Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
Last Sunday we had a reunion for all the candidates I have confirmed over the last two years. It was a very happy occasion. We celebrated communion here in the garden chapel. We reflected together on the challenges of following Jesus, and the difference he makes in our lives on a daily basis. One of the privileges of confirmations is that I get to read the testimonies of the candidates. Gone are the days when it was a passing out parade when you reached a certain age. Reading some of the biographies of Bishops from a hundred years ago, it seems that it was more or less all they did! They would have confirmed hundreds of candidates every year. Nowadays, confirmation is a response of faith and trust to Jesus’ invitation to follow, undertaken voluntarily. It would have taken quite a lot of courage 100 years ago to positively decide not to when all of your contemporaries were doing it. Today, quite the reverse is true.
The guests at confirmation services come with a range of spiritual experiences. Often, they will have only a hazy grasp of the basics of the Gospel and rarely attend church. In other cases, they are attending to support close family members, but fairly clear in their minds that they don’t share faith themselves. It’s a good discipline to try to conduct services with that audience in view. Worship should give a glimpse of the transcendent, but it should also be sufficiently accessible not to alienate or exclude. Getting that balance right challenges all of us who lead worship on a regular basis. It isn’t patronising to explain the more obscure parts of the liturgy as one goes through it.
As we think about strategic matters for our diocese it’s very easy to have a purely internally focused conversation. We know what we would like ourselves. That came out clearly in the listening exercises last autumn. We’re fairly clear on how many clergy we can afford on the basis of parish share, how many we have at the moment, and what a program to get from here to there might look like. That isn’t that difficult, although I recognise the conversations to name that reality and get ownership of it are likely to be tricky! Much more taxing is how we communicate the gospel effectively to the 97% of the population of the diocese who rarely attend church services. Many younger people are several generations away from any active involvement in church life. Working on accessible events like Messy Church, Family services and the like is incredibly valuable, but even that only scratches the surface.
But the testimonies of my confirmation candidates tell me that a re-connection is possible. The stories are of course hugely varied. A frequent theme is of Christian friends being there for them when personal tragedy or difficulty prompted them to ask difficult questions. They tell of a pervasive sense of the spiritual that no amount of distraction or success could entirely erase. I can’t remember one where they were presented with a slam dunk argument for the truth of the resurrection and they immediately signed on the dotted line (Bishop of Hereford take note). They are stories of a gradual awakening, a warming of spiritual interest; a discovery of love that gave meaning and purpose. They are stories of facing the reality of failure and yes – sin, and discovering acceptance and forgiveness. They reassure me that God is at work in our communities and that it isn’t all down to us to get church right. But they also emphasise the importance of our relationships and that we shouldn’t get so anxious about the preservation of our institution that we cut ourselves off from our non-christian friends and communities. It was generally the little things: the ordinary, the kind, the persevering. Clergy played a role in many cases but they were often the last link in the chain, not the first. The stories stress the importance of foundations of faith laid in home and school, which even though abandoned in adolescence remained an ember ready to be fanned into flame again when the conditions were right. There is rarely a moment when they can say, “this is when I became a Christian.” They speak of a growing conviction as tentative decisions to follow Jesus Christ become firmer and more resolute, and they all speak of the importance of their church community in nurturing that tender shoot of faith to something more robust.
They point to the spiritual value of ordinary things we do as human beings that in the power of the Holy Spirit can communicate the reality of God and draw others to him. We can do these things whether we are 8 or 80! God has not left himself without witnesses. Those witnesses are all of us. May God fill us afresh with his Spirit that we may live and share the Gospel and continue to draw others to discover that love, acceptance, forgiveness, meaning, and purpose for themselves.