The dying of a church is not a management problem

Prompted by the conversation over at David Keen’s blog, I got hold of a copy of ‘The Tiller Report’ – “A Strategy for the Church’s Ministry” by John Tiller, then Chief Secretary to ACCM, which was published in 1983. The Tiller report was, itself, building and moving on from a previous ‘Paul Report’ from 1967, which covered similar ground. It makes depressing reading. All the issues that are currently being discussed (eg how to cope with a reduction in clergy numbers) are identified in Tiller, and all the same solutions are advocated – empowering the laity, distributing responsibilities, making the Deaneries the focus of mission and so on. I have this dark vision of another report being written in 30 years time, describing our present context as richly resourced, and working out how to keep the CofE rolling on with only 4,500 clergy.

This is not to say that I disagree with what Tiller wrote – or with what is now being advocated, eg through Transforming Presence. It is simply to say that, if these managerial, pragmatic and administrative remedies addressed the real problem, then those problems would have been solved by now. In my view, the fact that identifying these problems and outlining solutions has been done so competently suggests that our continuing malaise is not something that can be treated with those techniques. The root of our problems does not lie in technocratic incompetence – prevalent though that is – but deeper. The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. In my view, the real issue is that there is is a hole where our understanding and practice of the gospel should be.

This can be seen most clearly in the present debacle concerning whether or not to have women bishops, and how that might be carried forward. Manifestly, at this point in time, there is no single understanding to which all give consent; therefore there is fragmentation and each party simply seeks to advance its own interests. The discussion is not being carried forward as between brothers and sisters in the faith, but in the manner of opposing and mutually despising political parties. There is, in short, a spiritual collapse which has this faction fighting as a consequence. The debates that are taking place in Synod, and more broadly, seem indistinguishable from the political struggles that we are familiar with in Parliament. How can we get sufficient numbers to drive through our agenda? How can we get sufficient numbers to prevent the enemy faction from succeeding?

The trouble is that we do not have a culture in which these events can be described honestly. The hierarchy simply colludes with a culture of concealment (despite the fact the the world outside is full of small children pointing out the nakedness of the emperors) – because lip service has to be paid to the Christian virtues, even when those virtues are not embodied. Let me explain what I mean.

When the initial vote to approve women priests was made in 1992, it was only enabled to happen through a political compromise. In essence, those who were opposed to the ordination of women were assured that this was to be a ‘trial’ – that there would be a ‘period of reception’ during which the Church would come to a view about whether it was in fact the right thing to do – and that in the meantime, those who were opposed to the measure would not be forced to act against their conscience, and their views would continue to be respected. Notoriously, the language was of their being ‘two integrities’ possible within the Church of England. This political fix enabled just enough people in the ‘middle’ to switch sides and pass the measure. Since that time, it would be fair to say that the opposition to the ordination of women has only hardened amongst those who were originally opposed – and, similarly, it has been affirmed and embraced enthusiastically by those who were originally in favour. In other words, the division that was present in 1992 has, through the adoption of crude political methods, become heavily entrenched. Such spiritual camaraderie as was present in 1992 has now mostly evaporated, and we are in an even more emaciated spiritual condition than before.

This is the context within which the women bishops debate is taking place. Those who were in favour of women’s ministry before can now point to twenty years of experience and say ‘see?’ Those who were against, however, can now say ‘you have not kept your promises, we have not been respected, we have instead been persecuted, scorned and scapegoated, why should we start to trust you now?’ In this context, to say ‘we have to rely on our common Christian grace to get by’ is radically inadequate and dishonest. It is a pretence built upon a failure to own up to sub-Christian behaviour. The continued repudiation and moral opprobrium heaped upon those opposed to women’s ministry does nobody any credit, most especially when proper theological reflection gets substituted out in favour of a shallow acceptance of the secular language of justice and rights.

If our church had any spiritual strength it would – before exploring the question about women bishops – close the conversation about the ‘period of reception’ with which this experiment with the ordination of women began. It would come to an honest decision, once and for all, as to whether the decision in 1992 is to be affirmed or rejected (or, perhaps, agree to defer that decision). It would have that discussion in full and honest and open acceptance of the consequences. That is – given that the church is not going to repudiate the ministry of getting on for half of its clergy – it will have to say ‘we are not going to have the ecclesiastical abomination of flying bishops any more’. It will have to say to those opposed ‘this is the decision that the church has reached, this is the integrity of the Church of England now’ – and it would then have to act as charitably as possible to care for those who are rendered spiritually homeless as a result. There are creative ways to do that – but those creative and charitable possibilities cannot be explored in a situation of systematic abuse and bad faith.

Put simply, the church needs to live up to its words; not the high-flown language of spiritual aspiration and love, but the workmanlike words of the 1992 resolutions. The Church actually has to grow up and take what it has done seriously, not continue to indulge in a politically convenient forgetting that advances the agenda of one part at the expense of another. Until we have this honesty – and the patience to pursue the path of honesty wherever it might take us – we will never get anywhere.

Which brings me back to management. Terry Leahy, in his book ’10 words’ begins by talking about truth, as the foundation for everything else that can come, and writes “Organisations the world over are terrible at confronting truth. It is so much easier to define your version of reality and judge success and failure by that.” Why does the Church have such a problem with truth and honesty? My take on this is that it is because we have lost our way spiritually – and yet we can see the consequences around us of that state. We can feel that we have been mortally wounded, but we can’t see where the wound was inflicted and so, in lieu of actually dressing the wound and healing it (allowing God to heal it) we throw ourselves into ever more frenetic endeavours to try and cover up the truth. We substitute social and secular agendas for the gospel to show to the world how righteous we are (as if the gospel could be reduced to being righteous); we throw away the inheritance of our liturgy for the mess of pottage that is children’s entertainment, poorly done (as if the right way to worship God could only be properly discovered with the advent of Powerpoint); and we throw away the long, slow obedience of loyal, local discipleship for the ‘because I’m worth it’ pick and mix of the preferential rather than the penitential. Is it any wonder that we are in the state that we are in?

I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission, and allow the temperature of things like the women bishops debate to be lowered. At that point all will recognise that wrestling over who has the helm is not the most crucial decision at a time when the ship is sinking and all hands need to be on deck. Given the nature of the traumas that have begun to be inflicted upon our culture – and which will continue to worsen through the coming years, with all the genuine hardship, poverty and starvation that ensues – I believe that we will look back on our arguments at this time with a profound sense of shame; shame not simply that we were distracted from the one thing needful, but shame that this blinded us to the mission that God wishes us to carry forward in a time such as this.

I write this as a supporter of the ordination of women, and the eventual opening up of the episcopacy to women. It’s just that the gulf between what the church thinks to be important – and the vituperative way in which this is proceeding – and what I believe to be important feels very wide. Christian progress does not proceed across the graves of our baptised brothers and sisters.

Two stories

We all have voices in our heads. I think, though, that all the different voices resolve down to two – and they each have a story to tell.

The first story is ‘you are not good enough’ – you are a failure, an impostor, you do not belong here, go away, destroy yourself, cease to be a burden to the world.

This first story is the one that leads to depression and despair, to hatred and vengeance, to strife and division. The story teller is the enemy, the accuser, the voice of despite.

The second story is ‘you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased’ – I made you and I love you and behold it is good – come and enter into your inheritance as my child.

This second story leads to the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control and all the rest. The story teller is the maker of heaven and earth.

When we hear our voices, we need to decide who it is that is speaking, and which story they are telling. Most of all, when we realise that it is the first voice, we need to rebuke it and say ‘Get behind me Satan, you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men’. Actually, the best way to get rid of the first voice isn’t the formal and stern rebuke, it’s ridicule – the enemy really can’t stand being made fun of, because it is the one thing that brings home to him just how ridiculously powerless he is. It is by continuously refreshing our memory and consciousness of the second story – and the second story teller – that we become infected with laughter and joy, and the enemy is sent scurrying back beneath his rock. We need to have the attitude ‘was that your auntie?’

This is for someone particular in the parish, for other friends, for Dave Walker who did the wonderful cartoon at the top, and, of course, it’s for me too.

We are responsible for our own feelings

This is a line of thought following Sunday’s sermon (Mt 18.15-20), in which I said:

“When was the last time that one Christian in this church admonished another for sinning against them, for falling short of Christian standards? Note this isn’t a passage about one person saying to another ‘you’re not being good enough’ in any particular public way – it is about one person sinning against another. So all the fuss that the church ties itself up about, for example, homosexuality – that largely falls outside of this conversation. No, this is about one person hurting another, and the hurt person saying, not simply ‘you hurt me’ – which I am sure is a complaint that is often heard, but ‘you hurt me because you are sinning and failing in your faith’ – in other words, embedding the pain in a larger context and understanding. Because it is that larger context and understanding that enables transformation to take place, that stops the conversation being simply ‘you hurt me’, ‘you hurt me first’, ‘biff, bash, pow!’ If a community is to mature it needs to be have individuals within it who are strong enough to put aside their own feelings – their feelings of hurt, or betrayal, or broken trust – and see the bigger picture. It is only that larger context that allows God into the conversation.”

So often I see hurt feelings being used as a stick with which to beat other people into submission – we can’t do this because it will hurt so-and-so’s feelings. This is infantile. The spiritual path is about taking control of our feelings – or, better, letting God take charge and shape our feelings. We set aside our own inner responses in order to pursue a larger picture.

A while ago we had an evening reading (we use this great book) which was about our anger. It talked about a situation that provoked a disciple to anger, and then pointed out that in similar situations in the past, the disciple had not been provoked to anger. What had changed was not the external circumstances, but the internal spiritual state of the disciple. In such a situation the Christian response is to thank the person for making us aware of our own internal spiritual disorder, and resolve to improve matters.

This is why we are to use the language of sin, which presumes a shared faith. It means that we can put aside our feelings – that great oceanic and abyssal chaos – and instead set our minds on things above, things which are good, true and beautiful. This is the way in which we cultivate the gifts of the spirit – of love, peace, gentleness, self-control and all the rest. It makes all the sense in the world to point out when someone has sinned against us – for really, with a right understanding of sin, you are pointing out where someone is stabbing themselves in the eye. The escalation to the wider community is not really about establishing matters of justice so much as about establishing the correct diagnosis of what has gone wrong. It is not about blame – for we are not to judge one another – but about healing and transformation. This is why those who reject the community’s judgement are to be ‘pagan and tax-collector’ – in other words, people who are no longer a part of the community. This is a matter of logic, not jurisprudence.

So if people reject the community, and they reject the theology and discernment of the community, then there is no longer a shared language with which to share a common life. To reject that judgement is to reject the faith. I think this is what is meant by ‘what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’

Do you need to attend church to be a Christian?

Yes.

Unless, of course, you are more holy than Jesus. Jesus attended synagogue and the Temple rituals ‘customarily’ (Luke 4.16), so if it was worth it for him, then it’s worth it for us.

This is not to say that we are forced to attend a church that spiritually murders us, it is to say that we need to be a little stricter about discriminating between spiritual murder and spiritual inconvenience. It is not possible to get to heaven by giving in to our own desires so often especially when such desires are, frankly, incredibly shallow.

What is church? Church is where the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments duly administered. And yes, in order to be a Christian, you need to have a regular sacramental life. You need to be baptised, you need to share the bread and wine with your brothers and sisters in the name of Jesus.

Church is the gathering of believers for the particular purpose of renewing and refreshing their faith, which is accomplished by centreing our attention upon God and offering up to him the very best of ourselves, acknowledging that we are merely returning his original investment in us.

Christianity is not a solitary and private act. It is public and corporate. Fellowship is not an optional extra, it is constitutive. You cannot learn to love your enemies unless you take time to get to know them first.

Jesus had synagogue and the Temple. I’m coming to see house-groups (or equivalent) as the former, and Sunday morning as the latter. So many of the arguments and controversies we struggle with would be eased if we didn’t try to make the Temple into the synagogue, or vice versa.

Being a Christian is not the same as being saved. It is not for us to put boundaries around the grace of God. But joining in with other people on the pilgrimage and path of faith, this is not an optional extra, this is of the very essence of the faith.

Rocks and beer

This was chosen by a family at a funeral I took recently. Hadn’t come across it before, but I thought it was worth sharing…

A philosophy professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, rocks about 2″ in diameter.

He then asked the students if the jar was full? They agreed that it was.
So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks.

He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.
The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else.

He then asked once more if the jar was full. This time the students were sure and they responded with a unanimous “YES!”

The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and proceeded to pour their entire contents into the jar — effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

“Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The rocks are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children, things that, if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car”.

The sand is everything else. The small stuff. “If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued “there is no room for the pebbles or the rocks. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you”.

Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out dancing. Do something for the community. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal.

“Take care of the rocks first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of beers.”

The act, not the object

I can’t let Corpus Christi go by without my annual rant.

We worship a God who is known in relationship, who is within himself, relational.

Wouldn’t the principal form of worship of said God therefore, surely, be relational too?

That is – we meet God, we come into the real presence of Jesus Christ, through the re-enactment of certain sorts of behaviour, within which reconciliation and adoration are combined?

So as we are welcomed to share in the bread and wine, so we are welcomed to the taste of heaven?

So Jesus is met in the action of a shared meal – not in the object of a piece of bread.

Jesus is not a commodity.

Jesus is not produced at our command.

That is the spirituality of western consumerism.

That is the spirituality that has ravaged the world and despises the poor.

That is the symbol of all that has gone wrong in our faith.

Grrrr…..

Some brief guidance for intercessors

With a large tip of the hat to Doug, whose ‘Leading Common Worship Intercessions’ was invaluable.

Firstly, my thanks to you for agreeing to take on this ministry. Prayer is probably the most important element of Christian life as it is the foundation for everything else that we do, and intercessions – which are all about enabling people to pray – are a central element of our gathered worship. So herewith some hints and tips for how to lead intercessions.

Most important, expanding on the above because it is worth emphasising, is this: intercessions are about leading people in prayer, not praying in front of other people. The intercessor must therefore always have in mind the effect that what they say will have on people who are engaged in addressing themselves to God. Anything which distracts the person praying from that process is therefore a mistake. Here are some examples:

  • providing new information, or even giving too much information at all! The intercessions are not the notices, nor are they a television news bulletin;
  • nor are the intercessions a sermon, a place to engage in argument, or even a place to give views – praying for the situation in the Middle East is fine, praying for the Israelis (or Palestinians) to stop being such evil people – this is not fine;
  • if you are quoting a prayer by a famous saint, you don’t need to give acknowledgements – simply say the prayer in the way that it was intended;
  • being too long or too wordy, so that the people praying end up thinking about the intercessor rather than about God – keep things as simple as possible. As a general rule ten seconds of silence is more effective than a hundred words;
  • using a complex response which people find difficult to join in with.

So if these are things to avoid, what are the things to do? Firstly, remember that we do not know how to pray, but the Spirit prays through us – in other words, our task is to join in with something that is already going on, that has been going on for thousands of years. When we pray we are jumping into a stream that is already flowing, we don’t need to initiate the process. When we pray we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

If you are due to lead the intercessions, take some time to look at the readings set for the day, most especially the gospel lesson, and see if you are inspired to touch on particular themes (and trust your inspiration). Look at the prayer list in the black folder; I would not recommend reading out all the names left on the cross in the porch, but reading out all the names in our community who need praying for (the second list) is good. Catch the news headlines from the day before to see if there are any topical worldly issues that people may wish to bring before God.

Classic patterns (full texts available from Sam)
A five-fold pattern: Church, world, local community, the sick, the dead.
A three-fold pattern: world, church, individuals.
(These are addressed to God)
Bidding prayers (eg 9 Lessons, Good Friday) – these are addressed to the congregation, who pray in the silence and response.
Patterns can be used as a platform from which to jump off creatively, eg to include sung responses.

Suggested reading:
Leading Common Worship Intercessions, Doug Chaplin
Leading Intercessions, Raymond Chapman

Some brief guidance for intercessors

With a large tip of the hat to Doug, whose ‘Leading Common Worship Intercessions’ was invaluable.

Firstly, my thanks to you for agreeing to take on this ministry. Prayer is probably the most important element of Christian life as it is the foundation for everything else that we do, and intercessions – which are all about enabling people to pray – are a central element of our gathered worship. So herewith some hints and tips for how to lead intercessions.

Most important, expanding on the above because it is worth emphasising, is this: intercessions are about leading people in prayer, not praying in front of other people. The intercessor must therefore always have in mind the effect that what they say will have on people who are engaged in addressing themselves to God. Anything which distracts the person praying from that process is therefore a mistake. Here are some examples:

  • providing new information, or even giving too much information at all! The intercessions are not the notices, nor are they a television news bulletin;
  • nor are the intercessions a sermon, a place to engage in argument, or even a place to give views – praying for the situation in the Middle East is fine, praying for the Israelis (or Palestinians) to stop being such evil people – this is not fine;
  • if you are quoting a prayer by a famous saint, you don’t need to give acknowledgements – simply say the prayer in the way that it was intended;
  • being too long or too wordy, so that the people praying end up thinking about the intercessor rather than about God – keep things as simple as possible. As a general rule ten seconds of silence is more effective than a hundred words;
  • using a complex response which people find difficult to join in with.

So if these are things to avoid, what are the things to do? Firstly, remember that we do not know how to pray, but the Spirit prays through us – in other words, our task is to join in with something that is already going on, that has been going on for thousands of years. When we pray we are jumping into a stream that is already flowing, we don’t need to initiate the process. When we pray we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

If you are due to lead the intercessions, take some time to look at the readings set for the day, most especially the gospel lesson, and see if you are inspired to touch on particular themes (and trust your inspiration). Look at the prayer list in the black folder; I would not recommend reading out all the names left on the cross in the porch, but reading out all the names in our community who need praying for (the second list) is good. Catch the news headlines from the day before to see if there are any topical worldly issues that people may wish to bring before God.

Classic patterns (full texts available from Sam)
A five-fold pattern: Church, world, local community, the sick, the dead.
A three-fold pattern: world, church, individuals.
(These are addressed to God)
Bidding prayers (eg 9 Lessons, Good Friday) – these are addressed to the congregation, who pray in the silence and response.
Patterns can be used as a platform from which to jump off creatively, eg to include sung responses.

Suggested reading:
Leading Common Worship Intercessions, Doug Chaplin
Leading Intercessions, Raymond Chapman

Some brief guidance for intercessors

With a large tip of the hat to Doug, whose ‘Leading Common Worship Intercessions’ was invaluable.

Firstly, my thanks to you for agreeing to take on this ministry. Prayer is probably the most important element of Christian life as it is the foundation for everything else that we do, and intercessions – which are all about enabling people to pray – are a central element of our gathered worship. So herewith some hints and tips for how to lead intercessions.

Most important, expanding on the above because it is worth emphasising, is this: intercessions are about leading people in prayer, not praying in front of other people. The intercessor must therefore always have in mind the effect that what they say will have on people who are engaged in addressing themselves to God. Anything which distracts the person praying from that process is therefore a mistake. Here are some examples:

  • providing new information, or even giving too much information at all! The intercessions are not the notices, nor are they a television news bulletin;
  • nor are the intercessions a sermon, a place to engage in argument, or even a place to give views – praying for the situation in the Middle East is fine, praying for the Israelis (or Palestinians) to stop being such evil people – this is not fine;
  • if you are quoting a prayer by a famous saint, you don’t need to give acknowledgements – simply say the prayer in the way that it was intended;
  • being too long or too wordy, so that the people praying end up thinking about the intercessor rather than about God – keep things as simple as possible. As a general rule ten seconds of silence is more effective than a hundred words;
  • using a complex response which people find difficult to join in with.

So if these are things to avoid, what are the things to do? Firstly, remember that we do not know how to pray, but the Spirit prays through us – in other words, our task is to join in with something that is already going on, that has been going on for thousands of years. When we pray we are jumping into a stream that is already flowing, we don’t need to initiate the process. When we pray we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

If you are due to lead the intercessions, take some time to look at the readings set for the day, most especially the gospel lesson, and see if you are inspired to touch on particular themes (and trust your inspiration). Look at the prayer list in the black folder; I would not recommend reading out all the names left on the cross in the porch, but reading out all the names in our community who need praying for (the second list) is good. Catch the news headlines from the day before to see if there are any topical worldly issues that people may wish to bring before God.

Classic patterns (full texts available from Sam)
A five-fold pattern: Church, world, local community, the sick, the dead.
A three-fold pattern: world, church, individuals.
(These are addressed to God)
Bidding prayers (eg 9 Lessons, Good Friday) – these are addressed to the congregation, who pray in the silence and response.
Patterns can be used as a platform from which to jump off creatively, eg to include sung responses.

Suggested reading:
Leading Common Worship Intercessions, Doug Chaplin
Leading Intercessions, Raymond Chapman

A prayer before driving

Holy Father,
I place myself into your hands as I begin this journey;
I ask that your Spirit might help me maintain a trust and serenity throughout my journey so that, when I arrive, I might be a source of peace and good will to those whom I meet;
I ask you to help me hold in mind all the many things that I have no control over, especially how long it will take me to reach my destination;
most of all, I ask that you will keep me [and those with me] safe, and that I cause no suffering to those who share the road with me;
This I ask, in the name of Christ my Lord. Amen.

(Something I’ve been thinking about since preaching this sermon on Sunday, and since all my family have just gone away on a long journey!)