Christmas Message from the Bishop of Bristol

As I write, the Pope has just pulled down the curtain on his “year of mercy.”

I know. Some of you are asking why just a year? Well, personally, I can see some merit in focusing on God’s mercy and its outworking in our lives, though I take the point that this is a long term assignment for most of us.

Frequently many of us pray these words, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. Easy words to say; challenging words to live.

This past year, I have received a mixed mailbag/inbox. Sadly, I have been forced to conclude that mercy can be in short supply in our churches and in our world. We might claim that the mark of the Church is love, but too often the behaviour of some is merciless, cold, and embittered. We see this in the world with its endless litigation, its blame culture and the horrid and the tragic (sometimes fatal) ways relationships come to an end.

At the start of a New Year I ask myself would our world be a better place if the energy of God’s forgiveness were released in new ways amongst us? I can’t think many of you would answer such a question in the negative. But what would it take?

I suspect that more people would see the freeing power of forgiveness if they saw it lived out in a community. I have observed this at work in Uganda following the rebel insurgence. The LRA (the rebel faction) regularly took children and turned the men into child soldiers and the young girls became objects to satisfy the sexual desire of the rebel men. Often these children would be bullied into hideous acts of violence to prove their loyalty to the rebel cause. This could involve the killing of parents or family members in cold blood.

Following the war, western observers feared for the abducted children because they could not see what might become of them. The fear was that if they returned (the children became known as the ‘returnees’) to their villages they might be harmed by family members or villagers who sought reprisal. Two things were underestimated in the process.
First, African culture has some very sophisticated forgiveness rituals; second, the role of the Church in mediation with its strong forgiveness ethic, formed in the East African revival. The violence that many feared has not happened and many returnees have been reconciled with their former villages. There are many inspiring personal stories which bear this out.

I think we need a few inspiring stories of forgiveness across the Diocese. As a New Year begins, I suggest you start by praying whether there is anyone who needs your forgiveness or whose forgiveness you need to seek and if so, pick up a phone or a pen and notepaper or plan to have a coffee with the person you feel out of sorts with. I am not foisting a “year of mercy” on you, but I am strongly suggesting that we commit to lives of mercy, based on the basic and profound Christian truth that the forgiven need to be forgiving.

David Watson used to teach that nothing messes up the local church better than foundations of unforgiveness. Becoming forgiving heals us; holding on to bitterness eats away at our souls. I understand this is not easy, but neither is living a life of bitterness!

I suspect that more people would see the freeing power of forgiveness if they saw it lived out in a community. That’s what I call Church!

The Right Reverend Michael Hill
Bishop of Bristol