Saturday, 5 March 2011

Commit your way to the Lord

Cracking Presidential Address from +Stephen at 
Chelmsford Diocesan Synod, 5 March 2011.

Trust in the Lord and be doing good;
Dwell in the land and be nourished with truth.
Let your delight be in the Lord
And he will give you your heart‟s desire.
Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him,
And he will bring it to pass.
He will make your righteousness as clear as the light
And your just dealing as the noonday.
Be still before the Lord and wait for him.
Psalm 37. 4-7a

Since my installation in this Cathedral Church last November I have met with many individuals and spent a day in eleven of our twenty-six deaneries. As you may recall, I have come to the Diocese without a vision, still less a plan. This is for three reasons. First, it happens to be true. Why pretend otherwise? Secondly, I believe that good decisions arise out of good relationships. For me this is a fundamental principle about how we do business together and seek the mind of Christ. It is you, the people of God in this great Diocese, who have much to teach me about what God is already doing and what our priorities for the future should be. This is why I am spending these first few months travelling around the Diocese asking clergy and lay people what they think I should be doing. I hope to have begun a conversation with the Diocese asking what kind of Church does God want us to be and what our priorities should be for the future; I believe this conversation will bear fruit. But thirdly, and most importantly, in the Christian faith, vision is given. It is not our task to make up the Christian faith for this generation, but to proclaim it afresh. As our Diocesan Vision Statement already puts it, “Our Passion is Jesus”. In Jesus God has already done everything that is necessary for us to know and receive eternal life. In Jesus God has revealed to us what true humanity looks like. In Jesus we discover the purposes of life. Our job is to live this truth joyfully and to communicate it effectively, making the most of the opportunities we are given and making the best of the resources that we have.

This is where Bishops and Diocesan Synods come in. And it is to these two issues, and what we as a Synod and I as your Bishop can do about them, that I will now turn.

1. Communicating the faith effectively
The single biggest challenge facing the church in Europe is that of evangelism. That is, how can we commend the Christian faith - our passion and what we have received from Christ - in such a way that people respond to God‟s call, give their lives in God‟s service, and so contribute to the building of God‟s kingdom in the world. And because the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ is good news for every person and every community, we cannot shirk from rising to the challenge of sharing and communicating our faith, even if it is hard - which it is - and even if the response is mixed, even negative - which is often the case. In Athens Paul preached in the Areopagus and we are told some scoffed; but others said “we will hear you again about this”… and some of them joined him and became believers.” (Acts 17. 32 &33) Should we expect different results in the all too similar smorgasbord of Essex and East London? But because there is not time in one Address to say more about this vital ministry, let me turn to the second issue.

2. Living the faith joyfully
Time and time again what has impressed me about the parishes I have already visited and the clergy and people I have already spoken to is that the best evangelism, the best communication of the Christian faith, is the Christ-like witness of ordinary Christian people in their ordinary daily lives. I am thinking of a priest in Waltham Forest who told me that having worked as a chaplain to the Fire Service for several years, he now felt God was calling him to be a fire-starter, an arsonist of the Spirit, bringing God‟s joy to the world; of a group of young adults in South Weald telling the story of how baptism preparation for their children had led them to faith; of a church school in Weeley where the evident faith of the Headteacher and the Chair of the Governing Body, and the involvement of the parish church, meant that this school and these children were alive - on fire - with the love of God. When the Christian faith is lived joyfully the witness of a transformed life transforms others and raises questions that demand exploration.

Therefore in the next phase of my conversation with the Diocese - and I recognise that I still have fifteen deaneries to visit - I plan to put to the forthcoming away-day of the Bishop‟s Council and the Bishop‟s Staff residential, these questions.

Inhabiting the world distinctively.
What could we do to help parishes enable people to grow in their Christian faith so that the faith that we celebrate on Sundays overflows joyfully into the lives we live on Monday. And chief amongst this growth in discipleship will be nurturing a life of prayer, including teaching people how to pray in the first place.
And what else could be woven into daily life, what habits of virtue and what rituals could we rediscover, that could enable the Christian life to be lived distinctively; fully engaged in the world and yet evidently Christian? Wouldn‟t this cause people to pause and wonder? And without it won‟t people just assume that Christian faith is our hobby? And if this happened, might it also be the key to enabling so much more to happen, for as we grow in discipleship so we become part of the apostolic church, hungry for God‟s righteousness, challenging the unjust structures of the world, longing to live peacefully and sustainably, and seeking God‟s kingdom on earth?

Evangelising effectively. As those who come to church find themselves changed into those who are sent by Christ into the world, so this too will raise questions; and as our parishes focus on the bread and butter ministry of worship and service so we will find, like Paul in Athens, that some people believe, and many will want to find out more. How can we help deaneries and parishes develop a ministry of evangelism that includes in every benefice a place of nurture where faith can be explored and Christian community experienced.

Serving with accountability.
What sort of church does God want us to be? How can we ensure that in every Christian community, be it inner-city parish church, Fresh Expression or rural multi-parish benefice, certain ministries are always present. Is there a bottom line? A set of ministries and activities that, although expressed differently, should be present in every community and about which we should be accountable? We would probably all agree on worship. But I am suggesting that evangelism and discipleship should be accorded equal footing. But what else?

Growing ministry. Here is the key question of all: What sort of ministry do we need to become this sort of church? We have got to move away from knock-out whist strategies of ministry where every time the cards are dealt there is one less in everyone‟s hand. We need to agree a ministry figure for each deanery and then ensure that those, probably stipendiary priests, who are placed in those parishes are strategic leaders with a clear brief for growing ministry in their benefice. This will mean ordaining more priests, but they will probably be self supporting ministers, and authorising more lay ministers, especially looking to nurture the specialised lay ministry of evangelist catechist, pastoral assistant, administrator and youth and children‟s worker. This will be a strategy for growing ministry that will grow the church. It will mean more ministers not less.

We need to work on all this together . We do not need a new vision - God has already given us one in Christ. But we do need to agree priorities for how we can live and communicate this vision today; and from this we need a strategic plan that would unashamedly declare that we believe God wants his church to grow: in numbers, in faithfulness, in impact, and in influence. Then we will truly become a church that has a transforming presence in every community of Essex and East London.

Once I have explored this again with the Bishop‟s Council and with colleagues on the Bishop‟s Staff, and completed my tour of all the deaneries, I intend to return to Synod in November with a proposal for strategic directions for the future growth and development of this Diocese under God that I hope we can all discuss, amend, own and then agree. And I ask you to pray for wisdom, for discernment and for growing consensus, that we may see clearly what God is asking us to say yes to in this time of challenge and opportunity.

Much of this is gathered together in those verses from Psalm 37 with which I began: we are invited to trust in the Lord, to be still before him and wait on him. We are told that it is the nourishing of truth that will enable us to inhabit the land. Not only will we then find out our heart‟s desire, rather than be endlessly side-tracked by the beguiling enchantments of the world, but we will receive that heart‟s desire.

My middle son asked me a very straight question the other day; he said, 'Dad, taken that clergy don‟t earn that much, why do you do it? What is your motivation?‟ And I said this: „It is my heart‟s desire to know Christ and to make Christ known; and I believe it is the knowing of Christ that alone can bring peace to the world and help us discover how to be human‟. That is why the church exists, so that we can participate in the purposes of the heart of God. It is this that must be at the centre of our plans. So: „commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.‟

+Stephen Chelmsford

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