‘Celebrate, do not fear.’ That was the message given to the diocese by the Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury as he bid farewell to the diocese at Bath Abbey on Wednesday after his three day visit (7 -9 November).
Archbishop Justin was reflecting on what he had witnessed during his visit and the many conversations he has had on church numbers going down in recent years, including those put to him by media in Bath and Wells.
He said “…when I go back to the engagement I’ve got back in London this evening where people say ‘are things going down? I can say: ‘No they’re not – look what I’ve seen over the last few days. How wonderful is this?’”
“In Langport, I found the church had taken over the local pub, conveniently called The Angel and within it you find the foodbank, the debt counselling, the care for the lost, the marginal. You find the church being the Church.
“In Chard, a church hall with all the traditions of a church hall – including the heating not quite doing what it should have done yesterday – but also with midwifery, reaching out in health to expectant mothers and those with young children, offering a place of meeting for young mums, isolated and away from their communities of work.
“On Exmoor, a group of eight parishes with a priest who simply gives that sense of loving the people in his parishes and because that is a pretty contagious thing and he is very good in what he does – in loving them and sharing in their activities and taking part in the life of the community while demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ – churches are being looked after by small communities, more people are coming to Church and there’s health and life slowly, gently growing.”
“Underneath the Abbey a centre for the homeless, for the rough sleepers where people are finding their lives turned around and we could repeat this again and again through this diocese.”
During the three days, or 77 hours, he spent in the diocese, Archbishop Justin attended no less than 24 engagements.
Monday 7 November
On his first day in the diocese he talked to educators and youth workers in Taunton on the Church of England’s new Vision for Education, emphasising its focus on education as a whole, not just Church schools. He moved on to West Somerset College in Minehead where he answered questions from Sixth Form students, including “Do you believe in ghosts?” and “Did you choose to be Archbishop or did God choose you?” When asked to describe how it feels to be Archbishop in three words his response was “terrifying, exciting and varied”. He learnt how living in a rural community impacted on students, some of whom face a bus journey of more than an hour to school after completing chores on the family farm, and heard from the School Pastors who support students at the college.
From Minehead, Archbishop Justin headed into some more rural areas of the diocese. He joined a group in Roadwater who don’t go to church, but regularly attend a ‘Room for Doubt’ gathering at The Valiant Soldier pub to discuss spirituality and faith. He then joined the congregation of Treborough Church for evening worship. Rural issues and faith remained the topic later in the evening when the Archbishop met young people from rural and farming communities at the White Horse Inn at Exford. He reassured them: “Despite what you may hear, the Church is not going to withdraw from the rural areas. The Church is seeking not just not to go down, but to renew itself in the rural areas as a centre of community, a place for help and a place for hope under God.”
Tuesday 8 November
Day two of the visit began with a service at St Mary’s in Chard during which Archbishop Justin prayed for the town. He then moved over into the @St Mary’s Centre for an interview with BBC Somerset’s Ben McGrail before having a tour of the recently renovated facilities. He also he met with local midwife Becky Scott, who inspired Revd Sue Tucker to start the project to renovate the building to allow local midwives use it to meet the needs of the local community, and some mums who benefit from the new facility.
Next was a reflective walk up Glastonbury Tor with local clergy, school children, members of the local community and other faith groups to pray for the town and the people of Somerset. That afternoon he addressed clergy and Readers from the diocese at Wells Cathedral. He spoke on the importance of putting mission and evangelism at the heart of all we do and of the new vision for the diocese: ‘In response to God’s immense love for us, we seek to be God’s people, living and telling the story of Jesus.’
Archbishop Justin said: “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see a diocesan vision like this – but vision doesn’t make action. When we look out from the Church, and when mission and evangelism is at the heart of all we do, then every person in the Church becomes a witness to Jesus Christ. They seek to be out with those who are bruised and hurting as faithful Christian witnesses and at that point the issues of implementation begin to solve themselves.
“Structures, groups, committees, management, training courses are all good things, but in the end they don’t do it. It is our personal involvement in the action implied in the vision. And where that starts is being captured afresh by Jesus Christ.”
At the Cathedral he also presented the Cranmer Award for Worship to Bishop Michael Perham, one of the principal architects of the Common Worship liturgy of the Church of England and honorary assistant bishop in the Diocese of Bath and Wells.
Later in the day Archbishop Justin travelled to Frome, where he met representatives of EcoChurch, local councillors and David Warburton, MP for Somerton and Frome, to find out how Church and community can work together on environmental issues, before attending an ‘In Conversation’ style event at the Cheese and Grain. The sell-out event, hosted by BBC Points West’s David Garmston, was live streamed and can still be viewed on the diocese’s YouTube channel.
Wednesday, 9 November
On Wednesday Archbishop Justin took breakfast with a group of young people who are considering what God may calling them to do. After breakfast he shared some of his experience of exploring his own vocation, including some feedback he received; “I was assured I had no future in the Church of England.”
He added: “There isn’t one route in service to Christ. It’s not that if you are not recommended that somehow God has said I don’t really want you. Quite the reverse. All of us are called, it’s a question of what we are called to. Service to Christ is the most exciting thing that there could possibly be, in whatever route we are called. The privilege of serving in ordained ministry is extraordinary.”
The rest of the day was spent in Bath, but on the way the Archbishop stopped at Downside Abbey where he enjoyed exploring a series of treasures on display in their before taking time to pray at the shrine of St Oliver Plunkett. He spoke to the monks about the continuing relevance of monastic communities as well as the importance of making space and time for prayer.
Archbishop Justin’s first stop in Bath was at Bath Spa Student Union where he spoke on the worldwide church before taking questions from students from both of the city’s universities, hosted by the university chaplains. On the day the result of the American election was announced he was asked, ‘how do we reconcile the fact that many Christians voted for right wing policies when Jesus was the ultimate socialist?’ as well as more general questions such as the relevance of the Church today.
Twerton Hub was the next stop, where Archbishop Justin was able to see the role it plays in the local community and to pray in their new prayer space. He then moved on to Bath’s Guildhall where he addressed the Annual General Meeting of BathCAN (Christian Action Network) telling them that “Social action and evangelism are two sides of the same coin. Church communities have the energy, will and drive to do something about it and they do it in the most remarkable ways.”
Bath Abbey was the focus of the rest of the day’s activities. Archbishop Justin met with business leaders to talk about the Abbey’s Footprint Project then visited the Roman Baths to hear how hot water from the springs will be used as a green energy source. He then popped down to meet and pray with staff, volunteers and users of the Lifeline project in the vaults of the Abbey before the farewell Eucharist with the congregation there.
In concluding his sermon to the Abbey, Archbishop Justin said: “In your remarkable witness in in this diocese you give so many other people reasons not to fear. But may you be those who, at the end of all things, also show them the person who is the antithesis, the very solution, to fear itself: Jesus Christ.”