The Right Revd Stephen Conway’s first sermon during his installation in Ely Cathedral on Saturday
When I was a small boy... Well, let me say when I was a boy my grandfather would tell me stories about his grandfather who lived in Steeple Morden, a parish in the south of this Diocese.
Although my grandfather was not particularly tall, great-great-grandfather Jarman was a big man who sported a high hat and rode a large horse. It was said that you could see him coming from miles away.
So, now his great-great-grandson is back in Cambridgeshire and West Norfolk, another big man with a high hat whom people will see coming towards them!
Since I have arrived in Ely, I have had the opportunity to travel in company with incumbents and other ministers around the Cambridge South and Wisbech and Lynn Marshland deaneries.
This has encouraged me hugely as I have listened to colleagues describing lives and ministries rooted in God and committed to drawing others with them on that journey of discovery.
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I look forward joyfully to being at the heart of this pilgrim band with all who want to join in during the years to come. I shall be a pilgrim in all of our communities as this year progresses.
Going on a journey is a theme to be drawn from two of our readings today. I have been re-reading Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ famous sermon about the coming of the Magi, and T S Eliot’s poem inspired by it.
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Arriving in cold January from Wiltshire drew me into the story of those who set out to discover Jesus. Wise men set out on a journey which left behind what was known and safe and brought all their wisdom to the feet of a Saviour who had yet to speak. They went back another way because the whole landscape of their lives had changed.
Travelling for its own sake does not take us anywhere, however. I watched a film recently called ‘Up in the Air’ in which George Clooney lives on aeroplanes and keeps all commitment at bay. It is a dark film for all its comedy.
His journeys are all revealed to be without purpose and his hope of love is revealed as fantasy. Our travelling together as pilgrims in fen, town and city needs to be purposeful.
The writer and artist, Jennifer Lash, sister of the former Norris-Hulse Professor in Cambridge, used her time of remission from cancer to travel to the famous pilgrim shrines of France and Spain as a spiritual quest for someone who had been brought up in the life of the Church but had moved away from it. S
he wrote about her journey in a very moving book entitled On Pilgrimage. Not surprisingly, the journey was a celebration of love and hospitality and a renewed sense of God at work.
I have met nothing but love and hospitality so far, both from clergy and other colleagues, from friends in sister churches, and from people in the wider community with whom I look to be partners in serving the common good.
I thank you all; but forgive me if I mention no names to avoid invidious omissions. I have come into a goodly heritage; but what I pray for is that we shall all be infected together with a renewed sense of God at work in our midst.
Today, I have taken the oaths on a 1611 edition of the Bible. I applaud all that I have already seen and heard about the commitment to studying and praying with the scriptures across the Diocese.
Our journey is given shape and purpose by our being drawn as individuals and communities into the Exodus of the Israelites into freedom, the Exodus into freedom completed in the resurrection of Jesus.
The Book of Deuteronomy, which contains a series of addresses attributed to Moses to Israel before they enter the Promised Land, would not win many votes as the most popular book in the Bible.
It is sometimes written off as a dull book of rules. Actually, it is a book which says much about justice for the oppressed and the stranger; and it carries the astonishing message which is for us, too.
Israel does not need to be anxious about provision on this last part of their journey because God is providing everything. Even more astonishing, God has been with them on all their journey and in the whole forty years they have lacked nothing. God’s blessing has been unfailing.
In the desert they may have expected that they might have lacked everything in a trackless waste. Yet, this is our hope that our God’s love even makes the desert bloom. Even when we cannot see our way clearly, God is always coming towards us and renewing His covenant with us.
This is not pie in the sky, but a down to earth God, inviting us and every community to enlarge our sympathies and to dare to hope that all may flourish.
As a big bishop, I am keen to participate in a big society. This morning nearly 200 children have led me to the Cathedral. I am very much concerned about what the future will be like for them. What we need is a generous society in which we strive to release gifts, create real jobs, celebrate serious scholarship, support innovation, treasure the earth and honour those with the weakest voice – the young, the elderly and those imprisoned by disability.
A generous society will desire that everyone has people to love, a decent place to live and worthwhile opportunities to participate and contribute. We must break free of the seesaw of boom and blight which can beset us simultaneously in different parts of our region.
It is said that we Christians are so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly use. Actually, we are dual citizens already of God’s kingdom and God’s earth. It is only by being heavenly-minded that we shall be any use at all.
I rejoice at all the ways in which Christian people are exercising their discipleship in all sorts of volunteering and public service.
I pray that we can be even more vivid in our commitment to the public square, to sacrificial service and to mutually transforming relationships and conversations. One scholar has written that Deuteronomy expounds a profound ‘neighbourly ethic’.
I hope that we can live this out across the Diocese, whether here through the Cathedral, in settled rural villages, in our universities, our urban centres or in new communities.
This neighbourly ethic also takes us beyond our local interests and unites us with our partners in Germany and South India and wherever else in the world we are drawn to build respectful partnerships.
The hospitality and engagement of our churches enables us to invite people not yet part of our life to join the journey of the first disciples from Jerusalem to Galilee.
The Bishop who ordained me used to say that you can’t keep a good God down. Outside the city gate, life and hope seemed to have been extinguished as Jesus died on the cross; but in a garden the New Creation burst from the tomb.
The women bore the message that everything was now possible. God sent His Son to destroy the barriers of sin and death so that we might be transfigured by his resurrection life; and that we should want to be immersed in that life so much that anything else would be as rubbish to us.
Soon I shall go to the Galilee Porch at the West End of the Cathedral to bless the City and Diocese. It is a sign of the invitation to follow the Risen Christ to the Galilees of today and join in what He is doing in the Spirit’s power.
This is the great commission we have received together as the whole People of God as those baptised into the death of Jesus that we might share his life.
I am confident that God continues to form us by His Spirit as we live lives of thankfulness and praise.
I pray that we shall have years together as God’s people, growing into the character of Christ as we gather to give thanks around many altars, rejoicing in the real presence of Christ in the Word shared, in the bread broken and in the lives of those who become what they eat, the Body of Christ.
One of the saints of the Early Church wrote that the ‘glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ I really take this to heart.
I commit myself to continuing to be formed as a disciple in the character of Christ, ready to be changed and grown by my colleagues across the Diocese. I shall seek to serve your formation and human flourishing, too, so that we can all reveal Christ at the heart of everything.
It is very important to me that I have been anointed at the Shrine of Saint Etheldreda. I pray that we shall all be anointed by God’s Spirit and walk in the steps of the saints of this land and be united with them in praying for the coming of God’s kingdom.
I have enjoyed already the wonder of big East Anglian skies. I have experienced very long views and a sense of earth and sky merging together in a glorious pattern.
I look forward to taking the long view as we pray for a future of growth and renewal in the Diocese of Ely. This is all possible because our lives now are shot through with God’s glory.