Transforming the communities of Essex & East London through Christ’s presence

Diocesan Synod Presidential Address, 6 June 2020

6th Jun 2020

The Presidential Address to Chelsmford Diocesan Synod, 6 June 2020 (meeting held by Zoom)

The Rt Revd Peter Hill, Acting Diocesan Bishop

I need to address the two very obvious demands that confront us as we continue to make this extraordinary and harrowing journey through the COVID-19 pandemic: they are emergence and resilience, especially financial resilience.

In doing so I want to bring you one word and two challenges.

That one word - is simply thanks - a massive thank you to you all, and to the church leaders and people of God you represent across the diocese, as well as the staff in the diocesan office for the effective and sacrificial ways you have responded in ministry through this demanding time thus far. Yes, there have been hiccups, but much of the feedback suggests that though our church buildings have regrettably been closed for 10 weeks, the Church of God has been very much open for business: offering contextual worship, meeting the needs of the isolated, the vulnerable, the sick and the sorely grieving. In addition we have been reaching literally thousands of those beyond our core congregations: those on the fringe, the non-churched and the simply curious, who have dropped in on many of our online offerings in recent weeks. So thank you, and please pass that thanks on to others.

But now let me turn to the challenges of the future: both in the immediate and longer term.

How should we, as the Church of God, begin to emerge from this time? It has been a liminal time for all of us as we have responded to the anxieties, grief and need of the last weeks. In the midst, I believe God has been re-forming us to be sent back into a different world, the ‘new normal’ as it is being described. We must not get back to the ‘same old same old.’ We need to ask ourselves what have we learnt and how have we been transformed for Kingdom mission in readiness for that ‘new normal’.

In Matthew's Gospel chapter 13 the evangelist sums up Jesus’ teaching after a series of kingdom parables with these words in v.52: “He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’”

New treasures as well as old!

As we prepare to emerge, phase by phase, we need to discern which old treasures we should retain from before lockdown, and which new treasures we have found during these last creative weeks.
The response to that challenge will vary according to context, culture and location. The old treasure will include the opening of our sacred spaces, our beloved and longed for church buildings once again, though I recognise that not all of them are equally beloved! Amongst the new treasure to embrace will be new people, new connections, on and off line, and new worship and mission possibilities.

Prayerful and courageous local decisions will be essential about what not to resurrect from the past: that which has sapped our energies and resources and those projects that are relatively inconsequential in mission and ministry.

In terms of old treasure, our good relationships with many civic authorities have been crucial in partnering effectively to meet local needs during the pandemic. We must retain and enhance those
relationships as we emerge and also foster the new partnerships forged recently with other key community groups. The principles of community organising and our increasing involvement with Citizens UK will surely assist us in that. Can I encourage you specifically at this time to consider signing the CUK petition for a real living wage for all social care workers? This health crisis has revealed the iniquity of the low pay of those treasured key workers, who have given so much sacrificially of themselves, many of them as we know, disproportionately from BAME communities.
Our pastoral care has never been so widespread and diverse. Our ‘proximity’: both geographical and virtual has come to the fore. People in the streets around our churches have been looked after, and others have connected online in surprisingly vast numbers. Again we need to follow through on those pastoral connections, pointing people to the Lord Jesus and continuing to serve their needs.

Led by the Archdeacons of Harlow and Stanstead, our Bishop’s Staff Team is developing an emergence strategy which outlines some of our intentions as a diocese, as well as encouragements for local response. It will include emergent strategies on inequalities amongst us. It will be available soon.

In light of horrendous death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the subsequent outrageous actions by those with authority and power in the USA, we must again look to our own issues regarding personal and structural racism in our churches and communities as we prepare to emerge from this harrowing time. Supportive words on this are not enough: we must also act much more effectively.

Let me turn now to the second major challenge: our resilience as a diocesan family. Resilience of course overlaps with emergence pastorally and missionally, but I must focus on financial resilience.
We all know that we are about to enter a period of significant financial constriction in our national life, especially for many of the lowest paid and those in the gig economy, who have already lost jobs and their livelihoods. Recent media articles and data have made it clear that Newham in our diocese is the hardest hit borough in the country in terms of the connection between poverty, crowded accommodation and high rates of virus cross infection and death, and disproportionately so in the BAME community. How are we to respond as the church in those rural, coastal and urban parishes and communities where the contrast between rich and poor is becoming stark?

As a diocese we were under financial constraint before this pandemic set in due to an increasingly weak parish share collection record. As you will know, that issue was on the agenda for the cancelled Synod in March. Now the pandemic closures are in danger of exacerbating the parish share out turn further, through diminished congregational offerings and interruption of income streams from hall hire.

That is why our three Mission and Ministry Advisers have been working hard within lockdown to contact parishes to encourage regular parish share payment and also turning to electronic and standing order giving. The Archdeacon of Barking has now joined them to prepare a strong lead on stewardship uplift across the whole diocese, to include training and teaching on proportionate and sacrificial giving.

The paradox is that while some are struggling severely financially, for others of us this time of lockdown has had the reverse effect: our pay and pensions have been retained. We have spent less
due to restriction and have therefore become richer. I myself am in that category! It is incumbent upon those of us in that position to consider the most generosity going forward. From those to whom much is given, much will be expected.

“Isn’t this a time to give less rather than more?” some people will be thinking and saying. I am unashamed to totally disagree and issue the challenge to all to consider their financial contribution to their parishes and networks afresh. In the New Testament, the young churches in the neediest areas seem to be the ones that were the most generous, and that has been my pastoral experience elsewhere. Yes some amongst will need to give less, but others can and should afford to offer more.

Do you realise that if 20,000 of our roughly 30,000 church members across the diocese gave an average of an extra £1 a week it would raise £1m per annum and begin to address our immediate financial crisis; an extra £2 (one cup of coffee) would solve it and an average extra £5 a week would transform our mission capacity and enable us to plan to deploy more clergy and lay leaders! That is the simple reality. It really isn’t that big an ask for some of us, although of course it is for others.

In Exodus 36 we pick up the end of a story of extravagant response from the people of God who were in the worst possible place, struggling to get through the desert. They brought out their treasures at the request of Moses, and under the call of God, to equip the church for its worship and mission as they constructed the tabernacle. In the end Moses had to stop them giving, as they had brought ‘more than enough’!

It is a matter of discipleship. My prayer is that God’s people in the mighty diocese of Chelmsford (as our previous leader often describe us) will give, in the words of Exodus 36:5, “more than enough for doing the work the Lord has commanded to be done." Those words more than enough are the words I want you to take away with you to pray on, ponder and pass on, as we consider the rest of this agenda and our partnership in the Gospel as diocesan leaders going forward. We need to be a mighty diocese in giving, if our mission is to be properly and fully resourced.
And as the man said, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ The challenge of Christian giving, whether it is about offering our time, talents or money it always concerns the response of our hearts to the love of Jesus.

The future is in our hands. Will we bring out treasures old and new for the future and give more than enough to resource the mission that God is calling us to across East London and Essex? That is the challenge; that is the message to take back to our Christian communities, and live out in our own discipleship.
Some last words of thanks:

Though of course not present, I’m sure you will want me to record our thanks to Joel Gowen our previous Chief Executive and Philip Need our just retired DDO for their sterling work on our behalf. We of course had plans to offer our thanks more fully at the March Synod, but it was not to be.

Also my personal thanks to the Bishop’s Staff Team, and especially to Roger Matthews who has changed chairs so effectively to become Interim CEO and to Maureen Cole who has joined us as COO with a wealth of expertise and experience to bring to the table. There is a huge team effort afoot in the leadership of the diocese as well as in our parishes and communities, for which I am so grateful to God.

Thank you for your attention.