Spring has sprung! It’s another lovely morning; the last few days have given us a very welcome taste of new life to come – and welcome to Synod today as we also celebrate and taker steps to encourage many signs of new life in this diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. In a few moments we will suspend standing orders to hear from Dave Gardner about progress in implementing Growing in God, the diocesan vision for growth that we committed ourselves to keep on exploring eighteenth months ago despite the episcopal inter-regnum, which we prayed about corporately, scrutinised carefully and approved overwhelmingly, and which is now ready to become not just a project but a part of the way we do church in Suffolk – with a bright new version of its logo to go with the general redesign of diocesan materials that has just been undertaken.
Alongside that though not on our agenda there has been thoughtful work going on to look at our options for the way ministry will be shaped in the future, ready to be shared with Bishop Martin and more widely in the diocese, and the MET team have also been busy piloting and putting online a whole new range of training and study resources for us under the common label of Living Faith in Suffolk. Living Prayer is one of the first of these, and just this last week I was at one of our training days for spiritual accompaniers, and seeing first hand the care and prayer that goes into that quiet work. In addition just this week I will be welcoming heads and governors as we launch our new MAT, and meeting some great new candidates for parish posts sent me by the archdeacons. So whether it’s root treatment, shoot tending or fruit tasting, we have lived out our shared commitment to not press the pause button and be the lively people of God for this place as best as we can within the constraints of our resources and as we have waited for a new bishop. My heartfelt thanks go to everyone in every part and department of the diocese for joining in and helping us be ready for God’s good future.
I mentioned resources just then and it is patently obvious that one of the biggest challenges we face is to at least balance our books and at best remove the bottleneck that the combination of little by way of historic resources and a relatively low level of current giving give us. So I am also very grateful to our DBF Chair, the Finance Committee, the Giving Group and our office staff for taking this challenge very seriously and to all those of you who have been involved in the implementation of the Centenary Share, which has been the other big building block that we have sought together to put in place over the last couple of years. As yet we are still to see much of a positive effect on our budget, but what we are seeing, and which is a good vital sign for the future, is a real growth in the texture of our conversation and engagement with particular places and contexts, to understand why giving may be difficult, and to work together to overcome the obstacles. So after coffee we will suspend standing orders for a second time to hear a report on the work of the Giving Group, and to launch a new resource called Generous God, Generous People that the group and Canon Hedger in particular have worked hard to create and which has already generated national interest and indeed orders. To my great surprise, there is very little else out there that helps us in the way this resource does to link together the scriptures and our financial challenges, and I am sure it will be significant both here and in stewardship work more widely across the country.
If all of that sterling work has a downside, it is that is somewhat inward-focussed. So it is very proper that we will in fact suspend our standing orders for yet a third time this morning to hear a presentation from our World Mission Group including a report from the recent pilgrimage to Kagera. Working in Suffolk for the last eighteenth months has taught me that careful attention needs to be paid to every community, however small, and that every locality is special and of special importance. But it has also taught me that for our own good and the good of God’s world we need to lift our sights sometime and also sometimes our game to engage with and respond to the issues and challenges of our wider and indeed global community: and the WMG presentation will I hope be a great way to round off this Synod and send us out into God’s good world ready again to do God’s good work.
For me though, to borrow a phrase from Frank Sinatra, “the end is near”. But the Gospel according to Frank is a dangerous one. The Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to look not for ends but beginnings, and indeed to take the focus off ourselves, so that we do not sing of how “I did it my way” but of Christ our Way, our Truth, our Life.
So yes, I will be moving back to Ely very soon, but in God’s great scheme of things this not an end but a beginning, a new springtime for you as a diocese as Martin joins you, and as your vision and plans take on new life. And it is not about whether you will do it Nigel’s way, or David’s way or even Martin’s way any more than the Church of Corinth was about following Apollos or Paul, but about how you will do it God’s way, the way that is defined not so much by a human vision or plan, but by our being in the way of Christ, being formed in his likeness, having our character stamped by his Spirit, growing into his stature.
Times of transition can make us anxious, and even fractious. The whole life of the nation is in a fairly febrile state at the moment as we both face a general election and some significant challenges to our security and identity. One of the gifts of the established church to the country it serves should be a witness as to how to stay in good relationship with one another at such times, and a witness too the life in Christ that gives us the security and the hope to be able to do that even when it is hard. Loving God and loving our neighbour: it all comes down to that. The Bishops’ Pastoral Letter calls us to that vocation, asking the question “Who is my neighbour?” with the obvious intended answer that it is whoever I meet, even those different from me, even my enemies. It calls on us not to give in to the temptation to vote just for our own good, but for the common good – and calls those in politics to stand for that common good, a good greater than the simple aggregate of all our self-interests.
As the press coverage which followed the bishops’ letter showed, we ourselves should not be surprised, though, if when we give such a call the spotlight is quickly turned back on us to see whether we are living out those values ourselves.. So are we? I loved the succinct way in which the Bishops of Norwich and Leicester wrote in response to this challenge: “Research by the Church Urban Fund published last month found that 76 per cent of churches run activities in local schools, 66 per cent help to run food banks, 60 per cent offer parent and toddler groups and 53 per cent organise lunch clubs or drop-ins. A fifth of churches are also involved in helping credit unions in some way – a strong show of support for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative.” In my own statement too I was able to point to strong examples of such engagement here in Suffolk. You are as familiar as I am with headline projects such as the Porch Project, the Ipswich Nightshelter and the Foodbanks. But you are also as aware as I am of the many coffee mornings, lunch clubs, children’s activities, lifts to hospitals and adaptations for access in nearly all our parishes which need to trumpeting. And in this very Synod we have given priority time recently to seeking close working with our County Council to enhance the Common Good.
But the challenge remains – and I see three areas in particular where this diocese like others could easily let grumpiness trump the common good. They are obvious enough so I don’t need to bang on about them, but dealing with deficit, sharing conversations about sexuality, and wrestling with the new suite of reports from the national church that our Synod reps will share with us shortly, all have the potential to provoke us to be so passionate about our own point of view that our relationships with others suffer. How can we model a good engagement between those passionate viewpoints, find a good common future, and show the world a better way?
Near the beginning of my time here, as we wondered whether our vision for growth was something for which we could all work, I called you to a time of prayer. Your response to that call will be one of the things I remember especially about our life together. So I want to finish by once again calling you to keep on taking these challenges to God in prayer. Only in Him, through the power of His Spirit, can we find the gifts and strength to live out our Christ-like calling and be Easter people in a world in need. But it is through Him, as Christ is risen again in our hearts and in our communities right across Suffolk, that the real springtime of the world can come.