IT is 12 months to the week since I started work as the first Bishop of Huddersfield.
The background to this is that in 2014 the Church of England created a new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales and decided that Calderdale and Kirklees should have their own Area Bishop for the first time.
So what’s it been like? Well, hugely varied and a huge privilege just about sums it up. I have visited churches and places all over the two boroughs and have met some great people who are really making a difference to the lives of the communities around them.
And that is the heart of what my job is about: helping churches to grow, in numbers and in spiritual depth, and helping those churches to work, together with others, to make a difference in the wider community and world. That is what we as Christians are here for, one way or another.
A big part of what I have done is to visit local churches to thank and encourage them in what they are doing. Last weekend I was with a small congregation in Batley, many of whom are elderly, who have a beautiful and well-maintained church and hall, which they seek to run as a beacon of Christian love for the people of the town.
How we continue to do that, as a sign of our commitment to serving all the people of West Yorkshire, of every faith and none, is a real and vital challenge – not only for the Church of England but for the sake of community cohesion and relationships between ethnic and faith groups across our region.
Two weeks ago, I visited an amazing church family in Halifax that seeks to support people on the margins of society, many of whom have had serious problems over substance abuse and much else besides. In the last year, they have baptised around 80 adults – and we had great celebration as I confirmed 10 people that evening, each of whom had an amazing story to tell of how God was at work in their lives.
This is not just about Sundays, it is about people being fed physically and spiritually, supporting one another seven days a week right through the year.
Beyond the churches themselves, I have been trying to build links with people in the wider community, including colleagues in the two borough councils. As we all know, local authorities have been hard hit by funding cuts – and it’s not over yet.
That poses real challenges, but it also offers real opportunities to work together in new ways, involving faith groups and the voluntary sector.
Kirklees Council, for instance, wants to develop a new strategy for working with the voluntary sector – one that helps to develop the capacity of voluntary groups to work together more effectively – and as Bishop (and someone who has worked previously in the voluntary sector) I have been asked to chair the sponsoring body for that initiative.
It takes time and effort on everyone’s part – and there is a fair bit of suspicion and cynicism to overcome – but it will be worth doing if we can achieve something that is for the good of all.
Sometimes, people ask me why I am involved in these kinds of things. Shouldn’t I be devoting all my time to preaching the Gospel and to helping churches to grow? Well, we need to remember that the central theme of Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels was that of the “kingdom of God”. Now it is tempting to assume that this “kingdom” refers primarily to what we think of as Heaven, meaning by that what happens to us after we die.
But in reality Jesus’s teaching is about much more than that. The kingdom of God is about people entering into a relationship with God – with God as the centre and focus of their lives – but it is also about the way in which the life of this world is transformed from the inside out to become a little more like life as God intends it to be.
That is also what the “kingdom of God” is about, and that is the meaning of Jesus’s stories like the parable of the yeast, which works its way through the whole loaf, leavening it and making it into something good to eat.
The Church, rightly, is concerned with both of these things: helping people to discover and to grow in a relationship with God that changes their lives and seeking to transform the life of the world for the better and for the good of all.
That commitment is a reflection of the generosity of God, who makes the Sun to shine and the rain to fall on all human beings, and not just on those who acknowledge him or who are members of the Church.
Of course there are places where the Church is struggling, and where it needs to find new ways of doing things for the sake of reaching those who currently have nothing to do with its life.
But most of all I have found in our churches people who really are up for it and who want to discover how to serve God and our communities more effectively – and working with them has been a huge privilege. And thank you for the great Yorkshire welcome, too!
The Right Reverend Dr Jonathan Gibbs is the Bishop of Huddersfield.