6th Sep 2021
We are all, I’m sure, acutely aware that the Diocese of Chelmsford has been through a painful, arguably traumatic period over the past 18 months or so. Along with the rest of the country (and indeed the world) this region has suffered gravely from the impact of Covid 19. Some parts of the Diocese are amongst those most severely hit. There are high levels of tiredness, including among our clergy and lay leaders, there’s anxiety about the future and uncertainty about what is required of us as the Church of England in Essex and East London, both in terms of our future survival but also, and much more importantly, in terms of how we are to continue serving our communities, providing much needed hope and expressing God’s love for all.
Into this mix, I’ve been called as your Bishop. For the next phase of the life of this diocese, God has placed me among you. What an unexpected and extraordinary privilege that is for me but I feel too, a heavy weight of responsibility. Let me say, however, that I don’t believe I’m here to fix problems, though I know there are high expectations. I’m not sure any one person could solve the challenges we face. But more than that, Chelmsford Diocese is not a problem to be solved. Over the past 4 days I’ve been on pilgrimage around the diocese, visiting each of the 7 archdeaconries, and I’ve seen for myself wonderful signs of life and vitality and many examples of how the Gospel is being shared in word and deed. Chelmsford Diocese is not a problem to be solved. We are God’s beloved people, together discerning God’s will for the future, seeking to be faithful in worship, witness and service. And to move into the future well, we’ll have to move forward together, each of us playing our part, taking responsibility, being accountable, always remembering that we are here not for our own benefit but for the benefit of the people we serve.
I’d like to suggest three ingredients that might help us navigate our way through the unknowns that lie ahead. The first is dialogue. When I entered the Cathedral this afternoon, I paused at the entrance and had a brief conversation with three young people. This was partly about recognising my place in the scheme of things – as a child of God, alongside others. But the encounter also demonstrated that we are travellers together: the young and the old, the powerful and the powerless and those across every other human divide you can think of. And if we are to travel well, we have to dialogue well: we have to talk and be heard, yes, but we also have to listen and listen deeply because that’s how understanding develops and that’s how friendships and partnerships are formed and that’s how God works through us best. God knows we need good dialogue within our own churches and tradition, but we also need to invest in good dialogue with ecumenical colleagues, with people of other faiths, with civic and community partners and with all people of good will.
Good dialogue is at the heart of healthy relationships. And healthy relationships will lead to heightened levels of trust, which is my second ingredient – trust between the church and wider society but also trust within the church itself. If I had to say what single factor is impacting most negatively the life of the Church of England at present, it would be the lack of trust between different constituencies. There are so many fault lines in our wonderfully broad, diverse and complicated church but trust is fast being eroded across them. Arguments are played out publicly often on social media which has little capacity for nuance and so fuels misunderstanding. To feel safe we then hunker down within our silos, shouting louder, less and less able to hear different voices. Lack of trust is eroding our inner life. Tribalism is damaging the body of Christ and undermining our mission to the world. For if we can’t love for one another, how can we possibly love the world? In the end, the best way to demonstrate our love for God is to love our neighbour and trust grows out of love.
And thirdly, there is scope, I believe, for better embracing our vulnerability, both as individuals and, crucially, as a church. Surely if we’ve learned nothing else this past year, we’ve learned that whoever we are, regardless of rank or position, we are vulnerable and powerless in the face of a tiny virus. I’ve just been seated as the 11th Bishop of Chelmsford in this Cathedra, the so called Bishop’s throne or chair. It is this very seat that makes this church a Cathedral. The Cathedra represents the power of episcopal ministry and the authority of the bishop and of course the teaching and preaching role of the bishop. With God’s help I intend to use what power and authority I do have to good use. Woe to me, should I ever forget Jeremiah’s words from our first reading: “do not let the mighty boast in their might”. Rather, with all humility I pray for wisdom, compassion and courage to follow the example of the Lord who acts, in Jeremiah’s words, “with steadfast love, justice and righteousness”.
But though this seat may be a symbol of power and authority, as the one who sits in it, I am a human being, weak and frail. My power and authority are in truth very limited. There’s very little I can enforce, I don’t have all the answers; I don’t see clearly the way ahead; I’ll make mistakes and I’ll disappoint. And yet through the example of Jesus Christ whose vulnerability on the cross became his greatest moment of victory, I know that we need not fear our own vulnerabilities. That if we put our trust in God we are used both for our strengths and our weaknesses but that often it is through our vulnerabilities that we make the deepest connections and have the greatest impact. That at any rate has often been my experience.
And if it’s true of us as individuals, then it can also be true of us as a church. We need not be fearful about our survival, our place in society, our lack of financial resources – in short, our vulnerabilities. The Church of England is not what it once was and we may well feel weak and exposed. But instead of striving to regain our position, and endeavouring desperately to control the future, what if we were to embrace our place on the margins and open ourselves up in all our vulnerability to discover what God is calling us to be in the future. St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians reminds us that the treasure we have in Jesus Christ, is in clay jars, to demonstrate that power belongs to God and not us. We are those clay jars which are cracked and fragile and ungainly yet by God’s grace it is those very cracks that allow the light that is held within to shine through. In all our vulnerability, though we may be afflicted, we are not crushed, though perplexed we are not despairing, though struck down, not destroyed.
That the Church is going through a period of change is undeniable and change is seldom easy, but we are not the first to encounter it, nor will we be the last. Since the days of St. Cedd in the 7th century there have been many upheavals in this region and yet the church is still here and the spirit of God is alive and well. Yes, we are in a liminal season and we don’t quite know what the future will look like. But I can’t help wondering if we’ve become so fixated on the destination that we’re losing sight of the fact that how we travel is far more important. Our primary call as Christians is not to be anxious about the future but faithful in the present. In every generation and every place God has provided the church with what it needs to fulfil its mission. I have no doubt the same is true for us if only we can recognise is. So let us take responsibility where we can, each of us, and let us willingly surrender the rest to God. With our eyes fixed on the Lord Jesus let us build on the past, set our faces towards the future and travel well together. Amen.
4th September 2021
Jeremiah 9. 23-24
2 Corinthians 4. 5-12
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