Chrism Eucharist 2019 - Brussels

Today’s gospel reading is Jesus’s great public manifesto. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me, to proclaim freedom for the captives.” When Jesus unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth and reads from it, the world is changed for ever. He takes the old prophecy of Isaiah about future salvation, and declares: “today this has come true in your hearing; today the new era begins.” Jesus proclaims new possibilities for human life, new hope, new vision. It’s a message that Jesus proclaims both in word and in deed, both through his teaching and through his miraculous works. He challenged people to think in new ways, he gave them fresh insights about the purposes of God. And we read that people were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.

When licenced ministers in the Church of England begin a new ministry we make the declaration of assent - whether bishops, priests, deacons, readers or lay workers. In the preface we are reminded that the Church is required to proclaim afresh the historic faith in each generation. Now this annual gathering gives especial opportunity to think about the circumstances under which we proclaim the gospel, and what it means to proclaim it in a fresh and relevant way. So, in my address this morning, I want to put before you two important features of our contemporary European context before thinking together about the art and practice of our shared together.

Two points then about context, of which the first is that, like it or not we are ministering at a time of technological revolution. Personally, I have been slow to recognise this. But the penny dropped when I was with a group of monks in one of the world’s most ancient Christian monasteries. As we sat around a woodburning stove in our cassocks, I noticed to my astonishment that each of us held in our laps a mobile phone. Ancient faith, ancient monastery, but all clutching one of these amazingly powerful hand held computing and communications devices. A previous generation of monks would never have believed it!

The technological revolution carries both great promise and great peril. And we as Christian leaders have opportunity to interact with it and to some extent to shape it. To be clear, by technological revolution we can include not just mobile phones, social media and the internet, but artificial intelligence, big data and robotics. Taking all that together, the technology is transforming not just the way we communicate, but how we we interact, how we work, how we understand ourselves and indeed who we are. And it is very powerful. Modern computers learned to play chess better than humans and they have now learned how to play the more complex game of ‘Go’ better than humans. And they learn by practising on themselves. Bishop Steven Croft speaks on artificial intelligence issues in the UK’s House of Lords. He recalls computer scientists saying to him: ‘You do not understand how powerful this stuff is. You must give us input to help us know how to live well.’

The challenges are wide-ranging. There is, for example, the question of public truth and political debate. So we know that micro-targetting of adverts probably made a difference to the last two US elections and to the UK referendum debate. Then there are big questions around the future of work. In the UK, 25% of supermarket checkout assistants lost their jobs due to automation in between 2011 and 2017. Warehousing, distribution centres and call centres will be affected next. Overall it is estimated that 40% of jobs are at risk through automation in the next 20 years, with other different jobs being created. Data protection and privacy issues are huge: it is frequently said that facebook knows all about you, and Google knows what you are looking for. Now with Alexa and Home Monitoring, the same companies that track what you buy, what you watch and where you go online can be right there in your home. Alongside this, workplace monitoring increasingly tracks employee keystrokes, conversations and movements around the office. Bentham’s asylum is becoming a reality by stealth. If we don’t find that scary, well perhaps we should?

What is the impact of this revolution on children? Some of the signs are deeply worrying. In the UK nearly one in four girls cut themselves last year. Have a look at Bishop Rachel’s video ‘Liedentity’ on the Diocese of Gloucester website to see the effect of social media saturation on teenage girls’ body image. On-line gambling is carefully designed with sounds and lights to trigger endorphin releases that will hook people. 25,000 children under 16 in the UK, mainly boys, are problem gamblers. The new technology is creating huge pressures for children.

I am only scratching the surface…But, I wonder:

- Where the forums in our diocese that we talk about these things? How are our local churches engaged? And our youth leaders?

- What does it mean to be bearers of good news in this context?

Well the good news, as Jesus declares at Nazareth, is liberation. We are liberated for living in the truth. We are liberated for living in community. We are known, each of us, by a God who knows us completely and has our welfare at heart. (Psalm 139); unlike the big corporations who know us to profit from us. We are created in order to be loved; not to be harvested. And its best, the church is an inter-generational community which makes that love real.

But the technology is also there for the church to use in its own mission. ‘A church near you’ is doing digital profiling to work out which groups would respond most positively to an invitation to church. The ICS mission agency is doing its own targeted facebook advertising amongst 40-60 years olds who visit the Swiss resort of Zermatt. And Scripture Union has invested more than a million pounds in a wonderful and properly professional computer game called Guardians of Ancora. Check it out and give it to your children or grandchildren! The technological revolution is a fundamental part of our context, as threat but also as promise.

But, and secondly, perhaps the element of our context at the forefront of our minds in these weeks and months is probably not technology so much as politics. British politics in particular, but also European politics more generally, is in a worrying place and we are all feeling the anxiety and the tension.

In Europe we have inherited some excellent Christian ideals for political life - concepts such as subsidiarity within states, solidarity between states, human dignity, individual freedom. These contributed to foundation of the British welfare state, the beginnings of the European Project, and the formation of the UN. Christians and secularists crafted together a postwar order which engendered a remarkable period of Western peace and prosperity.

But in recent decades that rich political culture has been drastically thinned out. On the one hand, we have the prosperous, mobile elites concentrated in the finance and information economies and the big cities. On the other hand, we have the sedentary majority who inhabit the peripheries. Those who feel ‘left behind’ are increasingly frustrated by their perceived disconnect from centres of influence. And their confidence in democratic structures is ebbing away dramatically. The rise of the far right is a very real and scary phenomenon across Europe. Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission said to a group of us a few months ago: ‘The May European elections will determine not just what kind of European Union we have but whether there will be a European Union.’ And so too in Britain, a survey produced by the Hansard Society, indicated that trust in politics has reached an all-time low.

Scarily a majority are saying Britain ‘now needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules’. Well Europe has previous experience of strong right-wing leaders doesn’t it.

I am especially aware of the tensions and pressures Brexit and political uncertainty is placing on British people in our diocese. There is real anxiety and real suffering.

But churches can help. We are a key intermediate institution between the family and the state. Churches can be places where people meet to talk and support one another. As Christian leaders we can help signpost people to the best information. We can advocate for our people. And we can reach ecumenically across the political and national divides to build fraternity and solidarity.

I have talked about our technological context and more briefly about our political context. If this seems challenging for Christian ministry: indeed it is! But that means, too, our potential to make a difference is huge. The art and practice of leading Christian communities in Europe in 2019 is difficult but also immensely rewarding.

To do it well, I believe we need to be ourselves open to learning and to change. In the first case, that means staying in touch with one another. No one person has all the gifts, experience and knowledge to be adequate for the challenges of the present age. We need to meet together to share, support and educate each other; whether physically like today or via skype or zoom.

Along with this, we need to reflect carefully on our own practise of ministry so as to continually refine and improve it. And here we might be able to learn from the art of ballet. A lady bishop, Libby Lane, was telling a group of us recently about her experience as a ballet dancer. Libby spent many hours as a youngster perfecting her ballet technique. This involved training herself in front of a mirror to get the correct body posture. Sometimes her teacher would move parts of her body into the correct position. Other times the teacher would demonstrate a move. Or encourage Libby to watch another dancer who had got the move correct. Then the whole ballet troupe would practice in a room surrounded by mirrors so that they could check they had the posture and the moves correct. It was all done with mirrors. 

Many of us were taught in our theological colleges or courses to be ‘reflective practitioners’. But the principle applies at all stages of ministry. Holding up a mirror to ourselves. So I wonder, what mirrors do you have? A spouse, a close colleague, a coach, a spiritual friend, a mentor? As a bishop, I’m undertaking a ministry development review that gives 360 degree feedback from 12 close colleagues, because I need to see myself as others see me. If you held up a mirror to your own ministry what would you see? And what elements of your practice would you want to change? In challenging times, I hope each of us can be and become reflective practitioners of the art and craft of ministry.

‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he has sent me, to proclaim freedom for the captives.’ We are recommissioned today to proclaim the gospel in our own deeply challenging context. May God give us the grace, the skill, the energy and the perseverance to be faithful to our calling.

This is the full text of Bishop Robert's address given at Holy Trinity pro-Cathedral, Brussels on Tuesday, 16th April 2019. 

You can also listen to the audio recording.  We wish to acknowledge gratefully friends at Holy Trinity, Brussels for providing this resource.