‘Year of Opportunity’ in prospect for Anglicans, Bishop tells Synod

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Our guests today may not be aware that here, in Derry and Raphoe, 2016 has been designated a ‘Year of Opportunity’.

Throughout 2015, parish teams have been planning and praying towards 2016 as an opportunity especially for Mission, for Generosity and for Children.

I have every confidence that 2016 will prove to be a significant year.

Challenges becoming

opportunities

We live at a time of great challenges, locally, nationally and globally: the refugee crisis; fear of war and terrorism; poverty; a widening gap between rich and poor; youth unemployment; family and relational breakdown; dangerous levels of national and personal debt; political uncertainty in Northern Ireland; the cost of health care; education policy.

The list goes on.

In the Christian church we’re aware of the difference that faith in God makes to the way we approach challenges. Faith always has a future dimension. It looks ahead with a ‘hope for things as yet unseen.’ It enables us to have a confidence, an assurance of the graciousness and the sovereignty of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Our confidence is not in our own resources nor in human systems, but in the mercy and promises of God. He is the one through whom challenges can be transformed into opportunities.

2016 - A Year of Opportunity

This year, in every parish throughout the diocese, Rectors and their Parish Development Teams – usually of 8-10 lay people – have been asked to pray about and prepare plans for next year, as we convert challenges into opportunities.

We’re focusing on three challenges/opportunities in particular:

The challenge of numbers of people involved in church life, which we believe provides an opportunity for mission;

The challenge of the age profile in many churches, which provides an opportunity to encourage children and young people;

The challenge of financial pressure in many parishes, which provides an opportunity for generosity – in its many manifestations.

The generosity of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the source of and the reason for all that we do in mission and ministry.

I’m currently visiting all fifty parish teams to hear how they’re planning to make the most of the opportunities in their parish and community in 2016. So far, I’ve met with thirty of them and I am very encouraged by the creative ideas and visionary plans which they’ve been outlining to me.

While the diocese has been providing overall direction and guidance, the parishes themselves have been working out the specific ways of realizing that central vision. The themes of mission, generosity and children are all being approached slightly differently in each place, depending on the parish’s circumstances.

On 11th March 2016, more than 1,000 people – representing every parish in the diocese - will gather in the Letterkenny Institute of Technology to celebrate the Year of Opportunity. I am encouraging teams to plan ambitiously, to take risks, to reach out courageously and to expect great things of God. The words of Hudson Taylor come to mind: ‘Attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.’

So we are looking forward to 2016 with hope, with prayerful expectancy, with excitement and with an awareness of the need to rely wholeheartedly on the grace and power of God. Only he can bring about real spiritual transformation and lasting change.

Looking back in order to move forward

This address, like most of my Synod addresses to date (this is my fifteenth) has a forward-looking focus, encouraging us to be prepared not only to be the church of the present but also the church of the future.

However, I’m also aware that not only are we in the middle of a decade of important centenaries – anniversaries which give us cause to reflect on our history a century ago – but that 2016, in particular, will be an especially significant centenary year throughout Ireland, north and south.

Later in this address I want to look back in time and touch upon two particular episodes that took place here in the Dioceses of Derry and Raphoe, 100 years ago, so that we can learn lessons from people who, by faith in Christ, accepted major challenges and turned them into exciting opportunities for ministry and service.

Issues that the Churches face together

But first, I want to make reference to some of the difficulties looming on our immediate horizon, both as churches and as wider society.

I’ve already referred to internal church issues, such as numbers, age-profile and financial pressures. These are challenges which we’re ready and prepared to embrace as opportunities.

On a wider level, there are challenges which our various churches are proactively addressing together, such as the refugee crisis, social deprivation, youth emigration and a shared approach to the 1916 centenary commemorations. Let me say a few words about each.

Refugees

All of our churches, along with society at large, are deeply conscious of the pain and suffering – physical, mental and spiritual – of the hundreds of thousands of people who right now are seeking refuge from the ravages of war.

Frustration’s been expressed at the time it’s taking governments to devise a coherent plan to deal effectively with this crisis. It is, of course, essential that they plan and decide carefully, but equally there is an urgency to this crisis, especially with winter approaching.

The Church of Ireland, with its network of 450 parishes spread right across this island, is in a position to offer on-the-ground welcome and support to refugee families. The Church of Ireland has already written to governments in both jurisdictions on this island indicating our willingness engage with plans to support refugees coming to Ireland. For our part, the parishes of the Derry and Raphoe Dioceses, I feel sure, will be eager to be part of any solution.

The refugee crisis clearly poses an enormous challenge, but it also offers the churches – and others – a remarkable opportunity for generosity, for hospitality and for compassion. As Christians, we should embrace this opportunity.

Youth emigration

While large numbers of refugees are risking their lives to flee hardship in their homeland in an attempt to reach safer shores, many, many jobless young people from these dioceses have felt compelled to leave Ireland – and their families and homes – to make a living elsewhere in the world, where their economic prospects might be better.

I’ve been struck during my autumn visits by the frequency with which concern has been expressed by parish teams about the scale of youth emigration and the significant decline in numbers of young adults available to play a part in community and parish life.

Social deprivation

Despite what appears, on one level, to be a general improvement in the economies in both jurisdictions, severe financial pressure continues to be a real concern for many households.

The Pantry Project – a cross-community initiative launched by the Churches’ Trust two years ago – has provided food to more than two and a half thousand people in Londonderry who have experienced ongoing hardship. The venture was founded by the city’s main Christian churches, who were determined to stand together with those in need.

In similar projects in Letterkenny, Coleraine and elsewhere, the churches in this diocese are heavily involved in meeting real social need with compassion and generosity.

Schools’ project for commemorations 2016

Two major events from 1916 which will be commemorated in the coming year are the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.

As church leaders, we’re keen to facilitate a broad and positive approach to these commemorations, enabling young people in schools on both sides of the community and on both sides of the border to develop together a shared understanding of their history.

We’ve had several meetings with school principals and history teachers from a wide range of second level schools to plan a shared-learning approach to these occasions. We are enormously grateful to the schools for their high levels of co-operation and interest.

The Chadwicks

If we want examples of what can be achieved, when we trust in God, even in the most challenging of circumstances, we need look no farther than this diocese.

I have in mind two historical figures who are probably unfamiliar to most people here today: Elizabeth Chadwick and her younger half-brother, Walter.

The link between them and us is that Walter and Elizabeth’s father, George Chadwick, was the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe exactly 100 years ago.

In the twenty years of his episcopate, from 1896 to 1916, Bishop Chadwick, I‘m sure, received regular letters from his son and daughter. But I’m equally certain that he saw them only very occasionally.

This was because Walter, who’d been ordained priest in London in 1899, was accepted the following year by the Church Missionary Society and sent to East Africa - where Elizabeth had already been serving for some years with CMS.

The enormous challenges Walter Chadwick tackled in Kenya would probably have defeated many of us. He had to live in a tent. He had to master the local language. He suffered repeated bouts of ill health. Despite these, Walter identified a suitable tract of land on which to found the region’s first Christian church. He translated parts of the New Testament and some of the Prayer Book collects. He then built a reed-hut to house his books and his few pieces of furniture. He celebrated Holy Communion for the first time in Butere, with a congregation of four people. He founded a boys’ school, there, which quickly grew to 30, then 40 and then 70 pupils.

Elizabeth, too, knew how to turn challenges into opportunities. She joined her brother in 1916 (note the year) and established the first girls’ school in Butere. She saw the community around her contend not only with devastating outbreaks of smallpox and plague, but also with a famine. In a letter home she wrote: ‘…partly through illness and partly through stress of agricultural work, the school is down to half what it was a few weeks ago. The people are straggling here from five surrounding tribes to look for food, and some are dying by the roadside.’

In the ten decades since she began all this work, Butere Girls’ High School has flourished. It now boasts 1,300 pupils and proudly acknowledges the pivotal role of its brave founder, Elizabeth Chadwick – daughter of a former bishop of Derry and Raphoe.

Her brother, Walter, meanwhile, gave of himself wholeheartedly to the people of Butere for five intensive years, before contracting the Blackwater fever which eventually led to his death in October 1917. A biographer subsequently wrote of this remarkable son of this diocese: ‘He died at the early age of forty-three when he was not only in the prime of life, but also when his work in western Kenya and in Butere was flourishing at an unprecedented pace.’

The books that Walter stored in his reed-hut formed the nucleus of what has become an important resource specializing in biblical studies, theology, contemporary African issues and Christian ministry. Now named the Chadwick Library, it has 12,000 volumes, and a theological training centre’s being developed around it.

The Diocese of Butere has also grown. Today it has 33,000 Anglicans in 32 parishes. As I reflect on the sacrificial missionary endeavor of a son and daughter of this diocese of Derry and Raphoe, I hear echoes of the words of Jesus, read at the Holy Communion: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’

The Chadwicks remind me what can be achieved when someone is prepared to give generously of their life to Christ and to others – and in so doing to keep their life for eternity – rather than loving one’s life and comfort so much here and now that they risk losing it in the long term.

These two heroes, with their direct connection with this diocese, are a motivating and stirring example of Christian selflessness and service. In their ministry, they exemplified a focus on mission, children and generosity. They show us how – through faith in the Lord – challenges can become opportunities which lead to results far greater than anything we could’ve anticipated or imagined.

Butere visit, October 2015

I mention this example of discipleship, not as a remote illustration but as a topical and relevant part of our diocesan life here and now.

The day after tomorrow, at the invitation of the The Right Rev Tim Wambunye, the present bishop of Butere, I’ll be flying to Kenya with my wife, Mary, to celebrate the link between this diocese and his, through the historic connection of Bishop George Chadwick.

Bishop Tim wants the Chadwick Library, which Walter founded, to become an influential centre of theological training and ministerial learning and so he has requested that I bring with me someone from this diocese with expertise in theological training. By faith, he wants to turn a training challenge into a ministry opportunity. I want to encourage and support that initiative. So I’ll be bringing Rev Dr Robin Stockitt, the Rector of Donagheady, to offer his insights and support to the bishop’s vision. Robin’s wife, Joan – a trained and qualified counsellor – will also be coming, to speak to ordinands, clergy and clergy wives.

Pray for us, please, as we visit Butere that we may be able to bring and to receive some encouragement and blessing.

Bishop Joseph Peacocke

Bishop George Chadwick retired as bishop of Derry and Raphoe in 1916 – once again, note the year.

The second link I want to make with a century ago involves his immediate successor, The Right Rev Joseph Peacocke, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe from 1916 until 1945. Many of you may’ve seen a fine portrait of him which hangs in the dining room in the See House.

If we feel we’re ministering in complex and challenging times, as we look ahead to 2016 and its significant centenaries, it’s worth reflecting on what Bishop Peacocke had to contend with as he embarked on his episcopacy.

From the very outset, things were far from straightforward. His Service of Consecration, in April 1916, coincided with the Easter Rising in Dublin. The resulting turmoil prevented some of those who had intended being present at his consecration from travelling to the service.

Joseph Peacocke’s twenty-nine year episcopate spanned two world wars. The Great War was already under way when it began and the Battle of the Somme – the centenary of which is also to be commemorated next year – took place only a few months later. Many hundreds of men and boys, from these united dioceses, gave their lives in the conflict.

Between the wars, Bishop Peacocke exercised his ministry against a backdrop of political instability and social volatility north and south of a new border which was drawn.

Within the diocese, he grappled with administrative challenges not unfamiliar to us 100 years later: parish assessments, clergy stipends, the viability of parishes, education and schools, parish development.

During the earlier years of his ministry as bishop, the General Synod (of 1920) approved both the ‘Minimum Stipend Act’ (ensuring somewhat more realistic clergy remuneration) and also the ‘Commission for Union of Parishes Act’, as a result of which Bishop Peacocke oversaw the creation of twenty-eight unions in this diocese.

It was also during his time as bishop that the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church in Ireland transferred their schools in Northern Ireland into public control. The bishop’s successors have wrestled with the complexities and consequences of that decision ever since!

The serious challenges Bishop Peacocke faced were accepted as opportunities – for ministry and for mission. He recognized, in his day, the issue of emigration from Co Donegal, and he even identified – and lamented – the secularization of Sunday as being a particular challenge to the church. Plus ça change!

Inspired by their example

Now, as we look forward with not a little trepidation to 2016, we’d do well to follow the example of the Chadwicks and Bishop Peacocke, in confronting the challenges of our time.

How would Elizabeth Chadwick – who knew famine in East Africa and lamented those “straggling here from five surrounding tribes to look for food” – how would she have responded to our refugee crisis? And what would Bishop Peacocke – who saw at first hand the grief caused by the so-called “War to end all wars” – have made of our opportunity to end conflict on this island?

How would Through faith in Christ, like them, we give ourselves to God, wholeheartedly and sacrificially, courageously serving in ways that give opportunity for his grace and power to be revealed among us.

Conclusion

In just over ten weeks’ time, we’ll enter a new year.

For me, personally, it’s a year brimming with hope and opportunity. My optimism is based entirely on my faith in God.

Left to our own devices, without him, I’d be racked with doubt, stricken with fear. But faith in God fills me with confidence and gives me strength.

I already feel blessed. I’m thankful to all of you, the members of this Diocesan Synod, for your presence here today and for your continuing interest and commitment. I’m grateful for the service and support of the remarkable team of clergy who I’m privileged to lead. I’m thankful for the dedication and work of the Diocesan Council, Boards and Committees; for the energy and inspiration of our Youth Ministry; and for the dozens of parish teams and thousands of parishioners who’ve been faithful to our vision – ‘Transforming Community, Radiating Christ’.

Most of all, of course, I’m thankful to God who called us to follow him; secure in the belief that whatever we face – and the challenges are many and obvious – we face them not in our own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit.

As I say, I am going about encouraging parish teams to be ambitious, to take risks, to reach out courageously and to expect great things of God.

As 2016 draws near, I am determined to do the same myself. I am expecting great things of God. Through his power, I am trusting he will enable real spiritual transformation and lasting change.

To him be the glory for ever and ever.