A new chapter in a longer story
The new Bishop of Norwich, Graham Usher, shares his thoughts on new beginnings, a few months into his arrival in the Diocese.
Life has certainly felt very new for me over the last few months. A new diocese, new colleagues, new home, and a new sense of place. My inner compass has had to get used to living in a new part of the country. There has also been much talk of beginnings as I prepared for the services of welcome and began to meet many of you and learn about the diocese.
The season of Advent is one when we particularly think of new beginnings. It is, of course, the start of the church’s year, and there is a rhythm to the cycle of the seasons – Advent prepares us for Christmas, Christmas leads to Epiphany, Epiphany’s dark nights to the light of Candlemas. As we enter anew into this cycle, so the story of salvation, beginning with the expectancy and experience of Emmanuel, God with us, is unfolded.
A turnaround the common table
Each Sunday at Taizé, the monastic community in France, children bring forward the items to go on the bare wooden altar in preparation for the Eucharist. Along with the candles and chalices, a folded altar cloth is carefully carried and, with a quick action, unravelled from its corners with great beauty, like reverse origami, and laid on the altar. The holy table is made ready, unfolding before us, as God will be unfolded for us in bread and wine.
The unfolding of the liturgical year provides a stunning covering to the common table around which we are all invited to sit, to return from whatever things we are doing and to turn from whatever ill things we are doing. Turning around and changing one’s mind are at the root of the word repentance. God constantly calls us to new beginnings, “to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”, as the liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us.
Those words also echo through Advent, with John the Baptist’s call to repent and begin anew with a change of heart and mind. This always shifts the direction of our life. Many a new beginning has been traced on the map of life when this call has been heard and lived. The hymn writer, John Newton, who was once a slave ship owner, set a new course for the ship of his life, later writing, “My chains fell off, my heart was free.” From the sense of sorrow for all that lay in his past, a joyful new hope was found which dwelt more fully in God’s grace. A life was reoriented; a new direction set; a new beginning.
A letting go
New beginnings can also mark a freeing from the past. When thinking about this, I’m drawn back to the words of Nelson Mandela reflecting on the day that he left prison after 27 years in captivity: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. … You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.” Living in fear makes prisons around us, and we imprison others. Mandela realised that in his new life of freedom he could free others as well. It was a brave new beginning.
The reality is that new beginnings are part of a long journey into the future, inhabited from within the story of the past with its riches and sorrows, and lived in the sacrament of the present moment. We need to trust that this journey began with God and will end with God. That’s where hope comes in. Hope is an incredible gift and sets any new direction in a positive frame. I love the way that the Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, describes hope as “love stretching itself into the future”.
As we turn the pages of scripture, we find countless stories of new beginnings within the framework of a linear narrative. Some people, like Abraham, set off on a new journey. Some people, like Zacchaeus, turn from living unholy lives to walking in new paths. Some people, like Elizabeth, become pregnant when they thought that they never would. Some people, like the unnamed woman who was haemorrhaging, are healed from an infirmity that is crushing them, and a host of other people find life in great abundance in a stranger’s conversation, in an invitation to “follow me”, and in bread being broken and the sharing of a cup of wine.
Each has a new beginning.
A rhythm and continuity
A new beginning can be both daunting and exciting. I have certainly felt both in recent months. Lots of other people feel the same: parents of a newly born child, a couple getting married, a new job or the loss of a job, starting a new school, being baptised or confirmed. We are surrounded by new beginnings, they are part of life’s surprise, and yet also part of its rhythm and continuity.
I often hear, when licensing a priest to a parish, that this is a “new beginning” for a parish, or even, “the start of a new period of ministry”. I tend to draw back from such phrases and also from the word “interregnum”, which literally means “between reigns”, for ministry is sustained throughout a vacancy, often with the help of our dedicated Readers, AWAs and retired clergy. Rather than focusing on individuals, I prefer to understand ministry in terms of the gifts God gives to the whole church to exercise care and compassion, healing and hope, challenge and cooperation, harvest and hallelujah.
Likewise, being called to be your bishop is not a new beginning but a stepping into a linear story of what God has been doing, is doing and will do within the Diocese of Norwich. I am just the tenant slotting in as number 72 in Norwich! I am enormously grateful for all the advice and guidance Bishop Graham James has shared with me, together with colleagues, as well as those who have taken the time to write to me, or with whom I’ve had conversations on deanery visits. Thank you.
Please forgive me that I come with no grand plan for the Diocese of Norwich other than to be faithful to Christ. I see the role of a bishop as being to prayerfully watch, listen and discern, together with the whole people of God, and to create bridges that link a diocese together, to our neighbours, and the wider church. Out of that will come both consistency and change. Perhaps some will have already spotted aspects of both, because I come, like us all, with a unique set of experiences and sense of calling – and some unique inadequacies and failings!
In recent weeks, I have particularly valued a prayer from the Lutheran Church that sums up much in these reflections:
you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As we come, and as we go, Christ is always slipping in alongside us, continually inviting us to come and follow him, on a journey into the unknown but to a place full of hope. Thank you for allowing me to share that journey with you, and I look forward to the joyous adventure that lies ahead.
The Rt Revd Graham Usher is the Bishop of Norwich. He is a member of the Church of England’s Environmental Working Group, a board member of the Human Tissue Authority and a member of the International Commission for Anglican Orthodox Theological Dialogue.
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A selection of books on the theme of new beginnings, reviewed by Steve Foyster.More
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The Revd Karen Hutchinson, Archdeacon of Norwich, highlights the often necessary endings before the new can begin.More