Bishop of Doncaster

Presidential Address to Synod – 26 November 2016

Some of you may know that a couple of weeks ago the diocese had a Peer Review.  Peer Review is a process being introduced to facilitate learning and improve shared accountability across the Church of England.  The primary objective being to help strengthen mission and finances in the dioceses.

As part of the process each diocese is asked to complete a self-assessment form which explores developments relating to growth, the common good, re-imagining ministry, strategic leadership, leadership culture and the use of resources.  The consultation on the day included members of the Bishop’s Staff, the chair of the board of finance, lay and ordained chairs of synod.  It also included telephone interviews with a number of lay and ordained people from across the diocese prior to this, so it was I think pretty thorough.

Part of the self-assessment included a SWOT analysis, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and I’d like to highlight a few things in the hope that you might recognise and possibly even agree with some of them.

Strengths we said included real diocesan ownership of the vision and mission with a commitment to growing new disciples, transforming communities, mixed economy church, Fresh Expressions of church of which there are 56 across the diocese, pioneer ministry, including experimenting with interim ministers, a commitment to mission and work with children and young people and Mission Partnerships, to name but a few.  Critical to delivering any of these and the overall diocesan strategy has been the deep commitment and tremendous work done in the parishes in which we celebrate and rejoice and in the lay and ordained leadership we have and are continuing to grow.  Thank you for all you are doing which is greatly appreciated and valued.  This is supported by the Parish Support Team appointed to help parishes implement core strategies and which has been very effective.  We rejoice in a Bishop’s Staff committed to mission and growth and that very same commitment is one of the key elements we are looking for in our new bishop.  And again personally I’d like to thank the staff team for their support and work and also that of the staff in the Bishops offices and the Diocesan Office.

Overall we have collaborative leadership across the diocese which includes significant unpaid ministry of self-supporting and retired ministers and a breadth of recognised lay ministry and a commitment to training, not least through the new St Peter’s College.  We also have a real commitment to growing vocations to lay and ordained ministry supported by an experienced and wise team, with a good choice of vocational pathways and training providers.  Clear leadership priorities and plan for education is another key priority as is developing our Safeguarding following a positive audit.  And for this we’ve been extremely grateful and blessed by Linda Langthorne our Safeguarding officer who only joined us this year and the Safeguarding Management Group.

These and many other things being done imaginatively a creatively particularly at parish level make the Diocese of Sheffield an exciting place to be and minister.  It’s an attractive place for our new Bishop to come and join in the positive direction we have set.  It’s a place where despite the difficulties of attracting people to the north as we know we want to invite others to join us on our journey.

That’s not to say we didn’t recognise areas for further development and there are a number of things that we’d describe as works in progress, not least as we come out of a period where the previous bishop led the vision clearly, and pulled the team together.  There is a certain anxiety that a new bishop might have different ideas which causes some faltering.  We have again highlighted this to those being considered as our new bishop.

We are aware that all of us are working at capacity and beyond.  Progress of the Mission Partnership model is not yet proven and fully owned.  There’s no strategy for under-represented groups.  And as indicated filling vacancies in existing parish models still dominates and difficult to shift.  And there were a number of other things we identified.

So we’re in a good place, good heart, good health but honest about what still needs to be done and there’s no complacency just hope, expectation and anticipation in God’s mission

All of our strategies are based on becoming an outward focused and engaged church bringing people to faith and walking alongside people on their journey in life and faith.  There are practical things we have to do such as finance and they can’t be ignored but most importantly we’re called to mission.  One of the strategies which I haven’t yet mentioned but which is critical to this is our Salt and Light strategy, and that too was questioned at the peer review with an admission that it hasn’t perhaps had the same prominence as other aspects of our vision.  This is partly due to the fact that many good and significant things that come under the umbrella of “Salt and Light” are already being done in our parishes mostly unnoticed and often undervalued.  We have individuals and teams of people working keenly in supporting others as part of the vision to transform our society and God’s world, supported by the Board of faith and Justice

It may be some while since you looked at this key strategy document and so it’s worth reminding ourselves about some of what is says.  The document reminds us that God calls his people to pray for the coming of the Kingdom and to love our neighbours as ourselves.  In the Old Testament God called Abraham so that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed.  The law that came through Moses is a law that upholds the rights of the widows, orphans, refugees and the poor.  The prophets call us to challenge unjust structures.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus came proclaiming God’s Kingdom, peace and justice.  His whole ministry was about serving others, relieving the suffering of others and challenging those in authority and power.  Jesus called his disciples and he calls us to have an impact beyond our own community as “Salt and Light” in the world.  The call to serve our society and transform God’s world is a key part of discipleship and our witness to the difference Christ makes in our lives as we draw others to faith.

The strategy document also highlights a number of things that need transforming such climate change, poverty, war and violence, the sense of powerlessness experienced by many, inequality and inequality that undermines community cohesion, levels of care available to an aging population, young people and families, the treatment of asylum seekers, those with disability and mental health issues, unemployment and the economy and of course not forgetting ourselves.  We need to look at where we see God already doing work, we need to develop partnerships within and outside the diocese, and we need to pray.

One of our link officers Pete wrote this and it can be found on the diocesan website “I’ve often noticed that God, incarnate in Jesus and present in our neighbours, calls us to meet and serve him in and through our vulnerabilities.  This can feel painful and risky when we have lived experience of the issues we seek to address. This is especially true for congregants or those on the fringes of congregations whose involvement with the Church may principally be focused on their activities supporting others who are vulnerable and isolated”

The strategy also suggests the way we as individuals and churches can respond and we are encouraged by the number of Salt and Light link officers we have in our parishes.

The issues I’ve highlighted in this strategy inevitably impact most on the poor and vulnerable and I, we, are constantly reminded of this in ministry.  But we too sometimes become vulnerable in our own lives and need transforming.  As many of you know Jane was diagnosed last year with Early Onset Alzheimer’s and dementia care is a core intuitive of the Board of faith and Justice.  That has meant for me and Jane inevitable readjustments to the way we live and plans for the future.  But without the support of people in the diocese, friends and family and the excellent care offered in Doncaster things would have been much more difficult and grim.  The small but significant offers of help and support, the kind words in difficult moments have transformed what could have been an even bleaker future.  It teaches us that while we are looking to our greater communities don’t forget those around you may be in need of God’s transforming love.

In ministry, like many of you, I constantly meet and am humbled by conversations with people facing situations that I can’t even begin to imagine.  Horrific stories of asylum seekers and what they’ve witnessed, the vulnerability, hostility and corruption they’ve faced and the abuse suffered by traffickers.  On our streets we daily face those who are homeless, alone and afraid and many just walk by and ignore them.  I often challenge myself to think how I would feel if I was out on the street or if a member of my family or friend were out on the street and ignored daily, when a kind word, a hot drink on a cold winters day might help transform their lives.

Of course we want to transform people’s lives by bringing them to Jesus and to have lives that are changed and transformed by his saving love and grace.  But with some we have to start at the practical level of help and support and show them God’s love in action. 

This was brought home to me in a recent conversation with an organisation called “Night Stop”.  Night Stop is part of DePaul UK which is part of DePaul international, a group of charities working to support homeless and marginalised people around the world.  They have recently opened a night stop in Sheffield.  Night Stop services offer emergency accommodation to vulnerable young people at risk of homelessness in the homes of trained and vetted volunteers for one night at a time.  Over 600 volunteer households opened their homes in 2015 and there are 33 services running in the UK.  Last year they provided 13,438 bed nights. 

And this is what one of the hosts said

We have two daughters of our own, and we thought if anything had happened to them, we’d have liked someone to take them in,” Denise says.

“We moved in to this house two years ago and it had a spare bedroom; I wanted it to be for someone to sleep in, not just get filled up with junk! Some time later I saw an article in the paper, asking for volunteers who had a spare room to help look after young homeless people.

“All the young people are different. Some are very unsure, they don’t know what they’re doing, others are more confident and take it in their stride. Some are wondering what’s going to happen next.

“I just assure them that they’re known about now, they’re in the system, and for the moment they have somewhere to sleep while they get some help.

“One young man had been sleeping in the park and the railway station, so without Night stop he would certainly have been rough sleeping again

In the diocese I hear regular stories of people helping in this way or helping at foodbanks, dementia café’s, luncheon clubs, addressing issues of poverty and environmental projects. 

We may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what God is calling us to do, we may feel inadequate as I do every year at this time when I’m bombarded with charities asking for money and I feel slightly guilty that I can’t respond to them all.

We are about to enter Advent, as God’s people we wait the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom.  The church is in a similar situation to Israel waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. The church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people.  And we’re called to continue his mission, his work, and his ministry in the in-between time and that includes a bias to the poor and marginalised in the very broadest sense, a reaching out in love and compassion to help their practical needs as an outward example and witness of God’s love and in drawing them ever closer to their Lord and Saviour.

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