Come let us sing for joy to the Lord - Presidential Address to Synod

24th November 2014

Presidential Address to the Diocesan Synod (2)

22nd November 2014.

“O come, let us sing to the Lord,

let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

Let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” (Psalm 95.1-2)

We have much to give thanks for at the end of this centenary year. 

We give thanks for the communities we serve across South and East Yorkshire.  We give thanks for the churches which continue at the heart of those communities; for the people we serve in times of great need and difficulty, in times of celebration and times of prayer.  We give thanks for our parish churches and fresh expressions of church: the large and the small, in all their great variety and tradition and the clergy and lay ministers who serve them. 

The year has been marked by moments of great joy and a sense of moving steadily forward.  We began with five clergy conferences exploring the joy of the gospel.  At Easter the newly re-ordered Cathedral was opened again for worship as a contemporary, flexible, beautiful space – a living invitation to joy.  At Pentecost we began our journey of pilgrimage and celebration around the Diocese with the Centenary Eucharist in the Cathedral.  That journey has taken us to Goole and Beauchief, to Cusworth, Worsborough and Roche Abbey to Doncaster and Rotherham Minsters and back to the Cathedral tomorrow for the final celebration with the Archbishop of York.

On behalf of the whole Diocese I want to express our appreciation to Bishop Peter and to the Centenary Planning Group for all of their hard work in designing and delivering these events.  It is much appreciated. 

One of the legacies of the centenary will be the beautiful and striking centenary crozier, a symbol of the Diocese for many years to come.  I was asked whether I would like a bible verse inscribed on each side of the crozier.  I chose two verses from Psalm 95: “Come let us sing for joy to the Lord” and “O that today you would listen to his voice”.  I hope that the Diocese will be characterized for many years to come by singing that song of joy to the Lord in all of life’s circumstances and listening to God’s word faithfully week by week as we gather for worship. 

The call to sing for joy to the Lord does not mean we are blind to the many places of suffering and difficulty in the world around us or the events we were reflecting on before the break.  We proclaim God’s love in the heights and in the depths of life, we sing the gentle invitation to come home. 

There have been setbacks and difficulties through the year as all of us will know.  Building up the life of the Church locally and in the Diocese is never easy or straightforward.  Things never quite work out as you will expect.  We do battle all the time against sin, the world and the devil in the life of every Christian community. 

Churches locally have continued to experience many different pressures: the challenge of division, or financial pressures, illness and stress, in some cases being without ministers for long periods of time.  As a Diocese, we had to accept the loss of Whirlow Grange as a residential facility, though it is very good that ministry continues in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t want to minimize the challenges we face as we look ahead to the future.

Nevertheless, there has been a sense in this centenary year of a Diocese moving steadily forward, with joy and determination and singing as we go. 

There are many signs of new life and new growth in congregations and communities, some of them quite remarkable.  More and more parishes are becoming at home in the new annual rhythm of sowing the seed of the gospel in the summer and autumn, offering courses for nurturing faith between October and Easter and deepening the faith of every disciple in the spring.  More churches are establishing fresh expressions of church, particularly for families.  More churches are taking new steps to serve their local communities as we seek to be salt and light.  There has been steady progress in the formation of mission partnerships though still a long way to go.  There is, I think, a rising sense of confidence and purpose, of moving up a gear or two in mission. 

As a Diocese we have seen the benefit this year of the major restructuring we began at the centre last year.  The Parish Support Team are making a real impact in strategic work and in consultancy with local churches and clergy.  We have a new website, communications strategy and, from today, a magazine.  The DAC held our first conference on church buildings this year.  The vocations team organized a series of events including a conference for women exploring vocation to ministry.  Many of us celebrated 20 years of the ordained ministry of women in the Diocese.  Our Diocesan Development Day on prayer, people said, was one of the best ever and was oversubscribed. 

As we will hear later, the change from parish share to common fund has been demanding but is widely owned and understood.  There is some evidence of a more responsible approach to stewardship and giving across the Diocese.  The Bishop’s Council have agreed the first budget for many, many years which does not involve a cut in stipendiary clergy numbers.  We hope to sustain that and, indeed, to grow our clergy numbers in the years to come but that will depend on continued growth in parishes in numbers and depth of discipleship, reflected in increased giving through Common Fund.  There is now a realistic and sustainable pathway to growth.

The Diocese secured a Development Funding Grant from the Church Commissioners of £1 million.  We intend investing this money in mission partnership development workers: additional part time staff in mission partnerships in poorer communities who can release the clergy for mission.   We have a project manager, Graham Miller, in place and we will have the first appointments made, we hope, in March.  We have set aside another £750,000 for paid part time youth and childrens workers in parishes in our Centenary Fund to further support growth and development.  We are on the threshold of major new developments in our Formation and Training through the new, virtual, St. Peter’s College which will begin in earnest next year.  We have begun an indaba process to continue to explore our differences on women in ministry.  Last week we began an innovative process of deanery conversations on human sexuality which will be taken forward in the New Year. 

Our vision remains the same. 

The Diocese of Sheffield is called to grow a sustainable network of Christ-like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place which are effective in making disciples and in seeking to transform our society and God’s world. 

We are making steady progress.  We are moving forward together.  We have much to give thanks for.

However, there is also a sense that, although there is progress, we need still need to move up a gear or two into the future.  Things must continue to change.

The communities we serve need a strong, sustainable Christian presence, kindness and the good news of Jesus Christ.  Too many of our church congregations are still declining or ageing or both.  There needs to be a sense of still greater urgency, I believe, to our work of renewal and evangelism across the whole Diocese.  We need to see deep and sustainable growth in every place and not just some. 

A number of plans are in place for 2015 which will help us make that further change of gear.  These are just some of them. 

A new Mission Action Planning tool has been developed by our Parish Support team for use in every parish from January onwards.  It’s a simple, powerful and helpful resource for every PCC.  I hope you will use it and use it well.

We launch a major new leadership training programme for incumbents in the New Year which will be mandatory for all first incumbents and all incumbents changing posts.  It is a three year rolling programme, called Leading Well supported by coaching and mentoring for every participant.  I will be leading it myself, with Mark Cockayne and Helen Bent.

We will be investing more in the training and support of clergy and lay ministers from next year as we establish St. Peter’s College.  I hope and pray that our clergy and lay ministers will be able to develop a stronger common discipline of attendance and learning and support for one another through clergy chapters and diocesan events. 

Bishop Peter and I will be changing the way we offer confirmations next year.  Instead of offering confirmations through the year we will offer a visit and confirmation in every deanery between Easter and Pentecost.  This will fit in with the annual cycle of nurture courses leading up to Easter.  I sincerely hope that most parishes will be bringing candidates for baptism and confirmation and renewal of baptismal promises each year to those Deanery celebrations. 

In June of next year we will be holding our first major residential conference for many years at Swanwick for clergy and for lay people.  Full details will be available in the next few weeks.  I hope many members of this Synod will be present.

Finally in September from 10th-13th we will be welcoming the Bishops of the Northern Province with the Archbishop of York for four days of sowing the seed of the gospel across the Diocese.  We hope each bishop will bring a team of young people with them.  We hope that over those four days we will have the privilege of sharing the Christian faith with many outside the churches. 

Please pray about all of these different events and themes and please make them known across the Diocese.  I would encourage members of this Synod to sign up for the ebulletin and keep in touch with all that is happening. 

We have much to give thanks for, most of all the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  We are not called as Christians to a quiet life or to keep things ticking over in the life of the Church.  We are called to a joyful adventure of discipleship, to build up the Church of Jesus Christ, to dedicate ourselves to the glory of God, to give ourselves for the sake of the gospel. 

I’ve found myself pondering through the autumn the words of an old hymn, forgotten now in some parts of the church, which captures exactly the spirit of venturesome discipleship. 

“Father hear the prayer we offer, not for ease that prayer shall be

But for strength that we may ever live our lives courageously.

Not for ever in green pastures do we ask our way to be

But the steep and rugged pathways may we tread rejoicingly

Not for every by still waters, would we idly rest and stay

But would smite the living fountains from the rocks along our way

Be our strength in hours of weakness, in our wanderings be our guide

Through endeavor, failure, danger, Father be thou at our side”

May God in his mercy continue to bless this Diocese of Sheffield in the coming years and may we respond to his grace and love in the costly adventure of discipleship in mission. 

+Steven Sheffield

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