Resolutions and Vision

December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

All my sermons are on the church website, but some seem to be worth sharing more widely. This is tonight’s.

Years ago I remember watching an animation. It started by looking at an ordinary human being, rowing a boat. It quickly zoomed out, flying away from the person, showing them on the lake, the lake in the city, the city in the country, the country on the planet, the planet in the solar system, and on to the far reaches of the universe. Then we returned to the person, zooming into the person’s body, showing us the detail of skin and blood vessels, and even further, to cell and molecule and atomic level. We then zoomed out, back to the person again, rowing the boat. But now you saw them in a new light, immensely complex, and in a new context, within an infinitesimal universe. The film is called Cosmic Zoom, and it’s on YouTube – here. I’m pleased to say that, having seen it as a child (it was made in 1968) I remembered it pretty well.

I was reminded of it because of the first chapter of the Letter to the Colossians, our second reading this afternoon. It has a simiImage result for hands globelar feel, ranging from the day to day life of a new church: messages sent from Colossae to Paul via Epaphras, to the outer reaches of the universe and of human longings and imagination: Christ, the image of the invisible God, the maker of all things. Paul knows the people he is writing to, and wants to support their ordinary daily life in Christ. And he knows the God he is commending them to, and Christ the head of the church. Our daily life has to be seen in its detailed complexity, and in the context of the whole spiritual universe.

The beginning of Colossians appears at various points in the church’s pattern of Bible readings, and often at this time of year. It’s a passage which will help as we use the end of one year and the beginning of another to put ourselves into context, and to use a review of the past to enable a plan for the future. I’m trying hard to avoid using the word ‘resolutions’, but you know what I mean. What Paul is doing here is praying for the new church he has helped to bring into being. Praying is about the future as well as the present. When we pray we are imagining things as they should be, as we would like them to be. To quote Frank Senn, the Lutheran liturgical scholar, intercession is about ‘the world done aright’.

It’s worth unpacking this a little. When we pray that something should change – that a person might be healed; that a violent confrontation might become peaceful; that an injustice may be righted – when we pray in this way it is because we have a vision of the world as it should be. We are made for health, not illness, peace not war, right not wrong. To pray for these things is to align ourselves with God’s vision for the world as it will be, with the values and practices of God’s kingdom. Far from being the fulfilment of selfish desires, true prayer is about going beyond ourselves to discovering life in all its fullness. True prayer is about finding God’s desires, not our own.

To make resolutions is to desire a future and to create practices which will bring that future into being. Those resolutions need to be put into context too. Paul prays that the Colossians will be ‘fruitful’, not so that they can pile up wealth and success and be filled with pride, but so that what God will for the world will be brought to fruition. His prayer is that they will grow in ‘every good work’ and in ‘the knowledge of God’, that they will be able to cope with whatever is thrown at them, so that they will know the hope of the church and of the saints, the light and life of God. To put this into context he gives them that amazing universe wide vision of Christ, the ruler and creator of all things.

Why be fruitful? For the sake of the Christ who holds everything in his hands. Why grow in good works? For the sake of the one who is the head of the church. Why endure all things with patience? For the sake of the one who was the firstborn from the dead. Why give thanks to the Father? Because the fulness of God was pleased to dwell in his beloved Son. We might apply that to our own resolutions as a church, and as individuals. Why seek to welcome new people as disciples? Why feed and shelter the homeless? Why welcome a refugee family? Why look for young people to make a commitment of faith? Why engage with this community and contest for the role of faith in the public square?

Not because it will make us feel better, however much I’d like to slap some positive statistics in front of the Daily Mail and say ‘what about this, cynical media.’ Not because we’ll be shown to be a success, and gain affirmation and self satisfaction. Why resolve to do all this? Because in prayer we align ourselves with the love and literal passion and demands and challenges of the God who is in and over all things in Jesus Christ. This is the big picture. And just like that animation, in the Kingdom of Heaven the macro and the micro are one and the same. Thanks be to God.

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Wheat and tares therein are sown

July 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Today’s Gospel reading was the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13. 24 – 30, 36 – 43). A couple of pronouncements about the Church of England, here, and here, were in my mind when I got a sermon together. Enough people talked to me about it afterwards for me to pop it here as a blog. Just as I quoted the disparaging remark about bishops I spotted a retired diocesan in the congregation, but we’re still friends.bhthe-wheat-and-the-tares

It has been a week full of intrigue, backbiting, briefing and counter briefing, contradictory positions being taken, opposing camps making their points and playing the short and long game. So, perhaps, it’s a relief to be in church, where we can get a respite from politics in the US and Europe, and, just for a while, not have to be overwhelmed by the clamouring voices all over the TV, radio and digital media.

Except that I was also talking about the church. We’re right in the middle of briefing, counter-briefing, opposing camps and contradictory views. Take this from the Catholic Herald this week, following General Synod’s votes on matters of sexuality and identity:

“The Church [of England] selects bishops largely on their ability to avoid controversy … they are very carefully chosen so as not to have strong opinions on matters of faith. Consequently the ranks of the episcopacy are packed full of weak men.

When governments try again … to push through some [radical legislation], they will find willing accomplices governing over the husk of the Church of England, useful chaplains to the culture of death.”

That was written not by a Roman Catholic (thankfully), but by an Anglican, Andrew Sabisky, who turns out to be the Deanery Secretary for our neighbouring Deanery of South Camden. He’s clearly unimpressed with the direction he sees the Church of England taking, and wants to do something about it. That same feeling presumably drives the 21 signatories to an open letter to ‘British Anglicans’, inviting us to plan with them a ‘faithful ecclesial future’. They say:

“Many will share our dismay at the recent decisions of the General Synod of the Church of England and the pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition. Given the persistent failure of the majority of the House of Bishops to fulfil the God-given duties which they have sworn to discharge these tragic developments were, sadly, not wholly unexpected.”

I will not be the only preacher finding food for reflection on this in our Gospel reading today. What do we do when life is full of conflicting opinions and practices? The parable of the wheat and the weeds counsels patience and trust. Bearded wheat (good), and bearded darnel (poisonous)  look similar. When they are young, it is hard to tell the difference. As they grow if you pull one out its root system will disturb the other. It’s best to let things develop, rather than take too hasty action. Jesus tells a wise story here. If you wait until the wheat has done its job, you can separate them out, use the weeds for fuel, and harvest the grain successfully.

Jesus invites us to be patient, take the long view, and, crucially, to let God be the judge. The two articles I quoted are keen to take a stand and make instant judgements on what’s happening. Jesus is speaking in a world where the Pharisees and teachers of the law could make easy pronouncements about people based on words and actions. If there is a blueprint for pure action and faithful lifestyle it is possible then to see whether people measure up; whether someone is conforming or not. And once you’ve done that you can take action. You could expel them from the community.

Jesus challenges this relentlessly. Only God can tell what is righteous and pure, because God looks at the heart. We could be making judgments on the wrong criteria. Our job then is to let people grow, and to care for them. All will be revealed one day. It works for the church too. It’s all too easy in church settings to start making judgments about who is in and who is out, and the people I quoted earlier are doing just that. Based on this parable I have to say that, unless people disqualify themselves, we should welcome all. It is not our job to judge.

But, neither is it our job to be woolly about what we believe. We neither judge nor compromise. To welcome all, and to worship together, is not to lose our distinctiveness or saltiness. We should be distinctive and welcoming, and let God be the judge. Many conservative Christians use the word ‘liberal’ to denote someone who believes in anything, everything, and therefore nothing. It is surely possible to proclaim Good News in Jesus Christ and to reserve judgement on things which others would want us to make a line in the sand. A commentator on this passage says:

“The Kingdom of God is not the exclusive coterie of self-elected saints: God, in his time…will separate the pure community … it is God’s business alone to decide who belongs to the Kingdom” (David Hill)

This is not an allegory about specific aspects of church discipline (Matthew does that later, in Chapter 18), but it can speak powerfully into debates about what is central to our doctrine, teaching, and practice. Don’t be rapid in rushing to judgment. Or, as Paul says to the Corinthians: “Do not pronounce judgment before the time” (1 Cor 4. 5)

It is not that there will be no final reckoning, no final judgment, according to Jesus. All of these parables are based on God sorting things out at the end of all things. One day we will answer for what we have done. We have to ensure that we act in faith, with love, righting wrongs, confessing sins, looking for the Kingdom of God.

And the good news is that the allegory breaks down here. You can change from weed to wheat. The thing about people is that they can be changed by the love of God. The thing about the church is that, in all its variety and complexity and differences of opinion, it is living a life which includes repentance, renewal, turning round, and fresh starts. Weedy people, in Christ, can become wheaty people.

I will continue to read the blogs and articles written by people who make radical judgments about the state of God’s church, and this Church of England. I would prefer though to write about God’s radical call to welcome, inclusion, community, and working out our salvation together with fear and trembling. I will instinctively oppose those who make a judgment only God can make. And until the great harvest we will be a church where we look to find the Kingdom, in the most unlikely places.

On Synod and the Kingdom

July 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’

I was a member of the General Synod of the Church of England for thirteen years, in two stints. Tomorrow its meeting in York, and a little bit of me misses it. So I found myself preaching about it last Sunday, prompted by Luke 17: 20 – 21. What follows is the edited version of me trying to answer this question: for General Synod, and for the Church of England, where will the Kingdom be found?

Where Synod is at its best is when people with experience and commitment speak into areas they know, relating their understanding of the Gospel mission imperative to the contemporary world. And that, of course, is where Synod is at its worst too. Examples of the best have included the challenge to trade fairly; to set aside historic and crippling debt; to enable flexible new ways of mission for the church; to simplify bureaucracy so that church can get on with the job; to provide new ways out of debt for people over reliant on extortionate lenders; and many more.

The worst has been exemplified when the call to be distinctive and to hold on to the Gospel becomes tied up with a particular moral, ethical and spiritual position, such as in the debates around human identity and human sexuality. I found the intense debates we had about equal ministry so wearing that I simply couldn’t imagine what the Synod would make of human sexuality and equal marriage.

The problem comes when people believe they know how the rules of the Kingdom of God apply in particular cases, and beat people about the head with them. Rather than allow testing, thoughtful examination, and generosity of application, some people declare what the truth is to be and condemn any other approach. When debates in Synod take place with people wielding those kinds of weapons, trouble ensues, and not even the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘good disagreement’ will do. For those who believe they know the views of the Kingdom of God on a matter, any disagreement is anathema, not good.

So, very recently: clergy in the Diocese of Chelmsford have written expressing ‘no confidence’ in their Diocesan Bishop; a member of my Bible study group at university was consecrated as a missionary Bishop for Scotland (and the wider Anglican world), in order to hold the true faith against the onslaught of revisionist doctrines, mainly around sexuality; and today people are considering boycotting Synod because of the presence of the Scottish Bishop who proposed the Equal Marriage motion passed there last month.

My reading of Luke 17. 20 and 21 is that we need to be careful when pronouncing on the rules and presence of the Kingdom. Answering the Pharisees Jesus says it’s not the kind of thing that can be seen or pointed to. Neither is it something that will come very soon. Don’t get twitchy about it, says Jesus, putting two and two together and making a hundred. Don’t even start trying to interpret the events of today in apocalyptic terms.

Rather…the Kingdom of God is ‘among you’. The Kingdom is present in Jesus, pushing boundaries, dwelling on the edge (he has just been with ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan), simply living and being. It is not, yet, to be found in an institution or a programme or a manifesto. Don’t think you can grasp hold of it, as if it was a thing. The Kingdom is me, says Jesus.

I think that means that the Kingdom is found when we recognise Jesus in each other, when we are taken by surprise, when we commit ourselves to finding the other and understanding them. If the Kingdom is tied to a set of propositions alone, then we may preserve some sort of pietistic purity but become overly distanced from the communities and society in which we live and move.

The knack with the Kingdom is to recognise where we have to stand firm, where we have to challenge, and where our emphasis on one aspect of belief – say to hold to an aspect of doctrine – plays against another – say to love our neighbour. ‘The Kingdom of God is among you’. The crucial thing is to find such wisdom, from the Spirit, that we can both stand firm, and be bent and shaped by the Spirit’s work across society, not just in the church.

I’m praying that General Synod this weekend will discover such wisdom, and that, for us and for them, seeking the Kingdom first will put everything in place.

On edge dwelling and the Gospel

October 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

If enough people talk to me about a sermon I preach, I think about putting it on here. Sermons are best heard in context of course, but it may be this strikes a chord beyond the Minster. Here’s this mornings: preaching from Luke 17. 11 – 17 – the healing of the 10 lepers. 

Beverley Minster has become something of a home to the Beverley Literary Festival this year. The first two events have happened already: Lord Robert Winston on the limits of genetics and ethics – asking what it is to be human; and Will Self, last night, preaching a secular sermon on the failure of romantic love. If I were playing it safe I wouldn’t have agreed to giving a stage to a man of faith but not the Christian faith, and then a man of some occasional extreme views and behaviour, who is an avowed agnostic. Can there be a ‘secular’ sermon? Well, there was, and I agreed with Will Self’s basic premise: if you don’t believe that love has a divine origin, romantic love on its own won’t save you.

I said last night that this great building, among many other purposes, exists to enable our thoughts and our aspirations to soar. That should mean thinking challenging thoughts. We are a safe place. These walls are strong and our windows let light in. This is a complex world and we live in changing times. Many Christians would wish to retreat into the safety of certainties and cherished traditions. It can be tempting to ask if the world might stop so that we can get off. The debate about sexuality is the one generating most heat at present, and it may be that the Anglican Communion will be split over it. But the safest place for the Christian is right on the edge. That’s where Christ was.

He is on the edge, the place between, in today’s Gospel reading. South of Galilee, north of Samaria. Contested lands, a place of uneasy truce, where even the Romans chose to let the natives fight out their religious quarrels without interfering. He is on the edge of a village, and he meets the edge dwellers. When you go to a medieval city, look to see if there is a church dedicated to St Giles, or a road called Gilesgate or Gillygate, as in York. It’s likely to be outside the old walls, on the edge of the city. That’s where the lepers lived, and was as far as they could get into civilisation. St Giles is a patron of the outcast, so the churches for the lepers, on the edge of things, were dedicated to him.

Lepers lived on the edge because their disease – in those days a collection of different skin conditions – was devastating and you could catch it. It’s the same today, though it’s curable, and the Minster supports the work of the Leprosy Mission with our mission giving. The lepers knew their place on the edge, and they ‘kept their distance’. But their edge dwelling led them to being an example to a divided, broken world. Shunned by others, they found a community of honesty and need and care which broke down the old divisions. Here Jews and Samaritans lived together, not apart. They had something to teach those who thought they were well. On the edge, disfigured by an unclean illness, they became more human. We might ask who today’s lepers are, and what they might teach us. Who does a post Brexit Britain push to the edge?

An edgy thing happens. They ask for ‘mercy’. That could have simply been affirmation, food, water. Jesus Offers them healing, wholeness. But he doesn’t heal them. He tells them to go to the priests as if they were healed. You should only go to the priest if you wanted to be pronounced clean, to have your healing verified. Jesus preserves their dignity by making no effort to close the gap between him and them – he affirms their edgy community. But he recognises their need, and just says – `off you go’ – as if they were clean… And they, on the edge, have to learn to take an edgy, a faithful decision. We might not know that Jesus is at work in us, has given us what we ask for. Faith invites us to live ‘as if’ we are healed, loved, forgiven.

So this story is about faith, not just healing. Ten lepers are healed. One discovers faith. This is a story about going beyond the physical, the needs of the here and now, to the eternal, the vital, the relationship between ourselves and our God. The tenth leper recognises that his healing was God’s gift, not his right, and he gives praise in humility where it is due. Jesus recognises that his faith his deep, and proclaims salvation (wholeness is the same word in Greek). And the remarkable thing is that this man is a Samaritan. The one who was most on the edge is the one who finds himself thoroughly enveloped in the saving love of God.

Many of us will have been touched by God, but God’s grace leaves us with a choice: do we respond by giving God the whole of our lives, or do we take the money and run? The leper was given all he wanted. He gave it back in gratitude to God, and was given more than he could imagine.  I learn two things from this. I should not be surprised at people who gain much from God, but don’t make it to full Christian faith (Jesus had a ten percent success rate!). And I should not be surprised to find that someone can make it from devastation to wholeness. If a Samaritan leper could, then anyone can.

It is amazing how many people feel on the edge – within their workplaces, families, friendship groups, churches. Be assured. The edge, the borderland, is where Jesus operates. It is where the love of God is discovered. It is where great wrongs are confessed and forgiven. It is where leaps of faith are made. And it is where our lives are saved. I was led to the edge of thinking about science, genetics, human progress and the nature of life on Wednesday. I was led to the edge of the nature of believing (and the limits of intellect – Will Self is clever!) on Saturday. The Church of England finds itself on the edge of contemporary thinking about same sex relationships at the moment, and it is uncomfortable.

To be on the edge is not then to put our fingers in our ears and sing la la la. It is to find people working out what it is to be human, what it is to believe, what it is to love. That is where we should be. We are in between earth and heaven, between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. It may feel edgy. Perhaps we are the ones then who need stretch out a hand to Christ and say ‘have mercy upon us’. Perhaps we need to stretch out that hand to others, for this should be a place where edgy people find a home. In Christ, we can go on our way. Our faith in him will save us.

On Sitting Comfortably

August 24, 2016 § Leave a comment

 

There has been much fun, and much outrage, about a Coventry Diocese decision to prevent a church having upholstered chairs. The parishioners of Long Itchington had gained permission to replace their Victorian pews, but were refused upholstered chairs. The Daily Telegraph story is here.

A couple of things to clarify. Firstly, churches have to apply for the church’s planning permission (a ‘faculty’) to do stuff like this. After consultation the permission is given by the diocese’s senior legal figure, the Chancellor, and for these purposes it’s a court decision. However this was not a court case, with barristers and things, though this is possible if the matter goes on to be contested.

Secondly, the ‘amenity societies’ (like the Victorian Society) are statutory consultees in this process, based on the wisdom that without such campaigning bodies many things we currently value would have been lost. In this matter the Victorian Society did not take the church to court or anything. They expressed their strong view, as they were required to do. It’s not clear whether they objected to the removal of the Victorian pews (which is probably the extent of their remit) or to the type of chair (which I reckon goes beyond their remit if the church is twelfth century).

So: is there anything wrong with chairs? No. Pews, at least of the kind we see in most churches, are a reasonably modern thing. The Victorians were keen to ensure a place in church for every member of the population, and pews are an efficient way of doing this. But most were utilitarian, and, though long lasting, have little aesthetic merit. My heart sinks when I walk into a church packed with a sea of pitch pine boring uncomfortable pews. Let them go.

St Katherine's Teversal's box pew scheme. I was Priest in Charge in the 1990s

St Katherine’s Teversal’s box pew scheme. I was Priest in Charge in the 1990s

There are some pews which are rather wonderful, beautifully crafted and of real aesthetic merit. Some box pew schemes survive from the pre-Victorian period. Even in Victorian times there were some schemes which made real sense and, if you like that kind of thing, are tremendous. Some are even comfy, and the design, craftsmanship and overall scheme can be a heritage asset, capable of being interpreted and understood. Actually, my heart sometimes sinks when I see these kind of pews too, because the heritage asset doesn’t always sit well (pun intended) with the current operation and mission of the church concerned.

The magnum opus on pews is edited by Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown. No, I’ve not read it, but was pleased to see it’s available here for free.

Anyway, if the pews are to go, and chairs are to be introduced, what should guide the choice? I was on the Church Buildings Council for a bit. It offers guidance and oversight in all fabric matters, and Diocesan Chancellors take notice of its guidance notes. There’s a really good one on church seating here, and I think that’s what guided the Chancellor of Coventry.

Simply put, upholstered chairs might look comfy, but they are often not. The fabric is difficult to care for. Not all are of great quality, and you will probably find yourself bequeathing a replacement problem to people in only a couple of decades. They get grubby very quickly, especially if you want to use them flexibly – which is what Long Itchington want to do – and they are difficult to stack. Putting a couple of hundred chairs covered in blue or purple fabric in a church has an instant aesthetic effect which can detract from the historic aspects of the building. They dampen the acoustics.

Comfy perhaps, but the colour is in your face

Comfy perhaps, but the colour is in your face 

So, the advice says, please consider using wooden chairs or moveable/stackable benches. The interplay between wood and stone and glass can be really pleasing. Some wooden chairs are ergonomically surprisingly comfortable. In the church I serve we had a big consultation, and went for a wooden chair which the vast majority of people really like – and can sit on happily for the three hours of a Messiah without complaint. It’s no wonder that the chair we selected is also found in half of England’s cathedrals. We’re assured that it will last for decades. (I should say that we never had pews in the Nave, so it was a chair-for-chair replacement. Good luck to those of you removing your pews).

I’m a chair evangelist. I came to agree with the CBC advice that upholstery is to be discouraged, especially when you take a long term and aesthetic view. I’d happily see most churches lose their pews, and even those who have fab pews should be helped to reorder them in a way which works with inheritance but is not bound by it. We should be able to tell the story of how the church has been ordered and used without it being permanently frozen in a previous era.

As it happens I think the comment of the Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry about upholstered chairs being ‘overly casual’ was a hostage to fortune. But I do agree with the general point: upholstery isn’t always the most comfortable or the most wise choice.

Here’s what did we did: chairs with leather seat pads which were at the end of their life and hard to stack were replaced by all wood chairs (with a metal frame).

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Don’t get me going on carpets…

Deciding and Dividing

June 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

As Chaplain (and member) of an ancient livery company I get to preach a sermon each year. Our Master chooses the reading, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats offers a telling commentary on the referendum tomorrow. So here’s what I’ll preach this afternoon for the Charter Day Service of the Company of Merchant Taylors of the City of York.

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Sheep and Goats shepherded together in Bethlehem, 2012

INSTITUTIONS which make laws can sometimes find themselves in complex and detailed territory. A debate continues to rage, for example, about Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and whether, by it, the European Commission has ever attempted to regulate the straightness of bananas.

It will not surprise you to know that the General Synod of the Church of England is also capable of this. We once spent a whole hour on the quality of the envelopes in which our papers were sent. And we had a major debate on the use of a single word: the one used when we were called upon to vote. Synod can create English Law, and uses parliamentary processes. So, when a vote was to be taken, the call to us was “Divide”.

It was felt that, though the Church of England has differing views and outright disagreements about almost everything, we should still be able to express this while remaining united. Might we not ‘disagree well’? Did a vote have to be expressed in the language of opposition and division? After various options were considered, we finally agreed to change the word to “Decide”, on the basis that we were taking decisions which we would have to live with together, rather than enshrining divisions which may never heal.

Last night I sat in between six politicians. ‘Remain’ were to my left, ‘Leave’ to my right. Three MPs, one Peer, one former MP and one national campaigner spent a couple of hours in Beverley Minster debating the Referendum. Privately beforehand more than one of them expressed the hope that never again would there be such a process. It is, after all, divisive. Seeing some of the exchanges from last night’s TV debate I’m not sure how some politicians will ever be able to look each other in the eye or sit on the same side of the House.

As Chairman last night my final question was to ask how each of our panel wanted us to be feeling at noon on Friday 24th, after the result is announced. I was pleased that they picked up on the nuances. We will, after all, still have to live together, take part in the processes of government and society together, look for the improvement of our nation and our world together, get along together.

One MP in our debate was clear that this process has been damaging, and will take a long time to heal. He was also clear that, for all our sakes, we must be generous to each other. There are greater things to concern us, as we have been so cruelly reminded in these last days. And this nation remains an amazingly privileged place to be, with every opportunity to make a difference to a needy and complex world.

Our new Master’s chosen reading today inhabits these tensions. If you are looking for a division, look no further than the sheep and the goats. But look carefully: they don’t divide themselves; that will be not for them, but for the Son of Man on the day of glory. And note the basis of the division: the lives which have been led, and the actions which they have all had an equal opportunity to perform. It’s not that they are preordained to be one or the other: everyone has the same chance. The division, as if they were like sheep and goats (shepherded together in the Holy Land and only separated when necessary for milking or shearing), comes at the end of everything. Until then all of us have the same opportunity.

The opportunity to do what? To serve. To make a difference. The quieter voices in the referendum debate have been asking us to decide tomorrow on the basis of how best we might take our place in the world, how best we might serve our planet and hand it on to our grandchildren, how best we can ensure the common good and peace among nations. Louder voices have concentrated on matters which look more like self interest. Jesus commends the people who, sacrificially and carefully, actively look out for and meet the needs of others.

In the Bible you never know when you might be bumping into God, or welcoming an angel. The people Jesus applauds are the ones who have actually looked after him, he says. They are baffled, but he says that whenever they have fed or clothed or visited or welcomed anybody, he was to be found in them. Jesus offers a vision of a united humanity, where all have needs, and all have the opportunity to meet them. And this is not a reactive sort of kindness. You have to make an effort to visit someone in prison, make an effort to find clothes or food for the hungry and naked. This is a decision, not a guilty response.

As the Company of Merchant Taylors, deriving from the earlier Confraternity of John the Baptist, we gather around St John’s Day to reaffirm our purposes and recommit to our aims. John the Baptist was unafraid of calling people to decide, and to change their behaviour to ensure there was justice and right action. His cousin Jesus offers the radical challenge to everyone to offer their lives in sacrificial service.

The division will come when our earthly life is lived to its end. Until then it is a decision we are called to. Whom shall we serve? How will we obtain the good of our neighbour? How will we take our place in the world? Our Company may be but a small part of this City and region, and our individual lives may not make a massive impact on the world stage. But just as every vote counts on Thursday, so every action, however small, makes a difference. And in this I would rather be a sheep than a goat.

The Church of England’s Middle Aged Spread

June 4, 2016 § 5 Comments

I am MAS  – the C of E’s Middle Aged Spread – and  I am a “problem”.

The latest Ministry Statistics show a preponderance of clergy aged 55 – 61. Though ordinations are increasing, even the most optimistic of projections show the number of stipendiary clergy reducing over the next 20 years.Bulge

The statistics are here. People like Ian Paul and Peter Ould, here, and David Keen, here, have looked into them closely. Whether I am a problem because of a “disastrous decision” in the 1990s to ordain older people, or I am a problem because I was a younger ordinand in the 1980s, I am a problem, because I’m going to retire, and there’s a gap behind me.

If I don’t much like being depicted as a problem to be solved, because it saps my energy, how might MAS be included in the solution? Why not work with me in two areas: later retirement; and the ‘last post’?

A lovely graph in the 2012 statistics – Fig 12 here (but not developed in the 2015 figures) – showed the effect of delaying the average age of retirement by just one year. It was nearly the same as increasing ordinations by 25%. Doing both would make quite a difference, wouldn’t it?

The reality is that, full pension or not, I am likely to go for retirement earlier rather than later. If I’m an incumbent I am heading for burn out. David Keen has shown that 5000 stipendiaries are sustaining a ministry pattern once undertaken by at least 10,000. I am 55 – 61, and I don’t have the energy I once did.

So: sit me down and get me to look carefully at how you can get the best out of me for the next ten to fifteen years, not the next five.

Give me one of those whizzy health checks you give to Bishops and senior clergy as they are appointed. Give me active encouragement to invest all I can in my spiritual and physical well-being. Yes, I know that’s been the message drummed in to me from the beginning, but tailor it and target it for me. (I am numerous enough for this to be done economically too – discount for a bulk order).

The next post I’m looking for is likely to be my last. So offer models of ministry and growth which go beyond getting a hipster millennial to plant something – fab though that is. Recognise that I am likely to be turned down in favour of a younger model, unless posts are identified where age and mileage will be an advantage, not a problem. Manage the expectations of those writing job descriptions and doing interviews.

Update my software. I can be a decent mentor to these young things whizzing through the processes. Yes, they are young enough to be my offspring. Get me excited about how I can foster vocations and mentor younger generations. I can be taught new tricks too, and they might need a wise head (if I’ve learnt anything…).

When I retire, think carefully about how my ministry can be continued. There are more clergy with PTO – the majority retired – than stipendiaries at present. Is House for Duty the only option for the deployment of the retired? Are there other models of focussed ministry in the years from 65 – 80? Invest in your officers for retired clergy – the numbers are worth it.

I am MAS. I am large enough (in numbers!) to be treated as a “thing” and am worth investing in. I am not just a retirement problem to be anticipated, I am a resource which can make a difference now.

The 2025 statistics should make interesting.

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