St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocesan Synod, Saturday 8th November 2014
The Lord be with you!
Today we welcome our new Director of Ordinands and New Ministries, Tim Jones. Tim, we’re delighted you’ve come to join us from God’s own country, otherwise known as Yorkshire, and know that you will find him here in his very own Selig Suffolk as well. Your work is going to be strategic for us as we seek to grow together in God, and I want to come back to it in a moment. But first I want to give a warm personal welcome to our distinguished visitors from the County Council. The sort of growth we are looking for is a growth that leads to the flourishing of every Suffolk community, and this is a work that we share together. In my experience the relationship between the County Council and its officers and departments and the Church in its various aspects is unusually good here, and a blessing to us all. It is very good to be together today.
The Church of England brings a remarkable length of reach to this shared work, so that in round terms, even in an age of centralisation and so-called rationalisation, which is not being kind to our many small rural communities, we still have in this diocese some 500 churches and parishes in active use and some 500 ordained ministers in active ministry, though I should say before your eyebrows leave your foreheads in disbelief that of those half are active retired, and of those this side of retirement only half receive a stipend: but what a workforce, and that is before I have mentioned another 500 or so lay people in authorised ministries such as lay readers and elders.
Our firm ethos and commitment is that this strength is there for the good of all. Yes, our motivation is clear and I would not wish to underplay it one iota: we are working and praying for the Lord’s Prayer to come true, for God’s Kingdom to come. But that Kingdom is written through like a stick of rock with the name of Jesus, the Man for Others, the one who died for every one of us; and because of that while we value our place at the table, we are always looking to use that place to give access to others too, which is perhaps why those of other faith communities are generally very supportive of us as the established church and often send their children to our schools.
I could go on more and suggest that having an established faith of this sort is a very appropriate way of solving a problem every state has to face, which is how to relate state and faiths together. There are many different answers, but establishing a faith, while at the same time making sure that it is there for the whole community, is a very English solution, and I rather hope we don’t lose it in the face of current anxieties about extremism, because frankly it’s probably as good a bulwark against extremism as we could find. Our lovely rural schools in Suffolk are hardly hotbeds of fanaticism, for instance, and have a great reputation as builders of community.
So let’s not forget those schools either when we’re thinking of the help we can offer in our common quest for the common good. I am deeply grateful to the work that Dean Frances and many others have been doing to see how that common working can be enhanced as we move forward together, and for putting the plans in place to allow us to explore that today, and I know that what we do will build a real platform for our mission and ministry under the new bishop’s leadership, when there will be much to do as we get into good shape for the future.
But now I want to go back to ministry, not just because we welcome Tim today, but because the older I get the more I become convinced that real change for the better in society is nearly always the result of change first in one or a few person’s hearts, as they see the light, as it were, of a new way that things could be, are changed themselves into living examples and champions for it, and start a groundswell and then movement which lets that light shine for all of us. So whether we are thinking of the foundation of the those schools I just mentioned, and the whole idea that there should be schooling for all, of the predecessors to our present day hospitals which were so often religious foundations, of the movements to abolish slavery or child labour, of hospices, of housing for the elderly or the food banks and credit unions of today, time and again it has been one person, one family, one small group that has led the way. And time and again in this our country, those people and those groups have been Christians.
When any one of us puts our roots down into the self-giving love and life of God and discovers our own deep identity, worth and vocation in life, we are massively empowered as that new DNA starts to express itself through every cell of our being. That’s why such hard work making general groans or general appeals asking people to step forward and take up this role or that. One of the first lessons any parish minister learns is that you have to get to know people, get up close and personal, and help their eyes open to the fact this particular task is what they should have been raring to go at all along. And if that is not to be just a clever bit of manipulation, it has to happen because the person concerned has indeed somehow been made and prepared by God for it along, and makes their own connection with him and hears the message for themselves.
I’m talking about what in the trade we call Vocation. We often focus on vocations to the ordained ministry, and I’ll be frank, I’m challenging Tim to so encourage and nurture these that we have more people being sponsored from this diocese for ordained ministry year on year than we have retiring from it. The maths are simple: if we fall short of that, we will have fewer clergy in the future. Yes, some dioceses may be in a position to grow more ministries and export them to us, but I want us to do better: to grow our own so we both exporters and importers, full players in the market if I may dare call it that, with a strong supply of candidates who understand our ways because they have grown up among us, as well as a leavening of them foreigners, who help not to get stuck in those ways, as to be honest we sometimes do.
I am also challenging Tim to undo a very silly, in my humble opinion, decision the Church took nationally not so long ago which led to the age at which people have been ordained over the last ten years rising by an average of ten years. Again you don’t need a degree in maths to work out the consequences, with fewer young clergy with all their energy and inspiration for our young people, and fewer clergy overall serving fewer years. Tim comes with a strong track record of working with younger people to encourage them in all sorts of vocations and I have asked for a task group to be set up straight away to try and help it happen here too.
A third challenge to Tim, since his remit covers the training of clergy and readers once in post, is to make sure that those coming in new to authorised ministry are the pioneers and encouragers of the new ways of working and being in mission that we will need to inhabit if we are to grow. As I said earlier, there is work for you to do on this with your new bishop, but my John the Baptist role is to say as clearly as I can, that that work is coming, and is in fact quietly starting already, work that will bring good change that will revive, and that will build on the strong traditions you already have of everyone playing their part, of lay ministries alongside ordained ones, of local focus but wider collaboration. The bricks are already there, good bricks, great people, but the house plans needs clarifying and co-ordinating so that we can all understand what’s going on and play our part in it.
Playing our part – and this is my final point. We’re back to those personal roots of faith that make all the difference. Later in this Synod our Director of Ministry, John Parr, will be telling us about one of those old-bricks-made-new that is going to be an important part of those future plans. Called Living Faith in Suffolk it will see 20 courses launched by the end of 2016, all designed to help individuals and groups grow in prayer, vocation and lived-out faith – as disciples of Jesus Christ. To commit to that discipleship, to follow Christ, is as the Archbishop reminded us the most amazing decision and adventure that any person can undertake. Dioceses used to have these sorts of courses, but they fell by the wayside. Now we are seeing them back again and in a new and lively form, using different kinds of material, appealing to different kinds of learners, reflecting a range of spiritual styles, suitable for use in urban and rural settings, and all supporting our diocesan vision for growth.
What I wonder does God want you to do with your life? And what better person to follow as we explore our answer could there be than the one whom we have taken all too forgranted in recent years, almost been embarrassed about, yet who is acknowledged worldwide by believers and non-believers alike as a moral guide of massive significance, whose words and deeds still convict us two thousand years later in a way which the leaders of today can never match, and who, if we dare to take him at his word, will lead us into a whole new dimension of life and through his Spirit empower us to build the good world we want, good for everyone, good for ever, the kingdom of God.