Bishop Nick's address to churchwardens

In visits to each of the five Episcopal Areas, Bishop Nick has been highlighting the changes that the Church of England will be faced with in the coming years.

He has just completed the annual Primary Visitations in which all churchwardens are formally admitted to office. He says, “The Visitations are normally carried out by the Archdeacons, but I’ve chosen to do them this year so that I can personally thank the churchwardens for what they do and to underline the importance of the role. It has also given me the opportunity to address the clergy and lay workers in each Episcopal Area”.

The full text of his Visitation charge can be read below:

Episcopal Visitation 2017
The Bishop of Leeds

I want to begin by thanking you: thanking you for coming this evening to do what is legally required of you as churchwardens; thanking you for being willing to serve as churchwardens for the coming year; thanking you for all you do for the sake of God and the church in this vital role.

The office of churchwarden is one of the most ancient in England. And this fact in itself places the role and remit of churchwardens in that place of tension between the old and the new – and old office in a church that must renew itself in each generation. I for one do not need to be reminded of the cost of change or of the challenges facing churches in small, large and complex communities in the north of England in the twenty-first century. And this is something to which we shall return shortly. (Although it does remind me of the farmer in the parish where I served as a curate in the Lake District who moaned at me in his kitchen for half an hour about changes in farming and the pressures on him. I asked him if he liked his new tractor – which, of course, he did. And he got the point about change and development and progress.)

But, let’s look at the two Bible texts we have had read to us this evening: Numbers 11:1-17 and Mark 10:46-52, as both of them have something to say to us as we seek to be faithful to God and each other in a changing church here to serve a changing world. And I am not going to mention Brexit once.

Remember the story of Moses the murderer and liberator. He rejected the call to get Pharoah to release the Israelites from 400 years of captivity in Egypt, doubting both the context and his own ability. Having reluctantly found himself engaged in the struggle, eventually the people were set free – not to go straight to the Land of Milk and Honey, but to lead the people through the desert until a whole generation of nostalgia-merchants had died off – forty years of being neither here nor there. But, no sooner had the people had their prayers answered and been liberated from oppression when they started moaning about the menu (or lack of it), the weather and the romanticised memories of their past captivity. They also came to him with every complaint about everybody else, and it just all became too much of a burden.

So – and this is where our reading comes in – God told him to choose seventy elders, people of respect and who had shown real leadership ability, and they would share both the “power of the Spirit” and the burden of leadership and governance.

Note: it didn’t change the context or the circumstances. It didn’t resolve the tensions between people and priorities. But, it changed them in how they negotiated their common life during a time of transition and challenge.

And what might this say to us in the Diocese of Leeds? Well, I suppose it suggests something obvious. We are in a time of transition and challenge, and it is not easy addressing how to meet our obligations with the resources available to us. It also suggests that we are in it together – not to find quick and easy solutions to complex developmental and resource questions, but to work out together how best to go forward.

The Diocese of Leeds is just three years old. We began those three years with no governance, no infrastructure and no comprehensive idea of what resources we had available to us. But, together – and in many cases with remarkable patience, adventure and courage – we ended 2014 legal, viable and operational. Just. During 2015 we reviewed every aspect of the diocese and our common vocation as a church, and began to work out how best to develop our common ministry and mission. 2016 saw the migration into the new creation – finally also into a single office from which we can provide coherent support to clergy and parishes. This meant that we began 2017 as a single diocese with a single administration and a clear understanding of the nature of the task and the opportunities facing us in the next ten or twenty years. I have also now been able to delegate responsibilities to the area bishops that I have had to carry thus far.

None of this would be of the slightest use if we hadn’t also done the hard imaginative work of identifying our common vision. Now, I know that some people thought this was a bit obvious, but I can assure you it wasn’t. Ask three people to express what and who they think we are for and you’ll get five competing answers. So, how to keep it simple, clear and useful across a large diocese made up of such diverse socio-economic areas, different churchmanships and challenges?

Well, I expressed it like this: we want to be a vibrant diocese, equipping confident clergy to enable confident Christians to live and tell the good news of Jesus Christ across the region. It was a start. We eventually got this down to a simple dynamic that identifies the three elements of a diocese that still wants to be here in twenty years’ time: Confident Christians, Growing Churches, Transforming Communities. This simple triplet focuses us on our core vocation as a church (as opposed to a club for people who like that sort of thing). Our churches in every community need to recover the joy of discipleship, the joy of infectious and profound worship, the joy of evangelism, the joy of outreach in service. And it is the job of us clergy to teach the faith, nurture disciples, bring people to commitment and support them in their Christian life at home and in work, not just in church.

However, it was made very clear to us that, although useful as an internal guideline for our internal thinking, this was meaningless to those to whom we wish to reach out. Wrestling with this led us eventually to three values – or lenses through which to see what we offer our communities: Loving, Living, Learning. The non-church professionals we were working with understood this immediately. We love God, the world and our neighbour as ourself. We live in the real world – like the incarnate Christ, we are plunged into it, committed to it, getting our hands dirty in its messes and successes. But, we know we get it wrong a million times – so, we need humility and to learn together what it is to be a Christian church.

Many of the appointments made to enable us to provide the right resource for parishes are front-loading the diocese in order to help support clergy, lay ministers and parishes – including churchwardens – in growing our churches. However, this is taking place in a time of further change.

During the next ten years the number of ordained stipendiary clergy in service will fall by between 25 and 40%. Numbers of those being ordained are increasing, but will never compensate for the loss. However, this offers us an opportunity to think afresh how we are to resource our parishes with both clergy and lay ministers into the future. Inevitably, the role of clergy will need to change – as will our approach to pastoral reorganisation. We have already begun to think creatively about this, and our Director of Ministry & Mission (Andrew Norman) and Director of Lay Training (Hayley Matthews) are crucial to reimagining this.

Clearly, I have left out a good deal of detail – for which you might be very grateful. The point, however, is – relating to the reading from Numbers – that this experience is not new. God’s people, fired by love of God, the world and one another, can never simply stand still, or build a static shrine to a faith that actually revolves around death and resurrection, people sent out, and a God who promises never to leave or forsake us.

So, that’s the first reading; but, what about Jesus leaving Jericho and coming across a blind man?

As I have said many times before (I preached on this passage at each of the services during which I was installed into the three cathedrals of this diocese), I wish I knew why Jesus had gone to Jericho in the first place – and what he and his friends actually did there. But, the text does not tell us. The important bit for the gospel writer is that Jesus’s friends clearly thought it was their job to stop outsiders grabbing the attention of Jesus. It is an odd evangelistic method, but one we have worked at perfecting for a very long time.

Anyway – and fortunately for us – Jesus is not held back by the blindness of his friends and followers, and hears the cries of the outsider. But, rather than exercise appropriate pastoral care and push his way through to Bartimaeus who was sitting on the floor, he tells his friends to bring the blind man to him. This they do, and with the greatest invitation – one I commend to you as a model of evangelism: “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.” Don’t just sit there shouting, but be bold, take responsibility and hear the call of Jesus over the negative voices of the crowd.

Isn’t that brilliant? “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.”

I think that is what you have done and are doing. You might choose to use other language for it. You might be doing it reluctantly. You might see the size of the task (or the nature of the other disciples) as a negative. But, you have taken heart, got up and heard the call of Jesus to exercise faith and get stuck in. Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.”

Being a churchwarden brings a big responsibility. Not to carry the burden of the whole on your own shoulders, but, working with clergy and lay ministers where possible, to identify those who might be encouraged to hear that Jesus has also called them. Or, in terms of the earlier reading from Numbers, to find those who can share the burden of responsibility. Wardens are the Bishop’s officers. You have my ear when you need it – and I will give you it gladly. We are together in re-shaping the diocese, the exercise of ministry, and our confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, you might be wondering what this means for you in the daily and weekly practicalities of leading parishes and maintaining buildings. The area bishops and archdeacons are working with their colleagues across the diocese on a strategy for what we might call resource distribution – or ‘stewardship’ – of people and stuff. They are getting to grips with the sort of challenges and opportunities we face in particular episcopal areas and across the wider diocese. They are working not only to imagine the shape of ministry and pastoral organisation in ten or twenty years time, but also how to engineer that shape from now - not an easy or obvious task. That is on the agenda as we seek to direct our not-unlimited resources where they can be most effective – and most effectively accessed. These questions can best be addressed now we have held our nerve and kept our discipline in establishing a firm structural foundation onto which we can build a framework of support and training that has a chance of being effective in the future.

I have begun the process of appointing a successor to James Bell as the suffragan Bishop of Ripon – a process that will see a notice appear in the Church Times inviting observations on the nature of the role and (realistic) suggestions of names to be considered. I will be appointing an Advisory Panel to advise me in the appointment, and I already have piles of paperwork on potential candidates from around the country. I hope to have a bishop in place by the end of 2017 or the very beginning of 2018 at the latest. I am looking for an expert in rural ministry and rural affairs – or someone with sufficient experience to indicate the clear potential to develop such expertise.

So, as we continue this work in this large (but not the largest) diocese, let us do so with joy and vision. Please use the resources available to you via the archdeacon, area deans and lay chairs, diocesan officers … and me. As a number of your parishes know already, if invited, I will come to you. If I or we can visit you, we will – it is simply a diary matter. If you hear weird things about me or the diocese, please contact me and check them out! (I am constantly surprised at what I am reported to have said, thought or done…)

Thank you for hearing the call of other friends of Jesus to take heart, get up, and respond to his call. You are not alone. You are remarkable people. And you are firmly in the prayers of myself and my colleagues as we look to the coming year. Thank you, thank you, thank you for being co-workers with us in the ministry and mission of the church in this part of Yorkshire. And when you are clearing the drains or getting the roof checked, remember that this is also spiritual worship for the sake of God’s kingdom. And it is never wasted.

May God bless you in all you do.

Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

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