Text below is the transcript of the address given by Bishop Robert (that’s him, below) to the churches of the Barnstaple Mission Community on Sunday 18th March 2018.
“Is there anything of which it may be said: See this is new?” A question posed long ago by that miserable Old Testament preacher, Ecclesiastes; but pertinent for us today as we commission this new Group Ministry for the churches of Barnstaple.
Today is a day for giving the mission and ministry of the Church in this town a new look and a fresh vision. We give thanks for all that has been achieved, and say ‘Yes’ to everything that God is calling us to embrace in our discipleship of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But it’s also a day for avoiding the trap of nouvelle cuisine – all style and no substance. And that will only happen if everyone here swings behind this fresh start and makes a go of it. Words by themselves will achieve nothing.
‘Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord all the earth. Tell of his salvation from day to day.’ If I had a text for today, it would be those opening words of Psalm 96. The trouble is, learning a new song is never easy. If an organist ever dares to change the tune to which a familiar hymn is sung, the gripes and groans that go up from a congregation are endless, even when the old hymn tune was a dreadful dirge. It’s so easy in life to default to the familiar, even when the familiar is negative.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Gareth Malone on the television and the amazing way he draws out the musical talents of people, be they military wives, or staff in the Royal Mail or the scratch choir of a hospital in Staffordshire. He always emphasises the importance of articulating the lyrics – so that the audience doesn’t miss the message.
We Christians have our own special song; and in spite of our different traditions and styles of worship, we are all agreed on the lyrics.
The lyrics are those of God who “so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.
The lyrics are of our Saviour Jesus Christ “who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and was obedient unto death” but rose again and longs to live through you and me.
The lyrics are those of the Holy Spirit who empowers us to be Christ’s eyes and hands and feet in this generation here and now.
They are lyrics of glory because we sing of heaven and pray that one day we may rejoice in the vision of God for ever.
The lyrics are unchanging but the audience has. We live in a very different country from the days when this ancient church of St Peter was built 700 years ago or even when the late Billy Graham led his crusade in Britain in the 1960s. Our nation may not be post-Christian, but it is certainly no longer Christian in the way it was once considered to be, and we need to face that reality square on as we endeavour to get our act together.
What has also not changed is the call of Jesus Christ to follow him, his commission to make new disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; to go into the world and engage in the public square, whether in the Panier Market, in local schools, or in the council chamber.
Jesus promises to be with us to the end of time, but he bids us witness: meet, act and, where necessary, confront, especially on behalf of the poor and socially excluded in our communities. We need to expose the secular assumptions that pervade so much of contemporary living in the confidence that comes from being grounded in the transforming love of God.
If you are ready to answer Christ’s call, then you need to raise your sights way beyond the inward-looking agendas that all-too-often bedevil PCCs. Beware of getting bogged down with things that do not address the issues that actually matter to the people of Barnstaple, and which, to be frank, bore the pants off most church people too.
Because let’s be clear: unless we engage with the issues that are shaping Britain today, then we will be expelled from the public square – and deserve to be. The Church of God is not a religious club for members only: it is the Body of Christ and we’ve a job to do and a difference to make. It’s why Jesus bid us be salt and light in the world.
I’ve read your Group Ministry Action Plan and there is so much that I want to affirm in what you are doing as parishes and individuals in your witness to Christ. For example, I think it’s great the way you are endeavouring to make your churches fit for purpose in the 21st century. Many young parents are happy to take their toddlers to the supermarket or to the library, but don’t want their babies crawling around under a dark pew in the dirt. Regular members in the congregation do not always realise this, confusing the smell of damp hassocks with the odour of sanctity.
The time has come to work together more strategically and more imaginatively than you have been doing in the past. This new Group Ministry is a means to that end. Together you can do great things, but separately you will be less effective. So this morning let me set before you four areas for you to think through as you discern priorities and shape your mission to the people of Barnstaple.
First, young people. How can you as a group of churches, committed to working together, engage more effectively with your local schools and young people? In so many of our schools today religion is presented as essentially irrational and potentially unstable, often on the spurious basis that science and religion are incompatible.If you and I seriously long for a Christian presence in Barnstaple in the years ahead then you need to be in your schools now, listening and talking.
Secondly, how are you going to engage intelligently with your local health centres, hospital and hospice over the major ethical issues that are arising from developments in genetics, or with the debate around assisted suicide and euthanasia? My worry is if we opt out of these debates we will collude with the growing public perception that Christians are out-of-touch, or worse still, that Christians are only given to shrill, negative and extreme opinions. In Devon there are increasing numbers of people with mental health problems. As Christians, what have you to say about human well-being in Barnstaple?
Thirdly, how are you going to engage with the new housing developments that are springing up around the place? Is a joint bid for funding from the diocesan New Housing Project Fund possible? When new people arrive in a town they are eager to make friends and to bond with the local community. What an opportunity. Don’t squander it.
And fourthly, how can you work together to support and engage with local businesses? Is their mileage for more town centre ministry, based here at St Peter’s, but run jointly by St Peter’s and the other parishes? Please don’t retreat into a privatised world of religion. Centuries ago the prophet Jeremiah told the Jews living in exile in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city in which they lived. And God says the same thing to you today in Barnstaple. As Christian people we are committed to human flourishing and building up the community in which we live and work.
For all these things, and many others besides, we have important lyrics in our Christian song. Yet, sadly, most people today aren’t hearing them. Why is that? Perhaps because the words we speak come across tritely, weakly, inarticulately; or maybe they are simply not coming across at all? Can you help one another in communicating better with the local community, learning from one another about what flopped and why it flopped, and what has gone really well and why?
Recent research has shown that putting words to music makes the words four times more likely to be remembered. I’m not suggesting that you set the Gospel to rap and the local clergy stand outside the Panier Market leading shoppers in a sing song – though I can guarantee that would make headlines in the local paper.
What I’m saying is that putting across a Christian message with credibility means releasing ourselves from Meccano-like ecclesiastical structures and stale constitutions, so that the words we use together, the very Gospel message we’re about, really does become music to people’s ears. And for that to happen, our lives and our words have to marry up.
In Gareth Malone’s last series he put a choir behind a screen and told them to sing the words of the song they were practising, first not smiling, and then with smiles. It was easy to detect which performance was which – for with the smiles came a bounce and a joy that transformed their performance. It’s why joy is key to our missionary task. Joy is what makes the Gospel infectious.
I must confess that I’ve not detected an over-abundance of joie-de-vivre in the Church of England over the past decade, and I take my own part in the blame for that. But it is why we talk about ‘serving the people of Devon with joy’. Those last two words of our third diocesan priority ‘with joy’ are not an optional extra. Miserable, grumpy, burnt-out Christians aren’t a good advert for the Gospel. Without a dollop of joy, all the words we utter will sound pedestrian, constraining, and stultifying.
So take to heart the words of St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians which we had as our reading this morning: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
You have been wrestling with structures and stipendiary allocation for years. That’s now settled, hopefully for the long term. So the energy that has been directed inwards to sorting out your organisation needs now to be turned outwards to engage with the local community. And what better day to do this than on Passion Sunday when, in company with Christians throughout the world, we prepare to walk the way of the cross.
So let me invite you to give your best energy no longer to the organisation of the Church, but to placing all that you are and all that you strive to be into Christ’s hands. Then the words and notes you sing will become so integral to your being that the amazing truth of Christ’s vision for this world will dawn on others and we understand the meaning of his words: “Behold, I make all things new.”
+ Robert Exon
So, it’s been a while since I blogged- actually this is my first post of the year and I didn’t even write it myself. I’ve been busy, with one thing and another- taking on a new bit of responsibility in my work, supporting a large number of bereaved families and so on, and that’s meant my notes for Sunday mornings are less fully worked out. I do want to get back to blogging, and not just posting sermon texts, but it’s one of those things that seems a bit of a luxury at the moment… we’ll see what the next few weeks bring.