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.
December 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
Even the academic discipline of dictionary making is keen to shake off its dry and dusty image, and to promote itself in a world dominated by social media and instant communication. Every year now there’s a flurry of news stories about new words which have made it into some new publication, as if those words have been given official approval.
This year the words included ‘phablet’, ‘twerking’, ‘bitcoin’, ‘omnishambles’ and ‘cake pop’. But the word which the Oxford Online Dictionary nominated as its word of 2013 was ‘selfie’: defined as
a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.
Even the coverage of the funeral of Nelson Mandela was dominated by a selfie, as the Danish Prime Minister posed with David Cameron and Barak Obama. The selfie says: ‘Look at me. Look what I’m doing. Look who I’m with’. They are fun.
I bet there will be a lot of selfies this Christmas. If you follow me on Twitter, or are friends with on Facebook, you’ll know that I post very few selfies, but it’s not that I’m against them. In fact I won’t be doing much social media at all in the next few days: another phrase of 2013 is ‘digital detox’ – where you go without tweeting or instagramming for a while – and that’s what I’ll be doing. But the fashion for selfies has made me wonder.
I was wondering if the birth of Jesus is a bit like God’s selfie – God saying ‘here I am’ – and then thinking that, if it is, it’s not very effective. Not many people found out about the birth of Jesus: his parents, obviously, and then just a few shepherds – though they were the kind of people you’d block on Twitter or unfriend on Facebook. Some slightly weird followers of an odd sect eventually arrived, brought presents, and they went as quickly as they came. Not much else seemed to happen, and after Jesus’s birth it all went quiet for 30 years or so. In a rapidly moving world one week of silence is disaster. 30 years is a catastrophe.
But… what we celebrate tonight is indeed God saying ‘Look at me. Look what I’m doing. Look who I’m with’. God says ‘I’m with you. I’m here, and now. If you look at Jesus, if you listen to Jesus, if you befriend Jesus, you’ll find out all you need to know about me. Do you want to know what I’m like? Look. Jesus will show you.’
Selfies come and go, especially the embarrassing ones. What convinces me about Jesus is that he embraces absolutely every aspect of human life. Those of you who have had small children will know of their immense fragility and dependence. In the last two weeks I have spent time with a family who know to their lasting cost how just one little chromosome will make all the difference to a developing child. God, in Christ, embraces every aspect of human life, down to each individual piece of genetic code.
In Jesus God says ‘look at me’. And, in Jesus, God says ‘look at yourself’. There is nothing about us that God does not enfold and embrace. Jesus doesn’t explode into life six feet off the ground in a cloud of dry ice, like a Strictly show dance or an X factor finale. Jesus struggles like the rest of us, his parents graft like we do, he lives in a complex land full of danger and politics and violence, just like today. When he grows up it takes time for people to really ‘get’ him – he needs to be listened to, he’s not always comfortable, he says difficult things.
This is God living our life. That’s what we celebrate tonight. Jesus, God with us, God for us, is way more than a selfie. It’s not about him. If there’s such a thing as a ‘givvie’ that’s what he us. Tonight God says: ‘in Christ I was once so fragile I could break. I lived your life, and died your death. That’s how I can offer you forgiveness, healing, hope, new life. If you want to find yourself, accept this gift. And I won’t just be standing next to you. I will be in you. For ever’.
In this holy night, Glory to God in the highest, for God’s indescribable gift. Himself. Amen.
November 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
Good morning all. We have, of course, discussed all sorts of things so far – intentional evangelism, church buildings, church schools, poverty. how we do our business better, and so on. But this is the debate people will be looking at.
I’m cheered by a few things – the irrelevant one being that Hull got the ‘City of Culture 2017’ nod this morning. If Hull can be a City of Culture, then all sorts can happen. Specifically, it looks like the stuff being offered to us today can ‘fly’ – a ‘single clause’ measure – women and men can be bishops – and a good set of provisions ‘for the whole church’, as the Bishop of Rochester told us on Monday. Our work in groups yesterday bore this out. It looks like many those who cannot conscientiously vote for this legislation will be able to abstain with honour.
You can follow the debate online – check out the C of E website, and on Twitter, so look at @CofEGenSyn.
We’re off. Most people want to speak in favour (woo hoo!), and we’ve been urged not to be repetitious. And there are no amendments proposed…even better news.
The Bishop of Rochester outlines the matter – much of what we will talk about will be about process, and he invites us to think of the ‘ombudsman’ as a model, but not to use that language. We will talk of an ‘independent reviewer’ who will be used to settle disputes between parishes and dioceses and their Bishops. He mentions one of the substantive issues: the oath of canonical obedience made by clergy and others to the diocesan bishop, and he says that the questions have been heard.
Richard Mantle speaks first – a maiden speech. He’s a Lay Guardian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, and is a ‘catholic anglican. He intends to support the proposals (I wasn’t expecting that!) – whilst being wary of any document which promises ‘peace in our time. He speaks of the essential nature of trust, and a commitment for traditionalists to thrive. Women who are bishops must hold their office with the same jurisdication as men, and so must those male bishops who don’t ordain women. There must be commitments that such men will hold office in the House of Bishops. I’m really cheered by that – a traditionalist saying ‘we can do this’ (my words).
Simon Killwick, Chair of the Catholic Group, says how much better these proposals are – more preferable than a Code of Practice and individual diocesan arrangements. He likes the Independent Reviewer. ‘Significant improvements’, based on the clearly laid out principles which guide the process. ‘For us trust will be greatly helped if arrangements can be published for the future consecration of traditionalist bishops’. Again – a positive feel.
Rod Thomas, a conservative evangelical and leader of Reform now. He again speaks of some encouragements, but as a member of the Steering Committee he still has some problems. He’s worried about jurisdiction – it still bothers him that a delegated bishop for his constituency might be delegated by a woman (the ‘male headship’ problem), and some clarification about spiritual and temporal authority would be welcome. He will vote in favour today, even if he won’t vote in favour at final approval. He confidently expects it to go through. Warm applause.
These three speeches are a massively big deal. Three people who would be figurehead opponents who have all spoken positively. The world outside should be cheering like stink.
Christina Rees (WATCH) also positive, and pays tribute to the process. David Houlding (a traditionalist) is massively enthusiastic. We are all provided for. The ecumenical avenues are left open with the wider part of catholic christendom – part of our polity will be recognisable to the great catholic and orthodox communions, and the sacraments are preserved. ‘The battle is over. Let’s get on with the mission’. Massive applause.
Anne Martin is positive, but is worried that our consensus might be fragile. Let’s strengthen it. Bishop of Southwark: ‘if Christina Rees and David Houlding are happy, then I am happy’. In a lovely slip of the tongue he talks about ‘concentrated bishops’ rather than consecrated ones. His diocese is ‘happily fractious’ and emphasises the essence of trust. ‘Bishops will have to demonstrate that they are totally committed to this way of doing business’. In using the five principles the House of Bishops has already made its position clear.
Amanda Fairclough from Liverpool would have preferred an even simpler Measure. but urges us not to tinker. This is fine – let’s do it. Now David Banting – a conservative evangelical, who will vote no, as he will vote no at final approval. He is confident that this measure will allow his integrity to flourish, and our new ways of working will mean this position is honoured. He had dreamed a dream of a new way of bishops being bishops. He thanks God for a new atmosphere, but stands where he stands, and feels, charitably that this is ‘inappropriate’. He worries that there will never be a ‘conservative evangelical’ bishop. He will seek to work within the church whatever the outcome will be, and hopes that a proposal to have suffragan sees shared by a number of dioceses will go forward.
Another speaker says that we should all be bound by what we do, and not chip away at it later. Paul Benfield, who abstained in the Steering Committee vote, says that he might have voted no, but did not. This package can work, and he urges us to continue with it. He will now vote for.
Anne Foreman committed herself to worship with different traditions, and found welcome and challenge in all. It convinced her that we can move forward together. Charles Read is nervous about ‘ring fencing’ a place in the College of Bishops just for someone of a conservative evangelical position (and he comes from an evangelical background). We don’t appoint bishops on the basis of one position alone. And such a bishop could change his mind!
Susie Leafe (conservative evangelical, and works for Reform) cannot support this, and cannot accept a woman as chief pastor. Even acceptable provision of another bishop would be directed by a woman. This will alienate many churches which are growing and are sending many young men into the ministry. Jurisdiction remains a problem – it’s all about who is the ‘ordinary’ – the lead authority – for parishes who cannot accept a woman’s leadership. This question has not been on the table, and should be. She was on the Steering Committee, and didn’t vote against, and cannot support it. She didn’t say whether she would vote against now. (JF comment: most people would vote against if this provision of different ‘ordinaries’ was offered!!)
Rachel Treweek, Archdeacon of Hackney, is strongly in favour, and is reluctant to turn up the volume on one particular aspect. But…further converstaions about the role of PCCs and Bishops and their facilitatd conversations on this issue. Keep the principles of transparency and reciprocity at the forefront of these conversations on the ground. Make sure that the whole worshipping community knows, not just the PCC – some kind of public notification would be good. And PCCs would be helped by some simple and non partisan informative material, perhaps on the C of E website. Vote Yes!!
Christine Hardman, Prolocutor of Canterbury, didn’t think the process would work. It has. It was not comfortable, but there was ‘sincere, courageous and dangerous engagement’, and this will need to continue through the church. ‘Isn’t God good?’
JF: It almost feels like we should vote now, unless there are some substantive points on the process.
Jamie Harrison (also on the Steering Committee) talks about the Independent Reviewer, reflecting his medical experience. He guards agains the process being a fully legal one – it can be too time consuming and too expensive. Trust the ‘joined up’ process. ‘Trust me, I know it’s going to work, I’m a Doctor’.
Elaine Storkey talks about law and grace, and her experience of the World Council of Churches discussions last month on gender and leadership. The underlying theology is of men and women together in Christ. She values the grace which has been heard so far this morning. We can ‘walk together’.
Tim Hind invites the House of Bishops to be proactive with the Independent Reviewer, rather than waiting for a conflict to arise. Hannah Cleugh, Chaplain of Castle (Univ College Durham – huzzah), welcomes the package, which works together. It ‘holds together in tension’, in the best anglican tradition.
The Archbishop of York says that that he and ++Justin agree that there should be a conservative evangelical representation in the House of Bishops. This is difficult to quantify – as con evos disagree on headship (my words not his!). He will get him and Justin also to declare their hand on the nature of consecrations, and will work further on the nature of the Independent Reviewer. He commends a person of the stature of a very senior judge.
Deborah McIsaac guards against the Independent Reviewer being an advisor – they are a safeguard and a backstop.
Gavin Collins stresses that we can’t pick and choose our bishops. All parishes will need to work together their Dicoesan bishop, and model mutual relationship.
The debate is now helpfully on how the process will work, how it relates to the Equalities Act and how the Independent Reviewer will act. This healthy, and shows that the substantive point is won. I think.
Rosie Harper looks at this from the outside in, and the sheer wierdness of a group arguing about discrimination in the C21st. ‘We need to stop being wierd’. Stop describing ourselves by what we don’t do.
Moving speech by Mary Nagel (Forward in Faith), whose daughter declared a vocation to the ordained ministry. They are walking together, and we can too. Wow.
We are going to vote soon – a good news story for the 1.00 News.
The Bishop of Rochester warns against complacency, and says his champagne is on the journey from rack to fridge. We will go forward when we ‘outdo one another in showing honour’.
The vote was
Jolly dee. That is really quite remarkable.
October 28, 2013 § 6 Comments
Watching, or indeed having anything to do with, Premiership Football. Three years ago. The money is just obscene. How can we fuss about the ethics of banking when a bog standard striker is on £10m per annum? You get a whole C of E diocese for that. I won’t join in any more.
The Grand National. Ditto – but twenty years ago, after various horses died. In fact I just don’t get horse racing generally, and dislike the aftermath of race meetings (in York and Beverley). It’s just not pleasant.
Reading The Times. Just because it’s Murdoch. I’ve never had Sky, for the same reason. But, I confess, we do get The Sunday Times, because I’m weak and I like Style and Culture.
Watching Downton Abbey. The story, and depiction, of Anna’s rape was just plain wrong. Sorry. No more.
Anything to do with the Horror genre. That’s been a long standing thing. Just don’t like it.
Anything like farce, or the comedy of embarrassment. Just makes me feel uncomfortable.
When Typesetting: Using Comic Sans, centering hymns, using exclamation marks, justifying text, using Times Roman, using Publisher. Just because.
Reading the Daily Telegraph. I used to joke that I read the DT because at least I knew I disagreed with it. But then Damian Thomson wrote something abusive about the C of E, effectively damning every one of its clergy, and I thought ‘I don’t have to pay for the privilege of being abused like this’. I did get a very nice letter from the Letters Editor, Christopher Howse, though, and I miss his bits, including the obituaries.
Wearing any clerical shirt colour other than black. This is a complete turnaround: I vowed before ordination that I would never wear black. Just goes to show.
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…