As I have recently preached, Advent is not simply a time of expecting Christmas — though it is that. Just as importantly, if not more so, our readings and collects all actually point us to the second coming of Christ and the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom. We are asked to be excited about that — expectant and ready — just as we look forward with hopeful joy to the Christmas festival.
This has been a difficult year for all of us, with highlights few and far between — and, even then, largely only the ones we’ve chosen to make for ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. Whilst that will make Christmas potentially a strange beast this year, yet all the same, I am looking forward to a moment of joy and celebration — a light that shines in the darkness — and this is only added-to by the fact that the long-hoped-for vaccines are on their way. I don’t, of course, pretend that normality will return instantly. Nor do I wish to dismiss the real and present hardships people have encountered in this past year — personally, psychologically, financially; recovery will be long and hard. Yet at least there is now a light at the end of the tunnel — the promise of “good tidings of great joy”, so to speak. We now walk towards Christmas and the new year in hope.
However, one of the positive things that lockdown has done for me, and I hope for you too, is that it’s given me an opportunity to pause and, as we began to resume life after the initial lockdown, to assess what is really important about life and, indeed, about Church, as well as what we’ve always done by force of habit or a sense of duty that really wasn’t as life-giving as we had thought. It’s enabled me, in some sense, to strip things back and let the latter things go, whilst affirming the former and hopefully doing them better. I believe my work and leisure time are used better as a result, and I believe that our life together as the Church has, in some important ways, become deeper and more purposeful. Perhaps, as we emerge from our covid-induced cocoon, we will be in a position to carry some of these insights and new ways of being into our common life and mission.
It is in that context that I turn to Bishop Cherry’s recently-announced proposals for Ministry Areas in the Diocese. As I have said in my announcements and sermons lately, the Bishop is calling for a real and substantial shake-up in Church groupings and organisational structures across the Diocese, so that — after a good two decades of wrestling with church and ministry re-structuring — we may hopefully accomplish what we set out to do with the Ministry Areas scheme in the coming year, and from there move forward with a sustainable plan that will last us for years to come. We are fortunate in East Newport to find that Bishop’s Cherry’s proposals keeps us largely as we were, with the sole addition of St. Cadoc’s, Caerleon, to our grouping, along with the Rev’d Sue Pratten, their priest in charge. (Some rural churches, especially, have had far more wide- ranging changes in their parish groups.) I am sure, from knowing you all as well as I do, that they will find a warm welcome with us.
As with covid, the Bishop’s plans leave us with some difficult work ahead: our parish governance will shortly be under a Benefice Council for the whole Ministry Area. (Please don’t worry; there are plans afoot to preserve actively a way to make local decisions on local issues and local identity.) This will mean that engaging with our neighbours and partners more closely and for the long term good of the MA’s mission — and working out exactly how that will be accomplished. But the message that Bishop Cherry hopes we will receive is one of hope. Just as the vaccine is not a magic bullet, but can mean for our society the beginning of something new and fresh and filled with life rather than fear, that is what the new Ministry Area plans have the potential to give us in the Church.
And so I ask you to look forward — not just at Christmas — with hope for our parish, our MA, our Diocese, and our Church. Though new things will be asked of us, I pray that we are all willing to embrace the change coming as a chance to make a fresh start in our common life and mission. Please pray for me as I help the Bishop and us navigate to a place where the Kingdom is more fully and more joyfully proclaimed.