Strategy Refresh and Triennium Funding Consultation
Friends, hear these extraordinary words from the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians, chapter 3:
Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.Ephesians, Chapter 3
I do find those words extraordinary. Grace was given to Paul, he claims, to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see (everyone) what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things — so that, and here’s the really extraordinary thing, so that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known. Through the church.
My dear friends, it can be very easy, when controversies are raging and relationships are strained, when headlines are negative and finances are light, when clergy numbers and congregational numbers are not what, within living memory, they once were, it can be easy to lose sight of the point of it all. And the Apostle Paul calls us back to that point — which is this: The living God who created all things has had a plan, a mystery hidden for ages — to make known the wisdom of God in its rich variety, through the church, as we bring to the communities we serve the news of the boundless riches of Christ. It is the good will and pleasure of God our Father to reveal this plan through the Church.
Now, it’s true that Paul does not say, ‘through the Church of England’. But my dear friends, you would not be here if you did not believe there was at least some overlap, some correspondence between the church of God and the Church of England. And I do believe Paul to be right. The Epistle to the Ephesians has a very high view of the Church, and so do I. I really do believe that every local congregation in the Diocese of Sheffield, as part of the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, has the extraordinary privilege of being part of the plan of the living God, who created all things, to make know his wisdom its rich variety, as we bring to the communities we serve the news of the boundless riches of Christ.
I wish to start there, because I don’t want you to think that in this Presidential Address I am focussed only on the institution of the Church of England here in the Diocese of Sheffield, or, worse still, on money. I am not. I am focused on the plan of the living God, who created all things, to make known his wisdom in its rich variety, as we bring to the communities we serve the news of the boundless riches of Christ. But in that great project, I believe the Diocese of Sheffield has its part to play and therefore I believe that the strategic securing of resources and the strategic intention, to make good use of resources, will enable us to be as fruitful as we can possibly be as partners of the Living God.
So for the next 10 minutes or so, I want to suggest to you that the next 6 months are going to be critical for the next decade in the life of our Diocese, as we seek its revitalisation under God for the sake of our witness to what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. The next 6 months, I honestly believe, offer us a once in a generation opportunity to ensure that across our Diocese, from Airmyn to Abbeydale, from Hoyland to Harthill, we are by 2031 playing our part as effectively as possible in collaboration with the Living God, to make known his wisdom in its rich variety, as we bring to the communities we serve the news of the boundless riches of Christ. The next six months offer us a once in a generation opportunity to realise our vision statement: to grow a sustainable network of lively, diverse and Christ-like communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world.
So this morning I want to commend to you the process now underway to refresh our Diocesan strategy for the period 2025 to 2031 and to frame a new bid for funding from the Church Commissioners to enable us to realise our ambitions and I want to urge you to engage with the process.
Let me remind you of the backstory first of all. Almost 10 years ago, the Church Commissioners changed the way in which funding was disbursed to Dioceses, out of frustration that there was no sense of accountability by Dioceses for the funding they received. Over the course of the past decade, a series of funding pots have been created to target the investment more strategically. Few dioceses have benefited as much as this one from that change. The SDF (or Strategic Development Fund) has invested generously in our Centenary Project and in our resourcing churches in Rotherham and Goole. The STF (or Strategic Transformation Fund) likewise invested heavily in our Diocese in 2020, enabling the appointment of an additional 5 stipendiary incumbents, as well as for example our AATEs and our buildings officers. And the SMF (or Strategic Ministry Fund) has enabled us to recruit significantly increased numbers of stipendiary deacons in each of the past three years, as well as three ‘posts of first responsibility’ — in effect, once again, additional stipendiary incumbencies. For all this, I thank God. Then just a few months ago, we hard that we had been successful in yet another SDF bid, this time to support our plans for church planting and grafting — enabling us to go further and faster in a process which has, in the past five years, already been bearing remarkable fruit in Malin Bridge, Totley, Norfolk Park and Arbourthorne, Stannington among other places. I am well aware that our planting and grafting story is still too Sheffield focused, and too much led by white male evangelicals — but we are beginning to diversify in each of those categories and this new funding will enable us to do so with real intent.
Each of these investments has enabled us to make progress with our current strategy, adopted in 2018 and running to 2025, to see our Diocese renewed, released and rejuvenated. Not least given the pandemic, I am genuinely pleased with the progress we have made. Well over 1000 people have joined our prayer community and are committed to praying, each day, for God to pour out his Holy Spirit on our Diocese and the communities we serve. I can’t deny the pleasure it gives me every time I come across people who, like me, have memorised our Diocesan vision prayer. I still hope we might recruit 2025 members by 2025, but 1300 praying every day is better than none and I am so grateful to those of you who do it.
Our Lights for Christ programme is enabling all the baptised to grow up into the fulness of their baptismal calling, to shine as lights for Christ in the world to the glory of God the Father – we are getting better at prioritising every day faith, the church of God dispersed over the church of God gathered. And our mission area support team is now releasing some of the burden at parish level in the care of buildings, fund-raising and so on.
And not least through the centenary project and our programme of church planting and grafting, we are seeing churches rejuvenated. There is still a long way to go, of course, but there is plenty of encouragement around.
But what about the period beyond 2025? You will remember the announcement made by the Archbishops, on the day they visited Balby in May 2022, that the Church Commissioners are increasing by 30% the funds they are releasing to support the mission of the local church for the triennium 2023-2025, locking in this increase for the two following triennia (through to 2031) and making a commitment to ensure that the funding is targeted especially on the most deprived communities in the country and on Dioceses, like this one, with the least in terms of historic endowment.
But that funding has to be bid for, and Dioceses are expected to make comprehensive bids, not for this project here or that one there, but for an overall revitalisation plan. So please can I urge you in the next six months to be praying and pondering over this question, What will it take to see our Diocese sustainable and flourishing, renewed, released and rejuvenated by 2031? What has worked well in the past five years, which we might seek to do more of in the next 10? What has been missing which we might now introduce?
Some things are already clear. Some of the funding made available by the Church Commissioners is ring-fenced, most significantly to enable Dioceses to tackle racial justice and to be Carbon Net Zero by 2030. In both these areas, our plans are already in hand. And it is clear that we will be wise to frame our funding application around the three major goals of the national vision and strategy, to create a Church of England which is younger and more diverse, where the mixed ecology is the norm and where every follower of Jesus is a missionary disciple. But it will surely be obvious to you that those goals align very strongly with our own existing strategy so I am confident about this.
So, may I urge you please, at the very least, to make a priority of the Strategy Refresh Deanery Days. The first took place last week in Doncaster and was a highly encouraging beginning. The second will take place next Thursday in Tankersley and Wath. The remaining 9 are scheduled in the autumn. If the date is not yet firmly in your diary, please put it in. But in addition, do look out for some specialist stakeholder consultation events which Archdeacon Malcolm and Alex Shilkoff will be organising – and do feel free to take the initiative to be in touch with them if you want to be certain some particular possibility is on their radar.
Friends, one of the reasons I am so grateful for our link with the Diocese of Bondo is that it jolts me out of any tendency to think I am ministering out of scarcity. I am not. We are not. Relative to the church of God in most times and places since the resurrection of Jesus, our situation is one of abundance. And in any case, there is of course no automatic link between funding and the work of God’s Holy Spirit. If anything, Scripture suggests that the reverse may be true. As those words from Ephesians 3 tell us, the really important boundless riches are the ones which are to be found in Christ. But funding does open up choices, it does increase potential and potential impact in the name of Jesus. So I am determined that our bid, when we submit it, will be appropriately ambitious for God and the Gospel, but will also be as wisely discerned as we can make it.
Hear again these glorious words: Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.