Letter from Bishop Stephen, Bishop of Ely

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Dear Friends,

In the last couple of weeks, lockdown has begun to ease for some people.  More children are back in school, shops have re-opened, and we are now able again to have our church buildings open for private prayer, if not yet for public worship.  In some ways, things seem to be starting to get back to normal, but we know that is not at all the case.

However, even as all this is happening, we have seen the ongoing Covid-19 crisis pushed from the top of the headlines by the passionate call for racial justice that has rung around the world.  There are serious, systemic, and centuries-long questions of structural discrimination and injustice on the grounds of race.  I have encountered this indirectly in my own family through the experiences of my mixed heritage niece and nephew.  We have seen too how the call that ‘Black Lives Matter’ has been particularly acute as disproportionate numbers of people of BAME backgrounds have died from Covid-19. 

Nor is the church immune from these questions: today marks the 72nd anniversary of the arrival of HMS Windrush. The recent scandal of public treatment of some of that ‘Windrush Generation’ has caused us to look again at how the Church of England responded back in 1948, and a motion at General Synod this February led the church to apologise for the institutional racism that has so often been a feature of our common life.  And there is still much more to do – in terms of diversity and representation in ordained leadership, in our structures, boards and committees, and in the encouragement and nurture of vocations.  Institutional discrimination is discrimination that is normalised, deep-rooted, and often unnoticed until someone or something shines a light, and calls it out. 

The question of what sorts of discrimination we normalise has been on the House of Lords’ agenda in the last week as well, with the debate on the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020.  This legislation has caused a great deal of concern, including amongst many who believe in principle that women should have access to safe and legal abortions where necessary. What is particularly contentious here is that the Regulations risk the routine termination of pregnancies where any foetal abnormality is suspected, with a possible consequence being the elimination of disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome.  In February 2018, General Synod passed a motion affirming the dignity and worth of people with Down’s Syndrome, and I would emphasise now what I said in that debate, and drawing on all that I have learnt through my engagement with L’Arche, which is that I believe passionately that disabled people have much to teach us about living in the truth and working for inclusion and genuine diversity.

We stand at a moment when we are asked to consider what ‘normal’ should look like, in our common life as a church, and in our common life as a society.  As we emerge from this season, do we expect that ‘normal’ will be as it was before, just a bit more physically distanced and washing our hands more often?  The pandemic has been described over and over again as a ‘crisis’: theologically, a crisis is not simply a terrible thing that happens, a test or a trial, it is judgement.  I do not for one moment want to imply that coronavirus has been visited upon the world as judgement like an Old Testament plague, but it has laid open in stark reality what is wrong with many of our patterns of living, and the terrible inequalities in our society – in housing, health, education, employment patterns – and has forced us to reflect collectively on what it is we really value.

So how, as we emerge blinking into the light, are we going to look outwards and engage more fully and courageously with the needs of our communities?  Churches and schools across the diocese have been engaged with the wider community to meet the needs of the vulnerable and isolated throughout this crisis: in caring for children and the elderly, in running foodbanks and delivering prescriptions, in keeping in touch in all kinds of creative ways.  We have seen in multiple ways that there is no dichotomy between what is pastoral and what is missional, especially in the witness and care that has been offered through funeral ministry in some really terribly difficult circumstances.  Through this crisis we have seen people and churches becoming more connected than they were before – through online services, but also through phonecalls and leaflets through doors.  We proclaim the good news of God’s love as we live God’s love.  We proclaim the promise of God’s justice in the ways we put that love into action.

How do we imagine the ‘normal’ of the church of the future? It would be easy, and tempting, to emerge from lockdown and retreat into our buildings and our institutional anxieties; it would be easy to go into survival mode.  It would be easy, in church as in society, to be so preoccupied with getting things back to ‘normal’ that we fail to see what is going on around us, or that we postpone all the wider questions of social justice until later.  That would be to walk away from the mirror of this situation and immediately forget what the world looked like.  We must capture what we have learnt and are learning about what it has meant to be God’s church in such a time as this.   As a diocese we pray to be generous and visible people of Jesus Christ; we have a vision of lives and communities transformed, fully alive in him.  That cannot be realised unless we are prepared to make space for lament, to name the fear and the grief, the isolation and the loss, that all this has brought for so many already, and which will carry forward into the futures, especially of so many of our young people; we expect transformation, but we need to stand with the women bearing witness as all those cries are taken up in the cry of Jesus from the cross, before we can stand with the women at the empty tomb and bear witness to the resurrection.

In my address to the diocesan synod in October, I invited us to place significant emphasis on the common good especially in the wake of Brexit, and to place a particular focus on climate justice, which was to have been a major theme of the Lambeth Conference that was scheduled for this summer (which, like much else of 2020, has been postponed).  A lot has happened since then, and in many ways the world has changed.  But some things have not changed: the promises of God have not changed; our calling and identity as God’s beloved children have not changed; the resurrection hope of transformation has not changed, even as in Christ everything has already been made new.  There is no common good which does not look outwards; there is no vision of the Kingdom which is not a vision of justice and peace and righteousness. 

We need to be imagining our future, and there will be some hard questions, probably some very hard questions, to face as we do it – the future might not be quite the one we had anticipated or expected, even a few months ago. But there is a future, and God who has called us together and sent us out is faithful.  Over the coming weeks and months, we shall be dreaming out loud together about what God’s church fully alive should be and how God’s world transformed could be. 

                We praise and thank you, God of the journey,

                For all your gifts to us in the past.

                We look to you as fellow-traveller and faithful companion on the way ahead.

                Shelter and protect us from all harm and anxiety;

                Give us grace to let go of all that holds us back;

                And grant us courage to meet the new life you have promised us

                In Jesus Christ our Lord.

                Amen.

 

Yours ever in Christ

+Stephen

 

The Rt Revd Stephen Conway 

Bishop of Ely


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Page last updated: 22nd June 2020 4:00 PMFirst published on: 22nd June 2020
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We pray to be generous and visible people of Jesus Christ

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