The Right Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester
I have just begun my 4th year as bishop here – and I love this diocese. At the very beginning of what I am going to say please do hear my heartfelt thanks for you and your part in our story and our partnership in the gospel.
I did contemplate sharing lots and lots of stories which I’ve had the privilege of participating in across our diocese, but we would be here for hours and what I really want to do is to focus on the big picture, and I hope that as I speak you will make connections with your own context.
There has been quite a lot of change over the past three years, not least in terms of the senior staff – and we are of course soon to greet Archdeacon Hilary. There has been change in other ways too as we discerned together our LIFE vision and continue to go on discovering what that means for our life together
In it all God has been unchanging, and yet as I so often say, God is in the business of change. Transformation.
The Big Picture:
I am going to repeat some of what I said to the Synod in November 2016 as our LIFE vision unfolded, and I’m going to read again some of those wonderful verses from Colossians 1:
‘(Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created …
.. all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. …. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1:15-21)
Our God is a God of fullness and completion – God of creation and re-creation. Amid the mess and brokenness, God has chosen through Jesus Christ to reconcile to himself all things, and one day creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). And already we look to the day when Christ will come again and all will be made new (Revelation 21:1-5)
And yet this is not simply about hope for a time to come. As followers of Jesus Christ we are called now to join in with God’s mission of liberation and transformation – the flourishing of all people and the whole of creation, and it’s rooted in relationship. Relationship with God, with neighbour and creation.
It’s about life in all its fullness. In those words of Paul to the Colossians, we hear that in Christ ‘all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. And in John 10:10 which sits at the heart of our LIFE vision, we have those words of Jesus: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’.
This is the big picture for us as we begin this new Triennium.
Life in all its Fullness: Death and Resurrection
And let’s never make the mistake of thinking life in all its fullness is about more and more comfort and pleasure, and less and less pain. That’s the message of consumerism and it’s a delusion.
Life in all its fullness is most definitely about more, but it’s about more and more of life in Christ – generous transformation within us and around us; the unquenchable work of the Holy Spirit; the bottomless wells of salvation; mysterious love without measure…. And it will always involve dying and sacrifice.
Jesus’ words in John 10:10 are set in the context of Jesus talking about being the good Shepherd – the gate for the sheep – the one who lies down across the entrance to the sheep fold to keep the sheep safe. The thief comes to take, to steal, to grab, to deprive, to diminish. Jesus comes to give, to offer life in all its fullness – abundance, overwhelming generosity which begins in a place of sacrifice, of laying down, of self-giving.
Resurrection and new life follows crucifixion and death. In nature we know that often there needs to be fire and death for new life to emerge.
We need some dying and letting go if we are to enter into life in all its fullness. We don’t live in that abundance by clinging on but rather in a place of letting go.
If the big picture of our vision in this diocese is a kingdom vision then some of our ways of doing things and our ways of being will need to die. Thank you to those who are recognising that and leading in that. And of course death needs to be marked well. And the life that has been needs to be celebrated and acknowledged. The same is needed when an ending is required regarding such things as service patterns, or activities or use of buildings.
Furthermore, some of our narratives might need to die. There may also be other things within ourselves and within our worshipping communities of which we need to let go so that new life can emerge.
Fullness begins with an emptying. And it all begins with prayer – an ever deeper intimacy with God.
Being the Church: Gathered in and Sent out
And let me straight away at the start of this new triennium repeat that I am not interested in church going. And I’m not interested in maintaining structures and procedures for the sake of it. I am committed to church being. Being the Church.
My desire is for us to grow as a Eucharistic church in which as different members of the body of Christ we are gathered in week after week to worship God together, to seek forgiveness, to be nourished and fed …and then sent out week after week to nourish the world: To be the church among the people and places of our lives. To be emptied and filled afresh as we encounter the joy and pain of life and enter into the way of Christ’s death and resurrection. Life in all its fullness.
And please note that being a Eucharistic community is not defined by a weekly Eucharist in every church on every Sunday – It’s about living a Eucharistic life: giving God glory in who we are and what we do. And as we enter into Christ’s death and resurrection so we are willing to be broken and shared with the world around us. It’s about followers of Christ continuing to go deeper in relationship with God and thus with neighbour and creation. And it is about more people discovering Christ’s reconciliation and restoration for the first time.
This is the Church I pray for us to go on becoming across this diocese: Leadership committed to transformation; opening new paths to faith with Imagination; living as adventurous followers of Jesus Christ as we deepen in Faith and live out Christ’s love and hope as we Engage with people and the world around us.
It’s all about the big picture of the coming in of the kingdom of God.
As I think now about all those people who would identify as Christians and who gathered for worship this week – perhaps in a parish church, or in a school or care home or … How has that gathered-in worship deepened people’s faith and sent people out nourished to be the church and give glory to God right now wherever they are on this Saturday morning? – perhaps on a sports field or in shops or in homes or at a hospital bedside or …. .
And how are people who don’t know Christ experiencing the love and hope of Christ right now as we sit here?
The New and the Old – Living the Big Picture:
Among our priorities in our life vision there is a strong emphasis on being courageous in seeking to proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation – looking at the new ways we need to be present and tell our story in God’s story.
We do need some real step changes in how we apply God-given imagination to our different 21st century contexts in order to engage with people and place, and ignite and deepen faith.
Thank you to those who are taking risks and being courageous in different ways.
But we also need to recognise that there is not one simple new answer. And if you’re getting a bit heated because you think I’m suggesting everything has to be new – I’m not. It’s the focus that matters. All of it must only ever be about enabling people to go deeper in being faithful and fruitful, entering into Christ’s death and resurrection, and being good news for the people and places of our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let me digress for a moment…
I wonder how many of you joined in the Church of England Lent challenge to reduce our use of plastics?
The raising of public awareness to reduce our use of plastic is a relatively new thing – but of course the final goal is not reduction in plastic use. The goal is the care and flourishing of our planet. And there is never a simple new answer.
Last week I was listening to someone on Radio 4 talking about plastics. We might think that a reduction in our use of plastics is undoubtedly a good thing, however, there is also a bigger picture: The production of cotton requires a lot of water in places where water is often lacking; the recycling of glass takes a lot of water; cardboard involves wood and often from parts of the world where forestry has detrimental consequences for those people and places. Undoubtedly we need to go on working at the new thing – looking at how we use plastics and not least how we dispose of them – but always within the context of the big picture.
And I say all this because in our desire in this diocese to tell the gospel afresh and join in with God’s work of transformation the new thing is important, but there will never be a simple new answer. We always need to keep in mind the bigger picture of our goal – The big picture of the Kingdom of God and God’s mission of transformation.
I delight in the new and I delight in tradition and the old. What matters is that it is rooted and grounded in that big picture of the Kingdom of God.
As we look across the diocese we increasingly need a landscape of varied configuration: parish church being lived in old and new ways; worshipping communities in schools and colleges and universities; pioneers and fresh expressions in cafes, pubs, sports centres, chaplaincies… – All of it about being the church as we go on discovering and sharing the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ so that people may know life in all its fullness.
A Possible New Thing:
Next week the staff team are away together and one of the things we’re going to be looking at is an emerging proposal which has a focus on young people and sport. It will be a significant step change and it does seem to be joining in with where the Holy Spirit is at work. I can’t say more at this stage because it needs to be discussed by Bishop’s Council first – but what I can say is that it won’t be the simple new answer, but it does have potential to be transformative.
Which brings me onto the important issue of Noticing Change: How will we know if our LIFE vision is making a difference to the people and places of the Diocese?
A number of us have spent considerable time talking about ‘noticing change’. Just as scientists and environmentalists want to take note of what difference is being made to the planet by a reduction in the use of plastics, so in our diocese we want to notice what difference our living of LIFE is making.
We haven’t marked our LIFE vision with lots of quantative measurements but we do need some and we have identified 5 areas of changes we want to notice and we’ve been discussing how we will notice within that big Kingdom picture:
– An outward facing/ missional church across the Diocese which is engaged in its wider community
– An increase in Christians who are confident in living out and speaking about their discipleship and who are deepening their faith
– An increase in the number of people in Church of England worshipping communities in the Diocese
– An increase in diversity of those participating in our worshipping communities
– A Diocese in which Christians and worshipping communities are more connected to one another
And all this does take seriously an important question which I hope is very present in our life vision: With whom are we not connecting?
In that story of being a Eucharistic community, who is not at the table? Who is not hearing the story or finding their place in it? And do we notice? And how much do we care?
I hope you all read my letter in September in which I spoke about my thanksgiving and my lament when it comes to sparking and deepening faith in families, children and young people. If you haven’t seen it, then please do look at the website or have a word with Lucy Taylor. (So far I’ve received very few postcards of lament and I’ve heard very little about people’s commitment to pray and ask why and what and where and who!)
In that image of being a Eucharistic community, who is not at the table? Who is not hearing the story or finding their place in it?
For example, in welcoming and making provision for those with disability are we only looking at accessible church buildings or is our understanding of inclusion something more radical than that? Do those who identify as LGBTI+ experience welcome and value? And when we consider the faces and voices and ages and stories of those in our wider communities, are they reflected in our worshipping communities? And if not, are we daring to ask why?
And this is not about ticking boxes, it is about the Kingdom of God and enabling all people to discover their place in the community of God’s people. Those words from Colossians reflect the truth that in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created – all people. And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things – all people. When we talk about identity it is not simply about unique individuals, it is about individuals belonging together in Christ, and becoming members together of the community of the Body of Christ.
The Big Picture and our Agendas:
On our agenda this morning we have two key items: Vacancies and the budget. Lots I’d like to say but I’ll try not to pre-empt our discussions. However, what I do want to say is that we will miss the point if we think that our ultimate goal in these discussions is about the length of vacancies or a balanced budget.
The big picture is life in all it fullness – our desire to join in with God’s redemptive and transforming work – the flourishing of all creation as we look towards the new creation and the coming in of God’s kingdom in and through Christ by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
That is the backdrop to all our agenda items and our discussion. For example, that flourishing and life in all its fullness is the context for a commitment to excellent safeguarding; it’s where discussions around clergy wellbeing need to be rooted; It should underpin our commitment to care of our buildings etc etc.
So on the topic of vacancies: When a clergy person leaves a role, there is a need to pause and ask what next? A lot of parish profiles I see focus very heavily on worship patterns and what people want in terms of a chaplain to the congregations, rather than what might be needed so that we live being church more effectively within that big kingdom picture and life in all its fullness.
And very often people’s greatest concern in vacancies is rotas and maintaining everything that has been happening.
We might be asking the wrong questions if we only focus on the length of vacancy without ever asking how we might live vacancies differently.
I’m really pleased that we have strengthened the Terms of Reference for the Diocesan Mission and Pastoral Group, chaired by Bishop Robert, so that when we know an incumbent is leaving we can look at the place and context and can ask what next? We may need to take some courageous decisions. And we need to look hard at stats and demographics. Statistics never give us the answers but they provoke us to ask questions, and there is currently some work being done on the sustainability of benefices – and I’m acutely aware that we need to include our pioneering and Fresh Expressions because it’s that landscape of varied configuration.
And then the budget: I believe budgets always tell a story, and at both local and diocesan level our financial giving and our use of money says something about our spiritual health and our response to the abundant generosity and grace of God. What is our financial response to the invitation to be part of God’s story of creation and re-creation?
The budget must be about the Kingdom of God and how we join in with this transforming work of God to live and share life in all its fullness.
So in conclusion, this Synod and its business must only ever be about that big picture
How are we being transformed and being a transforming presence as our hearts and minds are focused on the kingdom of God and our God who is unchanging and yet in the business of change?
And so I close with those words from the prayer in Ephesians 3 – words we have used throughout the discernment of our LIFE vision:
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20 – 21)