Bishop Mike's Diocesan Synod address - Sept 2013

First published 21st September 2013

In his address to Diocesan Synod on 21 September, Bishop Mike laid out the challenge that we might share our faith and the Good News with others, making disciples and growing churches

Watch a three-minute version of Bishop Mike's Address:


Full text of the Address

In his book, Untying the Knot, Paul Vallely says of Pope Francis, prior to his Election as Pope, that he never really shone in the Congregation of Bishops. His way of speaking never really captivated his fellow bishops. He simply didnt stand out. Suddenly, however, in one speech, he records, the Cardinal made a speech which made the difference. I want to quote just a piece of what he actually said:

The only purpose of the Church is to go out to tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ.

But the Church has got too wrapped up in itself. It is too navel gazing. It has become self referential which has made it look sick.

He then made a joke about how we incline to understand the picture of Jesus knocking at the door as an attempt to get in. The then Cardinal remarked that it might be more likely that Christ wanted to let himself out of the Church and in to the world that He died for!

The Archbishop of Canterbury in his opening address to General Synod this summer said this to a Church which has a tendency to be obsessed with an agenda that is of little interest to many:

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed THE good news for our times. God is always good news; we are the ones who make ourselves irrelevant when we are not good news. And when we are good news, God's people see growing churches.

Two church leaders one agenda. Is this some kind of lucky accident, or is this a God moment, a kairos moment, I ask myself?

Growing churches is totally what we are about in this Diocese. Our Growth Programme - which focuses on growth in commitment, growth in partnership, growth in influence and growth in numbers has caught the vision of many churches across the Diocese. We hear exciting stories about the way the church in this area is truly being the good news of Jesus Christ in its local community.

Messy Churches, worship for families, prayer and perspiration, and Alpha have all added numbers to some of our churches.

We then have to address the really challenging matter of discipling the people; teaching them to live counter culturally; not being seduced into the slightly barmy ideas that our future will rest on us or that changing our values will bring an arrest to our decline. A friend said to me that it seemed ironic that a Church that seems very happy to bargain its values away seems to be so totally invested in the protection of its culture.

True, our growth programme rightly refuses to define growth too narrowly, and speaks of growth in commitment, partnership and influence as well as numbers. Its not all about bums on seats. But growth in numbers is a facet of the growth programme we mustnt ever lose sight of.

I was reading this week in the paper about a congregation in London. This congregation gathers in a church building on a Sunday morning, sits on uncomfortable chairs, sings songs, listens to a talk, greets their neighbour, hears about some community action projects - and files out again at the end after shaking the hand of the leader at the exit and going for coffee and cake in the hall. This congregation has grown from being a few friends linking on Facebook in January to a gathering of hundreds (the Times didnt say exactly how many hundred) today with an aspiration to see 30 more congregation plants around the country by the end of the year.

Sounds like a church. Looks like a church. Even feels a bit like a church.

But this is, in fact, the Sunday Assembly, a secular event for non-believers, founded by comedian Sanderson Jones and musician Pippa Evans. God is entirely absent. Woe to us if such a description might be true of any of our churches!

The writer of the article, Ruth Gledhill, obviously sees this gathering as some kind of threat to the real church. Her closing words are The Church of England had better watch out. But I think Ms Gledhill is missing a point here. At one level, I actually find it immensely encouraging that so many young people should want to gather together in this way. In many senses they are doing everything the Christian church has traditionally done for many years. They even take a collection!

And people want to come.

We sometimes think as a church that we have to do things radically differently if we are going to attract people enough for them to get out of bed and come along on a Sunday. But Jenny and David, from Richmond in Surrey, attending the Sunday Assembly for the first time, are quoted as saying,

Normally on Sunday mornings we are in bed. But this seemed like a nice thing to come to.

People do want to meet with others. People do want to discuss the big topics of the day. People do even quite like singing songs together, so it seems.

How many people would describe some of our churches as, a nice thing to come to? One thing that I think is a factor, not in our favour, is the idea that somehow to come to church you have to be a sorted person.

But most of all, what we, the Christian Church, have what the Sunday Assembly has not got and we must never forget this is the living, transforming presence of the almighty God; the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, and the Word of God which bears witness to the Living Word, Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again from the dead to bring us life in all its fullness. In comparison, the Sunday Assemblys motto live better, help often and wonder more seems somewhat lame.

And so back to growth. What the Sunday Assembly shows us is that numerical growth is possible. In that instance its almost too easy. Well all wait with bated breath for the first signs of conflict and schism in the Sunday Assembly. (Itll probably come soon after they decide to form a Synod).

What we are about as a Christian church, as the church of God in the Diocese of Bristol - is a growth in numbers that is based on something much deeper and more lasting than a desire to sing a few songs with some nice people and is a pleasant thing to do on Sunday morning. We are after a numerical growth that is profoundly rooted and grounded in the good news of Jesus Christ and the response of people to his invitation to come and drink from the water of life.

And the church must play a vital part in that invitation.

I think it was Saint Augustine who said that outside the church there is no salvation. Of course, what we would want to avoid suggesting is that people can only meet with Jesus Christ inside the four walls of a church building. Or that people only find salvation through the processes and plans of any one denomination or another. Or that the Holy Spirit only works through Christians.

But what we might agree with Augustine about is that the church the body of Christ the faithful you and I plays an essential role in bringing people closer towards the Jesus we love and worship. There is something significant about the role of the church in growth. As it says in Romans 10:14 How can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?

Perhaps one of our tasks, as the Growth Programme gathers pace in this Diocese, is to equip Christians, the Diocese over, with the confidence to share their faith with others, with people like Jenny and David from Richmond, with people who are obvious seeking for something beyond the everyday, but dont quite know where to look.

One of the ways in which many of our churches around the Diocese are helping people to share their faith is through running Alpha courses. I have heard of several of them starting off in these next few weeks. The Alpha course has for many years been a tried and tested way of helping the church to share the good news of Jesus. There is nothing magical or particularly unique about the way the Alpha course does things. But it does seem to provide a forum to help Christians to invite their friends to experience some of the things it seems the people at the Sunday Assembly are looking for good food, good company, a chance to grapple with the big questions of life. And then to offer so much more an encounter with the living God in the power of the Holy Spirit. It would be good to pray for all the Alpha courses starting this Autumn that they will bear much fruit.

But it will do us well to examine our own hearts and the reality of our churches. I am ashamed that in what always seems to me too many places the local church is marked by a stuffy and ill-conceived conservatism or a complete lack of concern for those who, without Christ, might face a Christless eternity. Even worse, a small number of churches are marked by a rancour that is shameful.

I once heard a priest say that he had encouraged his people to invite their friends to the church's guest service. One of his parishioners had made it clear that he wouldnt bring his worst friends to the church concerned. The priest, as a result, then asked himself whether he would be willing to bring his friends to the church he was responsible for. It was only in an honest moment when he discovered that he could only answer that question in the negative that he decided things needed to change.

To refocus on growth is to ask some other questions which we shall be addressing later this morning. Our ministry and our recruitment. What kind of women and men will we need to raise up, to invite to join us, who will share this passion? How will we re-evangelise our Diocese with what will very likely be fewer paid clergy? These are weighty questions and I am delighted that we shall be thinking about this together. What kind of people will enable and encourage their churches to connect with Jenny and David from Richmond. Or Bedminster. Or Redland. Or Dorcan?

I began this address with a quote by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who, I am delighted to tell you, will be visiting the Diocese of Bristol next September, from the 12th to the 14th September. A major focus of that visit will be a new Alpha initiative in this Diocese, a launch dinner in the Cathedral and a series of events leading up to the visit that will really boost our confidence in sharing our faith with others. More of that in the coming months.

When we are good news, God's people see growing Churches.

Can we be that good news?

Rt Revd Mike Hill, Bishop of Bristol

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