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Sermon: Bishop of Guildford's Farewell

Christopher Hill
Saturday 30th November 2013
Farewell to the Bishop of Guildford
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Today is the tenth anniversary of my Installation and I stood in this pulpit and preached from 1 Peter on the Church – you – as ‘living stones’.  (I was probably the only person in the building who had never actually bought a brick for this Cathedral!).  You were and are the living stones!  Today we have the mission theme of St Andrew’s Day.  Mission means going out.  Christians are those who have a mission to go out with the Word of Christ and his costly, compassionate love to all the world.  The day after my installation, those years ago, I went to Elvetham Heath, now a wonderful new Church, then a small congregation meeting on a community hall.  But a church in mission-mode.  I am glad to go out on a note of mission.

But first some valedictory reflection.  Regularly, in these last nine years I have looked, in addition to the reading of Scripture, at three documents.  Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care is perennial retreat material for any bishop and if I have been of any pastoral use I owe it to that inspiration.  But also, documents directly relevant to Guildford, the Statement of Needs produced by the Vacancy in See Committee of this diocese in 2003 and the corresponding Joint Memorandum of the Crown Appointments Secretary and the Archbishop’s Appointments Secretary of the same year.

I will resist the temptation to do a kind of ‘self-assessment’ of my episcopate against these two documents.  I would in any case ‘mark myself down’ because of my notorious humility!!?  I can’t however resist one reference.  There was a certain feeling then of the need for consolidation after the dynamic ministry of my predecessor, Bishop John.  I myself heard clergy say quietly – could we please only have an episcopal initiative on every other day of the week.  So I have gone about stealing your local ideas and claiming them for the whole diocese: the Canonization of local initiatives is exemplified in our Common Purpose as a diocese: Spiritual Maturity; Growing in Numbers; Community Engagement.  In one of my Guildford documents this desire for consolidation was put vividly: as wanting to move on from the ‘sparkling wine’ of the previous episcopate to ‘mature claret’ with the next!  You apparently wanted to move on from ‘champers’ to Chateau Lafitte.  Perhaps the Vacancy in See Committee will now ask for an episcopate like ‘crusted port’!

Be that as it may, I want to offer you three snapshots, three pictures of why I am in deep thankfulness to God for the opportunity to minister among you as bishop these last nine years.  Here are my three, if not ‘champagne’ moments, three rich and deep ‘claret’ moments.

The first takes me back to a priest who died of cancer.  A relatively young woman priest.  She wrote poetry, including poetry about her own terminal illness.  She was inspired by the work of St John of the Cross and his dialogue – even argument – with God as he experienced the Dark Night of the Soul.  His (and hers) was a true wrestling with Jacob.  The Anglican poets, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot and R. S. Thomas do the same – and she was well aware of their poetry too.  I can also think of other recent deaths of clergy  (and a bishop).   And another woman priest, more recently, who faced death by very carefully arranging all the ceremonial details for her funeral.  In all these pastoral moments mortality was faced, argument with God in the Psalms embraced – and I was graced.  Clergy here today will know how humbling it is to be ministered to by those we think we are ministering to.  But it is so.  You know the text (from Paul to the Corinthians) on my Pectoral Cross:

We preach Christ crucified

Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God

For the foolishness of God is wiser than humankind

And the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is when we are weakest that we are most open to the depths and riches of God in Christ.  To be spiritually mature is to be plucked like the grapes of a good claret, plucked and crushed, and left to be fermented by God’s grace and so matured.  My most treasured goodbye card is from the women at Send Prison after my final baptism and confirmation in this diocese there, just three weeks ago.  The card was made in the prison workshop and is covered in their personal farewells.  They know what it is to be at the bottom and so most open to the crucified Christ.  When we empty ourselves – as Paul teaches in Philippians, we are most open to maturity of spirit and the grace of Christ.

My second ‘claret moment’ snapshot comes from a number of conversations I have had with many of you over the years of my ministry here but focussed more recently in the talk we have had together as Hilary and I have ‘prayer walked’ our pilgrims way across and criss-crossing the diocese: Fleet to Woking; Thorpe to Pyrford; Banstead to Ruxley; Burpham to Haslemere; Farnham to Waverley; Cobham to Great Bookham; and Dorking to St Martha’s Guildford.  About 85 miles of walking.  Pilgrims walk and talk and ‘gossip’ the faith.  I heard many stories of faith.  One of a man who wanted to learn more about Christianity.  He saw an Alpha course advertised but on enquiry he learnt that it would mean a meeting a week for three months.  This was Surrey, he couldn’t spare the time – too busy.  Only the next year he made the time and came to faith and he told me his story and thanked me for confirming him.  Today’s St Andrew’s-tide reading from Romans quotes Isaiah on the ‘beauty of the feet of those who bring good news’.  Well our feet ached after our first ten mile prayer walk.  But, whatever our feet look like, we catch the meaning of Isaiah and St Paul’s metaphor.  Growing the Church in numbers means having such beautiful feet and gossiping the Gospel.  Every time I have baptised and confirmed – whether in the Guildford Lido or other churches with immersion baptism or equally movingly here in the Cathedral at the Easter Vigil and in all  your churches, it has been deeply moving for me to baptise in the name of the Triune God and invoke the Sevenfold Gifts of the Spirit as children, men and women (of all ages) make their profession of faith and grow the Church.  Again the episcopal minister is the one also ministered to: the gracing is mutual.  And on our walks many came up to me and said simply: ‘you confirmed me, bishop, I shall never forget it’.  Or ‘bishop so-and-so confirmed me 30 years ago – and I was now being thanked for my predecessor but three!

My third ‘claret moment’ is in a school on the edge of Greater London but still in this diocese – not too far from the Kingston by-pass.  A breakfast club supported by the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation, now flourishing in partnership with the Community Foundation for Surrey.  A little boy half asleep sent off to school after watching late television the night before – and every night – sent to school without breakfast.  So the breakfast club.  A quiet, sleepy chat with a little boy.  Two hours later at break I met him again – a lively, bright lad now enjoying school rejuvenated by a real meal.  Remember there are hidden parts of our diocese.  At the other end of the diocese in north-east Hampshire I met those in a housing and work project for young people who have to move away from or have been taken out of their family home – for whatever reasons.  But you can meet young people just like that just down the hill here at the YMCA in Guildford, or Woking, or any of our Boroughs.  And all over our diocese and communities there are groups – usually ecumenical – serving their local communities in a variety of ways.  For example, the Street Angels or Street Pastor groups I have gone out with till the early hours.  The examples of community outreach – now happily, often, in partnership with local authorities in the county are legion.

In all this I have been supported in so many ways by the diocesan teams.  I name Bishop Ian who will carry the baton on during the vacancy and Archdeacons Stuart (and Julian) soon to be joined by Paul Bryer.  If I were to list by name all the diocesan administrative and ministry Teams the Cathedral and those on Bishop’s Council and Diocesan and Deanery Synods we should be here all morning and (of course) I would accidentally miss someone out and offend.  But I must name Hilary for her generous hospitality and domestic efficiency (and for loving me inspite of myself).  And I must thank all the clergy and laity of this good diocese of Guildford and thank the wider communities of Surrey and north-east Hampshire – including those of other faiths, Jewish and Muslim especially, and those of no faith but goodwill that I have met and also recognised in them the anonymous love of God.  Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est – ‘where charity and love are there is God’.  So a thank all of you as the ‘living stones’ I spoke of when I came.  I thank you for having ‘graced’ me by your ministry and examples.

Which brings me almost to the end.  At the conclusion of this service Archdeacon Stuart will read a short Dismissal reading.  The sentiments come from Hilary and myself through the words of St Paul to the Philippians.  So when you hear them they are from us:

I thank my God every time I remember you  . . .  because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I want you to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain to the Resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already reached the goal.  But I press on to make it my own . . . I press on towards the goal for the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

I know I haven’t obtained the goal but we all press on together as pilgrims along the way.  I thank God for you all, that he has given me the grace to attempt to do as I aspired in my inaugural sermon in this holy place those years ago.  I quoted St Augustine: For you I am a bishop: with you I am a Christian.  If I have been of any use to you as either a bishop or a Christian, thank God in this Eucharistic thanksgiving, as Hilary and I continue our pilgrimage and strive for the goal.