Diocesan Synod 20 March 2021, Presidential Address by the Rt Revd Peter Hill
20th Mar 2021
Presidential Address by the Rt Revd Peter Hill
Next Tuesday, 23rd March, we reach the anniversary of the first pandemic lockdown: a time for national lament. I hope many of us will be able to join in the 12 noon remembrance for those who have died from whatever cause during the time of this pandemic. Also to take the chance to contact someone on that day who needs a friendly voice on the phone or a strengthening word in a card, especially if they have been bereaved.
Soon after, on 29 March, we reach the next milestone in our hopeful emergence from this long third lockdown. For us who are disciples of Christ it is also the beginning of Holy Week: a week where the world goes its own way, but we go the way of the cross.
More than any other year, this Holy Week will be a time of poignant remembrance and lament as we follow our Saviour on his last determined walk towards the deep suffering and death of Calvary. His love for our loves; his life for our lives; his suffering with our suffering; and the more so with those who have suffered, died and grieved in this last cruel year. More than any other year in our lives, most of us have come face to face with death and our own.mortality. It is time to be with God and reflect rather than rush to emergence.
There is an ancient story of a rich traveller who was determined to see the rest of the world as much and as fast as he could. Setting off at pace on his journey to foreign lands, he hired some common men to carry his baggage behind him as he journeyed on horseback. After several days of swift travel and much sweat and toil, the baggage carriers suddenly stopped without warning and sat down in the middle of the track. The rich man was furious and asked them what on earth they were doing. The men calmly replied, “You are going too fast, we are waiting for our souls to catch us up.”
Holy Week, as ever, is a time to slow down, to walk the Way of the Cross behind our crucified Lord and let our souls catch us up. This year, I believe it is also a time to remind ourselves that we must not rush to emergence from this pandemic. Not just because we need to take care to avoid health risk and another upsurge in infections, important as that is. But also because as the Church of God in crisis, to rush out of this liminal time without a careful and prayerful holy discernment would be disabling.
It would be far too easy for us to begin to rapidly open all our churches and rush a return to the way church was before, with some on line add-ons. If this pandemic has taught the people of God anything, and especially us in the Church of England, it is that we can’t go back to the same old, same old, with a few extra bells and whistles.
I want to encourage us all to use these next emergent weeks, through Holy Week, Easter and beyond, to let our souls catch us up. We who are leaders need to model that to our people. Long before I became Bishop of Barking or even met a guy called Stephen Cottrell, I read his little book, ‘Do nothing to change your life.’ There is much in it that speaks to our current time and need. If you’ve never read it, I commend it to you.
Yes there are many urgent tasks to be addressed in church and society: inequality, racism, poverty, disadvantage, community safety, lack of affordable housing, decline in church membership and resourcing, and so it goes on. But we can’t fix everything! We need Godly discernment, or in the words of Sam Wells we need to be ‘a humbler church apprehending a bigger God’. Haven’t we all seen in this liminal year that our loving God is much bigger than the church: open, closed or on line? Our loving God is at work whatever.
The prophecy of Isaiah in chapter 30 and verse 15 has planted itself in my spiritual guts these past days:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’
Those prophetic words were spoken into another crisis. Almost eight centuries before Christ, the people of God in Judah and Jerusalem were under threat from the mighty Assyrians in the north. The immediate response of their king and his advisers was to rush south to make an alliance with Egypt in hope of warding off the Assyrian advance. But the Lord says no – you have made such mistakes too often in the past. Don’t rush to them: Egypt will prove to be a false God and an empty pocket for your salvation. Rather return to me and find your rest. Come quietly without fuss and trust in me for strength and a future.
As virus infections decrease, many are still tired, weary and heavy laden. It is not the time for us to rush to easy and obvious worldly solutions, which will prove to be both energy sapping and spiritually empty and unproductive. Rather as Holy Week approaches, let us first return quietly and trustingly to our Holy God and find our rest and strength for the future in him. The word return in Isaiah’s prophecy holds within it the call to repent, to change our minds and turn yet again towards God who loves us to death.
Or, in the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
Some of you have heard me say this before, but it bears saying again as I draw to a close. The one word that has stuck with me throughout this pandemic has been that small, practical but profound word ‘with’. Sam Wells suggests it is the most important word in the New Testament. For the Christian disciple being ‘with’ is being Christ to others: alongside them in sorrow and in joy; a listening ear without forcing the pace; a helping hand without creating dependency; yet speaking truth to power when needful and giving ourselves away. That is what our Saviour did with us and that is what he calls us to with others.
As we reach the challenge of Holy Week, with the joy and resurrection hope of Easter beyond. And as we quietly emerge from lockdown, let us commit simply but strongly:
- to be with our loving God – returning and resting in quietness and trust;
- to be with the others who God puts in our path: at home, at work and in the world, especially those who feel excluded and marginalised due to poverty, disability, sexuality, ethnicity or anything else that leads to unjust discrimination;
- to be with our most disadvantaged parishes, resourcing ministry they genuinely cannot support themselves;
- to be with one another in a diocese which desperately needs unity in its immense diversity;
- to be with our new Bishop Guli as she comes to be with us, enabling her to be the Bishop God is calling her to be;
- and above all to be with our Saviour as he walks the Way of the Cross before us.
And let us pray with St Benedict a prayer that I think could have been written for the emergence ahead:
O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you,
through the power of the Spirit
of our Lord Jesus Christ.