Bishop David sent the following letter to clergy and lay leaders on 1 June 2020.
Dear sisters and brothers,
Thank you to all receiving this letter. In the teeth of the most trying of circumstances you have played your full part in ensuring that the coronavirus has not closed the church, it has simply opened it up in different ways. I have been deeply impressed by the stories I have heard of caring pastoral work, responses to the deep human need in our communities, nurturing of one another in faith, and high quality liturgical provision; all delivered in imaginative ways.
When the Holy Spirit came upon the first disciples at Pentecost, the impact was so profound that we rightly refer to it as the Birthday of the Church. Thousands became believers in a short space of time, and they in turn influenced thousands more. Travellers conveyed the good news across the Roman Empire, and successive waves took the Faith beyond its Jewish origins, first to Samaritans and then on, in to the gentile world. Its spread was in every sense viral; if I had the time and inclination I could probably calculate its R number.
A few years back, I began to use the term viral mission to describe some of the most innovative and effective practices I was seeing in the Church around me. Very few originated in some senior leadership meeting or bishops study, rather they emerged from parishes, chaplaincies, and schools; passed by word of mouth from one to another until they reached a scale at which the wider institution began to take notice and to lend a hand, to add its own spreading capacity to what was already going on. Messy Church is perhaps one of the most obvious examples, but I would add Street Chaplaincies and Angels, Places of Welcome, and many others.
Over these last few weeks, I have been amazed by the way in which the people of our diocese of Manchester have responded. Skills we never knew we could grasp, from live streaming a service to getting a donate button on the church website, have become routine parts of how we work. People we had lost touch with have reconnected over social media, or via the internet. One place has tried something out, found it works, and spread the news to its neighbours. Our diocesan staff have been on hand to support, encourage and help skill us up, and we owe them much; but the impetus has come, like a virus, from personal contact.
We have done this, even whilst having to go through times of struggle. Physical distancing and isolation are hard, especially for those being shielded and the many who live alone. Our young people have found their journey to independence painfully constrained. For anyone who has had a relative taken into hospital or unreachable in a care home, the suffering has been huge. I want to pay tribute especially to all who have supported others pastorally and spiritually: through phone calls, prayers, virtual group meetings, letters, and so in many other ways. Discovering how to do quite traditional things, but in a new context, can be just as ground breaking and missional as acquiring a new skill. And again, often weve learned from the example of another.Such creativity bodes well for the future and we must commit ourselves to maintaining and nurturing new ideas when restrictions are lifted.
A few years ago the Church of England produced a series of graphs using the Statistics for Mission returns we complete. One such placed each parish as a blob on two axes: mission strength and financial strength; with the size of the blob indicating the number in the congregation. What stuck out from the diagram was that the two dimensions do not necessarily go together. A church can be vibrant in mission but financially poor, or it can have healthy income and deep pockets, but be doing little by way of mission. As we begin the journey out of lockdown, and hopefully we will do it in such a way as not to risk a second peak, I expect that we will find our mission strength has grown but our financial strength has weakened. We will need more than a temporary bale out, or dipping into savings and reserves, to put us back on an even keel. We will have to think deeply about our generosity to meet both our existing and our new mission aspirations. The current crisis also means that we will have to move more quickly than we had anticipated with significant changes to the way we currently operate, to ensure we are missionally and financially sustainable and to achieve our vision for the diocese to be worshipping, growing and transforming Christian presence at the heart of every community.
Before very long, I hope it will be possible for all of us who wish to, to pray on our own in a church building. After that, we can expect some form of physically gathered church, with social distancing, to be possible for weddings, funerals, and then our familiar round of services and face to face groups. Depending on how well as a nation we control the virus, we may be able to crowd together for Christmas, but as yet that must remain a hope rather than a firm expectation. We have helped lead our communities by being a visible example of what it means not to push at the boundaries of regulation and guidance, but to keep firmly to both the spirit and letter of the law. We must not put our people, and Britain itself, in peril, but rather, redouble our efforts. Lives remain at risk, especially the lives of the elderly and vulnerable. We will continue to hold them before God when we pray, and in our hearts and minds when we act or speak, throughout the Covid crisis.
Thank you for all your generosity, innovation, perseverance and commitment in helping us be a Church for a different world in such challenging times, and may the Holy Spirit bless you richly this Pentecost.