by the Rt Revd Ruth Worsley, Bishop of Taunton
‘You don’t belong here’ were the words spoken to me on my first Sunday evening as curate. I must say I felt quite affronted, I was nervous enough. It had been quite a journey for me to take to ordination. Brought up within a very conservative non-conformist Christian tradition where I had no role models of women in leadership, I had undertaken much soul-searching and wide-ranging debate to get to this point.
Over the 12 years I spent in that parish, I discovered however what was behind those words. This was a multi-cultural community with white working-class, living alongside changing, mobile and growing immigrant groups. It was dynamic, colourful and constantly challenging for a new curate like me and I loved it.
Unlike most of the diocesan congregations ours was richly diverse. However the leadership was not. Those of us in leadership put that down to the lack of confidence of our congregational members but it became clear during my ministry there that we had been using that as an excuse for some time. ‘Empowering the laity’ didn’t just mean offering them opportunities to develop but also making space for them. So we set about making some fundamental changes to increase the visibility of those we had overlooked. Long-term middle-class white members of our PCC stepped down to make room for others drawn from our growing black and Asian congregation.
One of the small but significant things we did was to make all our PCC members chalice assistants. A tiny structural change but it meant that immediately we had 6 BAME members up front and visible to the wider congregation. And what we found was that not only did they become visible but we also brought children and young people to the fore with the 2 16 year olds who were serving a year on the PCC. Suddenly more of us could see ourselves mirrored in those participating in visible roles. And it grew confidence, folk could begin to see they had something to contribute.
That 20-year old memory has come to mind again for me in sharp relief as I’ve reflected on this period of lockdown. Who are those who have remained invisible to me over those years and yet now I am beginning to see once more?
In the early weeks of lockdown, my colleague +Peter met a woman in her wheelchair along his walk. She told him that she had not been able to access church for 4 years or more and yet that week she had been 4 or 5 times. How? Through the digital possibilities of the internet allowing her the freedom to enter into worship and not finding her physical constraints to be an issue. We cannot go back to ignoring those we cannot see!
Last night I visited a local residential care home to thank the carers who have given selflessly during this time of anxiety and fear. They have gone the extra mile to keep our seniors safe and yet often have come second when it comes to PPE, personal pay and conditions, and in feeling society’s appreciation. We were told our visit made them feel valued as they had felt excluded from the clap for carers with the spotlight being on the NHS. Izzy also told us how important the weekly local church’s YouTube service had become to their residents. In the past the church had taken the occasional service in the home, but now residents were able to feel part of the regular congregation. We promised that we would seek to continue these acts of worship. We cannot go back to ignoring those we cannot see!
Social care has been underfunded for many years and we have known that. The Dilnot Commission, set up 10 years ago, proposed a range of ways in which we could provide affordable but appropriately financed care into later age. Some of our carers still remain on pay that does not constitute a living wage. The media attention which has shown how care homes have borne such a terrible cost in loss of life due to them taking second place, has caused us to sit up and take note. If we truly appreciate the contribution such carers make to our society then we must join in bringing about change to the political systems which govern such care. We cannot go back to ignoring those we cannot see!
And there are so many more whom we have overlooked both in the Church and wider society in terms of either our unconscious bias or our unwillingness to choose to see them. Whether it is fear of difference or the comfort of homogeneity, we have narrowed our vision and lost sight of the broader horizon over the years.
I say ‘we’ but let’s own it…’I’. ‘me’! Early passions in ministry which sought to speak out for the most disadvantaged have settled into a pattern of balancing out the needs of all and thus diminishing the injustices of those whom I fail to see. The cause of those of a different ethnicity or sexuality, the concerns of those with mental or physical health needs, the case for the eldest or youngest in our society has often remained unrecognised.
But there are signs of hope.
The fear of pandemic has led to society re-evaluating what is important in life, our values, our purpose and those we love. ‘Key work’ is no longer focused on the financial markets as we have seen the economy tumble but rather on those who offer us a service of care. The more vulnerable in our communities have experienced an outpouring of generosity from neighbours and volunteers as they have become a focus of attention rather than remaining hidden and unseen behind closed doors. We cannot go back…
As I write this I’m reminded of the vignette of the child being brought into the company of Jesus by a parent. The disciples tried to muscle them out of the way, an unimportant intrusion, not worthy of notice. Jesus’ response was to draw the child into the centre as the focus of attention. His challenge to the disciples was not only to see but to become like children themselves.