Here is Bishop Sarah, on behalf of Bishop Paul, giving the Presidential Address at Durham Diocesan Synod on 13 November 2021. 

INTRODUCTION

Thank you for standing to serve on this new Diocesan Synod for the new triennium. As with previous synods during the coming years there will have to make some significant decisions. Our journey together as pilgrims walking in the footsteps of Jesus together will continue to be shaped by the ongoing impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, within which we remain. We are decidedly not yet ‘post-pandemic’. We are though in a different phase and it has been a real joy to be back out and about around the Diocese over the past few months.

ENCOURAGEMENTS

There are a lot of excellent and encouraging things happening around the Diocese. I think of the Dementia Café in Crook serving not only those with dementia but also working with a local care home and supporting the lonely. I see the excitement around the opening of Heart on the Terrace in Murton; partnering with other local people and aiming to serve all in the community. I rejoice with the Chaplaincy team at Durham University noted as the key team for supporting staff and students through the pandemic. I see in my mind’s eye the brilliance of the launch of Vine Church in Wynyard Church School. I share the excitement of hearing of the support for our Care for Creation priority from Hutton Henry Parish Council. I think of the engagement of many young people in various climate change activities over many months, not simply during Cop 26. I recall the Deanery Confirmation for Gateshead West with young people from across that Deanery. I observe the number of visitors to the Museum of the Moon in the Cathedral. I reflect on the amazing ways in which our church schools have handled all the challenges of the pandemic. I revel in our new Children’s and Youth Council. I celebrate the praise given to the chaplaincy team at Low Newton prison, and the work of the Mothers Union there. I am warmed by the way some have been engaged in welcoming Afghan refugees to their locality, and the ongoing support to refugees and asylum seekers from many different nations. I am encouraged by the numbers who stood for election to General Synod. I applaud the ongoing work of so many foodbanks. I think of the tireless work of Hospital chaplains throughout the past 20 months. I am encouraged that we continue to develop leaders for the wider church, the latest being Bill Braviner and his appointment as Archdeacon of Halifax. Then there is the simple return to worship that has been taking place across the whole Diocese; the faithful way in which churchwardens, licensed lay ministers, pastoral assistants and the whole people of God have worked to make sure this happens alongside the ministry of our clergy. I want to particularly thank the lay leaders in parishes that are in vacancy. Some have been in this place for a long period. The enormous commitment of lay leaders is brilliant.

Bishop Sarah, the Archdeacons, David Tomlinson, James Morgan, Mags Vaughan and the Dean will all be able to give you their own lists of encouraging stories. The common feature is that they are all about Blessing our Communities in Jesus’ name for the transformation of us all. Each expresses in some way one or more of our four core priorities, Caring for God’s Creation, Challenging Poverty, Energising Growth and Engaging with Children and Young People.

Place alongside this our continuing numbers of people coming forward for ordination and other training. Noting also that the average age of ordinands is considerably younger than for a number of years, and the ethnic mix more diverse. So there are many reasons for encouragement. There are clear signs of God at work amongst us, around us and through us.

CHALLENGES

Yet the experience of the pandemic has also highlighted many challenges that we face. It has accelerated some significant trends.

Declining numbers of regular worshippers have been a regular part of our life for many years. Some churches have bucked that trend and grown, or at least held steady. However, the stark reality is that declining numbers continue and the pandemic has apparently accelerated that truth in many places. So, the number of churches that have decided that closing their building is the right step has grown. We know that there are others considering this. Where this is done well , often linking up with another Christian church to seek to ensure the sustained Christian witness to the wider community, this may well be the best step for the long term growth of the kingdom. But we all recognise that it is painful, and can feel like failure after long faithful work seeking to sustain and maintain a place of worship and witness. Realistically the situation is grave. Unless we see new growth over the next 10 years there will be many more closures. So the time to act is now. There is a window of opportunity.

We can, interestingly, learn from our past. Just think about the places across the Diocese where there was no church at all two or three hundred years ago.. What did our forbears do? They prayed; they looked at the needs of these emerging communities and they planted new Christian congregations. Sometimes they built an impressive new building but often they started small and only took that step as they grew. The learning is, they planted and in faith started something fresh. In many cases they were supported and encouraged by existing churches that were serving their own communities well. The existing encouraged the new, and found themselves encouraged and challenged by the new. Often these new churches grew rapidly and then settled down. Later decline set in, perhaps because they became complacent and failed to engage the younger generation, or people of a different class, or social standing.

So where does our hope lie? It lies both in the renewing of many of our existing churches; renewed in prayer and worship and in commitment to serving the parish in which they are set. It lies also in planting new ways of serving local communities and new worshipping communities. These must not be clones of one another. They must be formed by local people, for local people, and to serve local people. New plants must look like the communities in which they are set and which they are called to serve. Their styles of worship and traditions will be as varied as the Church of England is. They will be places where the sacraments are celebrated with all the variety that is actually allowed by our liturgies and structures. We are far more flexible than most people realise.

The focus of our praying, planning, thinking and action must not be about maintaining the 1-2% of the population who regularly engage with us but the 98% who currently do not. Why? Because simply we still believe that the good news of God in Jesus Christ is the good news for the world. Because God’s love really does reach out to all and that entering into a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ and thus becoming part of the extraordinary multi generational, multi racial, multi abilitied,  family of God which is the church is really the best hope for the world. Because we still hold that Jesus Christ came to bring life in all its fullness. Because we believe that Christ died for all and offers forgiveness, new life and hope to all through his death, resurrection and exultation in glory. Because we believe that God’s blessing really does transform us all.

RESPONDING TO THE CHALLENGES

This does mean that we have to grapple hard together with what really is the best shape for parishes in the years ahead. There is no proposal to abolish the parish but as has happened throughout our history the parish system has to adapt to a new era. We have to ask how best we equip the whole people of God for all the works of service to which God calls us.

Within this we need to work out what is the best shape for the ministry of those who are called to stipended ordained ministry, and paid lay ministry. How are those thus called best deployed to equip the whole people of God for worship and mission? How is this done in a way which ensures the wellbeing of clergy and paid lay ministers so that they are able to keep growing themselves and enabled to have a fulfilling ministry that lasts the full number of years through to retirement? Isolated, lone working is surely not the answer for most people. Collaborative, supported and properly resourced must be best for the individuals, their families and thus for the whole people of God. All the evidence tells us that clergy have a critical role to play in leading God’s people into growth. They are not a limiting factor but a key one. This said they are not the only factor. It is the whole people of God that matters.

If we believe in paid clergy, and lay leaders, then our giving has to match our belief and desire. Parish Share is simply about paying for the clergy and the support staff needed to enable this to happen, alongside supporting ministry on the ground across our parishes and chaplaincies. If we want to maintain our clergy numbers then we have to pay realistic, generous Parish Share.

Within this picture we must look very hard at how we are engaging with children, young people and young adults. We are very good with early years through Toddler groups and the like. We are also very good with primary age children through schools. We engage fewer through our church based activities, some of which are excellent. But whilst our own secondary schools are excellent we fail to engage with most secondary age young people. We are then very weak with Sixth forms and Further Education colleges. There is good University chaplaincy work. However overall we are clearly not engaging these age groups well with the wonderful person of Jesus. How might we give more emphasis to this age group? What might a growth in chaplaincy in schools and colleges look like if it is primarily lay and voluntary? How can we make better connections between home, church and school as is sought to be done through the Growing Faith work? Personally I think we should ensure that all stipendiary clergy give at least one day in every week to ensuring that they use their own gifts and encourage the development of the gifts of others in engaging with children and young people where they are. How do we make that shift, and very soon?

Reimagining ministry is not about reimagining ordained ministry it is about reimagining the ministry of the whole people of God, lay and ordained, geared to be a pilgrim people walking with Jesus serving the poorest, engaging with the young, and the most vulnerable (which will include many frail elderly). A pilgrim people who care deeply for, and thus act for God’s creation. A pilgrim people who are absolutely sure that God’s wants them to grow. This is always rooted in God’s grace. Every one of us knows we are weak, and that we fail. Yet God says to us all, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Our pilgrimage together will be rooted in prayer, grounded in the Scriptures, and energised by the Holy Spirit. It will be a growth in love for God; a growth in love for one another and for all people. It will be a growth in love for God’s creation. What will flow from this is a growth in the number of people walking with them as pilgrims in the footsteps of Jesus too.

Sisters and brothers; there is much to encourage us. There are many deep challenges with us now, and no doubt ones to come. But there is hope; hope in God that flows from the good news of Jesus Christ. God calls us to be the people of hope for the world. So let us journey on in that hope.

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in him, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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