challenges for us at national level at the present moment in the life of our nation and a great need of grace. That situation is not unique to the Church of England or the Church in this country.
In October, I was privileged to attend the Synod of Bishops in Rome on the New Evangelisation and the transmission of the Christian faith. This week we give thanks in particular for the ministry of Pope Benedict who called that Synod and presided over it each day and we pray for the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. My biggest piece of learning from that Synod was that the Church all over the world is having the same conversation at the moment certainly in respect of the transmission of the Christian faith. As I’ve said on a number of occasions, I returned to the Diocese after nine days of listening to Bishops from all over the world and went straight to the Laughton Deanery evening on re-imagining ministry. As I listened to the people of that Deanery listing their joys and their questions at the present time, I realised in a profound way that this was exactly the same conversation I had left behind in Rome. The questions of finance, of the changing role of ministry, of the challenges of passing on the faith are not just local questions. The are questions every church all over the world is facing, albeit in different ways in the present generation.
A Biblical Vision
So spend a few minutes with me this morning exploring more deeply what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ, the people of God, the sacrament of God’s presence in the world, the sign and instrument of communion with God among all the people’s of the earth.
There are many places in the Scriptures we could go to explore this theme but let me take you to one passage from the gospels and one from the epistles, one is very easy to understand, one is a profound mystery, one is a simple story, one is almost poetry.
The passage from the gospels is the story from Mark about the calling of the twelve. This is the earliest account in the earliest gospel about why Jesus called together a group of disciples. We know that this is a story not just about the first disciples but about the church in every age because of the number of disciples. Twelve is not just a convenient number for a small group or a team. It is the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is calling together the new Israel, the new people of God in this moment. At the heart of the story of that calling is a simple and clear statement of the essence of the Church:
“He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him and to be sent out…” (Mark 3.13-14).
The church at its simplest is a group of people called by God to be with the risen Christ together and to be sent out.
The word ecclesia means those who are called out into an assembly. But the church is not a static gathering or assembly. It is a community of people called to live in this rhythm, this heartbeat of coming together to be with Jesus and being sent out together to live out our faith in the world.
This rhythm is seen in our Lord’s summary of the Law. “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers the subtle question not with one commandment but with two: “The first is, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.28-31).
We are called to meet with the risen Jesus in the Scriptures and the Sacraments, like the disciples on the Emmaus Road. The Scriptures and the Sacraments have that same rhythm to their life. The Scriptures tell of the calling of the people of God to the life of worship and community but also their calling to engage in God’s mission to the whole of creation. The Sacraments speak of God’s presence as we gather together to baptise and to celebrate the eucharist but also of God’s commission to make disciples and to offer our lives afresh, Sunday by Sunday in response to God’s grace to us.
We are the people of God, called into being by his Son. At the heart of our life is the call to be with the risen Christ together and to be sent out. At the heart of our vision for the church must be the dynamic interplay, the eternal dance, of worship, community and mission.
My second bible passage is Paul’s great prayer at the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians which describes in the most beautiful language and in one very long sentence the whole story of salvation from beginning to end. That story of salvation is also a profound lesson in ecclesiology: in what it means to be the Church.
Many of us were enriched this week by sitting at the feet of Dr. Paula Gooder who gave our Shrove Tuesday lectures. One of Paula’s many helpful points was the way in which we tend to read the Scriptures in an individualistic way in our own culture rather than as a community. One of the places we are prone to do this most is in our reading of Ephesians 1. Paul’s great prayer of blessing is not meant to be describing the story of the salvation of a number of individuals nor the story of the salvation of you and me but the story of the creation of the Church of Jesus Christ, the people of God.
The passage is remarkable for the number of places where Paul speaks of “us” and “we”. You know the way it begins: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”.
But what does Paul mean by “we” and “us”? He does not mean a collection of individuals. He does not mean you and I as individuals. He means the community of God’s people, the church. Let me offer you a reading of Paul’s great prayer in which the word we and us is expanded each time by the addition of the word church, the reality which lies beneath the whole letter:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us the church in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us the church in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us the church for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us the church in the Beloved. In him, we the church have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us the church. With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the church the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we the church have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we the church who were the first to set our hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory. In him you, the church, also when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit: this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1.3-14, words in italics added)
When we go to church on Sundays, when we attend Church meetings, when we take decisions on behalf of the church, we need that larger, God given vision in our minds. We are called to be part not of a human society but of a community called into being by God before the foundation of the world. This community we call the church is not a human creation. It was not invented by men and women in the first century AD. It is part of the divine purpose. It was not created by the writing of a constitution or a set of standing orders. It was called into being by the action of God and specifically through the life and ministry and death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The Church is not sustained primarily through human agency or our frail wisdom and power. The Church is sustained from age to age through the wisdom and insight of God and through the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit, lavished upon us. The Church is not the property of any single nation and cannot be told what to do by any government or parliament. We are called from every nation to be part of a Church which is one, holy, catholic and apostolic, for all time and yet beyond time.
The Church’s mission and destiny and purpose is not to be a refuge or a huddle of those who believe against a hostile world. It is not to be remnant of those who believe and preserve the ways of the past for their own sake. The Church’s mission and destiny is to be at the centre of God’s plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things into him, things in heaven and things on earth. The Church is called later in Ephesians the one new humanity, citizens of God’s kingdom, the household of God, the temple of the Lord, a dwelling place for God (2.15-22).
This is the community which we are privileged to share in and called to build in our own generation. The letter to the Ephesians does not allow us to think that building this community is an easy task or a light undertaking. It is Ephesians which reminds us that we are in a struggle and that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but agsinst the rulers, against the authorities, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. It is Ephesians which reminds us of the need for the whole armour of God (6.10 ff).
But we are called to build this community now in this Diocese: the community of those called to be with Jesus and be sent out. The community called into being to share the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to call others to share in that one new humanity at the centre of creation.
The reality around us.
When we look at the Church in this Diocese through the spectacles of Mark 3 and Ephesians 1, we do begin to see a different picture. We see the same blend of blessing and problems. We are not blind to the realities around us. But we see that same blend in the light and perspective of history and of eternity.
We see and we give thanks for a network of parish churches which extends still across every community, rich and poor, urban and rural.
As Ann Morisy reminded us on our Diocesan Development Day last year, in every community in this Diocese, the parish, the Church of England, is likely to be the largest membership organisation, the most diverse organisation, the most significant generator of social capital, the most significant source of adult education and learning for daily life, the most grass root network of voluntary organisations, the most long lived and able to tell the story of the neighbourhood and the most significant provider of community facilities. Every parish church community is a tree of life, an anchor for a complex ecology of community activity which is a blessing to its neighbourhood and beyond.
Every parish is a place, potentially, where adults and children come to faith and become disciples of Jesus Christ. As we become Christ’s disciples so we find salvation, healing and grace. We find the paths of holiness and peace. We become part of a living community of faith which is itself part of the Church throughout the world.
As the Church of England, every parish holds to a vocation to be more than a gathered community of the faithful. Our calling is serve the needs of all, to work for the good of all, communicate the gospel to everyone and to minister to the entire population in times of personal need or local or national crisis. As Anglicans we believe that no local expression of the church is a complete expression of the church. We are covenanted to be the church together as a diocese, as the larger household of God, ministering and serving the whole community in the whole region, and to be part of the wider Church throughout the world.
That is the Church of England which I am privileged to see as I travel across this Diocese. There are in every place signs of God’s grace, in every place, signs of hope and encouragement, in every place signs of new faith and discipleship growing and fresh direction in our common life. The problems and challenges we face are immense. But the resources at our disposal are even greater in the economy of God and it is God’s grace which will prevail.
Our vision and strategy
We have a clear vision as a Church in this Diocese for the next part of our life together.
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.
We have a clear ways forward to realize the different parts of that vision in Growing the Body of Christ, in Salt and Light and in Re-imagining Ministry for Mission.
We are seeing clear signs of encouragement and growth across the Diocese. More parishes are engaging with the annual cycle of prayer, sowing the seed of the gospel, nurturing the faith of new believers, growing the faith of every disciple. More parishes are deepening their engagement with our wider society. More parishes are exploring mission partnerships and sustainable patterns of ministry for the future. Significantly more people are offering themselves for self supporting ordained ministry and lay ministry. Only God sees the whole picture, but I can see enough to be enormously encouraged.
Let’s remember as we engage in this great task together that it will not be easy or straightforward. We are called to reshape and to build the church in this diocese for present and future generations. This is a high and holy calling, worthy of our best gifts and sacrificial giving of our time and energy, our gifts and our financial resources. Let’s remember that we are not building a human organization only but the Church of Jesus Christ, called into being and sustained by the grace of God. Let’s remember that we must expect opposition and difficulties and expect to overcome them much of the time. And let’s remember that we are not on our own in this task. We have one another both as individuals and as churches. We have the resources of the Church throughout the world. We have, most of all, the resources of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, informing our vision and shaping our lives.
My final words are again from Ephesians (3.20-21):
“Now to him, who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen”.
+Steven Sheffield 16th February, 2013