February 16, 2014 § 13 Comments
This is a bit of thinking out loud, to help me work out why I find the statement by the House of Bishops on Same Sex Marriage difficult. Do help me out…
In my role as Precentor at York Minster it was my job to organise consecrations: the ordination of bishops. One of the descriptions of bishops which always stood out in the service was this:
With the Shepherd’s love, they are to be merciful, but with firmness; to minister discipline, but with compassion.
The House of Bishops has just issued a Pastoral Statement on Same Sex Marriage. This wasn’t on a whim: same sex marriage becomes law in England next month. Across England there will soon be couples who are legally married, in a way which the historic doctrine and practice of the Church of England does not recognise.
There has been a progression of ‘official’ Church of England pronouncements on this.
- The Biblical case is not so clear cut as it may seem, but the current accepted doctrine of the Church of England affirms that a physical relationship outside marriage between a man and a woman falls short of God’s ideal.
- However, nothing we do or say about this should be used in any way to attack people with a homosexual orientation.
- No one should be excluded from the church or denied the sacraments of baptism or communion because of this.
- Faithfulness in relationship, and faithfulness in working out Christian discipleship are clearly a good thing.
- Where people in a same sex relationship wish to affirm that by making a formal commitment to each other, that wish should be recognised, but not publicly and formally ‘blessed’.
- Things are different for clergy, and those in a licensed relationship with the Bishop, as their public ministry is part of the affirmation of the doctrines of the church as the Church of England has received them.
The current guidelines nudge things a little more in the direction of recognising that there may be some kind of act of prayer as an appropriate pastoral response to a same sex marriage, though this should not be a ‘blessing’, nor, probably, a public act of worship. I guess that our ‘facilitated conversations’ around the Pilling Report will help us get more clarity on this.
But here’s my problem. Right at the end of the Appendix to the Pastoral Statement, the House of Bishops make it very clear that, whatever the tradition of ‘conscientious dissent’, and whatever desire they have not to draw lines too firmly, anyone currently in holy orders and under the authority of a bishop could find themselves under ‘discipline’ – a word they use in para 28 – if they marry under the provision of the new act. In using the word ‘conduct’ in para 27 the House points to the use of a charge of ‘conduct unbecoming a clerk in holy orders’ being a possibility here.
On Wednesday, at General Synod, we had a presentation about the Pilling Report. I came away hopeful that the process over the next two years would bring some kind of nuanced and generous settlement of these things. The answer to a question from a prominent cleric, who announced himself to be gay and not called to celibacy gave me some hope that such faithful expressions of same sex human love within a commitment to Christ might one day be given a surer footing in the Church of England than they are now. We spoke of ‘good disagreement’.
Two days later the House has given the clear impression that clergy who intend to marry under the provisions of the new act might find themselves subject to discipline. The House’s statement makes this so public that, it seems to me, an individual bishop will now have to give clear reasons why he is not going to allow formal proceedings to happen, should he be so challenged.
I think the House probably had no choice than to restate historic Christian beliefs about marriage. They overstate the case about this being the first time church and state have diverged over marriage: in the 1800s debates happened over the marriage of a man to his deceased wife’s sister, and more recently over remarriage after divorce. In both cases secular law was in advance of church rules. And it was only in the last 20 years or so that people who were divorced and remarried could be ordained. But marriage between people of the same sex is, of course, quite a departure from what we have inherited.
However I do think the House did have a choice about what they were to say about the treatment of clergy, and ordinands. Given that we are to have facilitated conversations about the wider area of same sex attraction, the House could have said something along the lines of:
The existing doctrine of the church is that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Any cleric seeking to marry under the provisions of the new act must be clear that they are going against this.
They must do so having informed their bishop, and discussed it with him.
Pending the outcome of the facilitated conversations process which has been commended by Synod, we will not, at this stage take disciplinary action against serving clergy who choose to marry under the provisions of the Act. (A ‘moratorium’)
That would have been the House as a whole stating a case ‘firmly’, but then acting with ‘compassion’, and allowing the whole Church of England to come to a mind, as much as that is possible, before stating a final position on clergy and same sex marriage. What they have done is to express the firmness of discipline, and left it to each individual bishop to work out the mercy and compassion on a case by case basis. That’s going to be a whole lot of difficult situations, which I think they could have avoided.
I tweeted that I was ‘naffed off’. It was not with the House per se, but with a situation which left them no choice but to say something, and the logical process which led them to be so declarative at the end. I want to be as compassionate as possible about the Bishops’ situation here. But I don’t think it would have been too much for them to stay their hand, just a little, while we all wrestle with this and seek to come to a position which will enable us to speak of the love of God to a society which is moving very quickly indeed.
As I said, these are my first thoughts. Thanks for being a public sphere to try them out.
January 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
A serious project researching church growth has just made a report. It’s here.
And here’s a small sermon in response, preached today at Beverley Minster. The gospel passage was John 1. 29 – 42.
The Church of England has been doing some research into Church Growth. A comprehensive report has looked at all sorts of types of church, from rural multi-parish groups to market towns to urban areas to cathedrals. ‘Greater Churches’ like Beverley Minster get a special section. There are encouragements and discouragements. Some churches have grown greatly – and the cathedral sector is part of that. Most Greater Churches have grown too, though not all, and not us, though I’d say in numbers terms we are at best holding our own. The greatest discouragement is that, overall, there has been a decline of around 9% in the last decade across the Church of England, and that’s a cause for real concern.
We had a conversation about this at the Deanery Synod on Tuesday. We nearly had an argument actually – about what should motivate us to tell people about Jesus, what should drive us in inviting people to encounter the Living God as we worship and meet and pray and learn. One person cited those depressing numbers: huge declines in the number of children and young people in our churches. At the end of the last decade something like 2.2% of 16-19 year olds in the country were attending church once a month or more. 50% of churches have fewer than 5 under 16s. It’s not that people have stopped going to church, says the Report. It’s that they never started.
Another person said that we shouldn’t start with the numbers, but with our commitment as disciples to make Jesus known. It is our job, just as it was John the Baptist’s job at the beginning of John’s gospel, to point to Jesus, not for the sake of getting more people into church and so feeling successful, but for the sake of pointing to Jesus alone. John actually loses numbers, as his task was not to build his own grouping, but to give himself and his followers away. His two leave him and follow Jesus. It’s not the same situation, but if we introduce someone to Jesus and they come to faith, and then they go to another church, we shouldn’t be dismayed, even if it makes our statistics look bad. Disciples tell people about Jesus. That’s it.
As a good and balanced Rural Dean, I, of course, said that it was both. As disciples we not only pray and learn and worship and serve, we evangelise. And we are members of a church in which evangelism is embodied in what we do, in the services we offer, in the groups we have. A mark of whether we are evangelising well will be in whether people come. The numbers tell a story. Crucially, if we are not being a church which makes Christ known to every generation, how will they hear? If there’s not enough of us to tell the story, how will people come to faith? We need to be here, in numbers enough to be the body of Christ. I don’t mind whether we start with fear for our survival, or with an inner passion for speaking the Good News. It needs to be done.
What is fascinating in the Report is that there is no single recipe for successful evangelism, no one pattern for growing the numbers of the church which everyone can adopt. There is no one style of being the church, no one worship pattern or theological stance, which will guarantee growth. I’m quite encouraged by that. Too often in the church people have been keen to demonstrate how badly wrong others have got it, and how clearly right they are. Not so: it’s not the choir or guitars, or simple gospel or flowery music, or evangelical fervour or anglo catholic mysticism, or digital projectors or incense, or chairs or pews.
So what is it, which is a factor in church growth? Not the recipe, says the Report, but the ingredients. This is a fabulous encouragement for the church to be local, to see where we are, and what we can do, not to impose a blueprint from elsewhere. The ingredients are:
Good leadership (Good Vicars mean growing churches, said the Archbishop of Canterbury recently. Discuss…);
A clear mission and purpose;
Willingness to self reflect and to change and adapt;
Involvement of lay members;
Being intentional in prioritising growth;
Being intentional in a chosen style of worship;
Being intentional in nurturing disciples.
When I was teaching, our school was radical: no uniforms, first names for teachers, mixed ability classes, continual assessment. Mr Gove would not have been an admirer, you feel. The next door school had uniform, exams, setting, many rules. We both did well, because each school was committed to its ethos and philosophy. The whole school community knew what made it tick, and pupils and staff flourished. I think that’s what this Report says about church growth. It’s not the specific method, but the joint commitment of the whole church, or group of churches, which is key.
We must want to introduce people to Jesus. We must want to grow ourselves as disciples. We must stop fighting battles about the style or pattern of worship, and be people who can unite, even around something not all of us like. This is what we do, and we do it because through it we worship Jesus. I happen to be thrilled that, over a month, something like 50 people under 18 sing in our choirs. But I don’t want to impose that model, or the style of worship which goes with it, on everyone. In other churches a different style of worship will work. The key is to be committed to it, not fight against it.
As a larger church we also have the opportunity to offer other kinds of work with children and young people. I’m thrilled that good numbers of children and young people encounter us in a variety of groups and meetings under the direction of Emily, our youth and children’s minister. It’s important for us to make this work known: to support it, and enable it to bear fruit in our worship. Some of that will happen in our All Age Service once a month. Some people choose not to come to the All Age because it’s not the style for them. Well, better to absent yourself than to fight against it. But why not embrace it and be thrilled that people come and meet God through it. Better still, bring your grandchildren.
I say grandchildren because the average age of a worshipper in the Church of England is, evidently, 62. You have an opportunity to make that statistic work: grandchildren need you. And you have friends with more time than they used to. Get them along. A commitment to following Christ means a commitment to tell people about him. The churches which have grown have done so because they have decided to do so, in whatever way was right for their context. I would be thrilled if a great queue of you formed straight after this service to tell me how we are not doing it right, so that we can reflect and learn and commit. Jesus Christ deserves nothing less. This church, built on the inheritance of those who, in their day, told people about Christ, deserves nothing less. Who will you tell today, like Andrew told his brother, that ‘We have found the Christ’? Amen.
October 6, 2013 § 2 Comments
In reflective moments, clergy get to wondering how ‘productive’ they are being. Well, I do at least. Is all the graft actually doing anything? Are all the hours worth it? What is there to show for all I’m up to? I can look back over this week’s diary and point to all sorts of meetings attended, papers written, services planned and delivered, sermons preached, strategies devised. I’ve not been idle.
Yet I think that the most profound and privileged thing that happened was when I did nothing and said very little. On Thursday afternoon I sat for a while with someone close to death, in a hospital room which was a place of peace within a busy acute ward. The main sound in the room was my uncle’s breathing, and occasionally my prayers, and reminiscences of my times with him. We’re Fletchers, so the times weren’t frequent or effusive. But we had them.
Michael may have known I was there, but he probably didn’t. No matter. The litany speaks of not dying ‘unprepared’, and I would add ‘unaccompanied’ too. Other family spent time with him too, in these last days, but Thursday afternoon was my time. As many in this position will know, simply to be there and to hold a hand and to be warm of face when his eyes opened – just in case – was enough.
Michael was an organist and organ builder. His strapline was ‘craftsman’s art and music’s measure’. We used to sing ‘Angel Voices’ a lot at York, because the tune was written by E.G. Monk, Organist of York Minster. Every time we got to that line I thought of my Uncle Michael, and all the organ pipes I’d dropped when working for him in summer holidays. I now discover Monk wrote the tune for the opening of an organ in Lancashire, so it’s even more appropriate.
Michael and I shared more silence than words on Thursday afternoon. It was enough just to sit. I was convinced more than ever of our hope through death, and wondered how many times Michael would have played funeral hymns in his organ career. ‘This is where Abide with Me becomes real’ I thought. I said it too. And then we had some more silence.
Michael died later that night. My afternoon with him may not have showed much evidence of productivity. But, for me it was when I was human being, nephew, friend and priest. May he rest in peace. Thanks be to God.
September 3, 2013 § 3 Comments
After signing copies of Rules for Reverends at Greenbelt, I bought some volumes by Walter Breuggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor and Kenneth Bailey (respectively on grace, incarnation, and the middle eastern culture in which Jesus lived and through whose eyes his ministry takes on different meanings). Rules is meant to be light and funny. But it was still a surprise when the person at the till said: ‘But these are serious books.’ The downside of having an amusing exterior is that people can think that’s all you have and all you do.
Later someone else asked if there was a list of anything else I’ve written – so I’m posting what I think is a definitive list here. My long term interest has been in liturgy and worship. I did a 50,000 word MA thesis at Durham in 1995 on the way words work in worship. As a member of the Liturgical Commission I was well placed to write on the new services in Common Worship. Early on I wanted to reflect on the role of the Holy Spirit in ‘liturgical’ worship, and was pleased to be able to do this with Chris Cocksworth, now Bishop of Coventry. I worked in a cathedral for seven years, and contributed an essay on cathedral worship to a volume about cathedral ministry. There’s other stuff on ritual, and my first proper book was as part of a team offering pastoral resources for crisis situations.
Perhaps the greatest privilege is in crafting prayers for use in public worship. Some prayers in Common Worship started life in my head. I’m not telling you which they are.
So here’s the list, for what it’s worth.
Rules for Reverends, (illustrated by Dave Walker), Bible Reading Fellowship, 2013
‘A Service of the Word’ in God’s Transforming Work, ed Papadopulos, SPCK, 2011
‘Liturgy at the Frontiers: Laboratories for the Soul’ in Dreaming Spires: Cathedrals in a New Age, ed. Platten and Lewis, SPCK, 2006
’Text, Authority and Ritual in the Church of England’ in The Rite Stuff, ed Ward, BRF, 2004.
Using Common Worship: Daily Prayer, CHP, 2002, with Burnham and Myers.
Common Worship Daily Prayer, An Introduction, Grove, 2001, with Chris Cocksworth.
Articles in Common Worship Today, ed Myers and Earey, Harper Collins, 2001.
Communion in Common Worship, Grove, 2001.
The Spirit and Liturgy, Grove, 1998, with Chris Cocksworth.
Pastoral Prayers, Mowbray, 1996, contributing editor with Stephen Oliver, et al.
August 26, 2013 § 3 Comments
Dig deep enough into this blog and you’ll find the origins of Rules for Reverends. The Bible Reading Fellowship have just published it, and on Saturday I had the altogether new experience of sitting at a table at Greenbelt signing it for perfect strangers – and some old friends too.
It started because I returned to parish ministry in 2009 after 10 years working for a bishop and then in a cathedral. Some of the ‘truths’ of parish ministry came back to me, and some hit me in a new way. After one visit, where I just knew that the house I was looking for in the dark would be the one without a number, and that when I got there the doorbell wouldn’t work, I put 10 such ‘rules’ together. Lots more suggested themselves. Some people suggested their own. two years on, and here we are.
It’s meant to be funny. And it’s meant to be serious. The more I’ve worked on it, the more privileged I have felt to be part of this pastoral and missional and comforting and challenging ministry. As the book emerged I realised that I was using it to remind myself that, even after the most baffling of PCC meetings or ridiculous of complaints, this role is like no other. That’s what the last ‘rule’ in the book says.
I’m chuffed that Dave Walker agreed to do the brilliant illustrations. We’d never met until three days ago, when we pitched tents next to each other at Greenbelt. And I’m chuffed that Bishop Nick Baines endorsed it so warmly, even ordering clergy to buy it. Mind you: ‘You can always tell a bishop, but you can’t tell him much.’
Ruth Gledhill has said nice things here (behind The Times’ paywall though).
And I was interviewed by Ritula Shah on BBC R4’s PM too.
If there are other ‘rules’ around, do share them with me. Perhaps the next book will be a communal production. That would be fun…
July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Yesterday General Synod decided to create a new diocese. After a long process, the proposals to dissolve the dioceses of Wakefield, Ripon and Leeds, and Bradford, and to create a new Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire and the Dales) were approved overwhelmingly. Though I have never served in any of them, I’ve done lots in them, and grew up in Bradford, my sponsoring diocese.
I warmed to the obvious mission emphasis in the proposals. Structures don’t do mission for us, but they can hinder it, and this reshaping will allow deaneries, archdeaconries and episcopal areas in the new diocese to relate more easily to the demographics of the conurbations and the Dales.
I’d like to add a small voice into the debate about what happens to the three cathedrals of the former dioceses. There was understandable concern that one new diocese would need just the one cathedral, and that two of them would therefore lose their status (and the funding they received from the Church Commissioners). Not so, and the fear expressed by the three cathedrals that removing their status would ‘disable their local mission’ has been somewhat allayed. They remain free to pursue their ‘engagement with civil society and with those who are not regular churchgoers’ (both quotations from a background paper – GC 1049B).
The new Diocese of Leeds will have a Diocesan Bishop of Leeds, and Area Bishops of Bradford, Huddersfield, Wakefield and Ripon. It will have three cathedrals – seats of the Bishop’s ministry – in Ripon, Wakefield and Bradford. There is provision for Leeds Minster becoming a ‘pro-cathedral’ if desired. Four of the five areas will therefore have a cathedral or pro cathedral as expressions of episcopal ministry and mission, but Huddersfield won’t. The report talks about the difficulty of deciding on the relative importance of Dewsbury Minster, Halifax Minster and Huddersfield Parish Church, and decides that not having a central church here reveals the diversity of the diocese.
Here’s the thing. I’ve worked in a cathedral, and am now in a massive Minster church, and have been reflecting on the similarities and differences of their ministries. I don’t think that the reasons cathedrals are a success story in mission terms (35% growth in recent years) is because they have complex constitutions and legal structures, Chapters, Colleges of Canons and Councils and orders of precedence. Cathedrals have grown because they have a clear mission, a recognition that their ministry is regional and their mission is to the structures of society, and because the wider church recognises this, gives them money and requires them to have at least three experienced clergy there full time.
All of this can be true of ‘greater’ churches at the heart of their area. Beverley Minster cannot help but engage with the East Riding, just as Holy Trinity Hull does in its city. The Bishops of the Diocese of York, specifically the Bishop of Hull, use us and other larger churches to express that regional mission. Most of the things I did at York in welcoming the region to worship (the Legal Service, Remembrance, civic services, military commemorations, charity services and so on) happen at Beverley. You don’t need a cathedral constitution to do that.
But you do need a vision, resources, and the staffing. A new diocese could have a new vision for those churches of its region which naturally have a ministry beyond the parochial and which can express the mission of the diocese focussed in the ministry of the bishops. It could give them titles – ‘Minster’ – which express this ministry, and ensure that the lead cleric is recognised as also embodying it. ‘Provost’ was what the lead cleric at Beverley was called until the Reformation. Crucially, it could ensure that such staffing was in place that worship, pastoral, mission, social and educational needs were met.
I have a nightmare that the joint working of the three current cathedrals in relation to each other and to their diocesan and area bishops will be so complex constitutionally that the mission of each disappears into the mire of the re-written statutes. One cathedral, with ‘greater’ Minster churches adequately staffed and with much lighter governance could be a superb and flexible mission resource, as long as the current high regard in which they are held is translated into regard for their ‘Minster’ status.
The Measure which will make the new Diocese is wisely light on what it says about how the cathedrals will work. But the background material says that cathedral ministry should be renewed at some time in the future.
An offering then from me. A church which expresses the ministry of a diocese, focussed in the Bishop’s mission, does not have to have the panoply of a cathedral’s constitution and statutes. But it does need a recognition by the diocese that it is a church of regional influence, and needs to have staffing which enables that influence to bear fruit. It needs the status that titles can bring, and it needs the support of the parishes and deaneries around it. Elements of that work here. I’m looking forward to seeing how a new diocese might find a new way of expressing its local, regional and diocesan life. Exciting times.
October 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
Most of my sermons are on the Beverley Minster website. But occasionally I stick them on here if I fancy getting some e-reaction. Here’s my one about Giving, from this morning.
I heard this week that the BBC is looking for its ‘holy grail’: a recording of George Orwell’s voice. If at all possible they want moving pictures of him as well. It is amazing that the person who gave us the concept of Big Brother, of the surveillance society, of the Ministry of Truth and so much which helps us today to understand the torrent of communication in which we live has left no record of himself beyond his writing and some still photographs. It was Orwell who gave us, in Nineteen Eighty Four, the concept of doublethink, where you can think two contradictory things at the same time and not recognise the conflict.
I reckon that we use a kind of doublethink in relation to money, and it’s because we apply different rules depending on the contexts. How much, for example, is a lot of money? It depends on the context. Five pounds is a lot of money to pay for a packet of Extra Strong Mints, but a small amount of money to pay for a car. I can spend ages agonising over a purchase which might save me just a few pence, but happily sign a cheque for hundreds of pounds for a holiday without worrying about shaving off another fifty pounds here or there. Thinking about money goes way beyond the actual amount involved, and is affected by the values we place upon what that money is going to do. If someone did charge you five pounds for some mints you’d be much more cross that being charged five pounds too much on a thousand pound holiday.
There is every possibility of using doublethink when it comes to the church collection. Let’s take it as read that it is a good thing to support the church you belong to, or come to occasionally. I’ll take it as read that most people think that, when push comes to shove, having the church here is probably something they are pleased about. And I’ll take is as read that committed Christians have a basic belief that at least some of our time, money and possessions should be offered to God in some way or other. So when the collection plate comes round you can pretty much guarantee that most people will feel it’s OK to put something in – when if a perfect stranger came up to them in the street with a plate they would almost certainly not.
But how much is OK for church collection? The latest statistics in the Church of England (for 2010) suggest that the average amount given by members of the electoral roll is around £6 per week. Remember, though, that some electoral roll members don’t actually worship regularly, and don’t give anything at all. The average amount given by people in a planned way is around £10 per week. Perhaps some of you are already working out whether £10 sounds a lot, or a little. It might depend on how much you habitually keep in your wallet or purse – how much you take out of the cashpoint when you go. Remember that £10 is the average for people who decide in advance how much they will give – which will be most of you. Does that sound like a lot of money?
It depends, doesn’t it? It depends on what value you place on the church, your faith, and the other things in your life that your money could be used for. It might depend on whether you trust the Vicar, or the PCC, to spend that money wisely. But it will mainly depend on the standards you apply to the things you give most worth to. If you went for coffee at Nero’s three times in a week, that would be more than the average person gives to the Church of England in a week. So is God worth less than three lattes a week? If you buy a broadsheet newspaper seven days a week, that’s more than the average person gives to the Church of England in a week. So is God worth less than Rupert Murdoch? Membership of Beverley Golf Club or a Hull City Season ticket are about the same as the average person gives to their church per week. So is God worth the same as golf or football?
I’ve had a bit of a dangerous thought. I’d quite like you not to put anything in the collection this week – and if you give by standing order I’d like you to cancel it immediately. I’d like you to stop, and reassess, and have a good think about how much is a lot of money for God, and within that how much is a lot of money for this church. I’d like you to try to avoid doublethink and apply the same standards to that decision as you would to the things you give most worth to in your life. I’d like you to compare what you give to and for God against what is the most precious thing you have. What is the very best thing you can do with your money, and how keen are you to do it?
I’m hoping that, when you do this, you will not weigh God up on the same scale as coffee or sport. I’m hoping that the scale you apply to God, and your faithful following as a disciple of Christ will mean that you do more than calculate how much of your loose change you can afford; do more than calculate how much would look OK if the person next to you happens to glance across when you are putting your cash on the plate. I’m hoping that you will put this calculation onto a completely different scale altogether.
I’m hoping that you will recognise that you can never out-give God, and that God is of such infinite value that all we can do is give the tiniest amount as a sign that we owe God our very being. I’m hoping that you hear that verse in 2 Corinthians about “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” I’m hoping that you remember all those commands about remembering that God gives to us first, and that we give back the first things to show that we know they are not ours. I’m hoping you’ll remember that the Bible talks about giving proportionately, so it’s not about the amount, but the percentage we decide.
I’m hoping that you work out then what you can give as a matter of rejoicing, not guilt. I would much rather that the PCC made use of money given joyfully rather than grudgingly. And I have a hunch that, somehow, a small amount of money given with joy might be more effective than a large amount of money given in a panic or out of guilt. I’m hoping that we reach that ideal place when we give an amount we value, with generosity and joy, and that amount does take account of our needs, so that you do look at our current financial state and see how you can contribute to our growth. The PCC can take joyful decisions about our finances when people give in a planned way, and tell us about it.
I’m hoping, actually, that you do give something today…and that later you also work out whether something has to change in the amount you plan to give. I’m hoping that you don’t put that decision off, but that you do it today, and get the forms back to us this week. But above all I’m hoping that, in deciding what you value, you will recognise the overflowing love of God for you, and let that love tell you how much is a lot of money.
August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
Planning and Permission
Many clergy are driven by a desire to serve. A sabbatical can feel very selfish. I had to get over this, especially in a parish setting. Let others tell you how important a sabbatical is, believe them, then give yourself permission to plan for a fabulous time. It may only happen once.
Working from Rest
I’ve been ordained 24 years, and this is my first sabbatical, so the key thing was to change gear, and that has meant permission to do nothing. It is, after all, a sabbatical. The freedom from daily demands is the essential joy, and not doing too much has been the best gift I could give to myself. I have not filled ‘free’ days with too much. This is a space to remember who you are, not what you do – or at least to recognise in what ways the two are linked and feed off each other.
Taking Enough Time
How long should a sabbatical be? I felt initially guilty, especially in a parish setting, about taking too much time ‘off’. A wiser friend counselled that I should go for the maximum possible. I worked on the basis that a sabbatical is 12 weeks, and I added the 3 weeks we are advised to have as a holiday.
Another wise friend said that, as a Bishop, he often felt that clergy should have three months off and then have a three month sabbatical. That was echoed by an American friend, planning his sabbatical. The norm there is 6 months, and he was going for 7 if he could.
Take as much time as you can.
Time It Right
It is a commonplace among clergy that you go on sabbatical, come back, and then leave the parish. I guess that’s because sabbaticals are often taken seven or ten years into a particular job. The clergy realise how much they are valuing not being there, and the parish realise that they are quite enjoying it too. So be it…but my circumstances have prevented an extended break until now, less than three years into my time at Beverley. I was keen to say that this was to energise the next few years here, not to prepare to leave.
Genuinely Leave the Day Job Behind
I guess this is the most difficult thing for parish clergy. I am very blessed in having a parish with assistant staff and lay employees, where parish life is filtered through a separate office. I planned the time so that my assistant staff would be in a position to take the reins (and indeed appreciate the opportunity – or that’s what they told me), and tried to make sure that there were no major events (so after Easter and before September…though the arrival of the Olympic Torch and then the Paralympic Flame were not on the radar when I booked it!).
No one calls the Vicarage anyway, and a stern ‘Out of Office’ on the email has meant that I have genuinely been left alone. Not everyone will be able to stay in the Vicarage without the ‘day job’ intervening, so do some creative planning beforehand to give yourself real freedom.
Even with all this the best thing I did was to leave the Vicarage the day the sabbatical started and not return for six weeks. It reminded me that the parish was not about me – perhaps the best lesson to learn. I couldn’t have interfered even if I wanted to.
You need to convince yourself that all is fine ‘at home’, even if it’s not, and that stuff can be dealt with when you get back, however tempting it is to sort it now.
Do Stuff You Wouldn’t Otherwise Do
It seemed important to use this opportunity to engage in things that a normal break wouldn’t allow. For me it was going to Israel for an extended time – four weeks. I was also able to visit places closer to home which I wouldn’t want to inflict on my family as part of a normal holiday. And we’ve tried to make our holiday time slightly more special by going to more events we both like – we might not have done as much without the sabbatical as an excuse.
Don’t Do Too Much, But Have an Aim
In other dioceses there is an emphasis on justifying this time away by studying, or doing something which will have an immediate impact on your parish or the diocese. Some call it ‘study leave’. That wasn’t the impression I got in York, and I’ve worked on the basis that having an aim, or a theme, is good, but not to overcook it.
I thought that ‘sacred place’ might give me the excuse to travel, and would link to the day job in that Beverley Minster is much visited, and remains a shrine and sacred place to many.
I’ve read a little bit, and tried to reflect on this at some of the sacred places I’ve been to (where is more sacred than Jerusalem, for example?), but have not been obsessive about it. And as one who has an (exaggerated) reputation for ‘always’ being on social media and blogging I made a conscious decision not to write too much about what I was doing or thinking day by day. Wise advice from Israel was not to promise exhaustive diaries, as the situation out there is so complex that your immediate responses may not always be helpful. That has worked for the sabbatical in general.
But…I’m determined to let the lessons I’ve learnt ‘seep out’. A session with a wise friend and counsellor at some point will be a good idea, and the sabbatical will be complete when, perhaps in a few months, some considered reflections emerge.
Get Enough Funding
I couldn’t have done the Israel thing without separate funding, and it felt a whole lot easier to ‘indulge’ myself knowing that there was less financial pressure. Thanks then to the Diocese of York, CFI, Ecclesiastical Insurance, the Boniface Trust, my own PCC and one of my other churches, and our local Methodist Circuit (a surprise and gratefully accepted gift), for their grants.
Get Back To Work
I’m not there yet – 13 days to go. But there will need to be a re-entry (deliberately on a Monday, not a Sunday…). The team here have been good in coping with loads, and there has been just the right amount of communication to let me know what I can expect.
For fifteen weeks there has not been a Vicar of Beverley Minster, and, inevitably, some things will be happening differently. I’m keen not to make everything ‘revert’ to what it was, so there will need to be some adjustment on my part.
And I will be different too. A sabbatical reshapes you. I can remember 17 years ago when a significant event (a family bereavement) reshaped my priorities in ministry, and in some ways there has been a similar reshaping in these last weeks. It’s something about discovering what is important, not just required, and underneath that something about being fully alive rather than just efficient and good at the job. So the parish will, I hope, see something of a change. We’ll all have to adjust.
A simple thing for me will be to make sure that planned time off – a day, a free weekend, a retreat, a holiday – will be another version of this extended time. Permission to rest, to enjoy, to wonder, and to live.
January 15, 2012 § 3 Comments
A Sermon preached at Beverley Minster 15 Jan 2012. On John 1. 43 – end
As far as I can tell I last preached on this passage twenty years ago, give or take 5 days. A lot has happened since a reasonably slim chap in his early thirties with two small sons and quite a lot of hair last spoke about Nathanael and Philip and good things coming from Nazareth. Think back to what life was like for you in 1992, and what you have now that you didn’t have then. I’m thinking particularly of the way that our means of communication have changed. Some people had mobile phones which you needed a sherpa to carry for you. Your computer stood alone, and there were disks and they were floppy. Few people beyond computer science departments had the internet and world wide web.
So there is no reference in my last sermon on this topic (which as it happens was written with a ‘pen’ on ‘paper’ and placed in a ‘Filofax’) to the image which first struck me as I looked at John 1 again. John the Baptist speaks about the Messiah. The next day he sees Jesus and says ‘Here is the Lamb of God’. The next day two of John’s disciples, perhaps encouraged by John, start to follow Jesus. One of them is Andrew, and he rushes to tell his brother, Simon. Immediately Jesus gives him a new name. The next day Jesus ups sticks and goes toGalileein the north. He finds Philip, who follows him. Philip finds Nathanael, and he follows Jesus too. It’s breathless stuff. According to John the Evangelist it’s taken three days only for Jesus to be publicly revealed as the Messiah, and to gather followers in the south and the north. And the image I thought of as I read this? That if Jesus was on Twitter he would be said to be ‘trending’ – one of the most talked about subjects on the internet.
December 21, 2011 § 2 Comments
111. Christmas happens on December 25th every year. It is amazing the number of times you will not realise this until it’s too late.
112. If you have the NRSV on your smartphone you can update your Facebook status during worship and pretend you’re reading the Bible.
113. There is probably a way of remembering which of your robes is in which of your churches, or your house. If you’ve discovered it, please let the rest of us know.
114. Never be afraid to admit that part of you is in it for the dressing up.
115. There is absolutely no way you can look at your watch when in a deep pastoral situation without the other person noticing.
116. Most church problems are sorted out by the people who know in the car park afterwards. Not worth having the original meeting at all, when you think about it.
117. Visitations are only made by Angels, Archdeacons and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Not all Visitations are the same.
118. At least with Alpha you get food.
119. Everything is fair game as a sermon illustration. Especially your children. They’ll love you for it.
120. Store up the questions that only God can answer on the other side of death. There’ll be plenty of time to get them answered. Or maybe they won’t need to be.