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Bishop Stephen's Farewell Sermon

Bishop Stephen's Farewell Sermon before leaving the Diocese of Ely, given from Ely Cathedral, 16th July 2023.

You can also view a video recording of the Choral Evensong with a Farewell to Bishop Stephen on the Cathedral YouTube channel here.

My senior staff colleagues have presented me with a photobook of pictures spanning the twelve and a half years of my tenure as your bishop. Of course, they are all evocative, most for good reasons and a few for sad reasons. Some pages I shall linger over and some I shall want to pass by; but all are true. We all live with the good and the not-so-good bits of our lives and ministries. After this service there will be some form of presentation and naturally the focus will be on my contribution to our common life as the Body of Christ. That’s all well and good; but for all my failure to do so, the point of my ministry has been to channel John the Baptist and point away from myself to Jesus: ‘There is the Lamb of God’.

I first resonated with our Old Testament reading when I was on an eight- day silent retreat when I was Archdeacon of Durham. I was not allowed to read any books other than the Bible. I was obliged to spend a whole day with the text my director gave me. I was at first outraged to read that God had always been with me and that I had lacked nothing. Where was God when this and that happened, or didn’t happen, then?! Four days in my retreat was interrupted by a pastoral crisis. A son of a former senior priest colleague had been killed in a traffic accident aged 22 and the family was desperate to be sure that I would officiate at the funeral.

In the days when we still did second curacies, I went to work with a priest I didn’t respect against my will and endured the worst eighteen months of 37 years of ordained ministry, in a house where I literally lived in a corridor and the scullery of a grand house I couldn’t afford to heat. I was burgled nine times. Even my clerical shirts were stolen. The desk sergeant told the next shift of police officers that they were to arrest any vicar with tattoos – which would cause more of a stir now, I think. But, but, if I had not befriended the children of that priest, I would not have been on hand as the trusted person to address a church full of goths and hells angels mourning the death of biker Matthew about the unstoppable love of God. I would also not have enjoyed fifteen more years of joyful life and ministry in the Northeast of England. My learning from all that experience is that – although I kick against it – God’s grace is beyond sufficient always.

The appointment process for Lincoln has been exhaustive compared to just receiving a letter from David Cameron in April 2010. I immediately rang Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury. I asked him how I could be chosen for Ely when it had Cambridge in it. I said you know I am no intellectual. He said, ‘Yes, I know. I taught you.’ He said that I had missed the point. Ely needed to be loved and challenged to grow in hope and number. ‘That’s your job’, he told me. As well as I have been able, I have sought to live that charge among you. Some of you will recall my conversation with the Diocese through Imagining the Future - which remains strangely relevant eleven years on – and our adopting the Ely2025 Strategy in 2015. I think in 2011 we were pretty convinced that we were in elegant decline. Pre-Covid we changed that picture in numbers and giving and now we are so much better placed than many dioceses to face a post-Covid uncertain future with hope. That is the product of serious endeavour on the part of parishes and individuals. I have sought by getting alongside you to make everyone believe that you make a difference. When our mother died, my sisters told me that I was no longer the number one son, but their brother. There is no number one in the Diocese of Ely, only the disciples who worship and serve in our 300+ churches.

Between 2014 and 2019 you enabled me to serve as the lead bishop for education in the House of Lords and nationally. Support for our schools remains a great passion of mine, and I was thrilled to join the pupils and staff of William Westley School at Whittlesford on Friday for the 300th anniversary of their school. With the National Society team, my primary ambition was to generate a Christian vision for education which could be adopted across the board and not just by church schools. We achieved this and the vision has become embedded across the country. It was inspired by and rooted in our second reading from John 10. People who study preaching say that one sermon can speak to another – as many of us here put into practice. It may not surprise you that living life in all its abundance has been a constant theme of mine for the seventeen years I have served as a bishop so far. I have long been inspired by the words of St Irenaeus to the effect that the glory of God is a human being fully alive and that the glory of humanity is the contemplation of God. Across the diocese and the Church of England, we run community schools for Jesus’ sake and for the flourishing of every child. We long for that flourishing life to be modelled and shared in every church family.

Throughout my ministry I have sought to challenge all attempts to narrow God’s love or to be gatekeepers rather than gate openers for people. We worship a God of abundance and not scarcity. And because we have lacked nothing these forty years on all our journeying, so we live to share the abundance of God with everyone who will allow us. I had very mixed feelings when I was called to open the Ely Foodbank, expressing my hope that it would soon not be needed. I was sadly wrong; but I am profoundly thankful to God for the sacrificial generosity of Christians and many others shown through food banks, debt support and in pastoral care. I can only touch the surface of the faith, humanity and ingenuity expressed through the pandemic. There could be no better illustration of our praying to be the generous and visible people of Jesus Christ, seeking in even desperate times to engage, grow and deepen.

When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd of the sheep of the kingdom, I believe that he was riffing like a jazz musician on his own embodiment of Psalm 23. Just as we heard in the first reading, with the Lord as shepherd we will lack nothing. He will restore us in a land of plenty by waters of contemplation. He will lead us into wisdom in his name. I will soon lay down my shepherd’s staff here to take it up again elsewhere; but Jesus protects us with his staff everywhere and always. There is overflowing abundance in our anointing by his Holy Spirit. When we feel deeply under the cosh, all that matters in our anxiety and paranoia about the future of the Church is that we are being chased by God’s goodness and mercy throughout our lives.

In 2021, Pope Francis told his clergy to find their true joy by living the smell of the sheep. I have inherited my father’s habitual big sniff to smell you all as the sheep that God has given me to care for and be close to these last twelve years. I have sought to follow the pattern of the Good Shepherd. I am sincerely sorry for the ways in which I have failed you; but I can say that in all these twelve years journeying with you, I have lacked nothing by God’s grace and in your company. Amen.

Page last updated: Wednesday 19th July 2023 5:08 PM
First published on: 16th July 2023
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