Dear Sisters and Brothers,

We write in these days after Pentecost.  One of the great early lessons for the disciples of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was that Jesus really meant it when he told them that the good news was for all nations. On the day of Pentecost people from across North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean became followers of Christ.  They were quickly joined by the Samaritans and Romans. The pilgrim people of God swiftly grew into communities from all walks of life, many nationalities and a range of ethnic diversity.  One of the tragedies of our collective history is the perception that the Church became captive to a white European domination. Yet, of course, it did not – that is the way we have chosen to tell the story. We easily ignore the long continuity of Christian believers in Ethiopia, Syria and the wider Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and China. We truly are a dispersed people ‘that no one could number from every nation. From all tribes and peoples and languages’ (Revelation 7.9).  The Church of Jesus Christ is truly drawn from All Nations. 

One of the significant dangers of the current pandemic is that although we know it is affecting the whole world we have naturally become narrowly focused on the response and impact in our own nation. Yet it is significantly affecting our sisters and brothers in all nations.

Therefore in this pastoral letter, while we address the phased re-opening of our churches, initially for individual prayer and funeral ministry, it is important for us to reflect more widely on the events taking place amongst us nationally and internationally in the midst of the pandemic.   We write in a continued spirit of thanksgiving for all that you have given and achieved during this most demanding time. We seek as your Bishops to encourage you and support you even as we face hard questions together.

Black Lives Matter

It has been the events in America that have made us all lift our attention to wider matters than even the pandemic. All of us have had to grapple with the terrible death of George Floyd and the subsequent demonstrations for racial justice around the globe. It has highlighted questions for us here in the UK with our particular history of Empire and the wealth of our nation being built, at least partly, on slavery and the exploitation of the wealth of other nations.  We also know that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people from a BAME background, revealing the health inequalities in our nation. Archbishop Justin has been very blunt stating that ‘the racism that people in this country experiencing is horrifying. The Church has failed here and still does, and it is clear what Jesus commands us to do: repent and take action’. 

There have been responses within our own Diocese. Some of you will have seen the article by four of our Diocesan clergy in the Observer on 7/6/20 (view here: https://bit.ly/30tiy2p).
+Paul has written publicly of his response in The Northern Echo on 10/6/20 (view here: https://bit.ly/3dLD9Tw). He has also written an article for The Church Times (view here: https://bit.ly/2B2pB7uand for the Diocesan Website (view here: https://bit.ly/2MQwSdv). +Sarah’s sermon to the East Durham Filling Station on 7/6/20, was the start of her grappling with the stories of people’s experiences (view here: https://bit.ly/3haSgrX). You will have your own response and thoughts of action.

As Bishops, we are committed to that call to ‘repent and take action’ and will seek to work closely with Remi Omole, our BAME Adviser, and ecumenically to know what right action looks like.  In creation and redemption, all lives matter. But that can sometimes hide the reality that in society that is not how people experience life. So rightly at times, we have to highlight that specific lives matter. Currently, God is highlighting to us that Black Lives Matter. So in the midst of the challenge of re-opening our churches, we will continue to listen to the voices of those around us whose experience of life is that their lives don’t matter as much as others.

Phased return to schools
The lives of our children and young people have clearly been deeply affected by the COVID-19 crisis and there are realistic concerns, even fears, of the impact on the education of those from our poorest communities. Many of you are governors at your local schools, and many parishioners are deeply involved in the education sector in a wide range of ways. So, we know this will be of great concern to you. The response of our schools, our Head Teachers, and all staff has been tremendous. Most schools have been open for key workers through-out the lockdown and continue to rise to meet the deep challenges of enabling children to return safely.  Please continue to pray for Paul Rickeard and our Diocesan Education Team as they seek to support our church school response. Where you are involved with local church and community schools and academies hold the Head Teacher and their leadership team in prayer at this demanding time.

Bishop Paul, in his role as Chair of the National Society, is regularly involved with discussions at a national level. None of this is easy. What we must all seek to do is try and ensure that the children themselves remain at the heart of the decisions being made and the actions taken, at every level. Their lives matter deeply to us all.

The phased reopening of our buildings
In the midst of these tumultuous times, we all welcome the first steps of the phased re-opening of our church buildings for individual prayer and funeral ministry. We know that we must enable this to happen safely in accordance with the Government Guidance (View Here: https://bit.ly/GOVGUIDE-CHURCHES). The date from which reopening in this way can begin has been brought forward by the Government to 13th June. Parishes should work to whatever date after that they are sure they are properly prepared.

The Recovery Groups advice on Government Guidance has been updated (and can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/cofecovid19). The latest information contains an update to the risk assessment document for opening church buildings (view here: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/20510) and a new document on using church buildings for individual prayer (view here: https://www.churchofengland.org/media/20716). A new FAQ on Organists entering church buildings has been added. We are pleased to see that organists can resume practicing in church buildings and trust that work will progress on other areas of music and singing in the near future. Archdeacons Rick and Bob will be in contact with any clarification that is needed.   

As outlined in the Government Guidance (which can be viewed here: https://bit.ly/GOVGUIDE-CHURCHES), your local risk assessments are the cornerstone of such reopening. We recognise that based on these risk assessments some incumbents in consultation with their PCCs will be able to take up this opportunity in some church buildings but clearly others will not yet be able to do so.  That is not a failure but a recognition of the realities of what can be done safely. We encourage you to continue to explore this together in Deaneries and Chapters as well as individual parishes to see how communities can best be served, especially in possible funeral ministry. We, and Archdeacons Bob and Rick and your Area Deans, are here to support you in your local decisions based on your risk assessments. Do seek advice if you are unsure as the first steps along any path are always the most anxious and demanding.  What we learn at this stage will help us as we move towards the restoration of weddings, corporate worship and Eucharistic worship in some form. The picture does keep changing and we realise this can be frustrating and not help with clear planning. We are committed to keeping you up to date each step of the way.

Conclusion
Increasingly we are all aware that we are having, as a world, to learn how to live ‘with’ this horrible virus. There will be measures in place for many months to come, even possibly years. It will be important that we keep seeking to listen to God through it all. Our calling is to be a people of worship, prayer and mission, expressed both in service and in word. This calling has not changed; it is the circumstances in which we live out this calling that have changed. But that was also true for the Israelites as they left Egypt and wandered through the wilderness; it was true for them again when they faced exile. The first Christians dispersed across the Roman Empire in all its diversity had to find ways of expressing being followers of Jesus in their different settings. The Spirit of God has continually led and equipped God’s people to follow Jesus in very different times and places. God is still the same. God is with us today and all our lives matter to the One who is seen most completely in Jesus Christ.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you (2Thess 3:16) 

+Paul and +Sarah

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