Fruitful Growth

10 December 2010

I have recently been involved in a number of conversations with congregations deeply concerned with how to ‘grow’ their church.  It sometimes feels as though they are looking for ‘the’ answer to this concern, or a formula for them to follow.   Such conversations have encouraged me to recover a paper which I wrote following my last sabbatical, where I looked at what we really mean by Church Growth and the foundations which are needed for real growth in the life of the Church.

You can find the paper on this site – “and he cursed that tree…”

Developing a collaborative model for beginning public ministry

23 September 2010

We are exploring new patterns  for formation and training in the first four years of public ministry for the stipendiary ordained.  The paper supporting the two pilot schemes can be found on the pages of this Blog at

Let’s party!

4 July 2010

Article for the July edition of Crosslincs

I often feel that it’s not what you say that matters, but how people hear you.  It is something which I see played out again and again in the media as politicians, religious people, and experts comment on vital matters of our age.  Some have the knack of exciting and interesting us, while others just can’t do it and leave us none the wiser – swamped in a flood of words.  Yet the views, understanding and votes of many are based on such brief encounters.

As a church we put an enormous amount of time and effort into deciding what we want to say, but I wonder how often we stop and consider how we are heard?  I suspect that many hear us as being serious people in a state of anxiety about the world and constantly preoccupied with internal problems which are of no interest or consequence for those who are outside the conversation.  There is of course some truth in what they hear.  We are serious about being the people of God; the world is far from being ‘right’ and we have theological and financial issues which need addressing – yet is that all we have to say? Is that all that people need to hear?

It is no easier when we turn to the words of Scripture – we hear these precious words in so many different ways and respond to what we hear.  A good example of this is Luke 15.  It is a wonderful chapter containing three of Jesus’ parables about being lost – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.  We can hear these familiar stories of something precious first being lost and then being found, as stories of God’s response to those who have sinned.  We can also hear these stories as an encouragement to evangelise those who have got life wrong and to assure them that they are precious to God.  Yet is that all that we need to hear from these familiar stories of being lost and being found?

I often use the stories in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis as something of a key to understanding what’s happening in the rest of the Bible.  In Genesis Chapter 3 we have a story of people becoming lost.  Adam and Eve choose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and become lost to the blessings of paradise. Because of their choice, God has to search for them and calls out “Where are you?”

The story of God then seems to reveal a divine restlessness to recover us from our ‘lostness’.  That becomes God’s passion and purpose – to restore us to the real blessings which come with the gift of life.  So Jesus’ three parables are about so much more than finding something precious that was lost. They are about hearing the reaction of the one who has been searching and has found what they were looking for – “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep” verse 6, and again “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin” verse 9, and then more explicitly in verse 32 “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found”.

These familiar stories enable us to hear something of the party that is going on in heaven when God recovers what is lost. They let us hear God in party mode, celebrating with us whenever we have grasped the gift of free will and used it to make choices that are infused with the quality of love and thus moving us closer and closer to those blessings of life which God intends.  When we are found, recovered by the God who is restless to find us – then it’s time to party.

I wonder how often we radiate that sense of celebration in what we say and do as God’s people.  When we follow Paul’s calling to the Colossians to”seek the things which are above”, are we looking for a party, and does it sound as if we are having a good time?  If there is a party going on in heaven, then that’s what needs to resonate from the life of our church.  If we are caught up with a God who rejoices, then are we living that out in our worship, witness and ministry?  Are we inviting the community in which we are set to a party? We may think we’ve told them, but what have they heard?

Fr Edward Core – RIP

11 January 2010

The sermon I preached at the Requiem Mass for Fr Edward Core

9th January 2010 at St Lawrence Frodingham

John 6: 35-40

When Edward asked me to preside and preach at his requiem, I had not really thought about the rich diversity of people who would be gathered to this service. Yet as I thought about this sermon over the past couple of days I realised that this congregation would gather together the rich diversity of Edward’s life and ministry – the family who loved him deeply, the friends who treasured him, colleagues and congregation who shared his ministry, those who had received his ministry and those who had just got to know Edward in the everyday of life.  I also realised that, because of the way Edward related to people, there would be gathered in this church to share in the bitter sweetness of sadness and celebration, both those who hold Edward’s faith, as well as those for whom faith has not been part of their life story. But Edward had said to me “give them the Gospel” and that is what I intend to do.

We are indebted to William Mounsey for the moving tribute to Edward which he has just offered us and for capturing the essence of the friend whom we celebrate today. In his tribute, William left us with a precious thought developed from the words of TS Eliot – “Edward, you have made a new beginning”.

It is a bold claim, yet it is a deeply Christian claim which takes us right to the heart of our faith and to the heart of what Edward was all about as a priest. It takes us to the heart of why Edward was such a good and effective priest in the church of God – for he was about ‘new beginnings’ and ‘new beginnings’ are the stuff of relationships. As the numbers gathered in this church today witnessed so eloquently, Edward was good at relationships and bringing quality to relationships is a very Godly activity.

Fr Edward Core

But the thing about good, healthy relationships is that they shape the future. Building and sustaining relationships asks us to reach out into the unknown and the unknowable with others to bring shape and texture into the way in which we create and craft the future. An essential feature to relationships therefore has to be faith — a belief in the other, a two-way process of engagement which lays claim to the future.

One of the things which we discover through the wisdom of the Bible is that good relationships are more concerned with what we are going to do, than with what we have done. We discover that good relationships are more concerned with who we are becoming, than with who we have been. Through Scripture we understand that good relationships celebrate our potential and cherish our love – they lay claim to the future for, each and every time we form a new relationship, or renew an existing one, it is a new beginning.

I find that we make the Christian faith very complicated by wrapping it in formulas and practice, yet in truth the Christian faith is very simple – it is about a God who wants to make and sustain relationships with us – with you and me. It is about a God who wants his relationship with us to shape the future. We heard about it in the Gospel reading from St John which Edward chose for this service, as we hear Jesus say “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away”.  As a priest Edward lived this out, he was an agent of a God who will never drive us away because he believes in us and in our potential to be fully human. A God who, in the midst of all our frailty and vulnerability, has faith in us – because faith is the stuff of good relationships.

In this sense, faith really isn’t about religion – it is about being human. It is about our ability to reach outside of ourselves to discover value in other people. And when we use this ‘faithful ability’ to reach outside of the limitations of our experience and of our imagination, then we can find value in a relationship with God — the God we know in Jesus Christ. The God who, in Jesus Christ, reaches out to each of us offering new beginnings and a claim on the future, for, as we believe Edward is discovering, our relationship with God lays claim on the future and that’s what we call resurrection. To lay claim to the future, that’s Easter. Again we heard in today’s Gospel passage Jesus saying, “all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up upon the last day.”

Today we celebrate a dear friend, a faithful priest, a fellow pilgrim in life who, amidst all the complexity of life and amidst all the complexity of being human, reached out to build a relationship with God in Jesus Christ and so claimed the future.

We celebrate that future as we share in the simple things of bread and wine – a sign of the presence of God in Jesus Christ and foretaste of the banquet of heaven. The Christ who invites us into a relationship and invites us to claim our future – this is the stuff of faith, of Edward’s faith.

Amidst all the sadness which we have in losing our friend Edward, we come together with a confidence that God “will wipe away every tear from our eyes” because our friend Edward had reached out to build a relationship with God and in so doing had claimed the future – resurrection.

Ordinands – quality not quantity

6 July 2009

The ordination at St James Grimsby yesterday morning was full of excitement, anticipation and celebration.  The four new deacons ordained in the north of the Diocese of Lincoln yesterday bring to the church a depth of gifts and competencies which bode well for the future.

Frequently I find that conversations with congregations seem to suggest that the quantity of those coming into and available for stipendiary ministry is the important issue.  I think, however, that it is the quality of those coming forward which will resource the church most effectively in God’s mission and ministry.

As the cost of employing priests increasingly depends on the generosity of congregations, we need to ensure that those in stipendiary ministry bring a quality and competancy  which supports such generosity.  At the same time, the church needs to ensure that it is using all vocations to ministry in such a way as to honour the gifts and talents of those call by God not only into the ordained ministry but also into Reader and other lay ministeries.  Justin Lewis-Anthony recent book – “If you meet George Herbert on the road, Kill Him” challenges the Church of England to rethink how we unfold the practice of priestly ministry.  As the resource of stipendiary ministry reduces, it is time for us to understand how best to use the gifts and talents of those who respond to the call of God.

Just repeating pattens of ministry from the past by stretching the resourse of the stipendiary ordained ever further is a questionabe strategy for mission and ministry.  Lewis-Anthony asks pertinent questions and it is down to us  in the local church, in deaneries and in parishes to respond creatively – if we are to use the gifts and talents of those ordained yeasterday effectively in the cause of the Gospel.

Grimsby Ordination

Fewer Suffragan Bishops?

7 June 2009

Writing in the Church Times in May, Bishop John Bickersteth raises the question of the number of Suffragan Bishops in a Church with few clergy.  He argues that their function could be carried out by archdeacons and cost saving achieved.  His approach is based on the ASB service for consecrating Bishops which puts the emphasis on the main responsibility of a Bishop being the care of the clergy.

I scribbled the following reply to the Church Times:

“The Rt Revd John Bickersteth raises an interesting issue when he asks “Why not cut some Bishops”?  Yet his argument focuses on cost and function, rather than leadership and mission.

In the introduction to the Ordination of Bishops we are reminded that “Bishops are ordained to be shepherds of Christ’s flock and guardians of the faith of the apostles, proclaiming the gospel of God’s kingdom and leading his people in mission.”

A reduction in the number of suffragan bishops would inevitably result in the remaining bishops becoming increasingly inaccessible both to the Church and also to the wider community.  In an age of connectivity, networks and subsiduarity we need to ask how encouraging such rarity would assist in leading people in mission.

The fundamental question raised by Bishop John Bickersteth, but not addressed, concerns the nature of leadership needed for a Church committed to mission in the twenty-first century.  Resolving this question applies as much to incumbents, as it does to bishops   Models of oversight and leadership from the past may not always be helpful in determining what is right for the present.  Yet the relationship between leadership and mission is well established.

Quoting clergy numbers and ratios of bishops to clergy is to ignore the changing nature of the church.  In my area we have over 350 laity who have undergone training to equip them to unfold various aspects of ministry and to become part of the public face of the church’s ministry.  Relating to them, maintaining a mission mindset and ensuring that their gifts of ministry are well used, requires a different approach both from their priests and also from their bishops.

In the same way, parish priests are taking on significant complexity as their ‘cure’ encompasses increasingly diverse communities.   Supporting, encouraging and pastoring the clergy requires a far more informed understanding and involvement than may have been needed in the past.

Cost and function are pertinent, but the nature of leadership and appropriate shapes for that leadership are perhaps prior questions.”

Incumbents and Extended Oversight

7 June 2009

With more and more Vicars/Rectors being asked to take on more parishes or even another multi-parish benefice into their ‘cure of souls’, I have written a paper about how the model for being an incumbent needs to be revisited.  It is a discussion paper to stimulate thinking and it can be found on this site at:  Incumbents and Extended Oversight

Exaggerated Certainity

22 November 2008

I keep bumping into people who want to off-load their certainties on to me. Although it seems a habit of religious people, it is there in many facets of life. It is the expectation that you will join others in understanding and interpreting the world from inside of their stereotypes. Religious people root their certainties in their understanding of God and then use that understanding to justify why they can be certain about so many aspects of faith, order and morality. In the face of such certainty it often feels that to have a faith, but to disagree or question such certainties is to be cast as ‘wishy-washy’, liberal or lacking in faith.

Yet can the possibilities of God be packaged in such constructs? Can the God who inhabits all the complexity of humanity and the outrageous imaginative dynamics of cosmology be contained within a certainty constrained by the limitations of human experience and understanding?

During the Lambeth Conference I was able to come close to a number of Bishops who professed certainties. One of the benefits of spending an extended amount of time with them was to discover that their certainties were not nearly as clear-cut as they initially appeared. Belief is held within context and is cradled by many factors – some personal, others cultural or political, whilst others are the pragmatics of belonging to a particular grouping within the church. As I came to understand their certainties I realised that there were exaggerated by the factors of personality, affinity, culture, mission, context and history.

Exaggerated certainty can become a public expression of faith, which suggests that such certainties are far more robust than they really are. Yet upon such exaggerated certainties so much conflict and division have been founded. Today I came across a memorial near Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire erected to the p1000651memory of protestants who had been burnt to death in the sixteenth century (and for two of them their children were compelled to light the faggots). They had been executed for wanting religious liberty and the right to read the scriptures. They had become victims of exaggerated certainty, with politics and power providing the exaggeration which enabled such actions in the name of God.

Whilst we can be certain of the love of God, certain of the forgiveness which flows from that love and also certain that the God we meet in Jesus is outraged about injustice. We have to be wary of the kind of certainty which is used to justify division and conflict in the name of a God who blesses the peacemakers – certainty of this kind may well be an exaggeration which takes us away from the God who invites us to have faith enough to explore the possibilities of his love.

Why I don’t believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic lobster!

26 October 2008

One of the best things about being part of a church like the Church of England is that we are an organisation with a long history, through which many norms and structures of organisation have developed.  One of the worst things about being part of a church like the Church of England is that we are an organisation with a long history, through which many norms and structures of organisation have developed!

It is inevitable that when people come together they need structures of organisation to be able to relate both internally and externally.   In addition there is much regulation relating to employment, the use of trust funds and a plethora of other legislation relating to organisations operating in a liberal democracy.

The norms and structures of the church, coupled with the requirements of legislation, become the structures which support and enable our mission and ministry.  They are like a skeleton which enables the body of Christ to function, to move and to have a shape.  Yet skeletons come in two distinct types – exoskeletons (like lobsters) which are obvious and protective and endoskeletons (like you and I have) which remain hidden, thus enabling relationships to be developed with the substance and not with the structures.

As I live within our church and consider how we relate to our communities, it seems to me that we have developed an exoskeleton.  So much of our time is invested in sustaining the structures, the norms and the legislative requirements.  People in parishes give hours and hours of their time to servicing the institution of the church and, at times, become passionate about defending it.  We expend much of our ‘church related’ energy to raising money to service the institution.  When people contact the church about ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’  they frequently encounter the rules and regulations attached to these ministries and sometimes they are put off exploring further into our faith by this shell of institution.

Yet we are called to be witnesses to a kingdom which is about the fruits of knowing God through his spirit of love, forgiveness and life.  These are things which cannot of their nature be institutionalised.  Indeed you can read the gospels as a radical attack on the type of institutionalise religion which lives within an exoskeleton and so becomes exclusive.

Our structures only make sense when they give us the shape and strength to be the Easter people of our vocation.  Such a people have to live with the vulnerability of love offered to the world.  The more we protect ourselves with the armour of institution, then the further we move away from reflecting the crucified Christ.

So we have a problem – we cannot avoid having our structures and we cannot avoid having to put time and energy to meeting the legislative requirements of a modern democracy.  But what we can do is to keep reminding ourselves that we are not a lobster – our purpose is to be exposed to the world and to offer ourselves as agents of a God who reacted so  powerfully against the institutionalised religion which frustrated his mission.  We can aviod developing new structures which perpetuate the notion of institution before mission.  We can also look at how we shape and develop our structures to ensure that we are making the best gospel use of the time and energy which people give to the church.

Sometimes just naming a problem is all that we need to do to work against it.     So I am adding a line to the creed – “I do not believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic lobster” and, as an agent of the institution, I really need reminding of this daily,

If resolution 1.10 is important, what about resolution 19?

9 August 2008

The more I read the final Lambeth Document, “Capturing Conversations and Reflections”, the more I rejoice that we did not go down the road of resolutions and votes. To have a ‘snapshot’ of the engagement between the Bishops is probably of far more worth, than adding to the fossilised remains of earlier conferences, which leave skeletal resolutions disconnected from the tissue of conversation lying behind them as some sort of guide to the heart and mind of the church.

Much has been made of Resolution 1.10 from the 1998 Conference, as though this is an enduring and unerring piece of truth. It has become almost a test for orthodoxy.  But if this resolution has such enduring status, then all resolutions of the Lambeth Conference must be given the same status. So what about Resolution 67 from 1908?  Very importantly it states

We desire earnestly to warn members of our Communion against contracting marriages with Roman Catholics under the conditions imposed by modern Roman canon law, especially as these conditions involve the performance of the marriage ceremony without any prayer or invocation of the divine blessing, and also a promise to have their children brought up in a religious system which they cannot themselves accept.”

I am also concerned that there is not enough campaigning with regard to Resolution 6.f from 1888:

“That the most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which, on this day, is the right of servants as well as their masters, and of the working classes as well as their employers.”

and what has been done about Resolution 36 from 1908?

“The Conference, having regard to the uncertainty which exists as to the permanence of the practice commended by St. James (5.14), and having regard to the history of the practice which professes to be based upon that commendation, does not recommend the sanctioning of the anointing of the sick as a rite of the Church.
It does not, however, advise the prohibition of all anointing, if anointing be earnestly desired by the sick person. In all such cases the parish priest should seek the counsel of the bishop of the diocese. Care must be taken that no return be made to the later custom of anointing as a preparation for death.”

But most urgently of all, how do we reconcile Resolution 19 from 1897 with 1.10 from 1998?

“That it is important that, so far as possible, the Church should be adapted to local circumstances, and the people brought to feel in all ways that no burdens in the way of foreign customs are laid upon them, and nothing is required of them but what is of the essence of the faith, and belongs to the due order of the Catholic Church.”

As I heard the conversations between Bishops from very different context explaining how issues in sexuality affected their mission within their context, social norms and cultural inheritance – Resolution 19 sounded very modern. It addresses the crux of these matters – what is the essence of faith and of order?   The conversations of which I was part were really about ‘foreign customs’ being forced upon radically different parts of the Communion – and some of those radically different parts were contained within the same province!

So I am starting a campaign for Resolution 19 and it will become my ‘litmus test’ for orthodoxy.