Hello everyone, and welcome back to the weekly video. I hope you’ve had a good summer despite the weather.
Last Monday, I got back into the swing of things with the Bishop of Chester and a few friends on a pilgrimage on our motorbikes from Chester to Hereford. We stopped at several venues en route, each one providing a theme for our prayers, and each of which are relevant to our future as the church of England.
We began our diocesan section at St. Edith’s church in Pulverbatch. Not a major pilgrimage site I hear you say. But if the fruitfulness of our church is to depend on a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit to energise life and faith, its stands as a sobering reminder of the way the established church has often treated renewal movements. One of my episcopal predecessors described John’s Wesley’s enthusiasm as a very horrid thing. As I was leaving university, Deborah and I felt a call to the mission field. To be sponsored in this would have involved going to Bible College. When I said this to the then Dean of Christ Church, Eric Heaton, he looked down his nose (literally), and in sneering tone asked, “are you Bible College types – only they are so intellectually primitive!” In the late 18th century, Sukey Harley, a simple girl in service to one of the local farms here experienced a spiritual awakening. It manifested itself as a desire to read the scripture, for which she needed to learn to read. She said, “I had a desire to read; I longed to read the blessed Word for myself. I got my little wench to teach me the letters; she used to grow sleepy, so I would give her two suppers of a night to encourage her, all the while I was praying to my God to enable me to learn. Such enthusiasm was greeted in this church by being pelted with books and sticks from the gallery. The then Rector, William GIlpin, resentful that several members of his congregation, including his daughters Jane and Mercy, began meeting on a Sunday in homes to read the bible and pray together, complained, “My poor pious children are all bigots.” I wonder how much healthier our church would be if the joyful renewal of methodism had been able to be contained within it rather than excluded. Fortunately, the renewing power of the Spirit is rather less sneered at these days and there is great fruit. I think of a church in one of the conurbations in the diocese of Chichester, planted into a closed church in November 2009. Since then it has grafted 4 congregations into other churches that were struggling. When I left the diocese, on an average Sunday in that Deanery, 40% of the adult Anglicans, 55% of the under 16s, and nearly all those between 17 and 25 were to be found in that church and its plants. These were not people hoovered up from other churches, but many fresh to faith from the 300 or so people a year who were doing Alpha courses there. I often wondered whether some of the surrounding churches might have done better asking why that was so, rather than sneering at the enthusiasm and commitment.
Our next stop was Wenlock Abbey. The ruins that you see are now in the care of English Heritage and are the remains of a Cluniac foundation founded in 1079. They are built on the remains of St. Milberga’s original nunnery, founded by Milburga’s father, the King of Mercia in around 670, and later destroyed by the Vikings. As with many Saxon saints, her actual activities are surrounded in myth and legend. There are the obligatory thwarted suitors, and miracles attributed to her cult that stretch credibility a little, including the vomiting of an extraordinary worm that caused a wasting disease. However, we do know she actively organised the evangelisation and pastoral care of South Shropshire. As with many of these early saints, they depended on the active intervention of the Holy Spirit for fruitful ministry. Their ministry was not just an exercise of strategic thinking, although Milburga was a good organiser. They saw faith as a supernatural thing, with discipleship as supernaturally empowered living for God. The degree to which we recover that will determine our fruitfulness in the years to come.
Our penultimate stop was St. John’s in Ludlow. St. Johns can sometimes feel a poor relation to the grandeur of St. Laurences, and yet there is a faithful congregation here committed to reaching this community. It focussed our attention on the failings of the Church of England in reaching the poor and helping them become disciples of Jesus. We have some fantastic people doing great work in parts of our diocese like this, South Wye and Telford, but its still the case that the % of people attending an Anglican church in poorer communities is well under 1%. We prayed about more fruit in our outreach. How can we have the courage to be sufficiently flexible to make space for those who find our wordy liturgies, times and styles of meeting are excluding?
Finally, we stopped here at St. Peters church in Hereford. We are investing here in a new project, with the aim of reaching younger people with the Gospel. Hardly any children or young people come to Sunday worship in our diocese. Its not being melodramatic to say that if we don’t begin to reconnect with this generation, the church of England will die with us. We prayed that we would be prepared to submit our own preferences both for the times of our meetings and how we meet to make space for this missing generation. We prayed that we would be able to connect the good news of the gospel with the specific issues for young people that it so clearly addresses.
Ultimately, its good to start this new season with prayer. Our issues are deep and knowing the way forward is challenging. But we serve a God in whose power Christ was raised from the dead. Who knows where dependence on that power in prayer rather than on our own ingenuity will take us.