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,

The Church we have become

9 July 2008

Monday night’s decision by the General Synod to move towards legislation enabling the ordination of women to the episcopate in the Church of England has devastated many who find this unacceptable.  Conversations  over the last 24 hours with those opposed to women bishops clearly suggests that their real dismay is not about women bishops (as they had foreseen that this was an unstoppable cause), but in not being accommodated within the Church of England by something stronger that a Code of Practice.

As ever in pastoral ministry, all one can do for people as they grapple with reality is to be there for them – walking closely as they tread the path of understanding.  Reality and the truth about a situation or about life is frequently disturbing, yet is is only when we have recognised truth, that we can really respond creatively to life as it is, rather than as we had hoped it would be.

Monday night’s vote confirmed the reality that we have become a different church.  A Church open to being challenged and shaped by our culture; a church ready to revisit our theology because of questions asked of us by the world we are called to serve; a church not prepared to enshrine division within its legislation.

Yet I am very aware of good friends and others who are hurting as they encounter the reality of the church we have become.   It is not a time for celebration by those who are encouraged by this decision, but for walking close with those who are hurting, as they discover ways of responding creatively to the reality of the church we have become.

I am among those who believe that the church has always been reshaped by is culture and that the only constants are the values of the Kingdom which the Spirit breaths through history , leading us into truth – but I still want to close to those who see it differently, for we would be less if they walk at a distance to us or we to them.

Whither the church……

21 June 2008

One of the most demanding aspects of being a church leader today is in helping the people of the parishes engage with the way in which the church is evolving.  This isn’t about the headline issues of women and sex, but the reality that year-by-year there are fewer vicars in the church.  In addition, there is also the challenging factor that a significant proportion of those who are currently vicars, are aged over 50.  This means that there are going to be some further challenges ahead when these people come up to retirement in 10 or 15 years time.

The problem is that we have developed a model for being the church which is associated with the figure of ‘The Vicar’.  So the generous and effective ministry of non-stipendiary priests and others offering ministry This CartoonChurch.com cartoon originally appeared in the Church Times and is taken from ‘The Dave Walker Guide to the Church’, published by Canterbury Press.whilst still having jobs etc. is too often understood in terms of ‘filling gaps’ where we don’t have vicars, rather than being an authentic expression of the church’s ministry.

Much of our conversation as a church has been about individual vocation.  In our diocese we have invested a significant amount into individual vocation, thus developing non-stipendiary ministry, licensed lay ministers (Readers) and lay people to undertake a aspects of pastoral ministry within the parish.  This has been very fruitful and productive, but it continues to concentrate on the individual rather than developing the Christian community in its life together.

We have actually invested relatively little into discovering the vocation of the church in its local context.  Yet I think that the most important question facing the church is  what does God need from his church in our society and culture?     So, an enormous amount of time and energy is put into continuing the existing model, without addressing this fundamental question about the vocation of the church.  Indeed, I find that people can become quite grumpy when having to address the implications of there being fewer stipendiary priests (vicars) in the church – some even see it as a kind of Episcopal plot to “take away our vicar”.

If people are not feeling called to the full-time stipendiary ministry, then I believe that we have to respond to that reality – which is perhaps a God-given reality.  There are still a good number of people offering themselves for the full-time ministry, but at a rate which does not match the resignations and retirements.  So there will be fewer vicars to be shared out across the deaneries and benefice of the Church of England.

The mission and ministry of the church is, however, just as vital today as when we were blessed by an ability to have a priest in nearly every parish.  If the local church is to adjust to a new context for its mission and ministry, then we need to rediscover the vocation for the church with in its community.  I suspect that we will do this best if we engage with the realities of change, rather than I trying to avoid them.

If we invest in discovering our vocation as the people of God, then the patterns for our mission, ministry and worship won’t be better or worse than the past – but just authentic to our calling to be that people of God, serving the communities in which we are set. Being authentic is probably to be prized most about our ministry.

The CartoonChurch.com cartoon originally appeared in the Church Times and is taken from ‘The Dave Walker Guide to the Church’, published by Canterbury Press.

Everything must change

13 June 2008

I have just been reading a really challenging book by Brian McLaren called ‘Everything must Change’. In the book McLaren looks at the values which are around in contemporary life and sets them against the life of Jesus. He argues that the core message of the gospel actually addresses the economic, political, environmental and social problems of our age, but for it to speak into our age, the church has to move away from talking about the externals of faith and concentrate on what Jesus was actually trying to say.

In many ways he is stating the obvious, but I have sat through so many sermons (and preached a few of them myself I fear!) which are brilliant about the finer points of doctrine, or biblical criticism, or church life, but which don’t actually address the gospel themes of justice, peace, forgiveness or hope. Too often we assume these things are known and understood, forgetting that we are in a culture which doesn’t really understand that this is the stuff we are about. What McLaren reminded me was that this lack of understanding is to be found amongst those who are part of the church, as well as amongst those yet to include themselves in our number.

If you really want to be challenged about the Christian faith – what it means and how we have allowed the practice of faith to divert us from the core message of Jesus, then this is the book for you.