Every Church of England parish has churchwardens. They are the bishop’s officers in the parish (which sounds worse than it is). They are elected each year at the Annual Parochial Church Meetings and then have to be ‘admitted’ at a Visitation by the Archdeacon and the Registrar. However, the bishop can do it instead of the archdeacon and this year I did – in order to give me a chance to address and meet all the churchwardens in the diocese. So, we had a good gig in Skipton last week and the second in Bradford tonight (while Liverpool were exacting belated revenge on Chelsea…). My address is called a ‘charge’ and, for your interest or amusement, (and if you can’t control your excitement) here is the text (based on the wonderfully funny story in the Old Testament book of Numbers chapter 11):

The history of God’s people is a history of complaint. And that’s OK. Read the Bible and you read the story of a people for whom the grass was always greener somewhere else. I think it is in our human DNA to complain – perhaps in order to give active expression to our frustrations whilst at the same time thereby exonerating us from doing anything about them.

And, as I said, there is nothing either new or particularly disturbing about this. It is what we do. And when it comes to talking about the Church, we clearly don’t adopt a different approach.

But, I want to bring a different perspective to this phenomenon as we contemplate re-committing ourselves to serving God in and through the Church in the year – and years – ahead. We face much change and some challenge and there will be plenty of triggers for complaint, lament and moaning as there will be for optimism, hope and enjoyment. And that’s OK.

Beginning with the Old Testament reading from Numbers 11, I guess we might be put off a bit of complaint. “Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed them on the outskirts of the camp.” Oh dear. God seems to be a bit tetchy and to respond with a bit of overkill – literally. God, it would appear, has a thing about moaners.

Go on down the text a little way and we find the cause of the moaning becoming a little more explicable. First, they forget that the food that keeps them alive is food for which they have done no work, nor paid a shekel. Without it they would all be dead and it is pure gift: all they have to do is pick the manna from the earth and then make something edible out of it. But, they are fed up with being fed up with such a boring diet and, forgetting where it – and they – came from, start to complain. And, if that isn’t enough, they then start to romanticise the past – something every human being and every human society has done since the beginning of time itself. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. (What a great meal that sounds like…) But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna.”

Just as well, then, that there is at least one person who ‘gets it’, keeps everything in perspective and stands firm while everyone else is wobbling in the wind of discontent. “Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents.” And how did he get a grip on the matter? Read on: “He asked the LORD, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?… If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me – if I have found favour in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.”

Just how melodramatic is that, then?

Moses, the great leader, takes his own eye of the ball and resorts to self-pity. It’s all about ‘me’. (Having said that, I do sympathise with Moses and I do have times when I wonder whether I might do something else in life.)

Well, we could leave it there and have a laugh at these miserable, shortsighted, amnesiac primitives and thank God that we are not like them. But, I guess, if we are honest, that we might be getting a bit of a niggle that all of us can get a hint of a suspicion that there might be some slight reflection of our own reflexes in this story of real people in the real world.

However, what is interesting here is that God, despite his frustration with his people, does get the point, listens to the complaint behind the complaint, and comes up with a very practical solution: get some of the moaners to take some responsibility and together we’ll move things forward. Nothing airy-fairy or pious. No further castigation or resentment. Just a practical solution from which everyone might benefit.

Now, you might think this is a bit of an odd reading for this evening and for the Bishop’s first Charge to churchwardens and their colleagues in our parishes. If so, you would be mistaken. And you might be mistaken for assuming that the connection here is with moaning churches or complaining church officers or clergy. Not a bit of it. As I noted earlier, moaning is what we do and it can serve a very useful purpose – especially if we direct it at God and end up with practical solutions that bring people on board and get some mutual responsibility going, for the benefit of all. Critique of what we do, why we do it and how we do it, is essential to our conversation.

No, the pertinence of this reading is to be found in what it suggests to us about our common task as God’s people – at any time and in any context. I put to you the following points in this respect:

  1. We never start from where we would like to be, but from where we are. We can romanticise all we like, but it won’t change anything and it won’t lead us forward.
  2. There will always be people who can only see the dangers and threats and never spot the opportunities and creative openings. Such people are vital because they offer a check on the reflexes of the optimists. But, danger-spotting should not develop into opportunity-blocking.
  3. Self-pity might be understandable, but it is never attractive and it puts the focus on the wrong place.
  4. God is clearly not surprised by any of this and is interested in the practical detail of how we move on through it.
  5. When we recognise the problem, we can only ever find solutions that involve people taking responsibility, sharing the load and thereby discovering the realities behind the easy rhetoric of criticism. (I heard a new diocesan bishop say recently that he now understands why all the things he used to criticise bishops for are the way they are…)

Now, I think this is where we can make the connection with where we are in the Diocese of Bradford in May 2012 (as opposed to a middle-eastern desert nearly three thousand years ago).

The Diocese of Bradford faces significant change in the next few years. Patterns that have become familiar might have to change and some comforts might have to be sacrificed. Why? In order to satisfy a balance sheet or to provide the latest bishop’s – or the bishop’s latest – panacaea for church growth or survival? Or, to cope with the (and I quote a newspaper) ‘inexorable decline’ of the church in England? No. Neither.

The Dioceses Commission has presented proposals for creating a single diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. Having listened to responses to the original proposals, the Commission then brought a draft Scheme in order to test out more firmly what such a diocese might look like. The consultation period for this ended on 30 April. The Commission will now decide whether to bring a final Scheme in the autumn, and, if so, what it should look like. A final Scheme cannot be amended, but will have to be accepted or rejected by the dioceses and, subsequently and if appropriate, by the General Synod in July 2013.

What I can promise you in all of this is that no one will be fully satisfied by the final outcome. Life is never like that. I can further promise you that I also will not be fully satisfied by the final shape of things. After all, in real life compromises have to be made in order to get the best possible shape out of competing priorities and differing perspectives. For example, I can see the real attraction of creating smaller dioceses with bishops closer to the ground and more collegiality at local level. However, that has to be squared with matters such as (a) paying for it, (b) duplication or limitation of provision, (c) reduced ground in which to create attractive roles and provide effective development of people, and (d) limited focus on particular socio-economic environments. The area system proposed by the Dioceses Commission attempts to capitalise on the scale of a regional diocese while creating as much subsidiarity as possible along with the local collegiality we wish to preserve.

I have attended to the particular challenges and opportunities of the proposals elsewhere and don’t intend to address them point by point here tonight. But, my purpose in picking up on the Dioceses Commission process is simply because I think we face a challenge not unlike that of the early Israelites in their particular desert excursion.

Fear of change cannot and must not have the final word when we look at the challenges we face. Five or ten years down the line and our current diocesan arrangements will no longer be fit for purpose. Look at (a) the increasing burden of buildings and associated costs, (b) the projected number of clergy available across the country, (c) the age profile of those carrying responsibility in our parishes and churches and where they might be in ten years’ time, and (d) the changing profile of Christian association in England.

Now, the Church of England has a unique vocation and one that will not be fulfilled by any other church if we do not fulfil it ourselves. We operate on territory and we accept an obligation to serve and reach out with the love of God in Christ to those who happen to live in our parochial territories. However, an increasing focus on our internal challenges – a bit like getting fed up with collecting the manna in the desert every morning – quickly distracts us from the very core raison d’etre for the church’s existence in the first place. And, when we lose our focus on for what and for whom we are here, we begin to shape ourselves toward protecting what we have rather than creating what we might become.

So, without going into further detailed discussion of what might lie ahead in the next few years – and there will be no exemption from challenge, whichever way we ultimately go in relation to the Dioceses Commission proposals – let me try briefly and concisely to focus our attention on one or two practical realities:

  1. Whatever might change in diocesan ‘badging’ and the way the polity of a diocese is shaped, the churches, the parishes, the clergy, the ministers and officers, the congregations, the schools, and so on, all remain. And their vocation will not change one iota… even if the support, leadership and resourcing of them does. And the unique vocation of our churches and parishes is to ‘create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God’.
  2. We can romanticise the past and wish we were starting from somewhere else… or we can show the world how Christians can face change and challenge by taking responsibility for how we shape our future for the sake of the world for which the church itself exists (and not vice versa).
  3. We can recognise that no outcome will be perfect and that there will always be significant challenges to overcome as we go forward into God’s future. But, we can lift our eyes and focus on God’s fundamental call as we then try to work through it all with mutual love, respect, prayer and service.
  4. We can take our responsibility in shouldering the weight of it all – even if we don’t always find it conducive. After all, it isn’t about our preferences; it is about being God’s generous people for the sake of God’s world.
  5. And, finally, we can learn and grow through an experience we might not have chosen, but which will test the reality of our convictions. This is where the rubber will hit the road – and we have the opportunity to do something never done before in the Church of England, setting a pattern for how such change can be handled effectively in the future.

Churchwardens will be crucial to this process. Where questions and obstacles are detected or encountered on the grounds of any parish, these need to be identified, articulated and represented in order that we constantly deal with reality and not just our assumptions. Making the church work whilst being open to changes is vital and valuable service. Vision always has to be worked out in terms of money and buildings and stuff and real people. But, the challenge is to not lose sight of the purpose and point of it all.

God is calling us to face the future with courage and vision and hope and faith. No doubt we will moan our way through it, too – constantly wishing we were somewhere else or starting from a different point or back in a romanticised past or with a different group of people. But, God calls us to be faithful where we are now and to shape our future – not to be a victim of change, but a creator of a future rooted in a vision of God’s kingdom.

Thank you for all you do. In serving your local parish and church you are setting the framework in and through which the people of our parishes can be encountered by the God who loves them. Sometimes it might seem to be tough or even inconsequential. But, the God who asked Moses to find people to share the burden of responsibility is the same God who calls us now and invites us to join together in his service with one another for the sake of his people in his world.