Bishop Paul gave the Presidential Address to Diocesan Synod on Saturday 12th
A full transcript of the address follows along with the video of the same.
On the first day of my sabbatical study leave I read Mark 6.30-44. I wrote in my study leave journal, “Very apposite with 3 months reflecting on Child Poverty ahead. Jesus response of compassion – teaching and feeding in the context of tiredness and need of rest. Am I being assured time aside to rest with Jesus is good? Am I being alerted that unexpected busy-ness may occur? I then noted down part of Chris Neal’s comment in Scripture Union’s WordLive notes; “How in the love and grace of Jesus can you enable them (family, colleagues, friends) to discover a place of home and belonging? The food which they require may well be physical but may be emotional and spiritual. But let’s not forget the abundance of the God who calls us.”
Apart from being committed to preach at the enthronement of Bishop Martin Nyaboho as the new archbishop of Burundi the intention had been to do no preaching in the 3 months. But in Kabale, Uganda, my long standing friend Bishop Enoch Kayeeye had arranged for me to preach on Kigezi Radio on the Sunday morning and speak in the chapel at the Vocational Training College. I could not let him down. I looked up the readings; the gospel was Mark 6.30-44. I wrote in my journal, “Mark 6.30-44 is coming to be the passage of the study leave. Struck again by the context of the disciples returning from their mission – how excited they must have been and how tired – they needed time to reflect, thought they would get it – but then don’t. The stress on compassion as that which drives Jesus – caring for them and wanting to guide them. Reflect afresh on our lives being taken, blessed, broken and given.”
Towards the very end of the three months the passage emerged again and I remember leaning across to Rosemary and noting to her how central it had been in the study leave. The use of it here today had nothing to do with me. So I think God is trying to say something clearly to us all through this passage.
POVERTY & CHILD POVERTY
The focus of my time away has been poverty, and specifically child poverty. Children matter immensely to God; remember Jesus own welcome of children and his clear words,
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18.3-5)
At the very heart of God there is a passionate commitment to the poor, which fundamentally includes the care of all children, and especially those in need.
“He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves those who live justly. The Lord watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” (Psalm 146.7-9)
So it is brilliant that we have spent so much of today with children and young people as our focus. What we have heard leads us to ask some deep and hard questions. They are ones that the children and young people themselves raise. They have been raised for me by my study leave. In visiting Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi I was reminded that over 50% of their population is under 20. We met many children, and listened to them; we saw hundreds in churches; we saw many in deep poverty.
Child poverty is a scourge across the globe. Its causes are complex; the Bible itself makes it clear that poverty is caused by wrong social structures; by natural disasters, both great and small; and sometimes by idleness and self will. All must be responded to in appropriate ways. However the main causes are the social structural ones. God’s most scathing critique, through the prophets and others, is of those who create and collude with social structures that lead people into, or hold people in poverty. If we invert the list and suggest that the primary causes are individuals who do not get their own act together for themselves or their family then we do not hear God’s profound warnings to nations and societies that fail to recognise the oppression of the poor.
Then we must always recognise that children in poverty are never there through their own fault or choice. The measure of a society can be assessed by how it responds to children, and particularly vulnerable children. At different times and in different cultures the practical out workings of this response will vary. But what must be consistent is that children have decent shelter and sanitation, are adequately clothed, fed and watered, have proper healthcare, decent education, and have opportunity and choice available to them. At the very core they must be valued as full human beings made in the image of God and loved by him; therefore loved by us too. The greatest poverty is to not be loved, and to not know they are loved by God.
So as the church of Jesus Christ who welcomed children we have to work with all people of good will to seek to end child poverty in our own land, and across a world in which so many are truly poor.
So practically for us how well are we being good neighbours to the children, young people and families who live down our street, on our estate, in our village? Do we value them, love them, encourage them?
Are we willing to work for a society in which the incomes of the poorest are adequate for children to have decent homes, be properly clothed and fed and have as good a school as anyone else? Are we committed to creating the place and space where every child knows they are loved?
So how well as the churches of the diocese are we praying for, supporting, encouraging and nurturing our own church schools, and the children who attend them? How well are we doing at building relationships with all schools, and colleges and universities, and seeing them as crucial places for us to engage in?
Our church schools are doing fantastic work, and there is so much good involvement in many other schools; Open the Book teams, governors, volunteers, teaching and other staff, assemblies being taken, RE being taught, and church buildings being visited for many different purposes; Prayer Spaces in Schools have been wonderful. I want to remind us all that church schools are present to serve the community. We are not in the education world to simply serve children from churchgoing families; we are open to all and are for all. Where we look at opening new schools it is to serve the community in which those schools are set. Our schools often offer extended services through pre school and nursery provision; through breakfast and after school clubs and through provision during the holidays. Every single church congregation should be praying regularly for its local children, its local schools and find appropriate ways of engaging with those children and schools.
If we must all become like children how can we if we are not having regular contact and engagement with children? A church that is not connecting with children must by definition be spiritually diminished through that omission. So where there are no children or young people in our churches we have to urgently find ways of doing so. This may well be through engagement with local schools.
But it may also be through engaging with children out on the streets, in the local parks and where activities take place. If we think that large numbers of children or young people will come through church doors just because we lay on something geared towards them we have to think again. Children and young people are engaged in so many activities. So why not volunteer to help with the local football, rugby, cricket, or table tennis club? Or help out with the local drama or dance classes. Let your halls and church spaces be used by these activities. Consider partnering with the work of Communities Together Durham, Youth for Christ in Durham, Darlington, Hartlepool, Scripture Union, YMCA and many other organisations. Just show children and young people that you care.
Run parenting classes to help parents who wonder how best to raise their children. Of course each church cannot do everything but each church ought to be able to do at least two things that engage with children and young people; every church can and should pray for schools, and for the children in our area, and then a scone active engagement ought to be possible. This is true whatever the average age of our congregation might be. If we offer ourselves as meagre loaves and fish Jesus will take us, bless us, he may have to break us, and he will give us to others for their nourishment not our own.
As we engage with children and young people then we will hear the reality of their lives, and may find ourselves engaging more directly in responding to, and challenging the causes of poverty. We will hear the kinds of life questions they are asking – and they ask all the very biggest questions. We will hear their own experiences of God. Then we might just begin to grasp the ways in which we might help them discover more deeply with us that Jesus is real, alive, active, welcoming and gives us life in all its fullness. We might discover from them what it means to enter God’s kingdom.
GOING FOR IT
My time in East Africa, and my conversations with Anglican leaders from the Global South at their gathering in Cairo, also highlighted another lesson for us from our sisters and brothers elsewhere. Let me tell you two stories to illustrate this lesson.
Kigali Diocese in Rwanda recognised a significant rural area where there were no known churches. They decided that the Great Commission meant that they should go and share the good news of Jesus in that area. A woman priest stepped forward and offered to head it up. She went with a couple of others, prayed around the area and identified a community building in which they could start. They put the word around and produced some information; on the first Sunday there were just 5 of them. On the next there were 7 or 8. After a while the building became unavailable so they just met outside. 3-4 years on there is a regular congregation of 150. They are looking at building their own place; are paying fully for their pastor, and more. They are deeply engaged in local community development. Now such ventures are not always so successful. But the lesson I highlight is that they began with nothing. They did not actually sit and wait for a long time to get started. They said effectively, ‘Lord we only have some loaves and fish but we place them in your hands.’ God took them and used them.
In Bujumbura, capital of Burundi, a few years ago 3 women saw that some babies were being abandoned because the mothers simply could not cope with another mouth to feed, or the stigma of being a single parent. They saw bodies not abandoned but whose lives would be very short because of the mother’s own health and inability to care. So they started a baby home. Rapidly they decided that this was not the best way forward; what these young lives needed was loving homes not an institution. So they began to find families willing to foster these babies. 10 years on hundreds of babies have been given life and hope. The whole project, the Rainbow Centre, supports and works with the foster families. They support them for several years. Rosemary and I visited a couple of these foster families. They live in a poor part of the city. They make the most of the homes they have; above all they love the children and it was wonderful to hear from the children themselves their hopes and dreams for life.
The heart attitude of this, and other projects we saw, is not to talk about what they do not have but to be generous with everything that they do have. There is an approach that says God calls us, we respond and God meets us in our need.
In both stories, one of church planting the other of responding to extreme child poverty, the approach is to see what can be done, not focus on what cannot be done. The approach is God calls us so we go and start with what we can do and see what God grows. The conviction is not to look to people from outside to tell us what to do, or indeed to wait for them to support us in doing it; it is a ‘Can do in the power of the Spirit and the name of Jesus’ approach rather than a ‘cannot do’.
So I return from my study leave fired up. I long that we change our approach at every level of our life into one where we might look at the crowds and feel like the disciples with Jesus but then hear him say to us, ‘What do you have?’ And place this in his hands and see what He might do.
Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the USA, the ongoing savagery in Syria and Iraq, the reality of migration around the globe, the ever increasing issue of adequate clean water supplies across the globe, the impact of climate change, the apparent inability of the UN to really offer agreed ways forward, continued massive population growth and more that you could name all mean that we are living in more uncertain times than many of us can remember. As followers of Jesus we trust that time and history are ultimately in God’s hands and that his purposes are being worked out as we look for the day when the kingdom will come in all it’s wonderful fullness. But in the light of that sure hope we are called to live God’s way now and to share his life, love and hope with our world. Part of how we will do so is by ensuring children’s lives are the best that they can be, which must include tackling child poverty together. The task may just look too big and beyond us; it is if we fail to recognise Jesus presence amongst us. We must learn from the first disciples to place the little that we have in God’s hands and see what abundance he produces.