On Saturday we hold Bishop Richard's Farewell service in our cathedral. To mark this today we publish a series of reflections from the Bishop from his time here. We also publish his final address to synod
Read the bishop's address here
“With age comes wisdom” declared Oscar Wilde. “But sometimes age comes alone.” He was right. Scientists have found that growing older is no guarantee of growing wiser – if wisdom is an intuitive knack for grasping how others think and behave. Social psychology is sometimes dismissed as the art of confirming things your grandmother could have told you.
Yet findings are often counter-intuitive. In the bystander effect, the more people who walk past an individual in distress, the less likely any single person is likely to step in and help. In another phenomenon, taking out aggression on a symbolic target, for example parish the Diocese or parish share, tends only to make people angrier – so don’t look for therapy there. And those who are more questioning of themselves and more willing to toy with new ideas are those who are best at understanding the behaviour of their fellow human beings. That skill has nothing to do with age – perhaps as unreliable as memory. So no refuge anywhere – except to shuffle off the stage.
I recall vividly my first Liverpool Diocesan Synod – held in the Cathedral hours before my official welcome. Bishop James launched the growth agenda – sufficiently disorientating for me to completely lose my bearings, thinking I was back in Sheffield and swearing allegiance to the wrong Bishop. Me and growth, me and size, have a difficult relationship. And I have often pondered on whether growth has actually happened over these past eight and a half years.
But, I mustn’t be curmudgeonly in the face of clear evidence that there is growth – spring has brought about a wonderful sprouting of good, vibrant, healthy growth – unmissable and impossible to deny – just look at Bishop Paul’s face. It must be the climate over there in the States – especially in the good old Commonwealth of Virginia. Welcome back Paul – it is good to have you back a d it means I can now leave. And you get to choose your own suffragan insetad of having to settle for someone else’s cast-off.
But let me serious for a moment and pose the question: “Have we in fact grown?” In 2009, when I pitched up, average attendance per week on a Sunday reported to us was 74 adults; in 2016 this was 72. We are not in free-fall, but nor are we rocketing. I am aware of how quickly conversations can take us into heated digressions about how we count the wrong numbers of the wrong activities. My passing comment is that if we allow ourselves to too hung up on these things, we just end up getting side-tracked. We live in an age – and good evangelicals used to preach about not allowing ourselves to be subject to the spirit of the age – when messages must be massaged, when image and success count for everything. I would simply want to observe that we mustn’t get anxious – and we mustn’t get complacent. Whatever else may be said about the Diocese of Liverpool, it cannot be said that we are complacent.
I have worked alongside two Diocesan bishops who have never ceased to strive and exhort us to attend to the Mission of God with a focus that maintains a healthy balance between inside and outside the church. I salute those who work to find new ways of making the truth of Christ known to this generation – and who are not afraid to take us down different paths into places with which we are not as familiar as perhaps we should be. I do want to salute the faithful presence of so many faithful Christian disciples and their priests for their courage and resolve to keep going – and being. As I have said on my rounds of Deanery Synods, presence is vital – it is a sacramental sign – outward and visible of the deep truth that nowhere is God-foreaken.
But maintaining presence is costly and challenging – both for Christians on a ground that can seems so very infertile and for those who support the notion that every blade of grass in England belongs to a parish. For us - the Diocese – it is a huge and ongoing commitment of finances. As we have been discussing Parish Share this morning, let me say I have seen us, year after year, step up to the plate magnificently – and I genuinely believe very few need lectures about meeting parish share with the result that we have a collection rate that is the envy of almost every Diocese in the Church of England.
Perhaps we should reflect more positively on what we do get right – and there is a lot if only we could have the confidence to acknowledge it. I accept we are not the greatest completers/finishers in the game – we are prone to over-indulge in setting hares running and not chasing them down. But it should not detract from some real successes, such as the insatiable appetite for Spiritual Directors with which we can just about keep pace, and the extraordinary increase in the number of people we send to Bishops Advisory Panels to test their sense of vocation to priestly ministry – 26 last year, 26 this year.
This goes to the core of what we are about in delivering a key component of God’s mission – identifying and nurturing all people in their vocation as Christians. Vocation is key here – it is key in discerning how God wants us to respond to his call. God calls – we respond. This is not about jobs and career development in which recruitment and development is about making quotas and targets. It is far more important than that, which is why it takes time to discern the nature of vocation.
Historically, we have been slow to understand how important this discernment is for every Christian, for each one of us - and to encourage others. How many are here today because we were encouraged by someone else to reflect on God’s calling on our lives? Very often it’s because someone else sees it before we realise it. It’s part of our duty of care to foster one another in our calling – and we’re still not very good at it.
But equally, we have been too narrow in interpreting forms of service – and I’ve been delighted to see Local Missional Leaders developed as another strand of Lay Ministry, alongside our already strong Reader Ministry.
Church Schools are another success story – as we have heard this morning. I have enjoyed my time as Chair of the DBE and my many schools visits on which my DBE colleagues have always provided me with a “minder” – I can’t understand why. (Mike Eastwood interrupts to say he can and I take the chance to pay tribute to his outstanding work)
We are witnessing and experiencing the changing of the character of the Church of England. There is a hard-headed realism behind this, which is timely and healthy if we are to avoid sleepwalking to the exit. But this is not to espouse a management culture that accepts the ends justify the means. I think we do need a healthy and honest conversation about where we are – and what it means to be a healthy church. Quality matters – hence the value of things like retreats and spiritual direction. Compared to previous generations, the commitment of lay people and clergy is second to none. And looking after people – we are a people business after all – is what ministry has been all about for me. I have strived to pay attention to my role as pastor.
The shepherd’s staff I carry reminds me and reassures me of this priority – and, like Bishop Odo encouraging some reluctant Norman soldiers in the Bayeaux tapestry, I have understood its prodding purpose in moving people on! It seems to me that our faith - and the hope it gives us to sustain us - provides us with a sufficiency of things about which we can speak truthfully and faithfully so that we don’t need to resort to the cheap tricks of this age to convince ourselves of what we are achieving. And we don’t need to worry. Yet we do, almost obsessively, in a reactive and managerial way to give us the false comfort and illusion of control. God does not need us to be his control freaks – sovereignty is His, and His alone. This is His Church – not yours or mine.
Thank goodness for that. We are its custodians and I am both relieved and bereft at leaving the controls – but slowly, reluctantly and fearfully I must learn to embrace a destiny that is not mine to control – and dig deep into a faith I have held since a time I have known no other that He who has called me is - and ever will - be faithful