Bishop Martyn’s Presidential Address for Diocesan Synod February 2021
This last week, I facilitated a meeting of diocesan bishops reflecting on our experiences of lockdown. I was asked to chair the meeting for no other reason than that Leicester has been in lockdown for longer than anywhere else in the country. So without breaking any confidences, I thought you might be interested to hear some of the themes.
Firstly, we all enjoyed the space in small groups simply to tell our own personal story and to be listened to by colleagues. I think this is a natural human trait but it’s something we easily forget in a Zoom world where many of our meetings focus on the urgent demands we’re facing. Story telling is powerful – and listening is powerful. And we all need space for both, acknowledging that each of our stories is unique.
Secondly, we are all prone to compare ourselves with others – and the result is usually a negative assessment of our own ministry. Bishops are no different to anyone else in this regard. We hear someone else’s positive story and inwardly we use it as a stick to beat ourselves – ‘why didn’t I think of doing that’, ‘why am I not doing more of that’, ‘what’s wrong with me that I’m not achieving those sorts of results’. How easily we lose sight of grace and work instead from a place of shame or guilt.
Thirdly, while social media can be a great way of connecting with others, it can also be ugly, hurtful and a very poor witness to Christian values. Some bishops, as with many clergy and lay ministers, have been deeply hurt and demoralised by the abuse they have received on social media. At a time when we are all feeling vulnerable and fragile, when we are all making mistakes and having learn as we go along, it might be time for the social media companies to insert a pause button, an ‘are you sure you want to post this’ button, an ‘is this is really reflective of your values’ button.
Fourthly, we are all feeling the tension between the need to live in the present, and the need to plan for the future. This is not a simple either/or question. We have to do both, but we also have to acknowledge that it’s not easy. So, we need to live in the present, to care for ourselves and one another in the midst of the grave challenges we are facing today. We need to hear what God is saying to us in the midst of this time of suffering and allow our responses to be shaped by God. Yet we know the time is coming when most of the population will be vaccinated, when we will start to socialise again (though probably with some form of social distancing in place for some time to come), and in the same way that we’ve learnt to live with the flu virus, so we will learn to live with the Corona virus (remembering that in recent years between 1,000 and 10,000 people in the UK have died with flu each year). So how do we plan for this ‘living with coronavirus’ era? How will we deal with the long-term mental health challenges? How will we deal with the backlog of NHS cases? How will we support those children whose education has been so disrupted? And how will the church adapt to new ways of interacting?
The House of Bishops has discussed these questions at some length in recent meetings. And the press has speculated on these discussions with many scare stories about plans to drastically cut the number of stipendiary clergy and close large numbers of buildings. I can assure you these are scare stories with very little basis in fact. The truth is that none of us knows quite what the future will hold, and we may yet find the church bouncing back in all sorts of surprising ways.
And so this brings me to our discussions today. Shaped by God Together is all about planning for the future – not just a ‘living with Covid’ world, but also the specific questions of buildings, finance and ministry which we’ve struggled with for some years. But how do we talk about these things, while also living in the present, praying ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and following Jesus’ teaching to not worry about your life, but to place your trust in God? There are no easy answers to this, but we must do both.
And finally, in this time of now and not yet, we also have some tough decisions to make. Today, with regard to the Cathedral, the question of whether we are prepared to use some of our precious financial reserves to enable the Cathedral to fulfil its vision to be a beating heart for the city and county. I hope we will, but I also know that later this year, we will face similar tough decisions about how to support the Board of Education in their vision to transform the lives of children and young people through distinctive Christian education, and how we will support the St Philip’s centre in their vision for interfaith work, helping communities learn to live well together. And all this at a time when many parishes are struggling financially and are giving sacrificially and generously in their contribution to the diocese. These are tough decisions which demand that we are both prudent and wise in our use of the resources God has given us while also trusting God for the future.
This week we begin Lent - a good time to reflect on our experiences of the last year and in particular to look for the signs of God at work today. Who could have imagined that God would come among us as one who suffers? Who could have imagined that God would submit himself to the powers of this world and allow himself to be crucified? And who today can imagine the risen Christ, alive, at work among us by his Spirit? So, let us not be anxious or troubled about today or about the future – Easter is coming, and we will sing Alleluia together again soon!