We can bring hope, says Bishop of Dover

The Rt Revd Trevor Willmott has spoken of the Church’s determination to be a force for reconciliation in a divided Britain. 

In his final presidential address to Diocesan Synod as Bishop of Dover, Bishop Trevor pledged that despite the challenges faced by local churches, “we will not walk away from being a living and serving presence on urban estate, in seaside town, in rural community.”

Click here to watch the presidential address.

He said:

“We see signs of division in our Society, perhaps more clearly than at any time since the end of the second world war. Signs of inequality, injustice and exclusion which obscure hope for many. There are many in our own communities who feel increasingly excluded from a sense of common purpose, politically, economically and socially. If we do not pay attention to these signs, they will cause greater division and – ultimately – strife in our communities.

“Reconciliation is hard. Reconciliation is costly. But reconciliation is absolutely necessary if we are to heal our Society and bring hope to those who feel so excluded, marginalised and denied justice. As the body of Christ we know that reconciliation lies at the heart of that mission which Jesus has entrusted to us to exercise in his name.

“Thank God, the Church – and particularly our own Church – is already playing a major part in this work of reconciliation, of bringing hope to others. The extraordinary care given by our Church schools often ministering and serving in communities of huge social and economic deprivation; our engagement with social projects e.g. food banks; night shelters; the simple but profound response which we make towards those who are seeking to find hope through baptism, marriage and funeral.  Our shared determination, that though we may be smaller in number and certainly much more financially challenged ourselves, we will not walk away from being a living and serving presence on urban estate, in seaside town, in rural community.”

Bishop Trevor will retire from public ministry on 12 May, 2019.

The full text of the address follows:

In this my final address as your Bishop, I want to offer some reflections on the state of Society today and on a particular sign of growth and  opportunity within our own common life here in Canterbury.

Let me begin however, with a brief comment on our last Diocesan Synod when we were discussing together the difficult and challenging question of our budget for this next year.  We were open and honest with each other to acknowledge the challenges that many of our communities are now facing in paying for their ministry.  We shall return to this question in our ongoing discussions later today and when Synod meets again in the summer, but I am deeply grateful on two accounts.  Firstly, for the extraordinary generosity of giving in our communities as together we seek to bear our witness to Jesus Christ and serve the needs of the wider community.  Secondly, for the honesty and openness in our discussions which can and indeed, might just be a sign to the wider world that the Church of Jesus Christ can disagree but hold together and thus model something to our anxious and increasingly divided Society.

To that Society let me now return.

As a Country, we are deeply anxious about what the future might look like.  We see signs of division in our Society, perhaps more clearly than at any time since the end of the second world war.  Signs of inequality, injustice and exclusion which obscure hope for many.  There are many in our own communities who feel increasingly excluded from a sense of common purpose, politically, economically and socially.  If we do not pay attention to these signs, they will cause greater division and as Archbishop Sentamu said to me recently, ultimately strife in our communities.

The emergence of increasingly far right groups; the rise and spread of hate crime predominantly but not exclusively in our larger urban communities; the shrill and ever louder voice which entices us to care for ourselves in times of austerity.  Reconciliation is hard.  Reconciliation is costly.  But reconciliation is absolutely necessary if we are to heal our Society and bring hope to those who feel so excluded, marginalised and denied justice.  As the body of Christ we know that reconciliation lies at the heart of that mission which Jesus has entrusted to us to exercise in his name.

“All this is the work of God.  He has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation:  God was in  Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding people’s misdeeds against them, and has entrusted us with the message of salvation”.

So writes St. Paul in his second epistle to the Corinthians in chapter five.

Reconciliation involves taking seriously the issues which confront us as a nation.  It means, putting the poor and the marginalised and the disenfranchised and the voiceless at the heart of our work together.  It means, as I have said on numerous occasions, forgetting ourselves in our shared determination not to allow any destructive force to create further divisions in our Society.

The Five Marks of Mission of our Communion call us to speak for justice. Supremely, the Scriptures demand advocacy for and support of the most vulnerable.

For me, and here I speak most personally, the greatest sadness over these past months and weeks as I have listened in to our ongoing political debates about our future relationship with Europe has been an almost total absence of any discussion of the common good.  That shared life in which everyone has a right to a voice and everyone a shared responsibility to enable others to flourish. To even dare to speak of the common good is for an increasing number to face ridicule and charges of naivety.  But better to be a fool for Christ, than to live by the so-called wisdom of this world.

Thank God, the Church and particularly our own Church is already playing a major part in this work of reconciliation, of bringing hope to others.  The extraordinary care given by our Church schools often ministering and serving in communities of huge social and economic deprivation; our engagement with social projects e.g. food banks; night shelters; the simple but profound response which we make towards those who are seeking to find hope through baptism, marriage and funeral.  Our shared determination, that though we may be smaller in number and certainly much more financially challenged ourselves, we will not walk away from being a living and serving presence on urban estate, in seaside town, in rural community.

Let me now turn to but one piece of that work of reconciliation of bringing hope to our society. Work which also relates directly to our commitment to grow the Church both spiritually and numerically.

On Monday I presided at a service of Confirmation for two of our Church Schools during which twelve young people stood up and affirmed their faith in Jesus Christ. The schools serve two of the most socially and economically deprived communities, not only in our Diocese but in the Country as a whole.  The love, care, and sheer professionalism of the teachers is truly remarkable.  If ever we wanted proof of our commitment to the nurture of young people, Monday was it.

Margaret and I joined the young people for lunch before the service which gave us an opportunity to listen in to their excitement and commitment in wanting to be disciples of Jesus Christ.  That they were making that step is due in many ways to the extraordinary care and support which they continue to receive from their teachers and from the community of their school together of course, with their parents and carers.  The Church was filled with their fellow pupils also full of excitement and conversation, yet during the course of the service and most particularly when I came to confirm each of the young people, you could have heard a pin drop in the Church itself.

The joy and privilege of presiding at such services has been a constant joy and refreshment for me.  I still have a further eight services before I retire. Listening in to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those responding to Christ’s invitation to come and follow him, continues to refresh my own discipleship journey.  I continue to be humbled by the literally thousands of statements of faith which I have received from those which have been prepared for this important step in their journey of faith.  Statements which underline God’s faithfulness; the love and encouragement from their Christian community; a determination to live out what they have promised in their daily lives.

“Faith is the gift of God to his people.  In Baptism the Lord is adding into our number those whom he is saving”.  Words which I speak at every confirmation service.

Behind God’s work lies much hard work by you, the clergy and people of the Diocese. Patient care and encouragement often nurturing the tender emerging shoots of a new faith.

As a Diocese we continue to buck the national trend in that our confirmation numbers are still rising.  The majority of those whom I have confirmed over these past ten years are adults of whom a large proportion are in their thirties, forties and fifties.  The challenge for us is how do we continue to support and encourage these extraordinary gifts of God into the life of our communities.

We committed ourselves and continue to pray for growth in our Church, both numerically and spiritually.  We do so against a backdrop of a continuing decline in the number of those who are worshiping with us on a regular week by week basis.  The temptation sometimes is
to accept the decline as if there is nothing, we can do about it, but our confirmation numbers are tangible proof that there is something we can do. Each and every one of us can and thank God so many of you are doing this day by day looking out for and encouraging those who are hungry and keen to explore what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Those young people on Monday, are a tangible proof of all that I am trying to say.

In my judgement, we help to embed and encourage new disciples by expecting and helping them to share in the leadership of our communities at the very point of Confirmation.  In other words, we can’t sit back and somehow wait until they are old enough, experienced enough, dare I say, just like us before we lay before them the challenge and opportunity of leadership.  Those young people who I confirmed on Monday are ready to be the leaders of our communities today.  The question is do we want them and are we ready to engage with them, as they with us help to share in God’s work in reshaping our Church, our Diocese for Mission and Ministry in the future.

I thank God for those communities in our Diocese who year by year continue to bring forward Confirmation candidates.  My sadness is that there are still some communities whose names don’t feature on the Confirmation story of our common life.  I know that there are many reasons why this is the case, but I do believe that here is a simple and profound opportunity for us in God’s name to grow his Church.  The Changed Lives/Changing Lives discussions, Setting God’s People Free and many other life-giving initiatives can help, but unless you and I are prepared, ourselves, to lay the challenge and the call of Jesus Christ before those whom we already know in our schools, in our communities, in the many engagements we have in the wider community, then we shall be failing to take an opportunity through which the living Lord will indeed, add to our number those whom he is saving.

There will be other opportunity in a few weeks’ time to express my thanks to the Diocese for your love, care and encouragement of Margaret and of me. But let me end this, my final Presidential Address, with the words of Christ himself.

“I have come that you might have life in all its fullness”.

The fullness is the knowledge and experience that we are loved by God for all eternity and that in his name we can indeed bring hope to the world and more particularly to our Country, as together we continue to struggle with the reality of exclusion and division to unify as a Country, to lift the poor and vulnerable and find our own purpose under God.