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…”

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.”

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,