Presidential Address: Diocesan Synod 2 November 2019
The Right Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going (John 6:16-21)
Watch Bishop Rachel’s address here:
I’m very aware that we are now in the season of All Saints and All Souls so you might wonder why I chose that gospel reading for today. I’m not sure exactly why this passage came to me. Perhaps it’s because when I stood under the moon in the Cathedral I found myself thinking about the rhythm of life, the seasons and the tides of the sea. I’ve particularly been thinking about the tides and the sea in relation to climate change – those across the world whose daily lives are precariously affected by changing tides and melting glaciers. So much turbulence and uncertainty in our created world – and then of course there is so much turbulence and uncertainty in our political landscape in the United Kingdom. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how it has all become so familiar.
And in that episode from chapter 6 of John’s gospel (verses 16-21) the disciples were on turbulent waters but it was fairly familiar – and indeed they were doing something very familiar as they crossed Lake Galilee in a boat.
Having spent two weeks around Galilee in July I now understand how common it is for the winds to get up, particularly in the evening. Day after day we watched the waves on the lake being whipped up as the wind increased. When we were there it was extremely hot in the high 30s and it was not unlike being under a large hairdryer – (I do appreciate some of you here might not know what that feels like).
Going across the lake was familiar to the disciples – and turbulent water was not unfamiliar to them – – and neither were feelings of fear and uncertainty about what might happen.
That experience of turbulence and uncertainty is now all too familiar to us. And it’s not just political seas. There is also anxiety in the Church, across dioceses, not only about financial sustainability but also around the recent publication of mission statistics, which as you know are published annually using the information which worshipping communities submit year on year.
Over the last 10 years across the Church of England there has been a drop in church attendance of 16% among adults and 28% among children. We are still crunching the numbers on our mission stats in this diocese but overall it is not a pretty picture. There are some positive stats and some not so good – it’s looking quite complex.
So back to those disciples in that boat on turbulent waters. Amid all their different thoughts and emotions – their fear and uncertainty about what would happen next – one thing the disciples did not expect was to see Jesus appear alongside them walking on the water.
And yet I find myself wondering why their expectations were so low, not least because this episode comes just after Jesus has fed a crowd of thousands with a tiny picnic.
Jesus had taken a little and offered it to God with thanksgiving, and fed a crowd of 5000.
And as I look around this Synod I am aware of many stories represented here of followers of Christ offering their little with thanksgiving to God and seeing extraordinary things emerge in many different contexts. Thank you.
At our staff meeting on Thursday we were looking at updates from the different groups focusing on each of the priorities under our LIFE themes. So much of it is very encouraging – for example our outward-facing ‘Engagement’ with the Cheltenham Literature Festival (engaging with hundreds of children, schools and families); and then there are the plans for a major event next October at Cheltenham Racecourse focusing on Everyday Faith; and it was good to hear of the worshipping communities small and large, engaged with a number of different leadership programmes for clergy and laity together: Thrive and Flourish and Lead Academy.
And the most encouraging thing is hearing and experiencing stories from worshipping communities across the diocese. Just last Sunday I had the privilege of confirming two young parents who have come to faith through first bringing their little daughter to baptism ‘sparking an amazing adventure with Jesus Christ.’
And yet I wonder how expectant we are as we live our LIFE vision?
In the familiar uncertainty and anxiety of both our political landscape and the landscape of the Church of England do we expect to see Christ being with us and among us in extraordinary ways through the power of the Holy Spirit? When we are finding it so hard to move the boat through the water and it seems as if nothing is moving, are we praying for Jesus to come to us and those around us in unexpected ways?
I love the fact that when the disciples lifted their eyes to be surprised by Jesus they longed for Jesus to be in the boat with them. And the boat went in the right direction.
I often hear people talking about ‘the direction of travel’ – ‘setting the direction of travel’. Well, it’s a good phrase to apply to this passage. Jesus joined the disciples in the boat and it kept the direction of travel and they reached the shore.
Over the past three years our LIFE vision focused on Christ’s offer of life in all its fullness has ‘set the direction of travel’, and there have been many conversations about the importance of seeing all the different strands of our LIFE vision as being one vision. I am particularly encouraged when I see people naturally weaving the different strands together:
At our recent youth celebration for young people across the diocese, it wasn’t just about our Engagement priority of ‘exciting young people to explore and grow in faith’, it was also about ‘nurturing confident disciples’ – It was very moving at the end of the evening to see so many young people come forward for prayer in their desire to be more confident in ‘living out their faith seven days a week’ at school and home and in all the places where they spend their time.
The different strands of our LIFE vision need to be held together as we seek to join in with the big picture of the kingdom of God.
And it’s not just about the different strands of our LIFE vision, it’s also about seeing the connections with the vision across the national Church under the overarching title of ‘Renewal and Reform’. It was good to have some of the national staff from London Church House leading workshops at our clergy conference and doing the join up with our LIFE vision, because of course it is God’s vision and so we shouldn’t be surprised that it is resonating with what is going on across the Church of England.
For example, the emphasis on Everyday Faith which has grown out of the national report called ‘Setting God’s People Free’ resonates with our own FAITH commitment to ‘nurture confident disciples’. And then there’s a national vision with national resources behind it called Growing Faith (you’ll be hearing more about that this morning). It’s about how we are planting and growing faith in children and schools and families and households. You might immediately think of our priority to ‘place schools at the heart of our mission’ or the priority to ‘invest in our engagement with baptism families’, but actually it’s very important that the Growing Faith initiative isn’t squeezed into particular priorities – it is about all of them.
And all of this is rooted in the question of what it means for us to be and do Church in all the different contexts of our diocese with and among people of all ages and backgrounds.
I am excited and expectant about the deanery mission plans you heard about in July. This major piece of mapping is asking the question of what it means to be church among the places and people of every deanery. Then asking what the implications are for how we organise ourselves, and who and what and when.
Many of you now have heard me talk about my desire for a church landscape of varied configuration. What I mean by that is that the landscape of Church will include inherited church and schools and chaplaincies and Fresh Expressions of church and pioneer ministry – All equally valued and present.
One of our IMAGINATION priorities is to encourage ‘new and courageous ways of worshipping in different places which connect with more people’. This will lead to a more varied landscape and it will involve change not simply add on.
It has been good to see how worshipping communities have developed different expressions of doing church such as Messy Church and Café Church, as well as strengthening the worshipping communities of schools.
Incidentally, I’m not sure we’re always reflecting those different ways of doing church in those mission statistics I spoke about. We do need to be much better at the way we do our mission returns. Equally it’s important not to be defensive. Statistics help us ask questions and in College Green we are continuing to do some serious looking at statistics across every worshipping community alongside financial data and other information we collect so that we can have honest conversations about the health of mission and ministry across every part of our diocese – in July you saw that benefice sustainability chart – and this will all be part of those deanery conversations and plans.
And I hope everyone will enter into this in an undefended way, asking the question about how we are being God’s people in different contexts, knowing that the starting place is not a burning platform but the truth that we are loved and called by name; that it is God’s Church and it is God who is establishing the kingdom of God – and we are called to join in.
What we do know is that there are vast numbers of people of all ages and backgrounds who have never encountered Christ.
I was glad that ahead of this Synod I received an email from Nick Bromfield wanting to put down a question related to those latest stats for mission. Nick was asking how our diocesan stats compare with the national picture and whether we ‘have accepted a narrative of decline, and if we have, how that can be challenged.’ It’s a good question.
In July there was a debate at General Synod around Fresh Expressions and what has taken place over the last 20 years since the release of the Mission Shaped Church report in 2004. The GS motion which was passed included a clause that ‘every parish and diocese be encouraged to be part of the movement of forming new disciples and new congregations through a contextual approach to mission with the unreached in their community.’
So as we continue to live on all too familiar turbulent waters I want to briefly highlight for you a few significant step-changes in the Diocese of Gloucester.
Some of you will be familiar with the appearance across the Church of England of ‘Resource Churches’ as centres for mission particularly for church planting. Here in this diocese there have been a number of conversations about ‘Resource Church’ and last year there was a gathering focused on church planting.
We have begun to identify some different ways of resourcing and now is not the time to go into detail. However, I am delighted that at the beginning of September we launched a Church Army Centre for Mission in Matson and welcomed Andy Wilson as a lay evangelist. As well as living ministry differently in the communities of Matson, Andy will be devoting 20% of his time to enabling lay pioneer ministry across the diocese. The plan is for the Centre of Mission to be expanded in 2020 to include a second location in the Forest of Dean with an additional evangelist. Both these centres for mission are about resourcing.
And then I hope you will recall that in my presidential address last November I spoke about an exciting initiative on the horizon which I then named in my Advent letter when I wrote about Wellspring: Transformative engagement with children, young people and their families through a pioneering network of fresh expressions in sports and wellness centres.
The title has now changed to OneLife and I’m delighted you will be hearing more about it this morning. I don’t want to steal the thunder of that presentation but simply to say that it has emerged from LIFE and weaves together so many strands of our vision. It is a good example of joining in with what God is doing and it will resource mission and ministry in different contexts and alongside other expressions of Church. And there will be mutuality because the initiative will involve strong partnership between existing expressions of Church and the OneLife centres. And it will look different in different places. And just as with the discerning of our LIFE vision it is taking shape and gathering momentum at grassroots level.
And finally in relation to resourcing, I want to mention the designation of Trinity Cheltenham as a ‘resource planting church’. As with the other two initiatives this will be done with Episcopal leadership and support. There will be clear expectation for teams to be sent out to plant churches – and again I expect this to look slightly different in different places. It might be about planting a church in an area of new housing or perhaps revitalising a parish that needs a fresh start.
I will be visiting Trinity in January to officially launch them as a resource planting church and I’m delighted that Trinity have already been invited by a couple of benefices in deaneries beyond Cheltenham to assist them in their thinking around planting new worshipping communities. And within Cheltenham deanery there are important discussions and decision to be made around a possible new congregation aimed at young adults, as well as important discussions around some new areas of housing.
So let me move towards a close: Church Army Centres for Mission, the OneLife initiative and Trinity as a resource planting church – all of these are exciting parts of our varied landscape as we seek to join in with what God is doing. None of them is ‘THE’ answer to sharing Christ’s hope and love with more people but all of these initiatives will make a significant and different contribution – and all of them are about all of us as ‘The Diocese’.
If we are going to be Christ’s people with and among people of all ages and all backgrounds and among all the different places of our diocese, then we will need to continue taking more risks, and at times it will be uncomfortable because as well as rejoicing at some of the new things and the changes which are taking place, there may also be feelings of threat (even jealousy or even resentment) – and people will have to work hard at acknowledging that what is going on ‘over there’ is part of ‘us’ and what it means for us to be the body of Christ together.
In the FAITH focus on ‘Shapes for Living’, it is not only about the individual personal shape of our lives, but also about the shape of our life together.
So back to the moon hanging in the Cathedral. I suspect a few years ago no one would have even dreamt of the idea, just as many decades ago people never imagined that one day people would walk on the moon. When the Museum of the Moon was being planned at the Cathedral I don’t think anyone expected so many thousands of children and families and households to flock to the cathedral to see it and have the opportunity to encounter God in that experience.
As I think once more of those disciples in that boat on turbulent waters – in a place of familiar fear and uncertainty, I hope we will lift our eyes in prayer, and expect to see Jesus with us in extraordinary ways through the work of the Holy Spirit; that we will long for Jesus to be in the boat with us; that we will continue to pray for our direction of travel with expectant hearts.
Thank you for giving of yourself to be part of this adventure together.