Guest Blog

The Clewer Initiative

On the sunny day of Wednesday 24 October a group of abolitionists descended on Bishopthorpe Palace in York, not to talk about the legacy of Wilberforce and his colleagues, but instead to ask how the church can act today to prevent and expose modern slavery.

The Clewer Initiative, the Church of England response to modern slavery, are helping churches to respond to modern slavery in their communities, and raise awareness of how this crime has taken root on our high streets. This was their first Northern Province networking event, bringing together representatives from 10 of the 12 northern dioceses.

In her welcome, Bishop Alison White, the Bishop of Hull, thanked the group for giving up their time to be there, and spoke about how momentous the occasion could be for all involved. Speaking of the church’s role in ending modern slavery, she said “our presence has the potential to make a difference”.

The unique position of the church to shed light on this issue was brought up again and again by speakers at the event. Bishop Alastair Redfern, founder of The Clewer Initiative, spoke about the potential of Christians to “go the extra mile”, and work with the police to find modern slavery by spotting evidence that “only we can notice”. Professor Gary Craig from the University of Newcastle, reflecting on his 20 years of researching and action in the modern slavery sector, said that “the church is uniquely placed to reach people in the smallest and most remote communities”.

The theme of what the church can do was then explored in several break out sessions, one on the vulnerability of homeless people (www.theclewerinitiative.org/homeless) to modern slavery, one on the training packages available to equip churchgoers, and a further session for attendees who were not from the church, designed to give them a roadmap for working in partnership with faith groups.

After a networking lunch the group was joined by DI John Freer, Modern Slavery Lead for North Yorkshire Police, who shared some of the challenges that his team face when dealing with apparent victims of modern slavery who don’t want to see themselves as ‘victims’. Some may be earning £30 for a 12 hour day in a car wash, and others might be exploited in sex work, being controlled by a pimp, but when visited by police, their mantra will nevertheless be ‘I’m fine’. Bishop Alastair later encouraged people to see the role of the church in giving isolated victims an opportunity to ”participate in the experience of community”.

The final session of the day grouped neighbouring dioceses together, asking how they could be working in partnership with local communities and law enforcement to combat modern slavery in their area. When feeding back, groups highlighted that they wanted their responses to be simple and achievable locally and to centre on storytelling to draw people in, helping people to understand a complex and difficult issue on a human level.

Speaking about the day, the Revd Joy French said:

“This day was a wonderful opportunity to hear from real experts in the field of modern slavery.  We heard some truly horrifying accounts of the exploitation that victims have endured, but alongside this we reflected on what it means to refuse to be indifferent, and to truly see what is happening in our world. In Sheffield Diocese there is real passion from the Police and local charities to work collaboratively in the fight against Modern slavery. I left this day hugely encouraged with some fresh ideas, and a real resolve to see the church unite and make a difference in this area.”

For more information about The Clewer Initiative go to www.theclewerinitiative.org

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Reflections on the River

Cycling home from the office in Rotherham alongside the river, I was digesting some sad news.  I prayed for something which I knew would lift my spirits – and suddenly, there it was: a flash of bright turquoise, skimming low over the water. 

I love those fleeting glimpses of our local kingfishers.  On other days, the river offers different delights: the breath-taking aerobatics of the swifts as they swoop for insects; the statuesque stillness of the heron, patiently waiting in the shallows; chubby looking geese, even the occasional bird of prey.  It’s amazing what you find living along that industrial stretch of the River Don between Meadowhall and Sheffield.

Creation offers those ‘wow!’ moments: when our spirits are lifted and our hurts soothed by a glimpse of something awesome.  Creation ministers God’s grace to us, healing and inspiring, giving intimations of something other: reminders that there’s more to life than just ‘work, eat, sleep – repeat’.   Jesus’ encouragement to “Look at the birds of the air” is aimed to help our mental health, particularly when we battle with anxiety. 

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. (Matthew 6:26, NRSV)

On days when I cycle to work I also enjoy noticing progress on the fish ladders: ramps being built by the weirs, so that fish can swim up and down.  Decimated by pollution just a few decades ago, fish stocks are recovering steadily.  Even salmon are returning: good news for our local otters (which I’m still looking out for).

There is an awesome resilience built into creation: places that seemed hopelessly polluted and dead can be nurtured back to life again.  That’s a real encouragement at times when we may be tempted to despair, feeling we can never do anything worthwhile to sort out the mess we’ve made of the world.  Equally, we mustn’t let creation’s resilience become an excuse for complacency, allowing us to ignore the urgency of the situation.

Which reminds me: I keep meaning to change our power supplier to 100% renewables.  Will I get round to exploring Co-op Energy this weekend?  Or will it get crowded out again by the urgent but less important stuff?  Will changing cost more?  Anxious questions creep in.  But then again: “Look at the birds of the air…”

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Bishop Pete's sermon from the Celebration of Lay Ministries

Sheffield Cathedral, 15.09.18, 11.00am Celebration of Lay Ministries

Acts 20.17-38: Paul’s Farewell to the Ephesian Elders

Introduction

Not every farewell involves tears.  My father tells the story of some friends of his, who had given hospitality to difficult guests who vastly overstayed their welcome.  This was way back in the 1950s.  Eventually, the day came for the guests to leave, and the host couple drove them to the train station.  The two couples said their goodbyes a bit stiffly, and off went the guest couple to find their train.  But at once they realised they’d left a small piece of luggage in the car, and rushed back to the drop off area to retrieve it before their hosts drove away, only to find the host couple doing a little jig together, and singing ‘They’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone, they’re gone’.   True story.

So it’s a good sign, when a farewell is accompanied by tears.  Usually at least, it suggests a good relationship and a sadness at parting.  Now, I realise that for those of you who are about to be licensed and authorised in this service, today is more of a beginning than an ending, more of a hello to a new phase of life and ministry than a goodbye to a period of training and preparation — but all the same I want to focus for the next 10 minutes or so on the farewell between the Apostle Paul and the Ephesian elders which we heard in our first Bible reading a few minutes ago.  I want to explore this passage with you, to ask what it might have to say to you about the ministries you are about to take up.

The passage marks the conclusion of Paul’s third missionary journey.  It probably dates from about AD 57 — so quite late in Paul’s life.  He’s about to embark on a journey to Jerusalem, where, as our passage anticipates, he will be arrested and imprisoned and eventually sent under armed escort to Rome, to face trial before the Emperor.  It’s likely that within a few years, he was dead — though the end of Acts is silent about that.  Here, he’s saying a tearful farewell to a group of elders with whom he had been working closely for a couple of years — and I want to suggest that what he says to them might be helpful advice to each of you this morning.  I am speaking directly to the 40 or so of you — but if those who have come along this morning, among you families, friends and church allies, want to eavesdrop, there’s nothing very much I can do about that. 

I’m going to follow the passage quite closely, so you might find it helpful to have the service booklet open at page 9.  You’ll see that there’s single verse of scene setting at the start of the passage, and several verses of epilogue at the end.  But in fact the passage is almost entirely made up of a speech by Paul — it runs from verse 18 to verse 35, and it’s on that bit that I am going to focus.  I’m going to say a brief word about four things in turn, which I’m calling Paul’s integrity, his destiny, his anxiety and his summary.

1.  vv 18-21, Paul’s integrity

First of all then what I’m calling Paul’s integrity.  This is verses 18 to 21 and it’s dominated by past tenses because Paul is looking back on the time he has spent with the Christians in Ephesus.  ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the entire time from the first day that I set foot in Asia (that’s Asia Minor by the way — modern day Turkey; not modern day China), serving the Lord with all humility and with tears’.  Serving the Lord with humility and with tears.

I hope you don’t need me to remind you that ministry just means service.  Whatever the ministry to which you are being licensed or commissioned this morning, in essence you are called to serve the Lord and to do it with humility.  You are called to follow in the footsteps of the one who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  Humility is the great Christian virtue.  It means putting other people first — or as Paul put it in one of his letters, considering others better than yourself.  You are called to a daily discipline, a mental habit, of regarding the people you are called to serve as precious in God’s sight and therefore in your sight too.

And this will mean tears.  Mostly, I hope they’ll be the good tears, the sort of tears of love which we see Paul and the Ephesian elders weeping together at the end of this passage.  You know, it’s amazing how often people apologise for crying.  Have you noticed that?  But tears are surely never something to be ashamed of.  People especially apologise, I’ve noticed, for crying in church — but I hope you’ll understand what I mean when I say I think there should be more tears in our worship and fellowship and not less.  Of course, not all tears are good tears, I realise that. I can think of at least half a dozen occasions in the last 30 years, when conflicts or disappointments in my own ministry have reduced me to tears.  I hope that doesn’t become a routine part of your ministry, but you’ll probably not escape it.   If you testify faithfully about repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus, to use Paul’s words again, from time to time it’ll end in tears of distress.  But more often in church life, tears are a sign that God is at work and for that reason, I wish you the blessing of tears which will accompany a ministry of humility.  That’s the first thing. 

2.  vv 22-27, Paul’s destiny

          In the second section of our reading, in verses 22 to 27, Paul moves on from talking about his integrity, his ministry in Ephesus, to his destiny, to what lies in store for him in Jerusalem.  So the past tenses which dominate verses 18 to 21 give way to mostly future tenses.  Paul anticipates trouble and hardship, which is worth noting in its own right.  But I want to draw your attention more to his perspective, when he says in verse 24 that he does not count his life of any value to himself, if only he can finish his course, like an athlete finishing a race, and the ministry he has received from Jesus — to testify to the good news of God’s grace.  Isn’t that beautiful? 

There are two things I want to say about that.  The first is to remind you that although you will walk away from this service with either a licence or a certificate signed by me, the ministry which is being entrusted to you today is not ultimately being entrusted to you by me, or even by the Diocese of Sheffield or even by the church of God generally, but by the Lord Jesus himself.  And no matter what particular shape your ministry might take, as a pastoral worker or a reader, a youth workers, children’s workers or worship leaders, you are called to testify to the good news of God’s grace.  Some of you are being licensed as lay evangelists and pioneer ministers and it’s true that you have a special responsibility in this area — but proclaiming the good news of God’s grace in our communities is far too important to be left to any specialist group of ministers. One of my challenges to you today is just this: how will you testify to the good news of God’s grace?  

In the nineteenth century, there was a great Baptist preacher of whom some of you will have heard called Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  He used to tell trainee ministers, ‘When you are testifying to the good news of God’s grace, let your face shine with the joy of the Holy Spirit; but when you are speaking of the wrath of God, your ordinary face will do’.  Friends, the good news of what God has done for us in Christ should never be far from your lips, which means a smile should never be very far from your faces.  Please, oh please, don’t be gloomy lay ministers.  We don’t need those. 

3.  vv 28-31, Paul’s anxiety

On the other hand, I’m not demanding that you pretend your life is one long picnic with Jesus.  Ministry is hard and Paul is not naive.  Yes, at its heart is good news, and good news lifts the heart.  But ministry is seldom easy and it can be painful.  In verse 19, Paul referred to his trials.  In verse 23, to imprisonments and persecutions; and in verses 28 to 31, he warns the Ephesians that while they are called to keep watch over themselves and the flock which has been entrusted to them, savage wolves will come in.  That’s not a rosy image, is it.

You’ll see in verse 30 that he is particularly anxious about the threat posed by false teachers: and again I want to urge each of you (and not just those of you who are being licensed as readers today) to take seriously your responsibility for upholding the truth of the Gospel.  That means continuing to invest in your own learning and growth as a disciple, in prayer and Bible reading, so that you grow to maturity in Christ and are able to help others grow to maturity in Christ.  That’s an awesome responsibility, because we are talking about those who were obtained, as Paul puts it, at the cost of the blood of God’s own Son. 

There is a proper anxiety which comes with a new ministry, when you stop to consider the weight of your calling — and I hope you never lose that feeling of inadequacy and the burden of responsibility; I hope you never become flippant or casual about your ministry, but that you pray earnestly for the help of the Holy Spirit, as you seek to keep watch over yourself first, and others too.  That’s the third thing.

4.  vv 32-35, Paul’s summary

Finally, after he has spoken about his integrity at the beginning of our passage (mostly in the past tense) and about his destiny and his anxiety in the middle of our passage (mostly in the future tense), he comes at the end to what I’m calling his summary, and in verse 32 to the present tense.  He commends the Ephesian elders to God and to God’s grace.  You know, I’m sure, that your ministry will only be fruitful if you continue to rely on God and his grace.  It will be hard work, but your own hard work won’t be enough.  It will require all your imagination and creativity, but your own imagination and creativity won’t be enough.  It will take hours of your time, but no matter how many hours you invest in it, that won’t deliver the goods.  You have been called by grace, and you must continue to rely on God’s grace.

And if you want one clue, one indication of whether or not you’re on the right track, well, Paul gives it to you in the final verses, when he quotes the Lord Jesus, saying ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’.  Actually, some of us have to learn to receive as well as to give, and that can be a work of God’s grace in us too.  But Paul is right, that a minister who is more concerned with what they can get out of their ministry than what they can give is in deep trouble, spiritually, and has lost sight of God’s grace. 

One of the really important things about the ministries to which you are being licensed or authorised today is that they are voluntary.  None of you will be paid for what you are taking on.  Some of you won’t even claim expenses, so you’ll be out of pocket — though I hope that your churches will never assume you’re willing to do that, so that you can have a choice about it.  But this means your ministry are an important reminder to those of us, including myself, who are given a stipend for ministry: ministry is not supposed to be a route to silver or gold, or anything else we might get out of it — not status or praise or power in the congregation.  We are called to support the weak and to live lives which are centred on giving, not receiving. 

Conclusion

I must stop.  I’ll sum up and then I’ll shut up.  I know not all of you are being licensed today — only some of you.  But in preparing for this morning, I couldn’t help thinking about the range of things for which you need a licence in society generally.  In this country, without a licence, you can’t drive a car or fly a plane, own a gun or a bar, practice law or medicine, or run a casino or a tattoo parlour.  I suppose the reason is, that in any of these activities, you can do harm as well as good.

And that’s true for ministry too my friends.  The responsibility which the Lord is entrusting to you today is an awesome one, because it will impact on the lives of people who are made in the image of the God who loves them.  If your impact is going to be for good and not for ill, you must beware — hold fast day by day to humility and tears; testify to the good news of God’s grace; keep watch over yourselves and your people, looking out for savage wolves; rely on God and his grace, and may God bless you in your ministry and make you fruitful.  Amen. 

 

 

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Season to taste

The leaves are just starting to turn yellow in the park, I’m getting up with the sun instead of well after it and the morning chill is still lingering at breakfast, and my Facebook feed is full of shiny bright children standing in front of doors in their school uniform. September is full of seasonal markers and if definitely feels like Autumn.

I love the rhythm of the changing seasons that come with living in a temperate climate – and the rhythm of the seasons in the church’s calendar that take us through the year. In the church, we are in the Season of Creation, a time to celebrate God’s gift of creation and to renew our commitment to cherish and care for it.

But the seasons in the last year have felt rather more challenging than usual. Last winter seemed to go on forever, starting in November and not letting up until April. Then Spring arrived in one massive burst of colour. Everything came back to life at once when the snow finally gave in, only to be followed by a summer which has rivalled 1976 (if you can remember that!) in the intensity and duration of its heat and lack of rain.

Our seasons have been disrupted for many years now. The first signs of Spring arrive up to three weeks earlier than a decade ago. But if the flowers bloom earlier, the insects that depend on them to feed their larvae may not be ready, and in turn, the migrating and nesting birds that eat the insects find that their food is in short supply. So early Spring is contributing to the decline in insect and bird populations, alongside the other things we humans do to disrupt their habitats.

These disturbances in our weather may feel like individual, unconnected occurrences, but they are all connected to the rising global temperatures, caused by human activity, mainly burning fossil fuel. Changes to our weather are part of wider changes to our global climate – that’s why we talk less these days about global warming and instead we are concerned about climate change.

It is climate change that turns the regular monsoon season into the utterly devastating floods which have swept through Kerala in India. It is climate change that has caused the rains to fail not just occasionally but for years at a time, leading to widescale drought and hunger in Ethiopia and the threat of ‘Day Zero’ when the taps might get turned off in Cape Town. It is climate change that warms the seas which increases the power of the hurricanes which ripped through the Caribbean last summer. Even in the UK, our harvest is smaller this year, with food prices expected to rise as a result.

With this thought in mind, and harvest festivals approaching, I’d like to set a challenge for this Season of Creation. How will you respond to God our Creator and the world he has made? As you give thanks to God for every good gift, could you respond by giving in some way to those bearing the brunt of climate change. And as you rejoice in the beauty of creation, stop to think about the impact your own actions have on the wellbeing of the planet. Among the resources that have been made for Creationtide, here is a daily calendar of reflections and actions to help you take better care of creation.


Watch Bishop's video challenging us to make small changes this Creationtide below:

Easter Sermon

Sheffield Cathedral, Easter Day, 1 April 2018, 10.30am BBC Live Broadcast

Rt Revd Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield

Mark 16.1-8: And Peter

"Personally, I have a soft spot for a happy ending; and I am especially easily moved to tears by a reconciliation.  There are some beautiful sequences of true-life film online these days, capturing real moments of reunion, which are guaranteed to make me cry, one of the most recent being the footage // which records the conversation // that brought healing to the fractured friendship between two famous American professional basketball players, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas.  It’s easy to find and it’s worth watching.

There is something about a repaired relationship which tugs at our heartstrings, isn’t there? - something heart-warming about a restoration of harmony where two people have fallen out; and perhaps especially if one has badly let the other down.  Maybe that’s why I draw particular comfort from two words we heard a moment ago from Mark’s account of the first Easter day, which are peculiar to his version of the story.

We’ve just heard how, when the women arrive at the empty tomb, early on the first day of the week, hoping to anoint the dead body of Jesus, they’re shocked to find the tomb open and a young man sitting inside, dressed in white.  This angel speaks to them: ’Do not be alarmed.  You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised.  He is not here: look there is the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples - and Peter - that he is going ahead of you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told you’.

Go and tell his disciples, and Peter.  It’s those two words ‘and Peter’ that catch my attention.  Why are they added?  You won’t find them on the lips of the angel in the version of this story told by Matthew, Luke or John.  Why do they matter to Mark?  Well, I think there are two reasons, both of which might encourage us this morning as we celebrate afresh our Lord’s resurrection from the dead: the first reason has to do with what the Risen Lord wants for Peter; the second, with what he wants from Peter.

Let me say something about what the Lord might want for Peter to start with.  This is the first reference to Peter in the Gospel of Mark since the moment about 48 hours before, when the cock had crowed a second time and he had broken down and wept.  Our last glimpse of Peter is of his sobbing remorse at the realisation that he had indeed denied Jesus, as his Master had prophesied that he would.  This is a more catastrophic fall from grace than that of any Australian cricketer: as the curtain falls on his active participation in the Gospel story, Peter has failed.

So those two words ‘and Peter’ on the lips of the angel are full of hope.  They suggest that the Risen Jesus, far from having given up on Peter, far from having written him off, is intent on // re-establishing // a relationship with him.  It invites us to imagine a reconciliation by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, exactly along the lines of the one recorded in the Gospel of John.  And that in turn is reassuring to all those of us who know that we too have faltered and fallen short in our following of Jesus, to all those who weep with remorse today, or who feel estranged from God.  The same Risen Lord who tenderly reached out, via the angel and the women at the tomb, to the disciples and to Peter, reaches out to us as well, to invite us back to himself, to receive his forgiveness, to be renewed in his love.  He takes the first step: he wishes to be in a restored relationship with us — and we need only to say yes in our hearts for the reunion to be complete.

But it’s not only relationships between individuals which can need to be restored: communities, even nations, can fall out with one another too, divided pro against anti perhaps (whether the issue is Brexit in the UK or gun law reform in the USA); or north against south perhaps (whether the issue is economic prosperity in this country or political ideology on the Korean peninsular).  And that brings me, secondly, to what the Lord might want from Peter.

You see, when the angel urges the women to tell the disciples, And Peter, that the Risen Lord is going ahead of them to Galilee and will see them there, it is not just because the Lord wants a restored relationship with his friends and followers, heartening as that is; it’s also because he has work for them to do.  The restoration of a relationship is only step one; their commissioning in his service is step two.

Peter (who had denied even knowing his Master, who had failed him dreadfully and knew it) is not only fully reconciled to Jesus; he is also  given a share (in his case, a leading share) in the Lord’s own continuing mission.  It is this Peter who within weeks, on the day of Pentecost, will take to the streets of Jerusalem as spokesman-preacher for the early church, boldly declaring his Master’s resurrection.  Peter becomes an ambassador for Jesus and a peace-maker in the world.

And Peter serves as a model for all those of us who celebrate the Lord’s resurrection this morning, in this Cathedral and Diocese, across the country and around the world.  The Risen Lord not only draws us back to his love when we have fallen away from it; he also sends us out to bear witness to that love, to the love which offers hope wherever people (even whole communities) are divided from one another.  Each of us who celebrates the Lord’s resurrection this morning is called to be an ambassador for Jesus and a peace-maker in the world — where we are, and in the way that only we can.

Certainly, if the church is going to serve this nation (and indeed God’s world) effectively, in ways that make a real difference locally, transforming communities and regenerating neighbourhoods, we shall need both a sense of our relationship to the Risen Lord himself, and a sense of our calling, of being sent, to share his love with others.

So today as we give thanks for all that Easter means to us, we focus our gratitude on those two little words, And Peter, which give us hope of precisely those two things: a mended relationship with the Risen Lord when we have strayed from him or let him down; and a part to play in sharing with all the world the good news that God has indeed raised his Son Jesus Christ from the dead so that reconciliation is possible for all."

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