Bishop Paul's Presidential Address
Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi;
‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’
Climate change, the cost of living crisis and continued uncertainty about international relations with Russia as the Ukraine war continues inevitably lead us to be concerned; perhaps anxious.
The lower numbers in many of our churches following the pandemic, and our continued failure to engage with children, young people, young adults and their families in most of our regular church life rightly leave us with deep concerns about the future of our worship and witness in many communities.
Our longing to serve people by providing warm spaces, in partnership with others, and to find ways of sharing the good news in fresh ways but our uncertainty about the number of volunteers, the costs, or the simple willingness to share our faith with others can also add to our concern, our anxiety.
So where do we turn? We rightly consult, train, explore new ideas, seek funding support and plan for change. But first and foremost we need to turn afresh to God himself.
‘In everything by prayer .. let your requests be made known to God.’ Or as Peter puts it, ‘Cast all your anxieties on God, because God cares for you.’
Prayer needs to be at the heart, and the root of our lives, personally and together. In all the matters we consider today being with God, bringing ourselves and our concerns to God, listening to God must be where we find our wisdom, direction, strength and grace.
Here I am not proposing that we all suddenly undertake a major prayer initiative. I am simply encouraging us all to keep praying daily for the life of our parishes, chaplaincies, schools, places of work, local community organisations, diocesan team alongside lifting our eyes to the nation and the needs of the wider world. Use the Diocesan Daily Prayer cycle; use the Daily Worship suggestions for prayer; or Lectio 365; Prayermate or whatever tool you find helpful to simply pray faithfully daily. In our acts of worship ensure intercessions are led thoughtfully, creatively and well. In our buildings, both churches and halls have simple pointers to prayer for all who use them. At PCCs, Chapter and Deanery Synod meetings ensure prayer is not peremptory or add on but core to how we are with one another.
During Advent Chris, my chaplain, is going to host a 30 minute online prayer time for the Diocese each Monday morning at 9; join if you can – or if at work try and find 5 minutes at least during that half hour to join in simply where you are.
As we move forward in our pilgrimage together let us be inspired by those who have gone before us to be a people of prayer.
One of the key things in developing our Diocesan Transformation Fund application has been the small group of those who have regularly interceded for it. It has been developed and worked on in an atmosphere of prayer. We do not want this to be a human designed plan based only on our knowledge and wisdom. We need it to be God inspired and to flow from our abiding in Christ. It is only as we ‘behold the glory of the Lord’ that we are ‘being transformed into the image of Christ from one degree of glory to another.’ It is only as we abide in Christ and he in us that we bear his fruit.
As Duncan has explained our application has now been made; in early December we formally present it to the Strategic Investment Board and hope that we will have a positive response to move it forward into outlining final proposals. It is bold and ambitious in relation to reaching young people and young adults. It could be truly transformative over the next few years. We are looking to see how we can better enable the ongoing worship and witness of our parishes into their local communities that truly reaches all ages. We are not looking at sudden dramatic change but definitely significant transformation over a few years.
In my own reflections on the challenges that we face at each local level I have found myself asking a couple of key questions:-
Firstly do we really believe in investing in the future? Not simply the immediate future but the longer term. Do we take the five generational vision that the Psalmist offers in the early verses of Psalm 78 or do we keep falling back into thinking about our own lifetime – which continually shortens for all of us? We are about to enter Advent in which we are called to look forward to God’s future for all of creation in hope. We lift our eyes to the coming of God’s kingdom in its complete fullness. Let us pray that this advent we do not fall into the trap of ‘preparing for Christmas’ but rather prepare for the future return of the Lord Jesus as King and the arrival of the new heaven and new earth.
When we lift our eyes in hope we will be reminded that the church does not exist ‘for me’ but rather for God’s kingdom. When we do so then we move into a vision that energises growth rather than accepts gentle decline. It helps us to believe that enabling our children to learn and grow in the faith of Jesus Christ is open of our highest priorities. Without this vision and commitment for our children and young people I doubt that long lasting transformation is truly possible. We must invest in the young.
Secondly in pondering Jesus’ emphasis on pruning in the John 15 Vine passage I have also thought about the parable of the Barren Fig Tree in Luke 13 where the man decides to dig around the base and give it another year alongside the incident with the fig tree as Jesus enters Jerusalem and it dies rapidly. I find myself thinking that we perhaps decide to ‘give it another year’, and then another, and then another too often. I think that in many settings we need to decide to act more bravely, more quickly. The temptation is to fear pruning the rose, or the shrub too hard – when in the way of nature pruning hard is often the best route to greater fruit and flourishing. As we move ahead we need, I think, more bravery in taking more radical decisions in relation to pruning and planting. This too must be rooted in prayer.
CARING FOR GOD’S CREATION
We have to day had a clear focus on caring for God’s creation, and later will ponder challenging poverty. These too must be rooted in prayer. There are plenty of activists with whom we may sometimes align ourselves and work alongside. There are plenty of ideas and campaigns with which we can join. But unless our engagement is rooted in God, and thus in prayer, we will only be another activist organisation. We engage in concern for the environment and biodiversity because we believe this is God’s creation and the way ahead must lie in listening to how God calls us to care for, and steward, the world in which he has placed us, and for which he has given humanity a particular responsibility. We have to tackle climate change with humility as creatures under God, our Creator. So prayer must underlie all we do.
So too caring for those who are most vulnerable; those who are in need of particular support, financially and socially. Of course simply saying ‘We will pray for you’ but not engage in action, and in challenging the roots of injustice that cause poverty, is inadequate. But so too is lots of activity and campaigning that is not rooted and founded in being with God and presenting all people and situations to God in prayer.
Prayer is part of how we care for God’s creation and how we challenge poverty together.
LIVING IN LOVE AND FAITH
We show our love for our sisters and brothers in Christ, and all fellow human beings by holding them before God in prayer. When we do we are asking God to help us see others through God’s eyes and with God’s heart. This lies at the core of what has been the long Living in Love and Faith process undertaken across the whole Church of England. The college of bishops met recently to begin exploring what, under God, they might discern together God is saying to us as the Church of England, within being part of the whole Anglican Communion and as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
The bishops are approaching this with prayer, study of, and reflection on, the Scriptures at the heart of how we work together. As one newer bishop said to me during our time together, ‘I am impressed by how much worship and prayer we have’. As a participant observer noted in my small group, ‘You really are prayerfully listening to all the material given to you, and to one another as you explore.’ I have seen some comments from those not present that suggest we are approaching this as a management exercise. We most certainly are not.
From the outset Bishop Sarah and I have committed to engaging in the process with our episcopal colleagues. This involves praying, reading a lot of material, listening, engaging with fellow bishops and exploring various possibilities for the future while always keeping before us that this is about people. We remain committed to seeing the whole process through and do not think that expressing a personal point of view is helpful at this stage as we seek to engage together with all bishops to see if a way can be found forward together. That may not be possible and if it isn’t then we will need to discern what alternative option will best uphold the highest possible degree of unity.
We know this disappoints some who want a clear declaration from us now. We hope you will at least understand why and you will keep holding us in prayer for this testing time. The college meets again in early December for a further three days of prayerful consideration. It is clear that there will be proposals put to the General Synod in February. But at this point no one knows what they will be. No decisions have been taken.
Please pray for us.
So I have ranged through caring for God’s creation, challenging poverty, and within the Diocesan Transformation piece energising growth and engaging with children, young people and 18-25s. I have commented on the LLF process. But I hope it has been clear that the thread them all has been the need for everything to be rooted in prayer.
We are a pilgrim people. We walk with God as we seek to serve him through blessing our communities in Jesus’ name. Pilgrim people pray. They abide in Christ, resting in God’s presence, wrestling with God for the needs of the world and so that we might be transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. As we move forward together may prayer be at the heart of all we do and who we are. And, Lord, please, teach us to pray.
Caring for God's Creation
“That this Synod welcomes the Routemap to Net Zero Carbon by 2030 and commits to bringing to Diocesan Synod in 2023 a Diocesan Routemap with a view to achieving that goal locally.”
Lucy Foster (A Rocha) speaks about how to become an Eco Church / Eco Diocese.
Andrew Smallbone (Durham Energy Institute) shares research on how to help churches reach Net Zero by 2030.