Speaking of ministerial training; what did full time training do for anyone?

How best to train and equip ordinands for ministry is without doubt a complex question. If there was one easy and straightforward way things would be so much easier! Training and formation is, however, neither easy or straightforward. In fact I would be deeply suspicious of anyone who said their experience of the pilgrimage towards the laying on of hands by the bishop in the cathedral had been struggle free. Formation without struggle is something I simply can’t imagine.

For me training, which I did full time (for 2 years), on top of that hill just outside Oxford, was both the ‘best of times’ and ‘the worst of times.’ But, I am glad that I trained full time, in a college. I wouldn’t, looking back, have had it any other way. In fact I don’t think I would have got through it any other way. I have huge respect for those who train part time (even though I suspect that they don’t do this in reality, because training for ordination is a full time pre-occupation), because i know that I couldn’t have done it.

Training full time was the ‘best of times’ in that it provided me with the opportunity to be completely absorbed in preparing for an uncertain future. I enjoyed the academic side of my training and was fortunate to study for a M.A. I also made some wonderful friends and met lots of ‘interesting people.’ In many ways full time training allowed me to find my spiritual anchor and identity. For this I will always be truly grateful. Looking back I think that full time training graced me with two significant gifts that I am not sure that I would have been able to receive so readily on another pathway. These gifts, or graces, were an appreciation and love of liturgy and an emerging sense of stability.

On the ‘Holy Hill’ our lives, and I would say education, were very much shaped through the liturgies of the church. Morning Prayer was said, in community, every day. The Eucharist was also celebrated every. I was introduced to gospel processions, acclamations and the occaisional smell of incense. Evening Prayer was chanted before supper and Compline was sung (occasionally said), every night; feast days and festivals were observed. It was a rich, and for me deeply enriching, experience. We were also given the opportunity to lead ‘creative worship’ (100 things you can do with pebbles, water, post it notes and T lights) and contemporary worship. Through our Sunday placements we were given the opportunity to experience different types of church. As I say it was a rich, and enriching, liturgical experience. Engaging with and studying liturgy is something I equate with the ‘best of times’ and there is no doubt that such a saturation in the liturgies of the church has benefited me greatly in my ongoing ministry.

In may ways just being in a full time college was the ‘worst of times.’ To arrive in a college, as a weekly border, at the age of forty-five was a bizarre and weird experience. But, there again, ministering in the church is a bizarre and weird experience! I found full time training to be a hugely intense experience; an, at times, overly intense experience. Being surrounded by a large number of people, all of whom seemed to be preoccupied with their own sense of calling and the search for God, meant that it was sometimes hard to breathe. And of course in communities characterised by intensity of feeling the potential for hurting self and others is never far away.

The paradox of full time training, for me, and with hindsight is simply this: that ‘the worst of times,’ turned out to the ‘the best of times,’ for it was through the worst of times that a sense of stability slowly started to emerge. In my first year at college it sometimes felt that my whole world was collapsing around me and the second year wasn’t much better!

At Cuddesdon I had to learn to trust; to trust the college, the system and the people around me. At college for the first time in my adult life I had no defences and no props. It was through trusting the college, the system and the people around me that something truly amazing started to happen: an increase in trust in God.

Stability isn’t, however, reduciable to grim trust; the ability to hang on in there by our very finger nails. I think that stability’s real concern is the development of the ability to be ourselves, and to let others be themselves, within the norms and constraints of communal life. Stability is a commitment to people, practice and place. And, isn’t this what ministry is about at heart: commitment to people, practice and place? Again, with hindsight, I now believe that all true formation must include growth in trust and growth in (personal) stability.

At Cuddesdon I met, studied with and prayed alongside people who I naturally liked, respected and clicked with, but there were also others who I didn’t naturally like and whose company I found difficult. Cuddesdon, it appears, in this sense, was no different to most other Christian communities! For sure it was possibly more intense, full on, and full time but that’s all.

Rowan Williams has recently written that ‘life together is the solid foundation for growth into intimacy with God, into what people call the mystical,’ and that ‘unless you have got yourself accustomed to the toolbox of daily attention to the awkward reality of human others, the search for deeper intimacy with God will lead to destructive illusion.’

If ++Rowan is correct, and I think he is, full time residential training is one way that growth in stability, which must surely be the bedrock of all true formation (thus speaks a Benedictine oblate!), may be nurtured and developed.

I am not ideologically committed to the notion of full time residential training, for there are clearly a large number of wonderful clergy who have trained part time and on courses, but I do have two worries: to what extent is part time training able to foster a love for and appreciation of the liturgies of the church, and is so much of training now focused on mission and evangelism, techniques and strategy, that growth in the virtues and graces that must necessarily underpin all ministry, such as stability, are necessarily crowded out? Put another way: is there a danger that too much emphasis is nowadays placed on training (perhaps even on the job training) at the expense of formation?

Speaking of Renewal and Reform; money, numbers, and growth

Just to be clear and upfront: I am a big fan of Renewal and Reform.

Fanship is an interesting concept for it implies loyalty and support, in good times and in bad. Fans are supporters, friends and members of whatever it is (normally a sports team), but also critics and lobbyists. Fans can also be agents for change.

In my fanship of Renewal and Reform I hope I am, and will remain, a critical friend; an ardent supporter who wants the best possible set of outcomes. Fans can of course be unrealistic -seeking to gorge themselves on an ongoing pattern of short-term success – but I suspect that the majority of fans are in it for the long-term, ‘in good times and in bad,’ ‘for better for worse.’

I am a fan of Renewal and Reform for the very simple reason, that like Bishop Paul Bayes,’ I want to see ‘a bigger church making a bigger difference.’ I also think that Renewal and Reform is a way of honouring the Great Commission.

My critique, not criticism, of Renewal and Reform is that it has thus far been too Reform focused. I think and believe that, during the next stage, far greater attention needs to be given to the much harder subject of Renewal. But, here is the good news: this is happening. It may not be obvious that it is happening, because renewal is less obvious, less ‘in your face’ than Reform, but it is happening.

In the early days of Renewal and Reform, it felt as though the entirety of the conversation (and the the flow of funds) was dominated by two models of church: Plants (and grafts) and New Congregations. These can be thought of as new forms – or reforms – of Church. Now there is nothing wrong with starting with these models for they are tried and tested. A fairly robust operational model exists that means it is reasonably likely that these approaches will be ‘successful.’ Success for such models of reformed church is quantifiable; numerically so. And just to repeat, I have no problem with numbers: ‘a bigger church making a bigger difference.’

But, and its a big and perhaps controversial but, I think that these models whilst being perhaps obvious ones to start with will, over the long-term, be smaller scale contributors to the overall ‘success’ of Renewal and Reform.

Yes, they are currently seen as the ‘successful,’ models of how to do and be church, but as any fan will tell you success comes and goes. Very few clubs are able to achieve a never ending ongoing pattern of short-term success. In the world of both sport and business today’s success is tomorrow’s not quite success (let’s not use the word failure!).

In the world of both business and sport very few entities flourish over the long-term. It’s a simple fact of organisational life. If you doubt me why not do a simple google search and compare the constituency of the FTSE 100 index when it was launched in 1982 with its make up now. Comparing the make up of the Premier League in both football and rugby (my sport) at their launches with now is also revealing.

At the other end of the scale very few small businesses, or small sports teams, ever achieve the heady heights of the FTSE 100 Index or Premier League. Conclusion: it is the destiny of most entities to spend the majority of their corporate lives as either medium or small sized concerns.

This is to my mind a basic, very basic, fact of organisational life. If this is true looking to the big to make the biggest difference is, as a long-term strategy, predestined to fail. (The ability of large entities to spawn other entities which survive beyond the life of the ‘founding entity’ should not, however, be discounted. RACAL Electronics, for example , which no longer exists is said to have created more ‘shareholder value’ than any other listed company).

If my thesis is correct then far more attention needs to be focused on, and strategic funds directed towards, initiatives that seek to renew the that which already exists. In many cases this will mean medium sized churches. We need to make sure our medium sized churches first sustain and then grow. To my mind this should be a significant priority. The trouble for strategists is that sustaining and growing the medium sized (and other forms of church which are crying out for renewal) is hard-work, long-term, and difficult to quantify. Renewal is the nitty-gritty of strategy and in the long-term will be both the engine of sustainability and growth.

I have enjoyed reading the recent Church Times appraisal of the Renewal and Reform initiative, but I can’t wholeheartedly agree with the last week’s ‘Leader,’ which seemed to criticise the decision makers for ‘the splashing of large amounts of cash on a relatively few projects.’ This would be fair if this was all that Renewal and Reform is doing, but it isn’t, for there are a great many renewal focused conversations looking at, for instance, outer estates, coastal towns, market towns, and medium sized churches more generally.

Where I think the Church Times is correct is in identifying that such churches ‘simply need a lot more money;’ not that money is the be all and end all. Churches in such contexts for sure require money, or the very least alleviation from parish share schemes that appear to be exercises in pure Reaganomics, combined with good leadership, diocesan support, and stacks of enthusiasm. What these churches also desperately need is long-term and stable support (from the central church and the diocese) combined with an acceptance that numerical growth doesn’t happen overnight. In fact overnight numerical growth could be a stimulus for concern.

I am currently enjoying reading Andrew Bradstock’s biography of David Sheppard (Batting for the Poor) and was struck by the nature of the mandate he received from Bishop Hugh Gough for the renewal of the Mayflower Centre. Bishop Gough believed that building a congregation was a thirty year job! Maybe he was right? After ten years the Sunday congregation at the Mayflower Centre numbered between 100 and 150, so maybe Bishop Gough was too cautious? But the one thing that Bishop Gough was not concerned about, even with his super star priest, was short-term, or overnight, success.

Renewal is harder than reform. It requires support, commitment and patience. But ultimately it is through Renewal that the church will sustain and grow. The architects of the SDF need to ensure that they are as committed to renewal as they are to reform; the evidence is that they are.

Speaking of faith in troubling times

Earlier this week I had lunch with a very good friend and, a quite remarkable priest. Life has been difficult, worrying, and tough for my friend recently. Over the course of lunch we were able to share experiences of being worried parents; not simply worried in the normal sense of the term (whatever this means) but, worried in the sense of carrying gut wrenching anxiety over an unknown and fragile future.

My friend asked me what faith means to me in the midst of trial and tribulation; in those times when all seems bleak. In some ways my answer and the ensuing conversation surprised me. I am grateful to my friend for creating the space to allow me to say what I really think, and yes, feel. Friendship, spiritual friendship, is a priceless gift. To be tended to and to tend to another is a very real expression of love (John 21, 15-18).

I found myself saying that over the last few years I have found myself expecting less and less of my faith. Now this might sound shocking, it might even sound like I have a very weak faith; certainly not the strength of faith capable of moving mountains (Mark 11, 23). But, could it mean something else? Could it mean that although my faith is less it is, paradoxically, more? Could it be that a lesser faith is a more sustaining faith? Now I don’t want to curtail God, neither do a want to dismiss the possibility of the miraculous and supernatural but, I think, hope, pray, that my faith isn’t contingent on God pulling off a biggy, and somehow making all things right again.

I also don’t want to prescribe what faith is for others, but for me faith is the precious jewel that affords me the possibility of living, and maybe even living well, with, through and beyond the life events that drag me down and sometimes make me feel that all is conspiring against me. Faith is the the jewel that prevents me from being captive to events and episodes. Faith doesn’t necessarily change things, but it can (and does) change me (and, for sure, not always quickly in in linear progression). Faith’s concern is reality: past reality, present reality, and future reality. Faith is the virtue that is capable of redeeming the past, holding the present, and transforming the future. Faith is the virtue that allows me to live with, through and beyond.

Christain faith cannot, of course, be disaggregated from hope and love. My friend through her questioning reminded me of this. Her question to me was asked from a place of love; love for Jesus and love for me. I hope my answer was given from a place of love; love for Jesus and love for her. Hope, I think, talks to the notion of living beyond those things that bear so heavily on our souls.

Hope is the antidote to a passive Christianised stoicism. Hope doesn’t (for me) mean believing that all will be well, but it does mean that my response to situations might be better. Hope also means believing that whatever happens, we will be graced with glimpses of goodness and glory, that we will, in time, see something of the ‘goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,’ (Psalm 27, 13). Hope also means a belief in the great beyond; that time and place when tears and pain will be no more (Revelation 21, 4).

I somewhat surprised myself in saying that I expected less and less of my faith and whether, by expecting less, worried that I had succumbed to some form of fatalistic Christian Stoicism, so I was delighted to read the following in Roderick Strange’s book ‘Newman; the Heart of Holiness;’

‘It (faith) calls for more than stubborn endurance. It must rather encourage a readiness to plant generosuly the tree of the cross in our own hearts so as to let it put down deep roots……..Fidelity is the key, by embracing hardship generosuly and remaining faithful as Newman did, we may discover and bear witness to the way disaster may be turned into triumph.’

Life is very often painful, deeply so, but (speaking personally) stripped of faith, even a lesser faith, I simply wouldn’t have what it takes to live, and occasionally live well, with, through and beyond pain, worry and anxiety.

O Lord grant me a lesser faith, a deeper love, and a surer hope.

Speaking of liturgy (and theological formation)

Earlier this week I participated in an online discussion about ministerial training. I made the point that I am shocked by how little time is spent studying liturgy. It seems to me that ordinands, and I am sorry if I sound like an old foggy, are more likely to know about their Myers Briggs profile, their preferred leadership style and a host of other ‘relevant’ (although relevant to what I am not quite sure) topics then they are about the liturgy of the Church. I think this matters, and it matters a lot. It’s not that tools to help reflect on our personalities and preferences are worthless, but more that liturgy, properly understood and inhabited, has a unique currency of all of its own.

For all of the talk about new ways of being church it surely remains the case that to a very large extent our ‘common’ liturgy is our public face? At weddings, baptisms and funerals it is through the words, or charism, of the liturgy that the church helps to make connections; to ligature. That’s why what we used to call the occaisional offices are now referred to as the pastoral offices. To a very large measure to be liturgical is to be pastoral.

To be liturgical is also to be doctrinal. Liturgy is the means through which the doctrine of the church is expressed. Liturgy is the language that invites us to reflect on the great Christian (and liturgical) themes of grace, mercy, peace, and service. That is why the Common Worship Liturgy begins with the words ‘grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you,’ and ends with the great commission to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’

Through the liturgy we are also asked to accept an ontological reality. God is God, we are not. We sin, God forgives and, redeems.

The liturgy also asks us to remember, bring to mind, bring into the present, the entirety of the Christian story, or at least the whole basis of our belief: ‘Christ, has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Our common liturgy is also explicitly Trinitarian: ‘grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and ‘The Lord is here…….His Spirit is with us.’ Liturgy is trinitarian doctrine in action.

Liturgy is also profoundly vocational reminding us that through word and sacrament our true vocation is to ‘magnify his Holy Name,’ and surely this is also the desired outcome, the prayed for outcome, of all Christian spirituality?

A friend of mine, not a regular church goer, has lamented the lack of religious literacy in the population at large. His point, as an English Teacher, is that it is impossible to understand the great works of literature, and art, without some level of religious literacy. He believes that Religious Studies should be compulsory in schools because it helps animate and bring to life other subjects. In the same way I strongly, no very strongly, believe that liturgy should sit at the core of all training and, crucially, formation. Shocking as it sounds liturgy shape, forms, and theologically educates us.

An understanding, appreciation and love of the liturgy is the antidote to religious individualism (because what is being celebrated is something that is ‘common,’). It is also Anglicanism’s method for the animation and articulation of the pastoral, vocational, spiritual, missional and doctrinal imperatives that we have received and, that we are obliged to hand on as traditional Anglicans. Without a commitment to inhabiting the formal, binding, and common liturgy of the church it is difficult to identify the glue that binds us together as Anglicans, for traditional Anglicanism has always (rightly in my view) insisted we are what we (in common) pray. We are a common people because we share a common language.

I know of no better way of articulating and growing into the Christian story than through the liturgy. Understanding our Myers Briggs profiles, our preferred leadership styles, our supposed learning styles, and so forth, even though these may add real value, will never compensate for a hollowed out understanding of, and appreciation for, that great God given and transcendental charism: the liturgy.

That under her we may be godly and quietly governed.

I haven’t enjoyed a meaningful vote in a General Election for a long time. The reason is that my M.P. is the Speaker of the House of Commons and, by convention, the main political parties do not stand against the speaker. But, all may be about to change.

For the last couple of days, following the ‘debate’ in the House of Commons earlier this week I have been thinking about what I might ask a parliamentary candidate eager for my vote. Of course between now and the General Election (whenever this might be) a lot may well have changed. But, even so, my questions and reflections very probably to have less to do with policy but rather with character and integrity.

My ‘leading question’ might well be along these lines:

‘Can you tell me how you hope to conduct yourself in public life, particularly when in the chamber of the House of Commons?’

This, as a Church of England Christian, seems to be an important initial theo-political question. In some ways it supersedes (I nearly wrote Trumps!) policy questions. Let me explain: the Church of England, as a national and established church, exists, in part, to serve the nation. This need not, of course, imply being subservient to the nation, but it does mean that we are called on to care deeply for the nation and all who have a stake in it. Caring for the nation surely necessitates a commitment to both pray for the nation and a willingness to speak truth to power.

In praying for the nation the Church of England frequently does so through her liturgical texts; we are after all a liturgical church. In the prayer of intercession in the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service we find the following theo-poliical, but non partisan, petition:

‘We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes and Governors; and specially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness, and to the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue.’

These I would want to strongly suggest are important words. These ancient words contain much contemporary wisdom. Quiteness, restraint, and modesty in language should be, from a Christian perspective, central to discourse, however contentious the subject, for as we read in the Book of Proverbs: ‘The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit,’ (18, 21). Being ‘godly and quietly governed,’ it seems, may be a matter of life and death.

Of course restraint in rhetoric isn’t sufficient. If we are to live together well, in harmony, in shalom, something else is required: a commitment to justice and truth. Prayer During the Day on Wednesday concludes with the following petition: ‘May God grant to the world, justice, truth and peace.’ So when discerning from a liturgical, and theo-political, perspective which candidate to vote for their demonstrable commitment to global affairs (the world – its people and the created order), justice and truth should be of paramount concern.

In a sense I will seek to exercise a high degree of party political indifference when making my judgement, instead seeking to identify the candidate who is most likely to conduct themselves with integrity and with a commitment to those things we Anglicans pray for: decency, modesty, restraint, justice (for both people and the environment), truth and peace, for these I believe to be the theo-political fruits of a virtuous politics.

How politicians conduct themselves alongside their commitment to integrity and virtue matters and, it matters greatly. For as Rowan Williams has written in his reflection on William Wilberforce (in Twenty Christian Luminaries): ‘The public climate has the capacity to make people less than they might be,’ even, as the Proverb rightly insists, to the point of life and death.

As Christians we have a moral responsibility to help fashion and create a healthy and virtuous political environment. The way we do this is through our prayers and the electoral choices we make. Perhaps as Christians, contentious as it sounds, our best contribution may result from indifference to party politics? Perhaps it is more important to vote for those who commit to decency and restraint in rhetoric and a similar commitment to the pursuit of justice, truth and peace, in the hope that all of us might be more than we could otherwise be?

Speaking of Fresh Expressions, sacramentality and mission

Fresh Expressions are very much in vogue, of this there can be no doubt.

At the recent gathering of General Synod the invitation was issued to celebrate and endorse the success of the Fresh Expressions movement. For the avoidance of all doubt, I too think we should celebrate the success of the Fresh Expressions movement. But, I don’t think we should do so uncritically, allowing Fresh Expressions, (maybe alongside alongside grafts and plants), to become the sole missional orthodoxy.

I began my speech at synod by suggesting that I might be about to commit a ‘very modern heresy and place myself just slightly on the wrong side of my diocesan bishop,’ (I don’t think I did place myself on the wrong side of Bishop Steven, who introduced the session, by the way).

I deliberately used the word heresy for two reasons: First, because I am genuinely concerned that Fresh Expressions are seen by many as the answer to the ‘problem’ of mission and evangelism and, secondly, because I felt that some of the language used was overly flamboyant –  ‘every parish’ – and that some of the numbers deployed were ever so slightly fantastical.

Now I am sure that the number of Fresh Expressions will continue to grow and that there will be good, real, growth alongside poor, unreal, or synthetic growth.

Good growth will occur where men and women, normally lay, establish, nurture and grow genuinely new congregations. Unreal or synthetic growth will occur when parishes report that they have established a Fresh Expression to satisfy expectations. In the return statistics parishes are asked to declare whether they have launched a Fresh Expression and my fear is that many parishes will say ‘yes,’ even though what they are actually undertaking is what they would hitherto have regarded as the ordinary activities of an ordinary (missionally minded) church. In a very real sense we will become that which we count. When we become what we count the numbers, in many ways, cease to be real.

In my own benefice I think we could legitimately claim two or three Fresh Expressions but I have absolutely now desire to do so. In fact I would go further and suggest that those who lead them have no desire to be badged, or branded, as a Fresh Expression. Why would they?

I have one other big worry and concern or question: to what extent are the majority of Fresh Expressions sacramental (eucharistic communities)? Now I dare say some, perhaps many, will argue that it doesn’t matter. I think it does and, that it matters both missionally and ecclesiologically.

Let’s start with ecclesiology. As a reformed-catholic church celebrating and, being formed through, the practice of participating in the sacrament of the Eucharist is central to the Church of England’s understanding of what it means to be a practicing Anglican (or communicant Anglican). Put simply the Eucharist, alongside the word, is our ‘daily bread,’ and that is why the canons (rightly) insist that the Eucharist should be celebrated each and every Sunday in each and every parish / benefice. Participating in the Eucharist isn’t simply something we do, a ritual we enter into, it is a weekly (fresh) expression of our need to be fed with the very body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist is, in this sense, highly catechetical. As a moderately catholic Anglican I expect to be nurtured, and discipled, through the simple act of participating in the Eucharist. I expect to meet God in, and through, the Eucharist.

Once more as a moderately catholic Anglican I also believe that sacramental worship is missional worship. In the Eucharist the church dares to proclaim that God really, and truly, is here in our very midst (‘The Lord is here’ – I far prefer this liturgical assertion to yet another ‘Lord be with you.’)

In the Eucharist the ‘mystery of faith’ is also loudly proclaimed alongside the Pauline doctrine that ‘every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes in glory.’ For St. Paul, it appears, (who knew a thing or two about Fresh Expressions) sacramentality and mission were indivisible. In fact the indivisibility of sacramentality and mission and evangelism appears to have been highly characteristic of the apostolic church (cf Acts 2, 42-47).

Moving on: Fresh Expressions are frequently justified through reference to the prevailing culture and context.

One of my worries is that the church’s cultural analysis might just be a bit thin and that our analysis is guided by a fairly questionable set of assumptions; one of these assumptions being that traditional or inherited church won’t cut muster for millenials. I think we need to be very, very, careful with such assumptions. Inherited or traditional church might not be attractive to some millenials but it is undoubtedly to others.

Last year I baptised a young adult whose first experience of church was watching MidNight Mass on television and finding herself mesmerized. In a couple of weeks time I am baptizing a young woman who went to a baptism at a very high Anglo-Catholic church in London. During the service she had what can only be described as conversion. Both of these women live in social housing and both, I suspect, are people the church would wrongly categorize as being unlikely to respond to the traditional or inherited church.

In the presentation at synod there was no reference to sacramental theology. For a reformed catholic church I found this to be incredibly bizarre and, if honest, disturbing. For me a missional community must also be a sacramental community. The two simply cannot be divided. I would argue that this is both biblical and constituent of what it means to be ‘catholic and apostolic.’

I do worry worried about some of the language used and the figures quoted. My biggest worry is however this: in focusing so much on the growth of Fresh Expressions might we, paradoxically, be undermining both our ecclesiology and far more importantly mission?

I think it’s a distinct possibility and I apologize if this is a modern day heresy.