Following an enormously challenging year we, the Bishops’ Leadership Team, are writing to encourage you and to offer a way ahead that we hope will be inspiring for you and your parishes over the coming months.
The last 14 months have been traumatic for our world, our nation and our church. We are so grateful to you for the dedication and courage that you have brought to ministry as you have led your people through times of anxiety, darkness and pain. The capacity of our parishes to adjust to constantly changing regulations, to be faithful in worship, to be generous in giving and to be compassionate in service has been incredible and we give thanks for you each day.
But we are now presented with huge challenges and equally huge opportunities as we look to the future of Christian life in our nation and we know that many of you are anxious about things such as your ministry to families which has proved so challenging during lockdown or PCC finances and that others of you are concerned about people who have not returned to church. And yet at the same time, there seems to be an awakening of faith in our nation, with new fringes, stronger relationships, and seemingly, a fresh openness to the gospel. So we are writing to you now with a way ahead for the diocese that we hope will inspire and encourage.
In Philippi, Paul and Silas endure a lockdown. For bearing witness to the Gospel, they find themselves chained up in prison and undergoing dreadful suffering. But the way in which this experience of trauma is transformed into a springboard for the mission of the Church carries rich wisdom for us in the year ahead.
First, Paul and Silas endure real pain. They must have been frightened, isolated and anxious with no idea of their fate. Our people too have suffered over this past year and they will need times to share experiences, to remember the departed and to come to terms with the trauma they have endured. So in the year ahead we need to make space for lament. Many of you will be planning memorial services or healing liturgies, but equally important is simply giving people time to talk.
But amazingly when in prison, Paul and Silas never fell into despair. In fact we read that in the middle of the night they were praying and singing hymns to God and that their fellow prisoners were listening to them. In the same way for us, even in lockdown we have gone on worshipping and praying. We have found new ways to come together and bear witness to our faith, including online by recorded or live-streamed services. We have encouraged and supported the amazing frontline workers who are seeing us through the pandemic. Many churches have built a new fringe and have seen new people come to faith. We need to make space for thanksgiving for all that God has done for us.
But the most remarkable aspect of the story is what happens when the earthquake destroys the prison. As the walls fell, any sane person would have run back home to a place of safety and hidden away for a bit. Not Paul and Silas! Instead, they stay put to minister to the jailer who is on the verge of killing himself out of shame for losing his prisoners. They bring him to faith, baptise him and his family and then they sit and eat together.
In response to a crisis, it would be very easy for us to look backwards, to want to retrench, rebuild, reminisce, or even simply run away. But as Paul and Silas demonstrate, healthy churches evangelise their way out of crisis, looking not backwards but forwards to what God is doing next. We will never ‘recover’ church life as it was in March 2020 and nor do we want to, because the potential of something much better is happening now. We will only emerge from this crisis with a new commitment to the mission of God in his world.
Inspired by Paul and Silas it’s time for us to Unlock. Over the course of the Spring and Summer there are a number of initiatives and resources which are all intended to support our Parishes as we emerge from this time of lockdown and pandemic and speak the Word of the Lord as Paul and Silas did to the jailer saying, “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16.31). Here are a few of the main ones:
There can be no doubting the formidable challenges that face our diocese, along with every other, in the years ahead as the pandemic magnifies a range of pre-existing issues around attendance, finance and buildings. We will need to look closely at how best we minister to the people of Lancashire in the decades ahead and make some significant decisions.
But we will never ‘manage’ or ‘decline’ our way out of a crisis. Only faith can do that. As a Diocese we remain committed to parish life, to maintaining our current numbers of stipendiary clergy, to forming excellent priests and lay leaders and to investing in the front line. We need more vocations to the priesthood and more lay leaders. And we need you!
It was with joy that Paul and Silas evangelised their way out of the lockdown crisis in Philippi. Similarly, “the jailer was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God, he and his whole family” (Acts 16.34). In the same way our ministry must be rooted not in fear, or anxiety, or dread, but in the joy of the Gospel. The risen Christ has set us free for ever, and if we share with the world the joy we find in Him, then beacons of fire will be lit up across Lancashire to the glory of God.
This comes with the assurance of our prayers.
Yours in Christ
Bishop Julian and The Bishops’ Leadership Team