The Bishop of Burnley on his nomination to the See of Sheffield
There will be many people who will feel a sense of relief that this vacancy in the See of Sheffield is coming to a close. However, I suspect that the person most relieved will be my late grandmother, a proud Yorkshire woman for whom a grandson living the wrong side of the Pennines would have been a cause of great pain even from the other side of the grave. In many ways becoming Bishop of Sheffield will be like returning home, as I have many connections with this part of the world. Just before the war my grandfather played football for Doncaster Rovers, now riding high at the top of League 2, and I spent much of my childhood in that town during school holidays. I loved the parks and the market. More recently my sister studied here in Sheffield. I am really looking forward to living and working in this vibrant and fascinating part of the country.
The next ten years will be absolutely crucial ones for this diocese and indeed for much of the Church of England, for it is over the next decade that the impact of ageing congregations and the decreasing numbers of clergy will really hit. If we are to grow rather than disappear, we need to cast away fear. “Don’t be afraid.” It’s the most often repeated commandment in the Bible, and it is one we need to hear afresh each day. The Lord who changed water to wine in Cana transforms every aspect of human life, and we must ask Him to transform our fear into joy.
I have enjoyed familiarising myself with some of the growth strategies that have been developed across the Diocese in recent years, and had a great time visiting the Diocese for the Crossroads Mission in 2015. If our heartfelt desire is to make new disciples, and if we plan for growth, in most parishes some growth will come. There are other places where for various reasons that’s tougher, but it should not stop us trying. The figure that should be always in our minds is 92%.
That’s the percentage of people in this country who do not yet know Jesus in the life of his Church. Everything we are and do and say needs to be for those 92%.
Then we need to be joyful in love.
Strategies, no matter how good they may look on the page, are useless unless underpinned by strong, loving, trusting relationships. The most important role of a Bishop is to love the people in their care, for love is not an emotion, it is self-giving. So I will be interested to understand the culture and morale of the Diocese and ensure there are strong structures in place for clergy care and wellbeing so that people feel loved and valued.
Then we need to be joyful in service.
It is really good to see the way in which Sheffield Cathedral has been bold in the service it can offer to the vulnerable, seen in the work of this project, and I know that this is one of many such schemes around the diocese.
However, the alarming truth is that the Church of England’s presence amongst the nation’s poorest people gets weaker and weaker by the year, especially on the outer estates. A Church that leaves behind the poor is not the Church of Jesus Christ. We need to be fearless in forming a Church of and for the poor.
We need to be joyful in our ministry to the young.
Too many young people today are struggling to find their identity or their purpose. They have questions to which as Christians we can offer answers. The Centenary Project has been a really bold way of releasing assets for ministry to young people. We need to sustain and strengthen that sort of effort for the simple reason that 8 out of 10 Christians find faith under the age of 21.
And of course underlying it all we need to be joyful in our own growth as Christian disciples.
As we commit ourselves to disciplined prayer, to the study of Scripture, to worship, and to fellowship, we become more and more alive in Jesus. And when we do that, then living out our faith in proclamation and service becomes not a forced duty but a natural joy.
We need to transform fear into joy. And we can do that – we can do it because we know the future. It is God’s Church, not ours. He has already won the victory. The future is the joy of heaven, the triumph of love, the peace and justice of the Kingdom. It is not our job to save the Church, because it’s not ours to save. Rather our call is to invite others to share in the joy of knowing Jesus as Lord and Friend. It is not our anxiety or our paranoia or our fear that will capture imaginations with the Gospel. It is our joy in Christian living. Let’s be joyful in this diocese – joyful in worship, in prayer, in service, and fellowship.
I know that there will be those who for theological reasons will have misgivings about this appointment. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am utterly determined to be a bishop for all, and will love, care for, appoint and develop the ministry of all clergy, female or male, Catholic, Evangelical and all points in between. Anyone who has a passion for Jesus Christ and who longs to make new disciples in his name will find a warm and equal welcome in this diocese.
I have asked to meet the women clergy of the Diocese as soon as possible in order that concerns can be shared and for me to outline some ideas about how best we can work closely together and develop and enhance women’s leadership across the Diocese. Trust is something that needs to be earned, and I would ask you fervently to give me the chance to do that. In a horribly divided world where politics seems to grow uglier and more divisive by the day, the Anglican commitment to mutual flourishing gives us a golden opportunity to model for the nation unity in the midst of diversity. We can stand against the voices of hatred and intolerance and despair simply through the quality of our own relationships in Christ. It will be my heartfelt prayer that we can do that here in the Diocese of Sheffield.
You may want to know when I will arrive. To be honest I have no idea whatsoever. What I can do is tell you what I will do when I first get here, which is to spend vast amounts of time getting to know you and the contexts in which you are set. I will want to have one-to-one conversations with every priest and spend time in every parish, because mission is not possible unless we understand the cares of people’s hearts and the questions on their minds.
I want to thank Bishop Steven Croft for the legacy he leaves. I want to thank Bishop Peter for all he has done in the vacancy and for the care and support he has offered me, and I am looking forward to getting to know the Bishop’s Team. Above all I want to assure you of my prayers and ask you humbly to pray for me.
As most of you will soon find out, I like to make decisions not alone but as part of team, so the last few months when I have been forced to make a huge and terrifying decision on my own have been testing ones. I found strength in this famous prayer written by St Ignatius. It’s a prayer of utter commitment and trust, ideal for anyone taking a risk.
Let me end by praying it with you.
Take, Lord, and receive
all my liberty,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours;
do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me. Amen.
This statement was made by the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North CMP, on 31 January.