Presidential Address to the Gloucester Diocesan Synod
on 1 February 2104
(An audio version of this address can be heard here)
I want this morning to look at some forthcoming events through 2014. First let me say that it has started well for me. Of course I hope it has for you. But it has started well for me in this way. For the first four Sundays of the year I have been in full churches and I don’t mean little village churches where a full church means 50 people (though I was in one of those too and it was also full), but large church buildings, and each one was full for Sunday morning worship. Each had a good age spread, each had a music group or orchestra, each had a real atmosphere of worship and welcome, each had an attentive growing congregation. Each encouraged me enormously.
There are many things wrong with the Church today. There are huge challenges to us in reaching younger generations. There are church communities where we are struggling, a few where we are failing. There is no room for complacency. But God is doing wonderful things in our midst. We should rejoice. We should be encouraged. We should have a proper kind of confidence. We certainly should not be afraid. Those who write us off have simply got it wrong. Take heart!
Being in a different church each Sunday, well, usually two different churches each Sunday, sometimes three, is one of the joys of being a bishop. People still sometimes ask, after a service, who is looking after the cathedral for me, and I explain (yet again) that there is a dean, there are canons, and my job is not to run the cathedral, but to be in the parishes, presiding over the sacraments, preaching and teaching, encouraging and drawing the churches of the diocese into a deeper sense of fellowship with one another. And on the evening of Sunday 27 April at Compton Abdale in the Northleach benefice I will reach a certain landmark in that ministry.
There are, I believe, 355 parish churches in the Diocese of Gloucester and I am fairly confident that, with my visit to Compton Abdale, I will be able to say that I have led worship on a Sunday or holy day in every one of those 355. There may be slightly less because one or two of those 355 might not be parish churches. But anyhow I have visited them all. Of course there are some where I have done that many times, but at least from 27 April I will have done so at least once in every parish church. There are, of course, some other chapels of ease, daughter churches and the like (about 30 of them) and the majority of these I have been too also, but certainly every parish church. Whether any Bishop of Gloucester has ever done this before I don’t know. Certainly none in living memory and I am glad to have achieved it. It has brought me much pleasure and I hope it has been an encouragement to others, especially those tiny village communities in vast multi-parish benefices that hadn’t seen the Bishop of Gloucester for decades. So enjoy this little achievement with me, even though it is not of great consequence!
One week later, on Sunday 4 May, I shall celebrate the tenth anniversary of my ordination as Bishop of Gloucester. Some of you were there in St Paul’s Cathedral on 4 May 2004. It’s another little personal milestone. It’s a sobering thought that will it have taken me ten years to visit those 355+ churches, though I don’t know how it could have been done much quicker.
Jump forward five weeks now to Pentecost Sunday, 8 June. That’s the day I begin a pilgrimage. Forgive the indulgence of taking you on a little tour of the diocese to tell you about the pilgrimages I have undertaken. The first was in 2008. It was my distinctive contribution to the millennium of the county of Gloucestershire. I set off with ten fellow pilgrims from Tewkesbury one Sunday morning in June and walked over the next seven days on a route that took us to as many places that were Saxon settlements or had Saxon or early Norman churches as we could sensibly fit in, ending at Winchcombe the following Sunday, 101 miles and 34 churches later.
“Can we do this every year?” people asked and the answer was “No, it will lose its impact if we do it too often. We’ll do another in three years.” But, in the years in between we did some single day Saturday pilgrimages. There were six over the two years, 2009 and 2010, clocking up another 53 miles and 31 churches - Moreton-in-Marsh to Chipping Campden, Guiting Power to Winchcombe, Christ Church Forest of Dean to Parkend, Temple Guiting to Winchcombe, Northleach to Fairford, Little Sodbury to Charfield.
Then in 2011 it was time for another week long pilgrimage and this time the intention was, however briefly, to walk into every deanery to celebrate the formation of our new larger more strategic deaneries. 15 pilgrims this time, including some from Västerås and El Camino Real. We started at Newnham on Severn, just in the Forest Deanery, and we ended at Wotton - only 94 miles this time, but 35 churches.
It was after that pilgrimage that the group of people who have been at the core of these pilgrimages came more formally into a pilgrimage group and formulated an ambition. The ambition was to ensure that by the end of 2014 I would have walked through every parish on the boundary of the diocese as well as having criss-crossed the diocese at various times as well. And walking the boundary parishes, excluding the ones already walked, would involve another 190 miles and that is more than could be done in a week - at least by me! So the plan was and has been to walk the majority of it in advance of a big 2014 pilgrimage and that has almost been done now. By April I will have undertaken eight one day pilgrimages around the edge of the diocese, from Staunton to Tutshill, from Mickelton to Dumbleton, from Redmarley to Gorsley, from Quinton to Todenham, from the other Staunton to Kemerton, from Great Rissington to Southrup, from English Bicknor to Clifford’s Mesne and from Lower Lemington to Westcote, a distance of 101 miles, stopping at 47 churches.
And that leaves a mere 89 miles to be walked in June, setting off from Whelford, near Fairford, on Pentecost Sunday and arriving at the Cathedral on the Eve of Trinity Sunday, taking in 26 churches on the way.
For the sake of completion David Smith, the route finder and principal organiser of the pilgrimages, provides this map showing the complexity of what will have been done, with the statistic to go with it – 35 days of walking, 438 miles and 173 churches.
There isn’t time and space here to explore all the reasons for going on pilgrimage, though it is an important spiritual theme. These particular pilgrimages, which have been very significant for me, have had a particular style. There has been a core of walkers on each pilgrimage, joined every day by others for just a day, sometimes many others. There has been a rhythm of worship, Morning Prayer in one church, the Eucharist in another, Evening Prayer in a third, and briefer prayers on the way in every other church through which we have passed. On the week long pilgrimages lectio divina each day too. There has been the welcome and hospitality of the church communities we have visited, often with sufficient food that one needed to be on pilgrimage to walk it off. There have been significant conversations that have moved people on in their spiritual journey. There have been stunning views in the countryside and engagement with urban life in walking through the city and the towns.
So I invite you to look in your diary and, if you are fit and well enough, to see whether you could join me and my fellow pilgrims for a day or even half a day of the June pilgrimage between the 8th and the 14th. You would be very welcome indeed. Come and be a pilgrim. As we sweep up from the south to Gloucester there will another sense of completing something, though I guess the message of pilgrimage is always to keep walking, journeys unknown still to be undertaken and new testing and new delights still to discover.
Which brings me to something else. All the parish churches visited. Ten years as bishop complete. The boundary of the diocese walked. And on 8 November I shall be 67. And, yes, please, go on telling me that I don’t look it, at least on a good day! I think it is time for to set out on a different sort of pilgrimage. I have the permission of the Queen and the consent of the Archbishop of Canterbury to resign the see of Gloucester on 21 November. Indeed I have signed a deed of resignation from which I think there is no going back! 21 November because that is the day after the General Synod at which (you never know) there might be an issue or two about which I care a lot. But 8 November, a Saturday, will be the effective day when I cease to exercise the ministry in the diocese, with a farewell eucharist, to which you will all be invited, that afternoon.
This, I know, is no great surprise; there has been a certain amount of speculation! This is not the time to reflect on these last ten years, except to say that I think you know that I have experienced them as a huge joy and privilege to serve you as your bishop and, when the time comes, I know that for me the ending of this ministry will be tough. But I believe it is the right time. I believe the diocesan leadership team is immensely talented, the envy of other bishops and dioceses, and I think the arrival of a new Bishop of Gloucester in 2015 can bring some of the gifts I lack and move the diocese forward. And I think he will be a lucky man or she a lucky woman.
Alison and I have bought a house in Somerset (it is not under water!), in a hamlet called Bleadney, just ten minutes from Wells and its beautiful cathedral.
So 2014 is going to be an eventful year for me and for the diocese. But – you would expect me to say this - 8 November is nine months away. The diary is fairly full. 5% of my time as Bishop of Gloucester is ahead of me and I have things I still believe I need to do. I’m told you should never announce your retirement too early, lest you be a duck - a I can’t remember whether the phrase is “dead duck” or “lame duck”. My sisters and brothers, just let me tell you: I have no intention of being any kind of duck, at least not till 8 November! It would be silly to say “Business as usual”, for it won’t be usual at all - it is already feeling quite unusual - but, by the grace of God, it will still be the mission of God and the building up of the people of God in the Diocese of Gloucester. And for that, as for much else, I say “Thanks be to God!”
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