December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
A friend gave me a book* to read this year. One of my resolutions for 2014 had been to read the books I intended to read, and like all resolutions it didn’t quite work out. But this book I did. It’s about technology, and the way we use it, and it uses us – the way we change as we use new tools. The sections about email, and smartphones and social media were powerful. I know that some of my friends have made resolutions this year not to be so dominated by their technology. I’m sympathetic to that too.
What struck me most forcibly was that this was a book which could only have been written in the last couple of years. Twenty years ago it would have been baffling. Then, though it existed, I knew nothing of the world wide web, the Internet, or email. In 1994 I was just getting into text messaging I remember, and I sent my first email in 1995, I think. Social media then was still a letter, or a fax. To think that in 2014 I would witness my 84 year old mother in law on Facetime speaking to her relatives 300 miles away, just like those communicators on Star Trek…well, I would not have imagined I would really see the day. Who can predict what such a book will be covering in 2034, when I’m 74?
I guess that’s the point of marking a date in the calendar as a good time to look back and to look forward. We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, but we can use what we have learnt so far, and we can equip ourselves to face what will come so that we can judge what will nourish us and what will harm us, what we should embrace and what we should avoid. And that’s why I’m talking about the book my friend gave me. In one small section it talks about the kind of looking back you do when someone dies, and how you talk to them.
The author suggests four things to say to those who have died, and I think you can say them to the year which is past too.
“I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you”
I’m sorry. There will be things in this past year which you have not done well, or which you’ve been a part of which are beyond your control and which are a source of regret. A resolution might be to try and repair any damage, and certainly not to take part in the same stuff again this year – and to create the conditions where society, or the world, won’t cause that stuff to happen again.
Thank you. One of my resolutions this year is to relish what has been good, and, where possible, to let others know if they have done it. There is now a Masters Degree in handling complaints. I’d like a Masters Degree in offering thanks, and that will start with thinking of enough good things to be able to start offering thanks for, and calling to mind the people who have done them. That includes the Almighty.
I forgive you. There will be stuff from this year which has been caused by others. I spend too much time in the middle of families who have been torn apart, or situations where disagreements have become divisions. That’s a privilege of the priestly ministry, and all priests know that these things are only resolved when someone offers forgiveness to another. But it’s a costly beginning, and it may as well start with you.
I love you. To reflect on what has been is to work out what, and who, is worth our time, our attention, our effort. Where those people are still with us, then making an active choice to love them, rather than just hoping that they already know, will make all the difference to our, and their, future. Where those people have died, then loving them in memory will enable us to live with what they gave us.
The Biblical writers were skilled at looking back in order to look forward. Isaiah took such courage and hope from God’s dealings with his people that he could be confident that there was a future and a hope, a way to walk. The Gospel writers, sure that Jesus had conquered even death, were thrilled to offer us the words they heard from Jesus about trusting in God for everything, and not giving our energies to things which would ultimately not satisfy.
I pray that this New Year you’ll be able to look back and ask questions of the past in such a way that you’ll be able to embrace the future with faith and hope. I pray that there will be thanksgiving, apologies, forgiveness and love. And I pray that all of your living, with whatever the future will hold and whatever tools we use in it, will be held in the palm of God’s hand, and lived to God’s glory, for God, in Christ, is our yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.
*The book is Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Basic Books 2011. On p. 304 She quotes a Rabbi’s sermon at Yom Kippur, and he offers these four things to say to the dead.
September 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
I post sermons on here when enough people comment about them after I preach them. So here’s today’s, on Matthew, and whether I am converted.
The thing is, I wonder if any of us really know what it is to be thoroughly converted. What it is to be going completely one way, and then stop and go in the exact opposite direction. What it is to set aside everything for which we’ve dreamed and worked and saved and planned, and to go and do something completely different. I wonder if, really, we’re a mixture of old and new, good and bad, trying to shape it and sort it so that land just on the right side of the line. I wonder if most of us are really going at this Christian life bit by bit, two steps forward and a step back, hoping that, when we take stock we can demonstrate that we’ve made some progress.
If I’m honest I’m quite envious of someone like Matthew. Everyone knew what he had been like, and therefore what a difference Jesus had made in his life. We all know about tax collectors in the Bible. They did a necessary job: taxes help society when used well, and in themselves they are not evil. But the biblical tax collectors added their personal touch, using the force of law and the authority of the state to line their own pockets as well. Matthew, or Levi in the other gospels, did this like any other, and was loathed as a result. Tax collectors personified what today’s collect called “the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches”. They were a byword for everything that was corrupt and bad and loathsome, and they knew it. Perhaps they even revelled in it. ‘No one likes us. We don’t care’.
The way Matthew tells it, he’s in his booth being loathsome and corrupt. Jesus walks past. Jesus has already gained a reputation for being powerful and charismatic and challenging and divinely inspired. He’d healed loads of people, cleansed people of leprosy, helped a paralysed man to walk, rid people of evil things which had taken them over. He’d even changed the weather. These were close knit communities. People talked, quicker than we tweet now. No one, least of all Matthew would have been in any doubt as to who this was and what he stood for. Two words to Matthew. ‘Follow me’. And that’s it. He does.
That’s why I’m envious. Because, the way it’s told, Matthew is one thing and then immediately he’s another. Old life: gone. I guess it would have to be: he was so obviously doing the wrong thing that any hint of doing it again and he would have been out on his ear, even self condemned. If he was going to follow Jesus it would be all or nothing. And it was all. Not only does he get to be one of the twelve, he gets to write it all down, so that he’s both an Apostle, one of those who could recount the words of Jesus and he’s an evangelist: a writer of the Good News, so that we can still hear his words today.
And, perhaps because he’s conscious of all the harm he has done his own people, the Jews he has a special concern for them in his Gospel. Remember how Zaccheus makes recompense by repaying what he’s taken many times over? I wonder if Matthew, aware of all that he has taken from his own people, ensures that he gives them the most precious thing that he can: an account of the faith in Christ which turned his life round and gave him hope. Read through Matthew’s Gospel – I dare you – and count the number of times he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures and shows how Jesus fulfils them. From wherever you are, he says, Jesus can and will be your Messiah, your Saviour, your hope and your light.
I’m envious because this shines a very clear light on the murkiness and complexity of my discipleship. I can point to a moment when I knew I made a decision for Christ. That came after a lifetime – 15 years – of church attendance. I was never very bad, and then and now have had no public reputation for going the wrong way or doing the wrong thing. My day to day life didn’t have to change very much, and, though pleased, no one was very much surprised when I followed a call to be ordained. I didn’t have to turn round from very much, and that means I have to look very carefully to check what a difference following Christ is making today.
Reflecting on the call of Matthew, crystal clear as it is, is like holding up a mirror – one of those dressing room mirrors with lights on it. Matthew’s is what a 100% conversion looks like. What does yours? What, for example, has following Jesus done to your attitude to money? Do you still, really, put more store by it than your heavenly treasure? What about your attitude to other people? Are they all there to be served, to be loved, or are some of them to be swept out of the way, dominated and defeated? What about your reputation, the things which mark you out as successful, your ambitions? Where are they when faced with the two simple words Matthew heard: follow me?
And if you want my honest answer: none of my responses to those questions will be as clear as Matthew’s. I know I could have been something else rather than a Vicar, but I have to say that my last three roles have meant living in three very nice places. I know as a Vicar I am the target for all sorts of stuff other people avoid – last night I was walking the dog up Toll Gavel, when a hooded young person in Subway saw my clerical shirt, looked me straight in the eye, leered and stick his middle finger up. I don’t think it was a cheery greeting. And sometimes you get worse abuse in the church, not out of it. But no one can tell me that my life is harder than anyone else’s in a complex employment situation. And this is no sacrifice compared to the lot of some Christians across the world.
I want to secure my finances as much as the next person. I’m as defined by my possessions as much as anyone else. Ask me how pleased I was when I bought a guitar I’ve wanted for 30 years. I care about my position and what people think about me, and if I had to weigh that up against what I want people to think about the Jesus I serve, there might be a slimmer majority than for the Scottish referendum.
Matthew shows me that my conversion is still happening. And I bet yours is too. Yes, I follow Christ. I sometimes wear clothes which make that so clear that people can tell me what they think of it. And yes, I’m still working out what that means. My emotions, and my finances, and my intellect and my relationships are all still listening to Jesus’s words, and trying to make sense of them. Thanks be to God that when we’re with Jesus we are truly with him, right from the start. After Matthew’s call there’s a big dinner, and all sorts of dodgy types are there. Far from them dragging Jesus down, he raises them up. That’s us: with him we are made new.
And then we have to work out what that means. I will follow, if you’ll help me. And I’ll help you too. Amen.
August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the Hebrew Scriptures the history books – Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – have a difficult time with the idea of Kingship. It is not because of the bad ones: the kings who manifestly disobey the commands of God from start to finish. It‘s also the ones you would think we should admire, and hold up as examples. Of course even they do some stupid things. People do. But the histories of Israel are more worried than that. Taken as a whole they advise us to regard the whole institution of monarchy with great caution.
This stretches right back to the people’s demand for a king in the first place. Samuel has combined the roles of prophet and judge, but the people have no faith in those who will follow him. They look around at other nations, just as our politicians do today when looking for a model of some social policy: ‘they do it better in Sweden’; ‘this is what works in Germany’. The people look at the strong nations around, for Israel has ever been under threat from its neighbours. And they see that kingship seems to work. ‘Give us one of them’, they demand of Samuel.
Samuel does, but gives them a health warning. The King will make you subservient. The King will demand everything of you, he says. ‘In that day you will cry out because of your King’ is his prophecy, in 1 Samuel 8. 18. Their reply? ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we might be like other nations…’ (1 Sam 8. 19, 20). And they get their wish. Saul, who is something of a disaster, then David, who builds up the country and enlarges its borders, and Solomon, who establishes it, fortifying Jerusalem even more, holding court there so that world leaders come knocking, and founding the temple, to show the impregnable power of the relationship between God, King, nation and people.
A wise reading of history is often able to show that the seeds of destruction are to be found at the moment of what looks like complete success. A reliance on what has got you to the point of achievement, simply looking for more of the same, will lead to the whole edifice crumbling. That’s as true of the Roman Empire as of the financial markets in 2007 as it is of the England cricketers who won the Ashes in 2005 and fell away soon after. The Books of Kings, especially, describe just such a fall, and attribute it not just to bad leadership, but to the very model of kingship itself.
Solomon, the wise, the all powerful, the sought after one, is not immune from finding security in transient alliances rather than the complete dependence on God which is the hallmark of Israel. Kingship makes you do that. Power concentrated in the hands of one person, to whom others fawn, eventually corrupts. And with few checks and balances that power turns in on itself. It was already happening at the end of Solomon’s reign, and not even the strong words of the prophet Ahijah about the breaking up of the twelve tribes of Israel can stop the process.
Our first reading tonight carries on the story. Solomon has died. Rehoboam, his son and anointed successor, trusts in the wrong sort of exercise of authority. Absolute kingship, he feels, can best be demonstrated by showing people who is boss. Is that not what a King is? Wise heads invite him to exercise his authority with humility and restraint, but kingship lends itself more easily to a display of power than of humility. He would rather be ruler than servant. He would look weak otherwise. Ten of the tribes tell him what he can do with it, and so begins the split of the nation, into two Kingdoms. A couple of hundred years and it’s all gone, the nation overrun, the leaders in exile. And we can safely say that the split, the destruction, has been there all along.
My former boss used to say that ‘any system can be made not to work’. The Judges and the early prophets had their troubles too. But reliance on an overt exercise of power – ‘someone who will go out before us and fight our battles’, as the people say to Samuel when they ask for a King – this reliance has perhaps more chance of failure than any other. The people put a figurehead and a system in between them and their joint responsibility for the land and nation and people. Their abdication of power leads to it being exercised badly, however hard the King in question tries.
In that same land today different models of leadership and power currently clash, and people die. In our own land the people with power seen increasingly remote for the people they govern, or should that be ‘serve’? We do well to be suspicious of the exercise of power. We do well also to pray for those who have it, and hold up before them the model of the one who, with all authority on heaven and earth, sought out the weak, sat with the needy, shared the life of the poor, and gave up every shred of what he had, that we might live. Amen.
May 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
This morning’s sermon. I blog these if enough people come and talk to me about them afterwards (which, because we’re from Yorkshire, we don’t normally do). So here goes…It was based on John 14. 1 – 14
I had a fascinating conversation this week with someone who researches people’s experiences of the death of those closest to them, and their bereavement and grieving. Her key reflection was that what clergy could bring into that situation, beyond planning and delivering the funeral service, was a framework where people could explore their beliefs and understandings of death and dying, and especially of what people thought had happened to their loved ones, and where they were. This was most crucial between the death and the funeral.
That conversation remains with me now because of this morning’s Gospel reading, from John 14. We clergy, who do lots of funerals, tend to forget that people don’t go to that many in their life time. This reading, the first six verses anyway, is the one I most often use at funerals. It speaks of God’s care for us beyond death, of God’s promise that those in Christ will have a room reserved, and that perhaps even those who have not been followers of God in their lifetime will also be looked after. There are, after all, ‘many rooms’. Jesus, speaking, as John has it, on the night before he dies, with impending doom all around, gives his followers a framework to understand what is about to happen – one which they clearly remembered because they wrote it all down.
At the centre is a statement, a question and an answer. Jesus tells the disciples that they have all the framework they need to face his death, the ultimate challenge. ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’ he says. ‘No‘, says Thomas. ‘If we don’t know where you are going, how on earth can we know the way.’ Jesus, as ever, changes the nature of the conversation. It’s not about what the way is and where it’s going, but who the way is and how we get there. ‘I am the way…’ Faced with the ultimate question, Jesus gives an answer which will only make sense because of their faith, not their certainty. ‘You still won’t be exactly clear about where I’m going. But you can be sure that the way there is me. Trust me.’
In funerals I do all I can to make this framework plain. I try to say that the Christian faith is about us being gathered, swept up in Christ into the life of God. As he, one man, incorporated all of humanity, so that his death was our death, so the risen Christ incorporates us too, so that his life is our life. If the face of death many people look for certainties, for something as tangible as possible about the fate, the continued life of their loved one who has died. People can take great comfort in words from beyond the grave, for example, and the use of clairvoyants and mediums. There is, to broaden it out, a great interest in ghosts – you only have to see the huge crowds on the York ghost walks which used to go past our house. I try to say that our thinking about death and new life is much deeper than that.
This is about faith. Faith that, because Jesus died and rose, and is fully and completely with God, we will be too. Indeed, part of our life is already with God now. In baptism we have already died and been raised with Christ. But where, and how, and what it’s like on the other side of death…well, I don’t know. I can only trust that the means of being with God, the way we travel, and the life we will life, is Christ. That’s it. Total and complete trust. The Bible speaks of us ‘resting’, ‘sleeping’ in death. That’s a state which is fully enclosed by God, like the best kind of sleep in the best kind of bed. And the Bible says that, in Christ, we will be raised, so that we see God face to face. I don’t know when and how that will be. But I can trust that it will happen, and I can trust that it is Jesus who will be the means and the road and the companion and the guide and the friend on the way, and the everlasting arms behind.
When Philip asked Jesus to reveal the Father to them, Jesus said he already had. In every moment with them, every word, every action, God was being made plain to them. They just had to open their eyes to see. It’s that openness which Jesus asks of us as we face the biggest question of all: what will happen to us when we die? Jesus says: the answer is here already. I am such a part of the Father and you are such a part of me that, in life and death, you will be with me, and I will never let you go.
Facing his death, and acknowledging their grief, Jesus says to his disciples ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled…’ As we face our death, and the death of those we love, there will of course be grief and loss and sadness and anger and guilt. I cry at many of the funerals I take, and I miss the people you miss. That’s OK. Jesus wept at death too. But under it all there is the hope and hope and trust, that eternally we can never be separated from God’s love. May we offer that hope to all who wonder about life and death. And that’s everyone, isn’t it?
March 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Church of England now offers two collects for each Sunday. The collect is the prayer which ‘gathers up’, or ‘collects’ our prayers and gives them a shape and a theme. They are not just an Anglican thing: the collects which Archbishop Cranmer (whom we remembered this week, martyred nearly five centuries ago) gave us in the Book of Common Prayer are generally translations of Latin prayers which had been around for a thousand years or more.
As clergy here we sometimes have a discussion about which of the collects to use. Some of the Common Worship collects are very like their BCP originals, and that makes their language and construction complex on occasions. Sometimes the newer Alternative Collects put things more concisely. Well, I was determined this week to have the collect Common Worship originally selected for the Third Sunday of Lent. It’s not a BCP one, but was written by William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, Broadway, in the late 1800s for the American Prayer Book.
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified;
mercifully grant that we, walking the way of the Cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace…
I was determined to have this because the clergy Canons of York Minster once had an argument about it. One of my colleagues was keen to simplify it: “whose most dear Son went up to joy after he suffered pain…entered into glory after he was crucified…” and so on. There was a worry that the collect as it stands was being too clever for its own good. I stood my ground. This collect is one of the few I can recite from memory, and I think that’s down to the very complexity we wondered about simplifying. There’s something memorable about the repeated construction “went not…but…entered not…but” which straightening it out would lose.
In fact Huntington took the construction from a phrase in the Book of Common Prayer, in the service called The Visitation of the Sick. As I have pondered on it since, I would say that the complex negatives are vital. It was not just that Jesus entered into joy and glory after a time of pain and the crucifixion; it was that the joy and glory Christ now enjoys are inextricably bound up with his passion and death. The only way to glory was by bearing the cross. The only way to joy was by bearing pain. There is an implication for us that the life and peace we long for is inextricably bound up with walking the way of the cross. We do not get to dodge the suffering which Christ bore: it cannot be separated from the path to glory.
In his letter to the Romans Paul spends three chapters talking about being reconciled to God, freed, forgiven, justified and redeemed by God though faith. He describes this as the present experience of the Christian: “we have been justified…we have peace…we have access to his grace”. It may come as a surprise then that he immediately says that there will be suffering and that not only should we not run away but we should actually rejoice in it. Until the end of this world there remains a cross to carry and suffering to face. He goes even further in Romans 5: the sufferings of the faithful Christian, whatever they may be, are things we should ‘boast’ about, because they show that we are walking in the way of Christ.
It is not that there will be joy and glory after this pain – a bit like the distant view of a pub means you can cope with the last two miles of a long day’s walk. It is that the sufferings we have to bear are a necessary path we have to take. Sufferings and hardship, says Paul, help us to remember that all of our freedom is from God, and all we can do, in any situation, is to trust God alone. As Paul puts it, through and in this suffering we learn endurance and character and true hope. God is as present in our troubles as our joys, and all are part of the way of the cross. When we face hardship and persecution and suffering in this life, we do so because we faithfully follow Christ, and find him in them. We don’t do this because there will be joy later: we find Christ in each act, each moment; and if that is a hardship, then that is the way Christ walked first. We will not get home without hardships and trials, and in them we find life.
All of which probably sounds insufferably pious if you are in the middle of something awful. But I have various people in mind when I say that in living through pain and crisis is the hope of glory. I think of people rebuilding their lives after they were torn apart by one event which called the last 30 odd years into question. People who are facing an illness with no cure. Parents who walked the way of suffering with their youngest child, incurably ill and who died before Christmas. A friend whose adult child simply vanished, and has now been missing for five years.
I think of churches torn apart by politics and persecution. Institutions facing an uncertain future and seemingly imploding. People left shattered by the loss of job and security. As Christ did not, could not, would not go up to joy without taking all the pains of humanity into himself, so we, walking in his way, will not be immune from that pain, and must hold on, with what little we might have left, to the Christ who shares that pain with us. That costly personal discipleship is therefore one of the themes of Lent.
And, if our current situation is to be beside still waters and in pleasant places, then our task is to share that pain with others, to stand with people in difficulty, to enter the darkness with them, and with them to look for its redemption, its completion. If you do this, please don’t try to explain suffering away, to give it a reason. It will be enough to hold the hand of the people you are with, and to pray that they will know Christ’s presence even at the darkest times. It will be enough to reassure people that, if it’s dark, Christ is still there, that if it hurts, Christ has suffered too. It might just be possible to say that such times can deepen our faith (and ‘The Visitation of the Sick’ service does just that, not altogether helpfully, I think), but it’s probably best to assure people that God will not let them go.
Our sufferings and difficulties are part of the humanity which Christ willingly embraced. In him, in his life, passion, death and resurrection they are ultimately given meaning and purpose, though that can seem a long way away in the middle of it all. I hope you’ll pray with me that people you and I know who are walking the way of the cross will find that it is the way of life and peace. And I hope you will hold their hand, and bear their pain, because our hope is in the Christ who walks this way, and leads us to life and peace. Amen.
February 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
I preached this last night, and people seemed to appreciate it. The Communion setting was the Messe Solennelle, and that started my thoughts going…
Jean Langlais, the twentieth century composer whose setting of the Communion service we are hearing tonight, was blind. He lost his sight as a two year old. His upbringing was not sheltered, and he loved climbing trees. He loved music, and as a teenager heard an organ, determining to learn it himself. He was taught first by another blind organist, and went on to be one of France’s most celebrated organists and composers.
He said that he had no memory of light, yet it seems to me that his music is full of richness and colour and light and shade. Perhaps because he was in darkness, his evocation of light is all the greater. For light defines us. Apart from a very few animals, we alone create light when there is none. Light is our essence.
The modern preponderance of light means that people today have no real regular experience of darkness. I was on a late train a couple of weeks ago, and all the lights went out. It was rather wonderful, but so disorientating that normally reserved English people started talking to each other.
We make light, because we need it and love it. It is necessary and beautiful. For much of human history candles, and oil lamps, were essential bringers of light into darkness. The lighting of the lamps became a religious act which could never be reduced to the flipping of a switch.
The festival of Candlemas, the Presentation, the Purification is about light. It commemorates the moment when Jesus was presented in the Temple. There he was recognised by a devout believer, and declared to be a light to lighten the Gentiles – the person whose life and death will be a means of revelation, illumination and warning to all the non Jewish peoples of the earth. He is also to be the fulfilment of all the hopes of Israel, God’s original people.
In church the moment is remembered every time the Nunc Dimittis is sung. It is such a part of our evening worship – first in Compline, then, since Cranmer, at Evensong, that we can become dulled to its challenge. It’s a massively radical statement. Hear it again:
God’s promise has been fulfilled. This child is the means of rescue, for every single human being on the planet. He is a Jew, but will be light, piercing the darkness for all the peoples of the world. He is everything the Jews have been waiting for and everything a dark world needs.
What is amazing here is that Simeon doesn’t keep this as a personal experience – ‘I can die fulfilled now’. Nor does he keep this as a Jewish experience: ‘we will be delivered and our nation’s borders secured’. This is global and eternal. He declares this month old baby to be the fulfilment of Israel, and a light to lighten the Gentiles – the person whose life and death will be a means of revelation, illumination and warning to all the non Jewish peoples of the earth. This child would unleash shalom, true peace, and no one would be able to stop it. It would burst out of the confines of Israel and transform the world.
This requires much of us. It means being the light and proclaiming Christ to everyone – the indifferent, the hostile, and the devout of other faiths. It means taking a long look at ourselves. How can Christians proclaim Christ as a light drawing all people to himself when our lives are not as well lit as they could be, and when as the church we enjoy our disagreements more than what binds us together?
When a candle shines in darkness, things are seen in a new light. When Christians say that Jesus is the light of the world it reinterprets the world as it is, and shows the world as it might be. As we proclaim Christ Light of the World, ask yourself what is being illuminated for you, and what you can illuminate with the light within you. Jean Langlais could not take light for granted. He had to recreate it in himself. Seek Christ’s light. Shine with it. And transform the world.
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.