I was flying over East Anglia recently – alright, on Google Earth not in an aeroplane – and was struck again by the patchwork quilt of small communities that make up our Selig Suffolk. Selig or holy because by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period there were already 418 churches here, compared with just 274 in Norfolk and a mere 17 in Essex. What an inheritance the saints of old Suffolk have left for the saints of today. Maintaining those buildings can be quite a headache of course, but overall they are in better condition now than they have been for many a year. As we look to the future let’s celebrate our heritage in all its diversity and draw on its strength. That patchwork quilt of communities is simply a given for us, and it’s in the DNA of the Church of England to serve them where they are and share the Good News of God’s love with them as they are. Being there matters. And I want to give the biggest of thank yous to the regiments of unsung heroes who are there on the ground today, hands on and on their knees as well, keeping the light of Christ alive. And a big thank you too to the archdeacons, property people, number crunchers, admin experts and all the rest without whom it simply wouldn’t work.
Valuing our inheritance doesn’t mean of course that the future will be just the past with a new coat of paint. The way in which we do that serving and sharing, and the way in which we use and draw on that wonderful inheritance, is going to keep on changing, just as it always has. And as you get ready to work with Martin, your new bishop, you will be listening carefully together to discern how that change might best be lived out. As a sort of John the Baptist in this story, my job is not to map out that future, but to say, “Be ready!”, and to say that under God it’s going to be good.
The foundations of that future have, though, already been laid. We have not been sitting on our hands for these last twelve months. The pause button, praise God, was not pushed, and we have been able to see some of the key plans devised before Bishop Nigel left move ahead into vibrant reality. We identified early on three such key features that along with the securing of our finances through the new Centenary Share were of vital importance. I’ve spoken about them in season and out of season so I suspect they are starting to get into the bloodstream by now, and I’ve been calling them the Roots, Shoots and Fruits of an organic approach to helping God’s Church grow – and Growing in God has been exactly the phrase that has emerged as our strapline for the future.
The Roots are roots of faith, of our sinking of ourselves into the deep life of Christ, growing in depth, in prayer and the life of the Spirit, feeding on the Scriptures and nourished by the sacraments. From time to time we’ve simply stopped as a diocese and prayed together, whether that has been on the afternoons across the diocese last autumn as we waited on God for his vision for growth, or in a Bishop’s Council when the financial challenges for instance have seemed particularly sharp. And while I am not going to give more time to it now, part of my charge and challenge to you today has to be to finally find the funds to pay for the ministry and mission you want to happen. Giving in Grace is where we need to be. But back to prayer and the Spirit: and it is self-evident to me that if we cut the roots of our life in Christ we will never grow as Christians, and are quite simply in danger of spiritual death. So I am enormously grateful to Dr Anne Spalding for quiet, diligent and freely given work as our Adviser in Spirituality, and grateful too for a hundred smaller initiatives up and down our diocese where not the pause button but the prayer button has been pressed when it’s needed. A special thank you too to this Cathedral Church, its chapter and staff, for being a special beacon of light for us all. But whatever and wherever your tradition or churchmanship – and I’ve shared this last year in everything from Solemn Benediction to full-on praise – go for it, let the life of Christ live in you in richly, and rejoice in the Lord always – and again I say rejoice.
The Shoots are shoots of hope, the shooting up in the power of the Spirit of transformed disciples and multifaceted ministries, creating worshipping communities big and small that are signs and agent s of God’s coming kingdom , life in all its fullness. We are being led towards a more collaborative future here. Far fewer churches have or will have a full-time vicar of their own. On the plus side of the ledger that can release the gifts of many more people, and build a healthier body in which every member is playing a part. On the debit side it can strip a local community of the leadership it needs, and challenges us to discern and develop that leadership in others, who may not be paid or ordained but are God’s people for that place now. Our clear ambition is to grow the number of well-trained ministers, ordained and lay, paid and unpaid that are coming forward; and underpinning that to grow the number of people who know themselves to be on a joyful journey of discipleship, following Jesus in their own gifted way. This is a slow-burn work, but one to which we are committed, and the new appointments in our Ministry team and the new short courses on Living Faith in Suffolk that are about to launch show that the fuse is well let. I want the fireworks to start to go off! I want to see person after person in our congregations come alive with the life of God and be empowered and equipped to make a difference for Him in the world He loves so much. It’s about individuals being transformed – there’s no getting round that – and it’s about those individuals then working together as the Body of Christ, and growing really healthy ways of being community that become a gift to the wider community around us. As one writer daringly put, “The local church is the hope of the world.” That’s why it’s so grim when church turns sour. That’s why it’s so wonderful when it grasps its calling and starts to shine.
Staying with shoots for a moment, we have a special care and calling to work with younger people who have so much of their lives before them, and to grow younger ourselves. As soon as I came to Suffolk I was impressed by the quality of our work with young people, evident in this service, as it is in the endeavour of our Education Department, and we have underpinned our commitment to grow younger by growing that team so that we engage more fully with our schools, and founding what in time will be Suffolk’s largest Academy Trust. Be bold and see the work through.
The Fruits that will follow are fruits of love, as transformed disciples and churches find naturally that they want to share, to give away the good things they have been given, and we grow in good influence: presence, engagement and service. Freely you have received, freely give. Churches and church members across this diocese are the biggest volunteer pool the county has, and the strongest springboard for community transformation too – from hospices to food banks, town pastors to rural crisis care, we’re there, and God willing we aren’t going to stop being there any time soon, whether in our centuries-old villages, or brand new estates; going out beyond our doors with unconditional love whether disciples or detractors, just as Jesus did, influencing the whole of society for the better, not as a take-over but as a gift of grace. The Centenary Fund launched this year is a tremendous platform for just this sort of gift. Its very set-up, with the Suffolk Community Foundation, speaks of the sort of partnership working that builds bridges not barriers. Money we give attracts match funding from others, and the service we offer inspires others to serve too. A second fund, for more explicitly evangelistic work is planned to complement it, but it is the inspired people who will always be God’s greatest asset here, and I pay tribute to those who are already committed as disciples of Christ to serving their communities in so many ways. It’s love all the way.
Roots, shoots and fruits: the most important thing, beyond all the detail, is that we can have hope and confidence for the future because we are being invited to join in God’s organic plan for the growth of a good creation, and in faith we know the end of the story. There will be downs as well as ups, disasters as well as blessings, but in the end the Lord’s Prayer will come true, God’s kingdom will come, and all shall be well.
What greater appropriation of our heritage, what greater acknowledgment of the endeavour of today, and what greater adventure for the future can there be than to say yes, every one of us, to playing our part in God’s great story, following in the footsteps of Edmund and all the saints of Suffolk, but even more in the footsteps of Christ. Sometimes we are shy to name his name, and there are times for reticence as well as for robustness, but now and today, at a time like this, we give thanks to God above all for the gift of Himself to us in Christ Jesus our Lord, by whose Word we were made, by whose Love we were saved, and in the strength of whose Spirit we can now walk tall into God’s good story of our future. Amen.