The Bishop of Lichfield is encouraging churches across the region to respond as people of hope to the challenges of Coronavirus in their communities.
During his Presidential Address at Diocesan Synod on Saturday, the Rt Revd Dr Michael Ipgrave said: "Many people will be suffering especially severely as a result of coronavirus – the elderly, those with underlying medical needs, those with mental health issues, as well as those required to self-isolate and those suffering from food poverty and other forms of deprivation. We need to attend to them with a special care in our current situation.
"I believe that our churches, set at the heart of every community in this diocese, have a major role to play in rising to the social challenges which this virus presents to us. And we also have an important witness to make in showing that we are all in this together. At times of fear and anxiety, it is so easy for people to turn against one another, and for divisions and suspicion to grow; we see this happening a lot in our world today."
He continued: "We in our time face challenges which could pull us apart – whether those be the threat of pandemic, the political divisions created and exposed in the long arguments over Brexit, the growing contrasts in wealth and health our society, or whatever. But as then, so now, our churches are at the heart of our local communities with a message of hope grounded in the reality of what God has done in raising Jesus Christ from the dead."
Churches across Lichfield Diocese - which covers an area with a population of over 2 million including Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent, most of Shropshire and the Black Country - are already setting up or joining community efforts to support those who may be self-isolating. Others have started streaming Sunday services online for those who cannot attend in person. Christian communities across the country have been urged to remember their neighbours and not panic, inspired by the Bishop of St Alban's Golden Rules.
The latest Church of England advice for churches on Coronavirus is here.
Diocesan Synod, which went ahead on Saturday in Stafford as planned, also included important updates on Diocesan Environmental Policy, the Everyday Faith programme, the Annual Report and the life of Lichfield Cathedral.
The full text of Bishop Michael's Presidential Address is below.
Lichfield Diocesan Synod – Presidential Address, Saturday 14th March 2020
It will not surprise you that I want to begin by saying something about the Coronavirus COVID-19. We thought, consulted and prayed long and hard before coming to the conclusion that this Synod should go ahead. It would have been entirely possible to come to another conclusion, and there is no doubt that many events will be cancelled or reconfigured in the coming weeks; it is simply not possible at this stage to say how this will affect the patterns of our life together. At any time, though, I believe that it is our duty as responsible citizens to follow the advice provided by public health experts advising our government, and that is what we have been doing and will continue to do.
In addition to that general advice, you will be aware that specific guidance relating to our churches is being provided by the Church of England nationally, and we are promoting that across the diocese. Much of this refers to the celebration of the eucharist, where we are now asking priests to administer the sacrament in one kind, i.e. providing only the consecrated bread to communicants, while they themselves are the only people to drink from the cup. There are also recommendations about avoiding direct physical contact, both in the sharing of the peace and in blessings and other liturgical gestures. None of this should in any way detract from the joy or the reverence of our worship. It is as the body of the risen Christ that we gather together in our churches, and it is the risen Jesus Christ whom we encounter in worship; he is fully present with us, body and blood forever gloriously united, not separated whether we only eat the bread or only drink the wine. This is what is known theologically as concomitance, which literally means ‘accompaniment’: in the resurrection, the Lord’s body and blood, broken and spilt at his death, are reunited, so that if we eat or drink of the one we drink or eat of the other, because together they convey the presence of the Christ who always accompanies us on our journey. It is in the fullness of the risen Lord that we are given hope and confidence in dark and anxious times.
That same risen Christ also holds before us the needs of our society, and particularly those who are most vulnerable. Many people will be suffering especially severely as a result of coronavirus – the elderly, those with underlying medical needs, those with mental health issues, as well as those required to self-isolate and those suffering from food poverty and other forms of deprivation. We need to attend to them with a special care in our current situation. I believe that our churches, set at the heart of every community in this diocese, have a major role to play in rising to the social challenges which this virus presents to us. And we also have an important witness to make in showing that we are all in this together. At times of fear and anxiety, it is so easy for people to turn against one another, and for divisions and suspicion to grow; we see this happening a lot in our world today. In his Journal of the Plague Year, describing the deadly epidemic of 1665 from a London viewpoint, the novelist Daniel Defoe wrote: ‘As the terror of the infection abated, there did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before’.
With that in mind, I believe that we should take inspiration from the story of the villagers of Eyam when they faced the terrifying reality of plague in 1665. At that time, long before the Diocese of Derby was even dreamed of, Eyam belonged to the Diocese of Lichfield, so in a real sense this is part of our story. The plague had been unwittingly introduced to the community through infested samples of cloth brought from London by a travelling tailor. Led by their vicar William Mompesson, the villagers took the selfless decision to ‘self isolate’ for more than a year, avoiding all contact with neighbouring villages, their food supplies left at and collected from the parish boundaries. The cost in human lives was heavy, but the result of containment was entirely successful. Mompesson worked in close collaboration with one of his predecessors and potential rivals, the Nonconformist minister Thomas Stanley, who had been ejected from his living for his Puritan beliefs. In a display of ecumenical unity utterly remarkable for its time, the two clergy sustained the morale, strengthened the will, and re-established the unity of the community through their ministry, gathering their people together in open air services.
Eyam is a striking example of the church’s calling to bring unity in a society faced with forces which could pull it apart. Faced with the mortal peril of the plague, it would have been easy for the villagers of Eyam to divide and scatter; but thanks to the Christian message of faith, hope and love at the heart of their community, they stayed together. We in our time face challenges which could pull us apart – whether those be the threat of pandemic, the political divisions created and exposed in the long arguments over Brexit, the growing contrasts in wealth and health our society, or whatever. But as then, so now, our churches are at the heart of our local communities with a message of hope grounded in the reality of what God has done in raising Jesus Christ from the dead.
If we are to provide that example of healing unity in our society, we will need to work hard at how we disagree with one another over some very important issues. In the coming months, the House of Bishops will be presenting to the Church of England a set of resources called Living in Love and Faith which are designed to inform and encourage thoughtful, honest and sensitive conversations around issues relating to marriage, human sexuality and relationships. These will doubtless be discussed at General Synod, but it will also be very important that they are discussed in dioceses, deaneries and parishes across England, including here. This is not on our synod agenda today, but I want to give advance notice of it, as it will be a major piece of work for us to attend to, and will test to the full the bonds of Christian love, mutual respect and common purpose which hold us together. I pray that we can approach those conversations with a genuine wish to explore together the rich teaching of scripture interpreted in the light of tradition and reason; we all have so much to learn.
And so to our agenda for today, where we have some very significant items to discuss: our environmental policy; the lay emphasis of the Everyday Faith programme; and the life and mission of our Cathedral. All these have a particular timeliness just now.
The General Synod of the Church of England has very recently committed to seeking carbon neutrality by 2030. That is an ambitious target, and if we are to make progress towards it we will need to work hard at the issues set out in our Diocesan Environmental Policy, which we will be reviewing today. Last September we made a concerted effort to underline the global importance of Climate Action Day. Making headlines like that is important in influencing the way people think; but so are the day to day tasks of environmentally responsible living, both as individuals and as church communities.
We can only make progress on the environmental or any other front if we find a new and deeper sense of common purpose as lay and ordained Christians together. Three years ago, a report with the slightly odd title Setting God’s People Free called for a greater emphasis on lay discipleship, not only within the organised life of the Church, but still more through ordinary men and women’s witness in their life at work, at home and in the community. This is now better expressed in the stream of projects called Everyday Faith which we will be hearing about this morning. As we consider that, we need always to remember that ‘lay’ does not primarily mean ‘not clergy’; it means ‘part of the laos, the pilgrim people of God’.
And indeed this year has been designated as the Year of Pilgrimage, an opportunity to reflect more deeply on what it means for all of us to see our lives as a purposive journey through the world towards our God, and to put those reflections to practical work through actually walking towards places where the Christian story has been told in particularly memorable ways, along paths which Christian people have trod throughout the centuries. The village of Eyam is one example of such a place, and in fact it forms the end point of the beautiful Peak Pilgrimage way, which sets out from Ilam just on the edge of this diocese. And at the heart of this diocese we are of course especially blessed in our Cathedral, which has been a place of pilgrimage for thirteen and a half centuries, since the time of the first Bishop of Lichfield, whose name was: Chad. Over those years, the Cathedral has continually evolved and adapted to changes in society and diocese, and that history continues into our own time: the Dean is going to present to us some of the challenges and opportunities facing Chad’s house in twenty-first century Mercia.
We will also have the chance to hear some of the extraordinarily varied ways in which our officers serve the life of our parishes, fresh expressions, chaplaincies and schools, both through the administrative support they provide and through the focus on discipleship, vocation and evangelism which they enable. The vivid graphics on their report say it all really, reminding us what a debt of gratitude we owe to our very dedicated, hard-working, imaginative and responsive central teams. And as we thank them, I hope that we also come here with an attitude of thankfulness to and for one another, in all our differences and sometimes disagreements. It is in a spirit of mutual indebtedness, as fellow members of the Body of Christ who need one another as we serve the one who is our Head, none of whom can say to another: ‘I have no need of you’ – it is in that spirit that I invite you now to move to the business of this Synod.