22 July is the feast of Mary Magdalene and as I celebrate the fifth anniversary of my consecration I am giving immense thanks to God for the Diocese of Gloucester.
Mary Magdalene knew about life’s turbulence and living with the unexpected. She had experienced Christ’s healing, travelled with him, was at his crucifixion and then bore witness to his resurrection, so she knew about having to continually reorient herself within a new reality. After the resurrection I believe she ventured into the future with hope because amid both her tears and her laughter she had discovered that Jesus Christ is the one in whom true life is found.
This is captured in those words of Christ as told by John in his gospel: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’ (John 10:10)’. Following a period of prayer and conversation that verse emerged as the heart of our diocesan LIFE vision in 2016. Through an iterative and grass roots process we discerned four themes with a number of commitments which are interwoven in the one vision.
Over the past four years worshipping communities have faithfully sought to discern which aspects of the LIFE vision have resonated with what God has been doing in each local context. Opportunities and gaps have been highlighted and connections made across the themes and commitments.
Whilst for all of us the last four years have brought both unexpected joys and struggles, none of us imagined that in 2020 we would be experiencing the impact of a world-wide viral pandemic. Amid the trauma, people of all ages and backgrounds have not only experienced bereavement with the death of loved ones, but also the loss of things which were familiar and valued as well as the loss of looked-forward-to events. Yet, for many people there have also been aspects of the last few months which have been life-giving, as we have all been forced to live differently.
Some aspects of our LIFE vision identified in 2016 as necessary for major culture change, have seemed almost prophetic over these past few months. Worshipping communities have been living ‘new and courageous ways of worshipping in different places, which connect with more people’ as well as ‘sharing stories through digital media’. There has also been a renewed emphasis in many places on ‘enabling people to discover new depths to prayer and spiritual growth’, and as people have reflected on what it means to be the Church beyond the walls of church buildings and with a different pattern to life there has often been a greater understanding of what it means to ‘nurture confident disciples to live out their faith seven days a week.’ People have lived deeper engagement with local communities as people have sought to ‘be advocates for flourishing through initiatives which combat injustice, exclusion and isolation’ and there has been a new awareness of environmental issues.
When we hear those beautiful words of Jesus in John’s gospel regarding life in all its fullness, it is easy to forget that they are set within a context of danger and potential destruction. Jesus refers to the wild animals which seek to devour, and the thief who, unlike him, breaks in to steal the sheep. In the face of potential trauma and destruction, Jesus presents himself as the shepherd who does not abandon his sheep, but who vulnerably lies as the gate across the entrance to the sheep fold with unwavering love. This sacrificial love cost Jesus Christ his life yet it was not the end of the story. Christ’s resurrection revealed love and life stronger than even death itself.
As we emerge into the seasons ahead we are navigating uncharted territory and, as with any unexpected trauma, we are faced with how to survive the aftermath and rebuild, knowing that life will never be the same again and indeed the threat of repeat is a real possibility. In every sphere of life people are asking big question about the sort of people, world and communities we want to be. As the Church we don’t know what lies ahead, yet as followers of Christ we do know how the story ends and that one day God’s kingdom will be fully present on earth as in heaven.
I am aware that in the present each person from the youngest to the oldest is grappling with an array of experiences and emotions, yet in it all the shepherd will not abandon us. As portrayed in Psalm 23, whether we are lying by still waters or walking through the valley of the shadow of death, Christ walks with us and the table laden with good things awaits us, The abundant love and life of the crucified, risen and ascended Christ is unchanging and hope is present in our tears of laughter and of joy.
The themes we discerned together in 2016 are as pertinent as ever as we remain committed to transformation in our Leadership, opening new paths to faith with Imagination, living as adventurous followers of Jesus Christ with Faith; and living out Christ’s love and hope in our Engagement with people and places. So I want to reassure you that as we look to the next five years of our life together in this diocese beyond 2021 we will not be changing our LIFE vision.
Unsurprisingly our seeking to join in with what God is doing has shone a spotlight on some specific things in LIFE and there is plenty of time in the coming months to share more. However, I pray that as we look back over the past few months, taking time to recover as well as responding to the unknown changes still to come, we will continue to ponder the content of LIFE as we reflect on who and what we are being called to be as Christ’s body in our different contexts. The deanery strategic planning process begun before lockdown is all part of this.
So as we move into August my prayer is that we rest and pray. Living both lament and Alleluia can be exhausting and now is a time for watching and listening for the movement of God’s Spirit as we seek to discover yet more of the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ so that we and all people may know life in all its fullness.