On Tuesday of this week (13.9.2021) the clergy of the Diocese of Bangor gathered together for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. It was my privilege to give the address.
As a team of clergy in the diocese, we had become accustomed to being together, worshipping together, as well as learning with and from one another prior to the pandemic. Whilst we have gathered together virtually over the last 18 months, it was good to be together as a clergy team again.
It gave us the opportunity to break bread and Word together, and to consider how we can refocus, be heralds of hope, and not be afraid of change as we lead our church communities out of this period of pandemic.
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Dydd Mawrth yr wythnos hon (13.9.2021) ymgynullodd clerigion Esgobaeth Bangor am y tro cyntaf ers dechrau’r pandemig. Roedd yn fraint i fi eu hannerch.
Fel tîm o glerigion yn yr esgobaeth, roeddem wedi dod yn gyfarwydd â bod gyda’n gilydd, i addoli yn ogystal â dysgu gyda’n gilydd ac oddi wrth ein gilydd cyn y pandemig. Er ein bod wedi cyfarfod dros y we yn ystod y 18 mis diwethaf, roedd yn dda bod yng nghwmni ein gilydd unwaith eto.
Gawsom gyfle dorri bara a Gair, ac ystyried sut y gallwn ailffocysu, cyhoeddi gobaith a pheidio ofni newid wrth i ni arwain ein cymunedau eglwysig allan o’r cyfnod hwn o bandemig.
“TS Eliot in ‘Burnt Norton’, from the Four Quartets says:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
I am conscious as we meet together that these words are worthy of some reflection but also come afresh as an invitation. The Governing Body of the CiW has already made progress in trying to understand what it is we should carry with us into the next stage of our journey and what we should leave behind. The blessings of online worship and the creativity we have discovered have shown us we are light on our feet and able to adapt to new challenges quickly. But the pandemic also made us realize we were anxious as a church, at times frenetic rather than purposeful and that one of the things we need to shed is fear and hopelessness. Things like this cash out in bold but hard choices we make which can be costly. But they are necessary. As a diocese we’ve done some similar thinking too: we’ve tried to understand what life must now be like as we emerge from the pandemic. We know the temptation is to revert and return to what is familiar. We will be conscious of the pressure from within ourselves, our congregations and the system which demands BMF payments and a host of other requests. It can feel that the treadmill is already wound up and spinning fast.
So let us now pause: must it be like this, really like this? Is there a choice, are there alternatives? In the language of TS Eliot, is this one of those times we need to open a door and travel a different route – with new courage and hope?
And we could call on endless Scriptures to aid us here. I think of Elijah called, not once but twice, to abandon himself to the normal standards and routines of life and become subject to the most unexpected of servants: ravens and a widow. Neither would normally be regarded as either safe or secure vessels to help but this is what the Lord commanded and it’s what Elijah did. (1 Kings 17). And he found God was there and his faith was justified. Or I think of the Lord Jesus Christ himself who chose Peter. He named him the Rock but that Rock would shatter, fall apart under pressure and remain ruined until the Risen Lord’s restoring love made sense of the title given to him.
The point I think is that our history is one in which this pattern of discovering God, when we are in particular need, is not new but must always be appropriated anew. This is deceptively easy to say and trundle out. But what does it mean to acknowledge that we need to be liberated into the important and vital tasks? How do we discover the place where heaven seems to open and angels ascend and descend from heaven to earth? That’s the cue for my principal text which is Genesis 28:10f and the arrival of Jacob at the place he named Bethel.
I’ve been reflecting again on our life and in particular on two core activities in the New Testament:
And I want to begin with the first of those words. God said to Jacob ‘I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you’ (v 15). These are preceded with words which promise descendants, as numerous as the dust and land which will be for their keeping. What is staggering about the promise is that it comes to the biggest crook in town. A liar and a cheat, guilty of identity theft and intellectual property robbery too of the first order. There might even be a case of money laundering too.
But God chooses Jacob to bless all peoples on earth. We could dwell on why this scandalous choice is made and find resonance in the NT with Paul’s take on the wisdom of God who, in Christ, chooses the foolish and things that are not to shame the things which are. But I want us to pause at the point of promise. God commits himself in promise to this rogue. He sets no conditions or negotiates equal terms. But Jacob is no spectator. The grace of God draws from him new understanding with which he can identify: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it’ he says.
In his book ‘Beyond Duty: A Passion for Christ, a Heart for Mission’ Tim Dearborn (p. 2) says: ‘God’s church falters from exhaustion because Christians erroneously think that God has given them a mission to perform in the world. Rather, the God of mission has given his church to the world. It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world’.
I wonder in our Ministry Areas if we know where the Lord is? Are we like Jacob, not aware of it and doing many good things but somehow, missing the moment of visitation and of discovering God at work? If evangelism really is catching up with God and partnering in God’s work – can we discover gates of heaven anew in the places we live and in which we minister?
If the image of that door from TS Eliot means anything then it must mean walking a path where God is at work and implicitly walking away from things which are unfruitful. If we need to redesign priorities, stop certain activities in order to do what is blessed and good then do this, we must.
The 2nd word is perhaps the most important of all because it is the act of giving what is due to God and bringing joy and blessing so that others live out the week ahead. I know much has been written already about the tension between online and in-person worship so will not add to that. But as I talk to colleagues, I know there are tensions which are new but also ongoing: we have many services to conduct, most of the churches are content with the familiar and practical considerations (ministry in the week such as funerals) can mean we have less time to prepare. Very often Sunday worship exhausts us even if it provides well for our congregations.
We do, in truth, need to attend to what our worship consists of this year. I do not believe it is either sustainable or healthy for us to offer the previous package of virtually identical services across the Ministry Area and imagine that much will change. I want to offer both my permission and urge action on colleagues (or your own sake as well as for the church) to focus on what is really life giving and what is sustainable. How can worship flourish where you are?
However my concern is not just for the service rota. My concern is for you. When Jacob woke from his dream, he marked the place of encounter with oil and named it Bethel, the house of God. He understood this moment was significant and for him, necessary. He would go on to say that if God would be with him, then God would be his Lord. He set off on the next part of the journey and, we’re told, to the land of the ‘eastern peoples’. The journey forward happened because the encounter fitted him for the next step. And I wonder in the light of the strangeness and demand of Covid, whether you have the encounters you need to fit you for the journey? Are there moments when heaven opens and the angels ascend and descend? I’m not speaking of Sunday services because you will be giving for the sake of others. I mean for you – your heart and your soul nourished and blessed by goodness from above?
The need for leaders, priests, to have good time with God is essential. And though we will not be the rogues that he was, well, most of us anyway, what ought to inspire us is that God did not give up. Elsewhere in the story there is that wrestling. God would not let go. And if God promises the long walk with us then that door is the portal toward good things.”