Bishop of Durham says farewell to diocese

Justin Welby, bishop of Durham, chats with choristers as he prepares to leave the diocese to take up his new position as Archbishop of Canterbury. Photo: Keith Blundy
Justin Welby, bishop of Durham, chats with choristers as he prepares to leave the diocese to take up his new position as Archbishop of Canterbury. Photo: Keith Blundy
Published January 29, 2013

The Right Revd Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of Canterbury Elect, tonight (Monday January 28) bade farewell to the Durham Diocese with a message of hope for the people he is leaving behind.

Bishop Justin attended a service of farewell, thanks and celebration at Durham Cathedral in what was his last public appearance in the diocese before he receives his legal title as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bishop Justin will cease to be Bishop of Durham and have the legal title bestowed on him as Archbishop of Canterbury at 12 noon on the 4th February at a formal service in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. His public ministry will be inaugurated at an enthronement service at Canterbury Cathedral on 21st March.

The Farewell service for Bishop Justin and his wife Caroline drew a large congregation from across the diocese and the region and was attended by the Lord Lieutenant Sir Paul Nicholson.

Speaking about his new job in an interview before the service, he said: “It is extremely scary and a huge privilege. It’s an extraordinary feeling to look back and see my predecessors, some of whom are extraordinarily distinguished, like my immediate predecessor Rowan Williams, who is breathtaking in his grip and imagination and his intellect and in many other ways. It’s exciting. There is a sense of what is God going to do?”

Asked what effect the possibility of a triple-dip recession could have on the Durham diocese, he said: “It is a huge challenge. Whether we go into a triple-dip or not, whatever does happen it’s going to go on being pretty dark economically. However, at the centre of the Church is Jesus Christ, who is described as the light of the world, and the darker the world, the more obvious the light.

“The Church is a centre of peace and hope which is completely independent of the circumstances around it so church communities everywhere have to be consciously seeking to be that peace and hope, welcoming and loving, ministering to people, letting them come and experience church life, making it easy for them to do so.

“In this diocese, churches, not just Church of England but churches generally, are organising about 50 food distribution centres. That’s the light of the world in the dark times in very practical ways. The church has often been at its best at times of difficulty because, as people are drawn into worship, they find someone who is faithful, whatever happens.

“If I have had three wishes for the diocese of Durham and its people, you couldn’t get much better than what St Paul talks about in chapter thirteen of the first letter to the Corinthians, which is faith, hope and love.

“Faith in God and in each other, in the capacity of this area to pull itself up and give itself a great future, which I utterly believe is within the capacity of this area and is being demonstrated. You only have to look at what’s happening in places like the Foundation for Jobs in Darlington (of which he is Patron) and lots of other examples in the north of the diocese. Really very remarkable work is being done.

“Hope that some of the struggles of the present will be ended but also hope in the sense of expectation that there is a really good future out there. Hope shows in how we train people, teach them what to expect and give them a vision.

“Love, knowing the love of God and love for each other. One of the plagues of the Western world, including this country, is the absence of trust in each other but in this area the friendliness, its capacity and the strength of its character and people means that it can set an example on the trust that comes through a genuine love for each other and community and area.

“Three big wishes but I think they’re achievable. You build these things a step at a time.”

Transcript of the sermon delivered

This sermon is very under prepared. It needed at least 10 more years in the cooking, and is more an exposure of brevity than a reflection on ministry.

That being said the call of God comes in numerous and often unexpected ways, and His voice and word to us is the constant amongst the changes of life. Whenever we are beset with fear and uncertainty, it is to His voice we must turn, to the constancy that is more solid than unreliability of human beings.

We are in the most powerful symbol of stability in the world. The massive bulk of this Cathedral and the journey from Bede the theological historian to Cuthbert the missionary, turns the changes of human practice, dress, liturgy and interpretation of Christian faith into mere passing moments. Bishops come and go, Priors, Deans change, but the Church is the same. As a building its relative narrowness compared to its length gives a sense of strong shoulders and long journeys, the journeys of Christian faith, and the trials within them supported and given direction.

And yet if we think only that we miss half the message. The building is grand, it draws the eye up to God, it stills anxiety and speaks of peace, the beauty of high rose windows breathes life into tired spirits. But it is also a stage set on which the drama of Christian life is played, and that drama goes on never repeating, never ceasing, always changing. The wanderings of the Israelites in this great passage from Numbers also speaks of solidity and movement. The cloud is always there by day and fire by night. There is the continual certainty of the presence of God. But where it goes is anybody’s guess.

Come with me to a typical Israelite tent, standard family, mother and father and about eight children, a few goats, a great deal of general clobber, and possibly a donkey. It is early morning, the first light of dawn beginning to take the chill off the desert. And what are they talking about? I suspect who is going to look at the cloud. “It’s your turn”, “no, I looked yesterday”, “well I did three days in a row when you had a cold”, and so on. Because if you look out, and the cloud has lifted, it means …… packing! You might have been there six months or one day, but you have to move. And let me tell you, and here I am an expert, packing to move is no fun. We have been doing it all day. It leads to gritted teeth, bad temper, pulled muscles and damaged possessions. And they did it unpredictably for 40 years.

The people of God are always in the midst of change. We look to the Church of England for stability, but we must instead look to God for direction and purpose, for the journey we are to travel with Him, and for vision of our destination. Change is always happening, and my natural instinct of moaning about it does no good. The answer is not avoiding change, but embracing pilgrimage, drawing close to God in worship so that we are filled with excitement about where we are going. The call of God is to move, and the uncertainty of the future is countered by His unfailing love.

Change comes even when we are still. On a journey back from London last week there was a signalling fault. Another train was alongside us. After an hour or so one of us began to move. The scenery changed, even if for a while we did not know if it was us, them or both.

The church may be still but the world around us moves. Culture and expectations of morality change, economics brings destruction or renewal, often both. We have rapid adaptation by brilliant manufacturing in this region, the taking on of interns and apprentices … and we have 40% cuts in local government funding (If you want to see an astute review of the effect of the cuts see what the Bishop of Liverpool the Right Reverend James Jones said to his diocese on the subject. It was with great sadness that I heard that he has announced his retirement today). All around us is rapid change and those struggling to deal with it, change for good and for ill.

The disciples of Jesus are in desolation, reverting to the securities they know, of fishing and locality in Galilee, and finding even that failing them. There is a lostness about the opening of John 21. And the comfort of Jesus comes by surprise, unrecognised. If Numbers calls us to wander on in trust that God is faithful, John tells us how.

He is present, and they do not know Him. My first lesson in a challenging week of silent retreat 10 days ago was to remember the presence of God, which I had neglected. He is here, and often I either turn away or forget. Yet even when they do not know Him, He guides them and restores the normality of life and profession. They catch a lot of fish. His faithfulness does not at all rely on our reception of it, but on His faithfulness. Be reassured.

He calls and they answer: as they see Him they are able to respond, in different ways, with a cry, with encouragement, with collecting what He has given, or with leaping clothed into the water. I wonder if Peter’s wife said when he got home, “clothes ruined, couldn’t you have walked?”.

He brings them into His work; He has fish but asks for theirs. The church is not necessary to the work of God, but in his grace He has made us essential to His loving. He loves us to share in His work, to participate in the providential outworking of His purposes.

And He feeds them, bread and fish as at the 5,000. Provision where there is nothing.

What is this Diocese primarily? It is not organisation or institution, even grand buildings, it is a people called to be loved by God. This Cathedral speaks to us of the everlasting faithfulness of that love, these passages of our call to respond.

It is God’s purpose that we should each be consoled and comforted by that love, present, participative, purposeful, providing, and in the strength that He brings pack and move on. Far more than that as we each and all together grow in knowing and recalling the source of that love, God with us, we overflow to generous and self-giving sharing of it with our communities.

We are called to be pilgrims overflowing with love, spreading it in our journey, and being that is the gift of God, not the work of any individual.



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