Bishops New Year Letter, Epiphanytide 2017
We have a strategy for growth. We pray that this growth will be the outcome of our underlying purpose, which is our transformation in Christ. Our hope is for the transformation of the world and the Church by God’s grace. With that grace at work in us, we pray that there will be a variety of signs of growth – in numerical growth, depth and engagement.
As in some experiences of Christian conversion, transformation can have dramatic elements and the pace can vary. Whatever the signs and wonders may be, transformation is an ongoing process, the work of God’s grace in our lives. The Ely 2025 Strategy is an invitation to our long-term transformation as the Body of Christ in our two counties. Our levers give us active participles of nurturing, developing, serving, re-imagining and targeting. But the most active participles of all are listening and hearing.
We are just about to launch our diocesan Lent course, All Loves Excelling. It is a varied study of Philippians, reminding us that we are called to be listening to Scripture both singly and together. Later in the year we shall begin to live the Way of Life promised in the Strategy. This will offer an adaptable template for living a life of prayer together which both supports our life in Christ together and holds us accountable to one another.
Since I arrived over five years ago now, both Bishop David and I happen to have preached quite a lot about the Johannine language of abiding. In our context, of course this is about our faithfully committing ourselves to a particular parish or fresh expression and giving it time. Even more, it is about how we abide in Jesus and He in us. There is no fast track to being formed through a lifetime by our participation in the Eucharist and our being shaped by our thanksgiving. Our transformation happens only when we are grafted into Christ. Only then can we bear fruit, fruit that will last through our nurturing, developing and serving. I pray that we can avoid the temptations both of self-sufficiency and negativity and embrace the hope of the collect that the poverty of our nature will be transformed by the riches of God’s grace. I asked our curates at their recent retreat whether they were prepared to take the risk to open themselves to that abundant life which Jesus promises in John 10.10. Of course, that is not a one-off decision. When Jesus calls us to repent it is a clear and renewed choice to turn to the cross and the invitation to live as a new creation.
The gifts brought by the Wise Men tell us about the life marked out for the King in the Manger. It is a life which fully embodies the sovereignty and holiness of God in gold and frankincense. It is a life that only changes us because it takes on the fullness of our humanity at its most real in family and friendship, but also death and pain and separation in the myrrh. The Strategy is no panacea that protects us from cultural ferment or the grief of war. I hope it may help us to be become better equipped to work and pray even more urgently that God’s righteousness and peace may prevail, and to be even smarter about how we make connections with people who are not predisposed to see the gospel as their vehicle to meaning and hope.
For that to happen we are planning a sustained and genuinely cross-generational approach to living out the calling given to each of us in our baptism to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. By the middle of the year we hope to have in post a Baptism Plus co-ordinator whose responsibility it will be to work with clergy and lay people involved with families seeking baptism. In parts of the diocese we have large numbers of baptisms but little resource in place for follow-up and other parts of the diocese where there are few baptisms and quite good engagement with the families. Baptism Plus is about working together across the diocese to make the most of our providential contact with families. The Epiphany narrative completely underpins the full humanity and worth of the child alongside the adult, and there is a lot more to be done about how we listen to and honour younger disciples.
This goes hand in hand with the ongoing work of DEMAT, our diocesan academy trust working alongside the Board of Education to serve our academies and our continuing VA and VC schools. The Church of England’s recently stated vision for education, which I had a bit to do with, commits our endeavour in education to building a vision around John 10.10. Our hope is that our schools can be hubs of hope in our villages, market towns, North West Norfolk, Cambridge and South Peterborough where early-years intervention is the only hope for the flourishing of many of our children and the communities in which they live.
If we are to serve this flourishing, we need people to respond to God’s call to be Christian teachers, lay theologians, youth pastors, family workers and deacons, priests and bishops. I believe that there will be no shortage of these if we celebrate the calling of all of us to be lively disciples exercising the authority of our baptism to be witnesses for Christ. I know a six-year-old who feels called to be a bishop. We shall need to check over time whether this calling is realistic. I am personally encouraged by the Ely ordination candidates whom I see, ably supported by Anna Matthews and the Vocations Team. I know from Bishop David what a good crop of candidates for licenced lay ministry we have, too. Now we have appointed Rob Taylor to increase our capacity to be more pro-active is supporting emerging vocations to lay and ordained ministry among people of all ages. This summer we shall deploy our first diocesan-funded young interns or apprentices who will be exploring Christian ministry and giving a year to the local church.
At our last diocesan synod I commissioned Mike Booker as our Change Officer for Market Towns. 44% of us worship in market towns and the flourishing of these communities is vital to the resilience of our Church, to the economy and vitality of our region and for the health and well-being of families and individuals. We have invested in Mike’s post as a sign that we are committed not only to developing new approaches to mission and ministry in these communities in partnership with the clergy and parishes. We are also investing in new partnerships with local government and other community bodies to work for that fullness of life of which the Strategy speaks. In this setting ‘hubs of hope’ can just as much apply to schools, to churches and fresh expressions, to food banks and shelters for the homeless. Sir Hugh Duberly is chairing a steering group to oversee this long term commitment. We shall be seeking support from the Strategic Development Fund of the Church Commissioners.
Around our market towns and our two cities of Cambridge and Peterborough new communities are being built and settled. We are investing in pioneer ministries in North Stowe, Alconbury Weald and North West Cambridge. In the first two of these, the investment also includes new church schools. Ely hosted its first ‘Blended’ conference last year, which was well-attended by people from within and beyond the diocese. The local conference will continue and in 2018 we shall host the national fresh expressions conference. Our attention to market towns and to fresh expressions underlines our commitment to a rich and faithful blend of local ministry with a traditional base and pioneer ministry reaching people in other ways. The 2025 Growth Fund offers opportunity for parishes to seek funding to support their own innovative mission plans.
We have put in place resources better to support our parishes with the development of their buildings and have renewed the working of the DAC. Bishop David is taking the lead this year in helping us together to develop our own embedded principles for stewardship. Already we are exceeding our target of the number of parishes signing up to the ‘Generous Giving’ scheme which we hope will transform the pattern of planned giving over time.
I hope this makes clear the commitment which I share with Bishop David and my immediate colleagues that the resources of the diocese are deployed to support the ministry of our parishes, schools, and other networks which build the Body of Christ and serve the common good. Linda Church and Peter Wood, the Directors of Ministry and Mission, will be visiting all the deaneries in the first half of the year both to listen to what your hopes and plans are and to bring to you some of the training and other opportunities there are which you might be drawn to participate in. I shall continue my visits to all the deanery chapters through 2017. The Archdeacons will continue to engage with parishes and deaneries throughout the year, but from the autumn with an emphasis on how we continue the journey of faith together as we embark on the Way of Life.
At Epiphanytide we hear the exhortation of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.’ Our real purpose is to make known the glory of God as we are lights in the world, set alight by the Easter flame of the victory of Christ over sin and death. Already our lives are threaded with the gold of God’s glory. My prayer for 2017 is that we are continually renewed in hope, love and joy.
The Rt Revd Stephen Conway
The Bishop of Ely