Where Do We Go From Here? Being Church of England in a changing world


Talk given to the On Fire Mission Conference 2017 @onfiremission #OFM2017

Are you ready? To the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers! Let’s sing it together:

Like mighty tortoise

Moves the Church of God;

Sisters we are treading

Where we’ve always trod.

There’s more than a grain of truth to the parody. Here we are, thinking about how the church can be renewed in its ministry and mission to a changing world – and it’s 34 years since John Tiller published his Strategy for the Church’s Ministry, 10 years since Pete Pillinger and Andrew Roberts introduced the idea of a Changing Church for a Changing World to English Methodism, and 8 since after a clutch of Anglican authors including On Fire favourite Paul Bayes wrote on the Mission-Shaped Parish: Traditional Church in a Changing World. Four of those authors are now bishops, so that’s alright then, but it does say something about the mainstreaming nearly two generations on of ideas that in Tiller’s time seemed a prophetic voice from the wilderness – but still the weighty machinery of the institutional church seems to struggle to catch up with the very vision that it is trying to inhabit. Not a few of you will be here precisely because you need all the help and support you get to stay On Fire in a world of soggy bottoms. And with God’s help, the fire will run, because his creating, renewing Spirit is the same yesterday, today and for ever, and will never give up on us, his beloved, the body of Christ.


So – change your spectacles. If you’ve come here today with your focus narrowed, drawn in and dragged down by the problems in front of you, if you know how unfailingly it is the single grubby mark on the pristine white wall that attracts your attention – break free: look wider, deeper, higher. Take the opportunity while you are here to seek the personal renewal that we all need, that can transform the depths of despair into deep wells of the living water. Take the opportunity, as of course you will, to talk the hind legs off friends old and new and drink the bar dry …. of orange juice … and especially to hear the stories of life from contexts far away from your own. This is the mission of the God of the whole of creation that we are mixed up with, not some plaster deity that will break under the strain.

And humour me as a historian, take the opportunity with me now to do a desperately unfashionable thing and look deeper back into history too.

To how the disciples on the Emmaus Road were sloping off from Jerusalem, in the dusk and defeated – only to encounter their living Lord and be sent back into the city on fire with hope and faith. To the early Christian communities who knew the Roman knock on the door and – if you were Ignatius at least – tried hard to see being lion fodder as sharing in the eucharistic sacrifice – and then quite suddenly found their Emperor captivated by the Cross. To the later Rome with the Goths at its gate that nevertheless saw an almost secret new channel open up through Benedict and Bede that would see the light shine even though the age grew dark. To a Christendom grown back to splendour and too much secular power that heard the gentle challenge of St Francis and learnt to renew itself both from within and from without, whether through great reforming bishops like Robert Grosseteste – who also managed to be the first modern physicist in his spare time from challenging the Pope – or through those like the Reformers who bypassed the bishops to begin again. And now after an age of mission to the ends of the earth, the ends of the earth are reflecting the fire of the faith back to us, and modern day martyrs such as those in the façade of Westminster Abbey are the candles that light our way.

This is the Church spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners, that the devils in C S Lewis’s Screwtape Letters were pleased was hidden from the faithful they sought to subvert, who saw only a half-finished, sham Gothic erection on a new building estate. This is the Church of which we are just a tiny part, yet which catches us up and includes us and calls us the heirs of eternity, the sons and daughters of God. Upgrade your spectacles, see the world as it really it is, take heart.

Lewis’s note of triumphalism is of course also deeply unfashionable these days, and needs to be sounded with caution. Over-blow the trumpet and our very assertion of the life-giving, all-conquering love of God loses the character of that love and becomes demeaning and destructive. How do we get the balance right? The answer is not far away. We’ve lived it out in our lives over these last few days. We celebrated both Good Friday and Easter Day in quick succession, and they are not to be separated.

We are as church and as individual Christians always experiencing both death and resurrection, as Paul reminds us, and we trace the rainbow through the rain, as I sang with my family at my Mirfield priest father’s funeral this Lent with my Ordinand daughter alongside me. The world is full of darkness, but the light shines like shot silk through it and nothing can separate us from the love of God, from his real, his absolutely real presence in the sacrament of communion, in the word of scripture, in the fellowship between us, in the Spirit that inspires.

So – what does a church look like that does not give in to the darkness but embraces God’s good future for it? How about these as a set for starters, and listen out for the way in which it is hard to tell which features I’ve lifted from the first century and which from the twenty-first, because in the mirror of the past we might just glimpse our future:

1. A church that is founded on the living, experienced presence of the risen Christ, who said he would be with us always, to the end of time, and that even when only two or three of us are gathered together in his name, he would be there with us in their midst – just as it was for Mary Magdalene; or on the Emmaus Road; or in the upper room; or on the way to Damascus.

2. A church that finds its power in the predicted but unpredictable presence of the Spirit, now since Pentecost wonderfully democratised, expressing the inclusive DNA of God; involving everyone.

3. A church that is no longer seen as normal in the way it once was but seems strange to many, because we ourselves are called to welcome strangers

4. A church that is being sent out, to the barriers and across the barriers, being the ones who speak up for the outsiders – because the early church went on that journey too from the insider status of Jews in Jerusalem to the multicultural melting pot of Antioch and beyond.

5. A church that tries to find words to speak to those in power when the radio station is on the phone or into the marketplace of ideas as we dialogue with scientists and secularists, seeing Paul’s footsteps before us.

6. A church that is open to a God-given vision showing us where he wants us to be and what he wants to do, our own Man from Macedonia moments.

7. A church that discovers that God still speaks to us through the Spirit today and we see afresh his story shining through history.

8. A church that finds fresh expressions springing up in unexpected place, as God calls churches of all shapes and sizes into being: all playing the same notes but not necessarily in same order..

9. A church in which even class A introverts like me can be glad that we are not alone, but like the early church be globally connected, constantly living out the fellowship of “one another”, encouraging, supporting, exchanging letters and stories, memories and visions.

10. A church that invites, and invites a choice, not forcing folks’ hands or assuming belief when it isn’t there, because that was the way Jesus set it up in the first place.

A lovely feature of a church like this for me is that it is laying aside the anxiety of the age and being willing to live a less defended life, willing above all to accept that we are in the end not in business to defend or preserve the institution but to be part of a movement, an organism more than an organisation, living, reproducing, changing, evolving; and the greatest danger which my own diocese for instance faces is that the Bishop of Ely will end up as the CEO of a very rich charity with no actual members, rather than a membership that is learning again to live in poverty. The church is meant to be more like NISA than Tesco, not so much a battleship as a flotilla of little boats, not so much evacuating us from the world as landing us into what seems to be occupied territory, ready to be the resistance, ready to work for the new kingdom that is coming.

The C of E as we know it has an increasingly corporate feel. It’s a difficult word, corporate. It ought to resonate with communion and the body of Christ, but when I was at theological college it was the code-word for compulsory. And that can be the feel of it sometimes in the wider church today. But dig a little deeper into our history again and that is not the whole story. Yes, the Henrician Reformation left little room for disagreement. Yes the Elizabethan Settlement was bolstered up with an Act of Uniformity. But before Henry quashed it, the late medieval church had woven a rich tapestry of congregations, religious houses, peculiars, private chapels, dissenters and mystics. One diocesan’s jurisdiction would be infiltrated by another’s; a monastery here would relate directly to Rome, another to a mother house conveniently far overseas; religious orders would roam the country preaching without local licence. I can hear our registrar sighing with despair. But would it be so bad to be back in that world again?

That Elizabethan Settlement, for all of its Uniformity, made a virtue of not peering into men’s souls, and as the settlement has evolved the C of E’s ethos has grown progressively more inclusive – which is partly why it is such a struggle to negotiate the new inclusivities of today: however orthodox our formation there may well be a sense in us that the Spirit is taking us into place that we never thought we would go. Both the orthodoxy and the new insights are important. It feels scarily like a time for bishops to be brave, as we try to work out what unity looks like when there is unlikely to uniformity.

The vocation of a diocese or the national church in this sort of future is not, then, to organise so much as to foster the health of the organism, living out the self-giving love that is the DNA of God and which we see in creation, in the incarnation and in the work of the Spirit alike.

I spoke a moment ago about a church that was open to visions and words from God. For good or for ill that has been something that has infiltrated my own spirituality for some time now – and when I was on retreat preparing to be bishopped, I was taken to one particular Bible passage that has remained with me ever since and which I find it hard not to speak about in season and out of season, since it came with the instruction to speak from the heart to the heart about the heart of the matter.

The passage is John 15 and in particular the image of the Vine, because in it I see such a strong model of how the church can live and grow organically, based on foundational theological values rather than the ideas of the moment, and not so much organising itself as going with the flow of God’s organism, letting the sap rise, letting the plant bear fruit.

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

If you’ve served in the Dioceses of Ely or Eds and Ips you’ll know what’s coming next. ROOTS, SHOOTS, FRUITS. Roots of love going deep in Christ. Shoots of love growing between us. Fruits of love given away to others. Love God. Love one another. Love your neighbour (and even your enemy) as yourself. This is the heart of the matter: this is how our faith is lived out and made known as the spiritual DNA of God flows into us and through us and we become like him.

So what do Roots, Shoots and Fruits look like as marks of a diocese, for instance, that is seeking to foster the health of the church in all its multiplicity and variety in its area?

We’ll start with roots, and the radical and scary challenge for any of us in diocesan leadership is that it starts with our life in Christ and it starts with us. It was a lesson I learnt very early in my parish ministry, when after a spot of spiritual hectoring on my part I was gently reminded by a parishioner that there wasn’t going to be much work of the Spirit in the church unless I let the Spirit get to work on me first. I’m still learning that lesson. It is so very easy in church leadership to miss the main thing. I saw that again in Suffolk when I was baby-sitting the diocese between bishops, with the interesting task of trying to keep the church spiritually fit while not actually taking it anywhere, if you see what I mean, the latter being the prerogative of the incoming new diocesan. I decided to set up some days of prayer across the diocese for the emerging strategy and all that was to come. Good heavens, said one person: it’s a long time since I’ve seen a bishop gather the people together for prayer. Which was bit naughty because of course we do it all the time – but in services and prayers at meetings. But I at least was mightily blessed by being gathered simply to pray.

It’s a radical thing to do – and the word-play back to the idea of roots is intentional. If we are defined as Christians by being in Christ, then gathering “just” to pray and abide in Him creates and fosters our identity, and it gently asserts a radical challenge too to a relativistic world, because we are claiming that the life and truth and goodness we find is real, and not to be found just anywhere but scandalously just here. And that fosters hope too. It is also opens up the good future of God in surprising ways. It’s a local church story rather than a diocesan one but way back in the days when I was a vicar in Banbury we faced the challenge of church planting onto a big new estate. I desperately wanted us to it ecumenically. But how? Somehow the only time all the ministers could find to meet was after all the services were finished on Sunday. So we did. And frankly we were all so tired that there was no energy to disagree, just to pray: and in due course a new ecumenical church was founded which included all the usual suspects but also the Catholics and the Brethren too, bless them.

That didn’t mean all being the same. My own sense is that there is a bit of a sea-change going on too when it comes to truth-claims. On the one hand the relativistic your truth-my truth, I’m OK you’re OK game is still going on. But the present Trumpery and the world of alternative facts are making that look threadbare. I learnt as a boy growing up on the bomb-sites of Sheffield that a half-brick is more useful than a whole brick because you can throw it more accurately. Much the same goes for half-truths. And so perhaps the tide is turning back to a wondering whether whole truths might not after all be better. And the authentic living out and speaking out of whole truths might have an attraction after all, especially if the penny drops that this whole truth is deeply loving even of those who deny it.

I have a hunch too that we are about to see the re-emergence of the religious orders, and even a sense of being a church of the poor, once the rather well provided for golden generation of which I am a part has shuffled off the stage, probably after using up all the planet’s resources, and new women and men stepped forward who are learning again to live more provisionally. But living without a pension will be scary indeed…

So mark number one for me of a diocese or the wider church as we try to work out together where to go from here is – pray.

Now shoots. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Rather obviously, the “you” in plural.
And every shoot, every branch is both beloved and called to love and to bear fruit as a result. If the starting point of our spirituality is being captivated by the amazing love and grace for us, yes us; then the second step is that we realise that God’s love and grace is as strong for our neighbour as ourselves. And how often we fall at that fence. How much damage that does. Because as I read Paul in Colossians, the very mystery of the Gospel is that we, “you plural”, are incorporated into Christ and become his body; and if we who are Christ’s body do not show his nature as we live, it may be that we do not after all have his life in us, and God’s great plan of salvation is stopped in its tracks.

Or to put it the right way round, when we do manage to love one another, all the others, without reservation, then how amazing is the grace that is there to be found by so many in this world who bear the scars of the lack of love, who have not found anywhere to belong, who are not seen as having anything worthwhile to do. The local church in this sense really is in potential the salvation of the world.

So three cheers for a diocese that starts to build a community of communities of love. That is serious about offering practical help with fostering ministries and missions and light touch on the authorisation structures for them. That is agile and responsive to opportunity so that the actual abilities and needs of the ever-changing echelons of people who make up its membership are noticed and taken into account.

That will mean too an adventure into exploring a multiplicity of ministry and church structures since it is increasingly apparent that a one-size-fits-all pattern for church isn’t working any more.

Unbundling is a word I use quite a lot for this. Unbundle the vicar. Priest, paid worker, local leader, professional: they don’t have to be all one person. And in dioceses I know, the seams are starting to be let out.

Or unbundle the benefice. If there’s one thing that will fill a bishop’s postbag with mail it’s a proposal for parochial re-organisation. Parishes that resisted being grouped together just a few years ago, fight tooth and nail to stay together now. Every place matters. I don’t want us to withdraw from one of them. But every place is not the same, and a diocese on fire especially in our more rural areas will be nurturing new collaborations and pre-legal arrangements to try and inhabit a more flexible future. It’s great to hear for instance that Kevin’s old diocese and mine up in Cumbria is seeing the whole county as one great ecumenical, missional collaboration.

And then fruits. If only living this one out was as easy as expressing it. It’s all about giving it away. Make a vow now. Become slightly allergic to the word “get”. As in “getting people to …” Try “give” instead. God desperately wants us to enter the kingdom. But he gives us freedom, and the only way he seeks to get us is to keep on giving to us. How can a diocese foster the culture that gives to its community rather than seeking to get from them? Frankly, it’s tricky. There is a real need for financial prudence when the demands of the payroll in particular are so pressing. But if this is the DNA of God, the way his Spirit works, then the more generous we are to others the more we will experience generosity ourselves.

So discerning what that might mean in our own particular context become important. In Cumbria during the Foot and Mouth crisis, it was the generosity of time and spirit towards the farming community followed up by the generosity of contributions to relief funds that left a long-term mark on relationships. In Cambridgeshire now, where I have to confess that our community outreach as a diocese had faltered, a new partnership is growing to look to the renewing of our market towns for the common good in which the diocese is taking a visible and funded lead, putting more cards as it were in the hands of our parish churches there. Of course we are looking for discipleship growth. But the giving comes first. And a careful garnering of diocesan funds has also enabled us to make significant grants available to local churches of all sorts to engage in engaging, in outreach of wonderful diversity, and seeing the fruit of that in people and projects is genuinely encouraging. Work with the deaf. Work with the homeless. Work with migrants. Work with families. Messy Church. Science Church. Bread Church. If we as a diocese can give in a way that helps our local churches give, then the sap is starting to rise and the fruits will grow.

We are though, in most dioceses and most churches, a pretty grey lot. I had a penny drop moment after reading James Lawrence on Gen Y: Leading Well Across the Generations.

I looked at the chart and then looked round the senior staff table. We were nearly all Baby Boomers. No wonder we were driven to do well, be efficient, work hard, build the team, be professional and competent. We do strategy pretty well. We know all about levers of change and measurable outcomes. We hold one another to account. And we are just a bit scared that it might be on our shift that the edifice comes crumbling down.

Well to see it is to have begun to do something about it, and while we are very properly maintaining the discipline of the strategy, we are also trying to learn to let the corners of our mouths find a smile; to realise that the generations who are following us are less concerned than we are about institutional survival, are looking for massively more communication – two-way – than we have been accustomed to, and might even be interested in having fun.

The point of the chart for me is also that as the multi-generational community we hopefully always will be, we should expect to be able to draw on and value all these perspectives and aspirations, and make them properly part of us, not just to nervously try on some clothes that might not fit. So here to close are four mottoes for the wider church, one drawn from each generation, that might be worth remembering, as above all we remember the amazing way in which the grace of God has saved us and inspires us, and sends us out on fire to a world in need.

1. Be like the Traditionalists – Be faithful Prayer is at the heart of our life.

2. Be like the Baby Boomers – Be competent but don’t get too obsessed by it 

3. Be like Gen X – Be in conversation especially with those who are not like you. AND

4. Be like Gen Y – Be ready to do a new thing. Be ready to be a new thing. Be ready to be on fire.

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