ON BECOMING A BISHOP
In July 2018, I set out on a new kind of ministry, as Bishop of Tonbridge in the Anglican Diocese of Rochester. It is a privilege to stay among friends and to continue the mission we have together, to bless the people of Kent with the good news of the Gospel.
We spend too much of our working lives reacting to the problems that emerge around us. It is wishful thinking to assume we can ignore them, because left unattended, they can produce lasting harm to people. But neither can we afford to be defined by them because they can mess up the painting we are trying to create in our planned work like a graffiti artist with a black spray can, if we allow them. Plotting a course through this requires wisdom and what some call God-speed and others, luck. Unless there is a map and a destination, we do not arrive.
In the film The Dark Knight Rises, the Joker, played by the late Heath Ledger, said: Do I look like a guy with a plan? Lest anyone be inclined to think the same of me, here are the four corners on which I want to build this ministry, which I have just shared with the people of Rochester Diocese.
Evangelism. Please use me in evangelistic initiatives; it’s what I’m here for. We all have a story to tell about God’s saving love. Giving people the assurance to express this confidently and kindly – especially in a culture which is becoming very ‘boundaried’ around debate – is a core task. There is also work to be done around apologetics – defending the faith in the public world. This isn’t just about tackling Richard Dawkins and the new atheism; it’s about giving people the capacity to develop a ‘street’ apologetic, where they have helpful things to say around difficult questions raised by friends without being completely stumped. Many of you will know it’s a burning desire of mine to relate the Christian faith to the surrounding culture, to make spiritual sense of the profound, era-de fining changes going on around us.
Discipleship. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ in our generation? Figuring this out in a complex, evolving, precarious world is a matter for open debate and discussion; giving people the tools to work out their salvation in the context God has called them to is a first step to renewal. Ultimately, it has to be modelled. We copy one another in life. As St Paul said: ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’. I find that thought invigorating and uncomfortable.
Community action. Hans Kung described heaven as ‘creation healed’. Thankfully the Church in the UK is re-discovering its social conscience. An extended period of austerity has magnified some social needs and left space for voluntary agencies to meet them. Being socially active is a sign of the Kingdom of God. Our work as a diocese is developing in exciting ways on this front – a clear sign of the movement of the Holy Spirit - and I’m looking forward to joining in with what God is doing.
Pastoral care. Being a leader in the Church of God is a high calling and a hard one at times. The risk is that we allow the deeply individualistic, success-driven ethic in wider society to govern how we view our ministry. This can make people downhearted and does little to offer a counter-cultural perspective to others who need it. We owe one another encouragement and inspiration. I hope to make my mark this way and that you’ll find genuine honesty in me when we talk about shared struggles – we’re all trying to figure it out on our journey in Christ.
The former Democratic Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. The risk in ministry is similar. God calls us poetically, but we end up labouring prosaically, from a position of tiredness and discouragement. This can become cynical disappointment if we don’t give ourselves rest and space to encounter God and the good things he has given us to enjoy in this world.
I have seen poetry in the lives of people I have lived and ministered alongside. With the Holy Spirit’s help, I hope to return the favour.
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