This year's Bishop's Harvest Appeal will support three charities to help wildlife and the environment, here in Derbyshire and around the world, as we help take care of God's creation for future generations.
Towards the end of last year I was fortunate to have some study leave, which I spent in Oxford as a visiting fellow at Harris Manchester College. For much of its history, the college had a particular affiliation with Unitarianism and there are still some reminders of that heritage. In the college chapel there is a set of windows depicting the six days of creation. Each of the six lights shows an angel holding a globe representing what happened on that particular day. Above each of the angels is a caption – Enlargissez Dieu – a quotation from the French Enlightenment philosopher, Diderot. It means something like, ‘Broaden your concept of God.’ The point is an obvious one. How do we find out about God through the workings of the created order? And how often do we choose to ignore that?
One of the leading figures in the college a hundred years was a man called L P Jacks. I came across a passage in one of Jacks’s books, about the place of religion in schools, which I think, despite its somewhat dated language and style, is a good example of what Enlargissez Dieu might be about:
Not long ago I met one of our great schoolteachers – a veteran in that high service. “Where in your time-table do you teach religion?” I asked him. “We teach it all day long,” he answered. “We teach it in arithmetic, by accuracy. We teach it in language, by learning to say what we mean – ‘yea, yea and nay, nay!’ We teach it in history, by humanity. We teach it in geography, by breadth of mind. We teach it in handicraft by thoroughness. We teach it in astronomy, by reverence. We teach it in the playground, by fair play. We teach it by kindness to animals, by courtesy to staff, by good manners to one another, and by truthfulness in all things. We teach it by showing the children that we, their elders, are their friends and not their enemies.”
“But what,” I said, “about the different denominations? Have you no trouble with the parents?” “None at all,” he replied; “we have half a dozen denominations. But we treat the children, not as members of this church or that, but as members of the school, and we show them that, as members of the school, in work and in play, they are members of one another. We teach them to build the Church of Christ out of the actual relations in which they stand to their teachers and their schoolfriends, because we believe that unless they learn to build it where they are, they will not learn to build it afterwards anywhere else.”
“Do you talk much to them about religion”? I then asked. “Not much,” he said, “just enough to bring the whole thing to a point now and then.”
Finally, he added a remark that struck me – “I do not want religion brought into this school from outside. What we have of it we grow ourselves.”
From A Living Universe (1924)
I see in the words of Jacks’s schoolteacher the articulation of a profound theology of mission. It has been said that the starting point of a conversation or process is likely to be the finishing point, too. If we start with a narrow, diminished concept of God, we are likely to see everything within that restrictive framework. Perhaps Enlargissez Dieu would be a better watchword for our thinking about apologetic and mission.
In a world where organisational shapes and approaches to leadership change rapidly, it is important that we evaluate the parish as our key unit of operation for mission.
The enduring strength of our parish system is the importance of place. As human beings we have a deep sense of needing to be ‘placed’ – able to belong, feel secure with a setting that is familiar. The church building is often the minister of the centrality of place. The parish take this sense of place seriously.
Parishes are people – in an increasingly mixed and changing cocktail. There can no longer be a single offer or a simple formula. If the Gospel is to be proclaimed and witnessed to, then there will need to be variety, and a toughness regarding the choices of what might be possible with limited resources. Who are those most in need of the generous witness of God’s loving care?, and how might this offer be made?
God’s children live and grow through engaging with processes of formation. Public worship and the Occasional Offices have been one of our key contributions. Now the invitation has to be crafted more flexibly. Messy Church for young families, schools as structures for nourishing young people, breakfasts for men, festivals….. and moments to enable meeting others and sharing the love of God, made manifest most powerfully in appropriate worship and witness.
The genius of the Church of England is the parson, our commitment to providing pastoral care that gives leadership for such formation. Rarely in our history has every parish had its own resident ‘vicar’. But always, each parish is embraced by the gospel caring and teaching organised by the Church. We all contribute to the work of being parson in our own communities. There are three classical models of parsoning:
- The priest, who uses the worship and teaching of the Church to mediate the Good News of Jesus Christ into everyday lives.
- The prophet, through whom the light of Christ proclaims a challenging critique of present failings, while proposing radical new possibilities.
- The prompter, who gathers and enables others to make creative responses to our challenges and opportunities, embracing those within the Church and those beyond our borders, in a common and connecting formation in goodness and grace. Calling all sorts and conditions of people to grow together as children of our Heavenly Father.
As the season of annual meetings is underway, we might like to consider in our own particular context how we can best be called to craft a parish for the future, and thus work seriously together on the future of the parish.
Constantine and Empire
The advent of Constantine as Emperor in 306 marked a key moment in the Gospel of Jesus Christ becoming a public faith. Up until that point Christians had endured a challenging journey – periods of peace and proselytising interspersed with the most horrific persecution. A world of political instability and religious terrorism.
Constantine laid the foundation of what came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire. The Church became a public body offering a Gospel of love to bind together the different cultures of what was thought to be the civilised world. A Holy or whole Empire.
The Importance of Coins: Cash Flow
As in every age, money was the sacrament of seriousness. Money provided the means for people to organise their lives and express their priorities. Money was produced in the form of coins. One of the ways in which Constantine connected his disparate peoples was through the use of money – the flow of ‘cash’.
First, during his reign, the images on the coins shifted from pagan symbols to signs of the cross and of the Christian faith. The means of organising life and ordering priorities was clearly part of a Christian enterprise – an expression of the love of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Second, Constantine enabled significant investment in the Church, providing buildings and ministries to express this Gospel of love in practical ways. The beginning of an infrastructure for a Holy Empire. Word made flesh.
Cashing the Gospel
We are heirs of these significant developments, called still to witness to the organising of life and the ordering of priorities as an expression of the teaching and example of Jesus Christ – in public life as much as in private pilgrimages.
Coins, or, in our case credit cards and notes! have a part to play in this mission and witness. Money provides the most accurate sign of how we choose to organise our lives and our priorities.
Cashing the Common Life
As we launch a new Common Fund this autumn, I hope that each of us can consider carefully and prayerfully how, in our times, we can contribute to our church offering spaces for worship and ministries for witness. Each of us will have coins, cards, notes in our lives. A key part of our witness is how we might use them to enable the Gospel of love to be made more manifest – as witness, invitation and celebration of that kind of gift of new life which Our Father longs to pour out for the blessings of all His children.
The Currency of Love
Money is something common, connecting and challenging. Too easily it becomes the ultimate measure and value: a false god. We need to use it as a form of service and fellowship – the currency of love.
Skills and Character
One of the key strategies for the future of work and of wellbeing is the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. In a world of less predictability about career paths, job opportunities and regular work, there is a welcome move to equip people with both the skills and the character to find useful employment – to develop the self and to contribute to the needs of society. This is true at every level. Training for the traditional ‘professions’ involves a mix of practical and theoretical learning – as much as preparation for more traditionally ‘hands on’ occupations. This “apprenticeship model” is recognised as an especially important approach to the preparation of young people for the world of work. Apprenticeships produce a creative mix of skills and character that equip people with ‘life skills’ that are flexible and the basis for future development. What can the Gospel contribute in this kind of world?
1. Master and Apprentice
Jesus uses and endorses the model of master and apprentice. A student will never become greater than their master (“it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher”. Matthew 1024). Rather there is a profound mutuality. Jesus gives Himself to those He calls to apprenticeships. In turn, like those first disciples or learners, we respond by giving ourselves into the great enterprise of His kingdom – in which we are given a share. The key to the Master-Apprentice relationship is not ‘what is in it for me?’ – but what am I learning to develop myself and to contribute to the enterprise. Self called into service for the sake of society.
2. Apprentice and Master
The learners/disciples called Jesus ‘Master’ but between them they were called, equipped and commissioned to offer particular leadership and ministries. Apprentices are learners discerning and responding to a call, accepting the responsibilities of a commission, and always open to future development, challenge and change. The Gospel places the exploration and ownership of vocation at the centre of each human journey, and as the key to the flourishing of society.
3. Apprentices for God
The Gospel witness is entrusted to Christ’s church. We must model and offer this commitment to ‘formation’ for ourselves and for our communities through our relationship with our ‘Master’ and Lord. Each parish is, at its most basic, a community of vocation and formation. In our Diocese the Director of Vocations and the School of Formation offer particular wisdom and resources to enable us to fulfil this kingdom responsibility most fruitfully.
Take Time to Reflect
In the ‘quiet’ month of August, when meetings are less and many church activities pause, it would be good if each of us took time to prayerfully examine our own apprenticeship – our vocation and our formation. Then, we need to play that part in the calling and forming of our churches, and in the further development of our own skills and character. A small step keeps the journey alive.
A model for today
July provides an interesting moment to consider the place of Grandparents. On 26 th July we are invited to observe what, for many, will be a very obscure feast: Anne and Joachim: Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ‘Grandparents’ of Jesus.
We are especially conscious in our own times of the significance of grandparents. Providing support for family, and amazing energy into community life and the neighbourliness that keeps people connected in an age of increasing isolation and loneliness. Many of our churches benefit enormously from grandparental energy and commitment.
Gospel in Action
In grandparenting we see inspiring modelling of the value of family, the offering of time and skills beyond more immediate and self-centering concerns, and a huge generosity in sharing resources and offering sacrificial service.
Grandparents can be seen as a great advert for so many of the virtues that the Gospel endorses for the proper flourishing of human life. More, grandparents would be the first to acknowledge how much they receive from family, friends, social engagement.
God has no Grand Parents
And yet – there is a strange fact in the Divine Economy. God has no Grandparents! In Jesus we see God in our midst, Son of the Father. But no theology of a ‘Grand’ Father.
What might we learn from this mystery? First, the energy, commitment and contribution, not to say wisdom, of grandparents may seem to begin from an intergenerational set of relationships – but, in fact, it becomes something broader, richer, flowing beyond these merely human arrangements, to be part of an outpouring of a Spirit enabling greater wholeness. In theological terms, a ‘Holy’ Spirit. The significant factor is not one of generational sequences, but of gracious reaching out to enable a greater fullness of life, hope, faith, love. Origins and creation taken up into something new, ever broader and richer.
From human to Divine
Perhaps God has no grandparents because the point and the power of Life cannot be contained simply in human relationships or structures. Rather these necessary ‘arrangements’ are simply the vehicles God gives for His grace to be nourished, shared and tasted.
Grandparents often say that the great advantage they feel is the freedom to ‘go home’ and take a break from so much that they take on themselves. Home is the place for re-creation, reflection and reshaping our offerings into the world around us. Church provides this ‘Home’ in a special way.
The potential for alliance and connection between our contemporary phenomenon of grandparenting and the work and witness of the Church has never been greater. A key element for mission in our time. Perhaps the fact that God has no grandparents can provide an affirmation of grandparenting as service, a wider perspective of the Holy Spirit made manifest for the flourishing of all, and an agenda for each of us seeking to be Christ’s Church afresh in this generation – through the discipline of re- creation, reflection and being recharged.
As I write this article I have just come back from a day with the Saint Peter’s Saltley Trust on the theme ‘What Makes Disciples Grow? The Saint Peter’s Saltley trust have funded a research project on the topic and a total of 29 churches took part from the West Midlands. The number of people who submitted useable questionnaires were 1,123. From this relatively small sample a number of conclusions were drawn and the research identified two indicators of Christian Growth (depth of discipleship and strength of vocation) and distinguished among four distinctive pathways to growth (growth through group activity, growth through individual experience, growth through church worship, growth through public engagement).
As we develop the School of Formation we will need to reflect on these findings and we will need to continue to listen to and be aware of the needs of people as they begin and as they continue their journey in their discipleship. As part of the School of Formation we will be promoting a course called Transforming Faith. This course is aimed at anyone who wants to know more about their faith and builds on their experience. Looking at the four pathways to growth offered by the research the course fulfils the growing through groups activity, it builds on the individual experience and makes people more aware of public engagement.
As we encourage people and ourselves in discipleship we need to be mindful of God’s call, the call to community and the call to friendship and relationship as evidenced in the call of Jesus to those first disciples.
Revd Canon Dr Susan Jones
Lincoln press release Click here
Archdeacon Christine said: “ I am excited and deeply honoured to be invited to be the next Dean of Lincoln and at the same time saddened to be leaving a diocese where I have received such warm hospitality. I have enjoyed so many opportunities to grow and develop and serve the people of Derbyshire as archdeacon of Chesterfield.
Being a Christian is about following Jesus and answering his call upon our lives.
Sometimes that call comes unexpectedly, as it did when I first responded to an invitation from Bishop Alastair to explore the role of archdeacon in the diocese of Derby back in 2010. Having lived in Sussex most of my life it was a step of faith to travel north into an unknown county.
In responding to that sense of call and vocation, the last six years have been filled with moments of extraordinary grace and generous support and encouragement. I have loved being one of your archdeacons.
It has been a privilege to work with some outstanding colleagues, to support parishes in their work of mission and ministry to their communities and be alongside so many dedicated and hardworking clergy and churchwardens.
Now the Church is once again calling me on to a new ministry.
I have so often found God to be a God of surprises and the journey of faith to be an exciting adventure. As I prepare to leave, I go with gratitude for the impact that your lives have had upon my own faith and pray that the Christian community I leave behind will journey on, responding to God’s call, continuing to share the love of God with the people of Derbyshire.”
We all recognise the tensions between our crowded, contentious mass society of competing views and values, and the Christian ideal of God’s children as a harmonious or ‘whole’ (holy) community. Such tensions run rife within and between our churches, as well as providing a key context for contemporary mission.
Running at Different Speeds
Part of the challenge is to recognise that God creates a bewildering variety of opportunities and possibilities. The Easter story reports the story of John and Peter running to the tomb – towards meeting the mystery of Resurrection. They ran at different speeds. John, the poet and person of imagination, the ‘mystical’ gospel writer, arrives first. He does not enter the tomb but he sees and believes - an intuitive faith. Peter, practical leader and organiser, comes afterwards but goes straight into the empty space – to check, question, seek more reassurance. Peter, the rock, displays the characteristics of the person concerned with structures, responses, solidity - less intuitive, more experiential. These two forces have been in tension within the church ever since. The art of being church in a way that creates community is to be able to live with discipleship running at different speeds and being gifted with different insights.
A Common Foundation
But there is a common foundation. This month we recall Matthias, chosen to take the place of Judas as one of the twelve apostles. His story reminds us that some discipleship, as with Judas, can run at a speed which is disloyal and destructive: too caught up with its own agenda. But the story of Matthias has another message. Two candidates were proposed, Joseph (or Justus) and Matthias. Doubtless they brought different possibilities. The choice was made by ‘lot’, not by detailed criteria. However, one qualification was essential – to have accompanied Jesus on His journey from baptism to Ascension, and thus to be a witness to the Resurrection.
From Baptism to Ascension
In our complex and challenging times, each of us is called to run more closely towards the reality of Resurrection. We will journey at different speeds, and bring different gifts and insights. Too often such a collection of Christians can look (and feel!) like a disorderly crowd. We need to make a witness to that deeper truth that unites crowds into community. The truth that each of us is called to be joined together in accompanying Jesus from baptism to Ascension – the journey of the Christian year – and to be a witness to the Resurrection. Even if our differences seem to be as profound as those between Peter and John.
The Month of May
May is the month of Matthias. The call to be on the team of committed disciples. It is the month of the Ascension – joining us in worshipping the Risen Lord and beginning the next cycle of accompanying Him on the earthly journey. Finally, May is the month of Pentecost when the Spirit who called and blessed Matthias was poured out on a vast range of people and perspectives, baptising them all with grace. So none of us have an excuse!
Be prepared to be called and to be challenged.
Easter Day: The church celebrates
Across the country and across the diocese Easter Day sees churches decorated, churchyards tidied, bells rung, flags flying from church towers, and people worshipping in significant numbers. Whatever their style of worship, at the heart of the Easter celebration is the rediscovery, in sacrament and prayer, that Christ is truly risen. Hope is renewed in many, many hearts.
The risen Christ: beyond the church
But I want to go on and suggest that the risen Christ is not only to be found in the church. Indeed the Easter stories that we read and hear in church tell of a Christ who was risen outside and beyond the gathered groups of disciples. They found him, and were surprised to find him, out in the world, on the road, and only then did they find him in their gathered worship (Luke 24: 13-35).
Christ is risen: in financial inclusion
I have become a director of a credit union, the Derbyshire Community Bank. One of the largest credit unions operating in our county, it is now moving into the City of Derby. Credit unions are about offering loans to people, often on the edge of financial well-being, who otherwise might fall into the hands of loan sharks. They offer loans on very reasonable terms. They can also help people to learn the discipline of regular saving. They also need investors of course, and it’s hugely encouraging to know that several PCCs in the diocese are looking to invest in the Derbyshire Community Bank. In the work on the bank’s board of directors I have come to sense the presence of the risen Christ – giving us energy and wisdom for the task. And in the work of trying to include people into the circle of financial well-being, I have sensed the Kingdom of the risen Christ, his work going forward. Hope, for those on the edge financially, is being offered.
Christ is risen: in school
In preparing our plans for a new Cathedral School in Derby, diocesan representatives and I went on site visits to see what excellent schools look and feel like. A school in Derby took my breath away. Educational attainment across the city is not uniformly high, but this was a school which has lifted standards and achievement markedly, has a brilliant atmosphere, and has a framework of care and attention to the individual child which hugely impressed me. I saw the Head Teacher speak to a young pupil who initially looked a bit lost and sheepish. The Head knew his name, knew about him, and knew just how to lift his spirit. The youngster seemed to grow by inches in front of our very eyes. Standards rising, an atmosphere of encouragement and esteem, a school running well and happily. Again I sensed Christ’s incognito presence as pupils and staff worked hopefully together, in an unglamorous spot, to draw the very best out of the possibilities that God provides.
At Easter, always and every where
On Easter Day we hear of Christ risen – and the stories we hear tell us to walk out into the world and find that it is so. So we rejoice, and we join in the work he has begun.
The Very Revd Dr John Davies
Dean of Derby
In one of his sermons at the University Church in Oxford, where he was the Vicar, John Henry Newman highlighted three markers that help us recognise the value of Lent and the miracle of Easter.
First, he called upon his parishioners to recognise that “many lives are blighted by sins unconfessed and unabsolved”. How many of us carry the burden of mistakes, failures or wilful selfishness that we have not really owned – just tried to put to one side, or move on from? Psychologists, let alone spiritual guides, know that these kind of negative factors remain as powerful undercurrents. One of the challenges and tragedies of our time is the tendency to live as though sin was not real – the key emphasis is confidence and improvement. Negatives are regrettable, but to be conquered by our own personal momentum.
The miracle of Easter includes the dynamic that honesty with ourselves, including our failures and sins, is the only way of becoming open to the grace of forgiveness and the new start that resurrection can bring.
Newman’s second point was that personal faith and experience becomes selfishness unless it is placed in a wider framework. The glad acknowledgement that each of us can only thrive if we are part of a community. Wholeness for each individual is only found and experienced through participation in a Holy Communion.
The miracle of Easter is that broken, imperfect lives can be bound together into the Body of Christ. A Holy Communion which supports the self not just now, but into eternity.
Newman’s final observation was to highlight that “England was dominated by an appetite for wealth and power”. Perhaps even more the case today than in the middle of the nineteenth century when he was preaching.
The miracle of Easter invites our ambition to be for the wellbeing of others, especially those in need, as a sign of how God’s new life is tasted together on earth, as it will be in heaven. The Easter people of the Resurrection gathered to look outwards into the needs and hopes of others. We call this mission.
A powerful framework for our thoughts and prayers in Lent, as we prepare to recognise once again the miracle of Easter.
The Bishop of Derby
Iris Murdoch is remembered now as a novelist rather than a philosopher. For many years, however, she taught and wrote philosophy. It was often against the prevailing current of mainstream academic philosophy but connected with older traditions of wisdom and enquiry, and gave them new life and direction.
In her book, The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Murdoch has a fascinating reflection on the relationship between prayer, art, and morality:
Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love. With it goes the idea of grace, of a supernatural assistance to human endeavour which overcomes empirical limitations of personality… The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevent one from seeing what there is outside one… We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else, a natural object, a person in need. We can see in mediocre art, where it is perhaps more clearly seen than in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world.
Paying attention to what is outside one. In a recent letter to the Guardian another keen observer of our society, Frank Field MP, wrote that, ‘Voters’ loyalties move out from their loved ones, getting progressively weaker as they view their community, our nation and then the world.’
If we lose the capacity to look beyond ourselves and pay attention to what we find there, that is not just a social and political matter; it is a spiritual crisis, for we lose contact with the God who is always beyond us, drawing us forward out of our comfortable certainties.
February begins with Candlemas. A candle gives light and warmth, but it does so by losing itself; it is consumed by the flame. ‘We cease to be in order to attend to the existence of something else’, writes Iris Murdoch. That could be a fruitful theme to ponder this Lent.
The Sign of a Star
New Year begins with the Epiphany story of a journey into new experience and new perspective. The Wise Men meet the infant Christ and return home by another way. How does the new experience and the new perspective we receive from our encounter with Jesus work? How do we know the route of the journey such an encounter involves?
Our world is focussed upon relationships – their quality and their maintenance: for individual flourishing and for international peace. The reaction to every disturbance in relationship is therapeutic – what can we and others do to best remedy the dis-ease and establish harmony. In spiritual terms we work at our relationship with God.
This is one lens through which we can examine the Epiphany story. People from a different culture are led by the star to encounter Jesus in Bethlehem. They offer their gifts to acknowledge relationship and are inspired by this worship to return home by a new way. Relationship made, blessed, direction giving. Here is a model for Christian living and much evangelism. We try to guide people to encounter Jesus and form a relationship, a bond through worship. It works well for many, and begins a journey of self-discipline.
But life, even Christian life, never runs smoothly. Temptation, failure, suffering, darkness, terror, remain part of the mix. Often our response is to seek closer relationship. But the story of the Epiphany has another lesson for us. The key was the star – distant, mysterious, beyond the bounds of human therapy. To acknowledge the star, just as the shepherds acknowledged the angels, or Jesus calls to His Father, is to acknowledge the distance between earth and the stars, between myself and others, between cultures, between experiences and perspectives that form the ingredients of relationships.
When we trust the star, as we trust the Father, as we trust the Christ, we cannot simply assess, analyse and act in terms of relationship (therapy) – the distance and disconnect is too great. Rather, as we trust the star, the Father, the Christ, we need that element of watching, wondering, walking where we are called. Not the security of an apparently steady relationship – the spiritual template that so many find impossible and incredible. Instead, there is a call to the faithful following without knowing too much about the next steps; and owning that much is out of our own hands. An ‘unknowing’ that trusts the light to lead us in a kindly way, amidst the terrors of Herod – like persecution and violence, and the resulting migration crisis which engulfed the Holy Family.
Mission owns the richness of relationship with Jesus, but also the riskiness of having to wait, seek guidance, negotiate with the anti-Christ forces, and find a way through difficulties as well as blessings. Relationships can benefit from therapy, our own improved performance. But, there is need for more - spiritual relationship requires waiting for a simple gift of grace: A star silent but signalling to any small group of faithful seekers. Surely a richer model for churches today.
For a New Year may we give thanks for connection and relationship, but learn to look further, to the mystery of light in the darkness – sheer gift and grace, for new experiences and new perspectives.
A distinctive feature of the way we celebrate Christmas is the giving of gifts. As society has become more materialistic, and driven by an increasing desire for ‘growth’ (economic, social, personal) – our gifts have multiplied in number and expanded in range. The challenge of finding the right thing for a particular person.
Of course we want to please the recipients of our giving, and to spend our money well (good investment!). These criteria are important to givers and receivers. An expression of the greater perfection we try to act out at Christmas. Along with the provision of favourite foods and special treats.
From Presents to Presence
But what is really happening in the giving and receiving of gifts? An acknowledgement of a valued relationship. An expression of love and affection. An ownership of obligation or duty. In each or any of these transactions, the core is the giver making themselves present in the life of the receiver – as an act of grace (freely offered) and as a sign of connection not taken for granted, but enhanced by being expressed generously. Presents make present the giver into the life of the receiver – for good, with grace.
Presence as Present to Us
And this is the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ. A gift to Mary and Joseph in the stable. A gift of a chorus of glad tidings and peacefulness to shepherds in their ordinary lives. A gift of authority, welfare and organised worship to Wise Men from the high civilisation of the East.
A gift to each of us if we will acknowledge the presence of God in the presentation to us of this life. A gift bringing real goodness and grace into ordinary lives, into the structures and rituals we need to hold us together and help us to make sense of our deep instinct to find peace on earth, goodwill among people, and a sign of that Glory which gathers all these fundamental human conditions into the hope of heaven.
Hark – Herald Angels Sing
I am sure that each of us will choose the presents we give with great care. To show our love and affection to family and friends, and to make ourselves present to them in goodness and grace.
May we take time to allow our Father, to give His gift to us – a Son, a person who can be present in our lives - a Saviour bringing and enabling goodness, grace and glory.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing,
Glory to our new born King.
I am writing this just after getting back from a visit to Angola. It was my third time in the extraordinary capital, Luanda, said to be the most expensive city in the world, where some of Africa’s richest people live cheek by jowl with some of the world’s poorest – half of Angola’s citizens live on less than $2 a day. It is sobering to see the smart new Jaguar showroom just along the road from a hospital where patients and their families sleep on the street as they wait for admission. Luanda had an infrastructure designed to accommodate half a million people. Over forty years of war – a war of independence and then a bitter civil war, with its consequential population movement – means that about six million people live there today.
One of the highlights of the visit was a trip to one of the poorest settlements in Luanda, to see the ‘Girls Building Bridges’ project run by UCF, the Angolan version of YWCA. The project is the focus of the Bishop of Derby’s Harvest Appeal this year, in partnership with Christian Aid. The project has been running for ten years and provides a one-year programme for about two hundred girls, in groups of thirty, meeting in either the morning or afternoon, depending on their school commitments. They are taught practical skills, such as sewing and cooking, as well as developing their capabilities in maths and language skills. But the most important part of the programme is the work to develop life skills and self-esteem in a society where gender stereotypes are still ingrained and girls are disproportionately affected by poverty, violence, and lack of access to education and healthcare. Domestic violence against women and children is endemic; and teenage pregnancy prevalent. During our stay we met the Director of Community Health for the Anglican diocese, a surgeon who, in the previous week, had performed hysterectomies on two 15-year olds and a 13-year old girl.
It was a moving experience to meet some of the girls on the programme. I was struck by their poise, self-confidence and articulacy as they answered questions about what the course meant to them – one of them even showing off her English! Not only do the young women become better able to cope with the pressures of daily life but they also become advocates and role models for a more just and equal society. Many of them go on to university and 70% have gone on to become peer educators, being activists in their schools, churches and communities, volunteering at local HIV clinics, and supporting women victims of domestic violence.
As I commend ‘Girls Building Bridges’ to your prayer and generosity, I do so reflecting that November gets under way with the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Saints are not necessarily particularly holy or particularly good. They are people who try to take God seriously, who try to help people whenever they can, who show the power of love in their lives, often in gentle and not immediately obvious ways. Saints are models of what human life ought to embody – integrity, compassion, self-forgetfulness, love, and numerous other expressions of beauty, truth, and goodness – and they include believers, half-believers, and unbelievers. Saints are ordinary people, you and me and countless others, whom God has set free to build his kingdom, a kingdom which takes seriously all aspects of human life. It has been said that saints are the sinners who keep on trying. I think I met quite a lot of them in Angola.
For more information about Archdeacon Christopher’s visit to Angola please watch our videoClick here
Bishop Alastair writes...
We live in what has been called an Age of Resonance. ‘Only connect’ is the great theme, or Good Vibrations as the Beach Boys proclaimed in the last century. As we claim more and more space and priority for our own personal preferences, we are guided by the messages and experiences that seem to connect, encourage or sustain us best.
The key sound is the buzz or resonance of our phone, iPad or other device through which we organise relationships and the unfolding of our time. Our favourite feeling is that of affirmation, seeing that our hopes and dreams are coming true.
The Melody of Ministry
Jesus offered ministry to this need in human beings. He offered moments of encounter, a buzz for an individual, group or whole crowd. A sign of hope, healing, wholeness – dreams coming true, a pleasing melody. Much of our mission and ministry falls into this category – seeking to offer resonance, a buzz of connection to the views and values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as guide and template for the unfolding of human lives. It is no coincidence that mission is often linked with music groups!
From Passing to Permanence
The problem with resonance is its momentary nature. As soon as we have answered a text or call we move onto the next. Tweeting and Instagram reinforce life as a series of moments of connection.
But what does all this hyper-activity and hyper-connectivity mean? An Age of Resonance requires an understanding of substance – of solid, enduring, dependable values, patterns of behaviour or structures of belief. More than moments we need a sense of being held, secure, confident for whatever comes.
Meaning in Ministry
In a time that can easily notice, and often appreciate, the moments of grace and goodness to which Jesus calls, it is easy to forget that his ministry of resonance came out of serious substance. The solidity of the Temple. The discipline of synagogue and personal prayer in the ‘wilderness’. Appreciation of the Law. These elements of substance provided a structure of values and behaviour within which to understand our desire for connection and development. The two belong together. Resonance without substance is like spray disconnected from the ocean – short lived and meaningless.
The challenge for our witness to substance in our age of resonance is not just to value the corporate life and teaching of the Church as essential context for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More, it is to invest in the substance – the structuring for Good News – with our time, our study, our service and our money. Without each of these things, substance will fade and so will the quality of our witness. And the most important of these investments will be money – the most challenging sacrament of seriousness, about not just making connections, but about guaranteeing the means to sustain them. Turning earthly moments into the meaning of eternity: the resonance of ministry into the mission of God. Stewardship has an important role to play in salvation, particularly in turning resonance into the substance of the Kingdom of Heaven.