Introduction from Bishop Stephen

When Transforming Presence was launched in 2012 it was mostly a set of questions. We knew we couldn’t carry on as we were. Our world was as muddled as ever. Thousands of people were growing up in the communities we serve knowing little or nothing about the Christian faith and having little or no contact with the Church. Some Churches felt beleaguered, unsure of their role or mission. Nearly half our clergy were due to retire.

Following a large conversation around the diocese which culminated in our first Time to Talk  consultation, we identified four priorities:

  • Inhabiting the world distinctively
  • Evangelising effectively
  • Serving with accountability
  • Re-imagining ministry

At that point none of us were entirely sure what these priorities meant nor where they would lead. But there was a great deal of consensus around the idea that the Church needed to be transformed, and that this was part of God’s great work of bringing transformation to the world. This idea has stuck and given us a title: Transforming Presence . We, the Church of Jesus Christ, are called to be a transforming presence in every community. For this to happen we need to change and grow and allow God’s Holy Spirit to shape and transform us.

Since then a good deal of flesh has been put on the bones, and at the second Time to Talk  gathering in 2015 we collected a huge amount of information and feedback. So it is now time to reflect on the journey so far and to see what the road ahead looks like.

This new document is therefore doing two things. It is mapping the journey of the last three years – celebrating the energy and creativity of the diocese in responding to this great missional challenge so faithfully, and learning from what we have done. It is also mapping the journey ahead – seeing how the good things that have happened in one place might be applied in another; and emphasising and underlining what our priorities mean and how we might put them into practice. Parts of the road map are still unclear, but I suspect this has always been the case for a pilgrim people whose hearts are always restless until they find their final rest in God.

Running through this document are three reflections that I hope will help us work with all that follows:

Luminous and transparent

I have found it helpful to think about our vocation to be a transforming presence as something which is both luminous  and transparent ; that is a vocation to shine brightly in the world but also to be open and transparent to each other, to the wider communities we serve, and to God.

The priorities to inhabit the world distinctively and evangelise effectively are about being a luminous Church. It is about being a Church whose members and ministry shine brightly with the reflected glory of God, for “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3.18).

The priorities to serve with accountability and reimagine ministry are about leading a transparent life. They are about what it means for each Christian community to faithfully live out its vocation with a deep mutual accountability to one another within our diocese, and for us to develop patterns of ministry that meet the needs, and work within the constraints, of our current missionary situation.

Formed in order to be sent 

Second, I want to share a reflection I had with colleagues following a pilgrimage to Holy Island earlier this year. It was from Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast, that the great missionary St Cedd brought Christianity to a place we now know as Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex in the 7th century AD. 

We retraced the steps of St Cedd back to the place where he was formed and sent. We were deeply affected by the idea that Holy Island, and for that matter Bradwell itself, are not places of arrival, but places of departure ; not only places to which we travel on pilgrimage, but places from which we are sent on mission. What Cedd experienced on Holy Island and then replicated in Bradwell, Tilbury, Southminster and Upminster; what then happened at Barking and Waltham Abbey, was ‘being formed in order to be sent’.

It is the very pattern Jesus speaks about in St John’s gospel on the night before he dies, when he says to his friends, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”  (John 15.9), that is ‘I have formed you as a community by the love that I receive from the Father and share with you’; and then on the first night of Easter, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”  (John 20.21): the community that is shaped and formed by love is now sent out to share that love in the world as representatives of Christ. We continue the ministry of Christ by being his transforming presence in the world.

More Church for more impact 

Finally, I know from thousands of conversations I have had across the diocese that I speak for every parish when I say we want the Church to grow. Even though Church growth is not something we can engineer or control, we do need to be clear it is what we desire and what we believe God desires. But it can never be an end in itself. We don’t just want a bigger Church because the world has somehow taught us big is beautiful. We want there to be more Church so that there can be more impact. Therefore, more Church may mean bigger congregations, but it could also mean small congregations having a more focused, prayerful and effective and replicating ministry. It should mean a more diverse Church with ‘fresh expressions’ alongside traditional models of Church. It will mean a Church in which all of God’s people use their various gifts so that the Church can flourish and be a blessing to our communities (see Romans 12:5-8).

So although the priorities of Transforming Presence have not changed the time has come to look at these continuing priorities afresh and with these three perspectives in mind:

  • Luminous and transparent
  • Formed in order to be sent
  • More Church for more impact 

And, finally, all this leads us to recognise the priorities of Transforming Presence as God’s gift to us in order that we might be God’s gift to the world . This is a gift for us to live, to share, to enjoy and a gift that can shape us more into the image of Jesus Christ.

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