Presidential Address - Diocesan Synod, 9th March 2019

Posted on Thursday 14 March 2019
Below is Bishop Stephen's Presidential Address, given to Ely Diocesan Synod, held at Over, Cambridgeshire on the 9th March 2019.

Before I proceed with the address, I bring before you in remembrance and thanksgiving two ministers of the gospel who have been promoted to glory: the Revd Derek Billings and the Reader, Nick Pett. In the silence we thank God for their lives and their dedicated ministries….May they rest in peace and rise in glory. 

Some of you will be aware that 58 of us from the diocese went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land last month. We also had with us Pastor Manasseh, from the staff of Bishop Louis of Kigali – our link diocese in Rwanda - who made a great impression on us all.   This was my how manyeth? visit to the Holy Land, and fellow pilgrims asked me how I could return there repeatedly and it not become an ordinary experience. My reply was that each group of pilgrims makes it a differently rich experience of companionship, shared worship and mutual understanding. I also have a passionate concern that indigenous Christians are supported and encouraged by Christians from the west, as the original heartland of our faith in Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine and Egypt is being eroded all the time.  We need to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ in the ancient churches of the Middle East. 

Mostly, though, you could call me a pilgrimage groupie. I go on pilgrimage all the way to the Holy Land or to Holy Island, or locally to Walsingham because I trust that God is going to use both the journey and the arriving and abiding to continue to transform me.  I trust he will continue to transform me as a disciple in the power of the Spirit and in the incarnate and crucified love of Jesus. I want my spiritual temperature to be raised. I want my lizard brain to be converted by an even warmer heart by the Heart of Christ. 

One of the most powerful experiences for all of us in February was our journey through the desert to the River Jordan to renew our baptism promises, as many of us will do again in our own churches at Easter. We were all washed in the water and we broke free of our order of service spontaneously to sing an American spiritual. In this profound moment we celebrated with joy that Jesus went into the deep waters of death for us and rose to life in triumph. 

And the thing about a pilgrimage is that we learn to walk together at different paces in different moods. The mood when we held a healing service by the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda was one in which vulnerability was more evident and it was fine for there to be weeping as well as joy. Jesus healed the paralysed man and he heals us. 

A pilgrimage to the Holy Land is a powerful combination of fresh engagement with the Scriptures, the power of place and imagination and a deep letting-go into worship and prayer in communion with other pilgrims. Although any pilgrimage to the Holy Land is deeply personal and spiritual, the experience can never be separated from the contemporary reality of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem. We were all deeply affected by our meeting with an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Moslem who are leaders together of the Parents’ Circle, as fathers who have both lost young daughters in the crossfire of violence, working for peace against the odds. Previously, near Bethlehem we visited an orphanage for babies abandoned at birth, their mothers often having been raped by someone in their family. Catholic sisters give them love and care for their first six years. Life becomes more uncertain thereafter. I was taken into the creche to bless the newly-arrived babies. There could not have been a more profound reminder of the perilousness of the life into which Jesus was born. 

You may be wondering what has all this to do with us in the Diocese of Ely.  People go on pilgrimage to places which are ‘thin places’ where the Lord himself has been present and/or where prayer has been so constant through many generations that people experience wonder, joy and closeness to God.  Places where, in T. S. Eliot’s words inspired by Little Gidding in this diocese, ‘prayer has been valid, and is valid still’. That is precisely the journey that we can all make at home. When I was called to the Diocese nine years ago I was told that my responsibility – with all of you – was to raise the spiritual temperature across the diocese. You don’t need reminding, I am sure, that this is writ-large at the beginning of the ely2025 strategy that we may be fully alive in Christ. 

This requires a daily call to turn to Christ.  We are called to seek the grace for our lives to know that ‘new every morning is the love’.  We are called to grow in holiness, to become more and more like Christ, and enter ever deeper intimacy with God.  We are called to become ever more the people God created us to be.  Our diocesan Way of Life is about finding ways to deepen our discipleship and grow in holiness together.  It is a vehicle for us to express the primacy of Christ in our lives through prayer, helping us nurture a confident people of God by seeking to ‘raise the spiritual temperature of the diocese’.  Our diocesan thermometer will rise as we respond ourselves to the divine address, and then play our parts in building up the body.  Dwelling in the Word has been catching on in parishes and for a number of PCCs. If this dwelling in Scripture before meetings is not yet happening where you are, I commend strongly that you discover its joys and the positive effect it will have on the way your meeting runs. 

After the launch of the Way of Life last Holy Week, Lisa Tulfer is taking the lead in consulting parishes about how they are making use of prayer resources and how we need continually to refine and expand them. I want to stress that the Way of Life is not a thing apart from every other dimension of our diocesan strategy – it is about how we deepen so that we engage and grow.   It is as we pray that we grow in that intimacy with Christ that helps us respond to his love, without which there is no hope of prospering.  Jesus, who came  among us as one who serves,  is the pattern of our calling, the model for the Way of our Life in him. 

Many of you know that I have a national role for the Church in education. For two years I have been beavering away to get all the bishops behind a vision for ‘Growing Faith’ which seeks to help schools, churches and families/households work more closely together. This is all about raising the spiritual temperature by deepening the spiritual life of all free by encouraging children as disciples and potential evangelists in their own right. You will be encouraged to pick this up locally and to work with your community schools as well as church schools. There will be support and information from the Board of Education and from Debbie Hill, the Children’s Adviser. You may already be using the Way of Life materials for families and young people. 

Taking the discipleship of children seriously also ties in with the national vision for ‘Setting God’s People Free’, now branded as ‘Everyday Faith’. Ely was ahead of the game here with the first two levers of our strategy to nurture a confident people of God and to develop healthy churches. We have a record number of people coming forward to offer themselves for various kinds of lay ministry and we have now got the Wisbech Learning Community up and running. But even more than that, Everyday Faith is about equipping lay people be disciples and leaders in every context they find themselves in – work, politics, charitable service, parish, diocesan synod, everywhere.  Part of raising the spiritual temperature and getting the glass rising on our thermometer will be how you write discipleship into the Development Action Plans for your parishes and deaneries. 

Growing Faith was approved unanimously at General Synod recently. I broke all the rules, apparently, by asking all members of Synod to face the gallery for a photograph of them raising a chart I had given them which is being sent to children in our church schools nationwide which will help them engage with this year’s ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ nine days of prayer for the conversion of our country. We shall be able to watch a short video about ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ at the coffee break. None of what I have referred to is in addition to the implementation of the diocesan strategy. They give a name to what we are already doing when we are looking for all the ways in which we can be fully alive in Jesus Christ. 

Those of us who were on pilgrimage together in February could, of course, have left our transformed selves on the soil of the Land of the Holy One. I am confident, however, that we brought all our new perceptions and connections with us for further growth. I am not joking about our spiritual thermometer; but I appreciate that it can go down as well as up. I pray that our spiritual temperature will grow in ways which can be sustained. We want growth in number and depth across our blended ecology of parishes, chaplaincies and fresh expressions. This is entirely possible by God’s grace if we look to foster vocations to a whole range of ministries and equip one another in every age group to go deeper and wider as disciples. 

We know from the New Testament that the earliest Christians were known as followers of ‘the Way’, as those who sought to follow him who is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’.  Our focus on raising the spiritual temperature, on the Way of Life, is all about our walking in the Way of the Cross and proclaiming the primacy of Christ in our lives and in the life of the world.  It is about our growing into the fullness of life held out to us in Jesus Christ, whose generous and visible people we must pray daily and deeply to be.  For it is Christ among us as one who serves who calls us; it is Christ broken, silenced, abused and abandoned who stands as truthful judge in the face of weak and fearful power; it is Christ who invites us to learn of him to pray, to live, to grow in holiness, and to discern more clearly what it is he calls us to do, and who it is he calls us to be; it is Christ who invites to be open to the fullness of the breadth, and depth, and height of his love for us.