Greetings in this strangest of Eastertides.
It is so good to be communicating with you directly again! I began a staged return to duties last week; but while I have not been visible, I have not been away from you in my heart or my prayers. I have relied on that working the other way around, too. When my GP told me that I had to have a sustained break from public ministry she said that I was not stopping work. Rather, I had other work to do – through effective therapy, reflection and prayer – to be renewed as Stephen, child of God. My vocation to be your bishop has not wavered; but my vocation is dynamic as I pray yours is.
As I said when I wrote to you in January, I’ve been wading through recent bereavement and associated challenges in my mental health and wellbeing. I rejoice that I have been able to be a loyal son, especially where it has crossed over into a deep commitment to duty and service and kindness. It has also led to a lifetime of extreme over working as self-justification which did not satisfy because I did not believe it could ever be enough.
The last eight years have been especially testing in this regard when I have lived for stretches of time as the only stipendiary bishop in the diocese. At the same time, I have held overlapping and sometimes contested national briefs for the wider Church and a share in governance responsibilities within the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops. I have resigned from all these responsibilities with the kind support of Archbishop Justin. I am thankful for all that I have been able to change, develop and encourage and I have walked away readily. I have had to learn that I am useful but not indiscriminately! I have let go and I rediscovered that Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3.11). It has been tough going, but the great blessing in these months has been my constant sense of the presence of God. Before the lockdown Bishop Dagmar, Hannah my Chaplain, and other clergy colleagues came to pray with me and celebrate the Eucharist for me. We are still zooming away. Thank you for all your loving messages and constant prayers.
Many of you are live-streaming worship and, even more importantly, producing Sunday and other resources for prayer, study and reflection. Like you and your families, I have been clapping the staff of the NHS and other care givers on Thursday evenings. This is my first opportunity in these strange times to applaud all of you and your ministry teams. Some people may have thought that closing churches and social distancing would have been a free holiday; but I know that for you it is anything but. You are working even harder to offer pastoral care imaginatively and resolutely, and especially around funeral ministry in these challenging times. Some of you are home-schooling children or caring for a vulnerable adult with no let-up of other responsibilities. You are supporting food bank deliveries and caring both for those who are isolated, and for homeless people who cannot self-isolate. Some of you are vulnerable yourselves and should be self-isolating even if you are not! I thank God for you and express my love for you in all that you are and do.
I would not have put my hand up to volunteer for the anguish I have gone through; but I have experienced profoundly `God’s grace and compassion. There is nothing good to say about Covid19 itself. The loss and grief now and the future consequences will be huge. But I was encouraged to keep hoping by Sunday’s gospel reading from Luke 24.13ff – the Walk to Emmaus. Some of you will remember my writing about this eight years ago in Imagining the Future. A few things I said then have come true among us now as we re-discover the importance of faith in the home and in community support. We are seeing the deeper purpose of our schools supporting endangered children and the children of key workers. We are sure that there is a future under God for His Church, but we cannot yet see it clearly. It is my intention in the coming weeks to have up to twenty minutes on the telephone with all the clergy, starting with the most junior in ministry, our curates. My agenda is clear: I am not checking up on people, I want simply to reconnect with you all as my sisters and brothers in Christ. I want to learn from you the specific things you are learning through this crisis that may have a direct bearing on our future way of life together; I am ready to share palpable hopes and fears in prayer. Please be kind to yourselves as well as others. I have confidence in God and in you as we go forward, praying to be visible and generous people of Jesus Christ.
Yours ever in Christ
Bishop of Ely