Speaking of synod

On Thursday General Synod met, with one purpose, to debate a motion and a series of amendments to allow General Synod to meet virtually during these strange, Covid Times.

The meeting was in many ways surreal. It was well organised but, obviously, very different. We were all masked up, a one way system was in place but what was missing was the opportunity to engage in coffee room chats, or for the various sub groups within synod to gather and strategize. In some, perhaps many, ways, this felt healthy (even though the social aspect of synod is important). It felt as though, even though we were few in number, we were ‘one body,’ simply trying to focus on doing the right thing, seeking to reach a consensus for the ongoing good of all.

The way the room was arranged was also very different. We all had allocated seats, and were asked to enter the chamber through a designated door. What struck me about the physical geography of the chamber was that the absence of block seats reserved for the bishops. This struck me as a healthy development.

I hope that when synod is once again able to meet physically attention will continue to be paid to how the chamber is arranged and where people sit. It felt more equal, less cliquey, perhaps more authentically synodical; perhaps less rarefied, and intimidating. Yesterday’s meeting was characterised by a marked lack of pomposity. Due reverence was shown to all, on equal terms. Indeed one speaker (who spoke twice and, who hadn’t spoken from the floor during the previous five years) commented on how she found the ‘old fashioned synod’ to be intimidating; a place where voices could easily be suppressed.

I also enjoyed the joint presidential address, which appears to be becoming something of a synodical norm; a norm which reinforces a desire for unity and collaborative ministry. Again, this is something that I hope continues. Both archbishops spoke with passion, and both were reflective, talking of lessons learned. Their joint address was also confessional and conciliatory in nature. Archbishops Steven and Justin accepted that mistakes had been made over the last six months; thank you.

They were also keen to stress two other important points:

First, that the church is changing and that it is highly probable that a return to previous norms can’t, and won’t, happen. I think they are right. There are aspects of church life that we may all have to grieve for, but let go. What the future will look like is, of course, unknown.

One of the phrases that I have been using lately is that ‘we are all Franciscans now.’ This doesn’t mean that we all now need to become Franciscan Tertiaries, adopting an intentionally focused Franciscan Spirituality (although for some it might), but simply that we all need to hear and recognise a voice asking us to ‘rebuild my church.’ What this rebuilding will look like will, of course, be dependent on context (which strikes me as a thoroughly Franciscan insight).

I think that I would also add that such rebuilding needs to take place at the institutional and not just the local, or parochial, level. Do we need a smaller, more flexible, and to use one of the words used in several speeches more ‘nimble’ centre? Do our diocesan structures also need to be rebuilt? In my own view the whole church, at every level, needs rebuilding. This will be a huge challenge, and a challenge which will require the letting go of cherished ways of thinking, doing, and above all else relating. Perhaps this is also the time to reappraise a preference for some of the generic strategies that have been prized and favoured over the last few years?

The Archbishops, both at synod and in other places, have reflected on the parish and have concluded that ‘the local church is the centre.’ For me this statement carries deep significance and represents a return to a, perhaps forgotten, truth.

But, it is also a statement which, if true, begets a challenge: if the local church really is the centre what does this mean in organisational, strategic, relational, and yes, financial terms? In many ways the financial implications of COVID on the ‘local church’ which is ‘the centre’ is my biggest fear. Working out the implications of the archepiscopal observation in relation to national and diocesan strategies is surely now an urgent task? Indeed, I think it is even worth reflecting on whether national and diocesan strategies, in the times we find ourselves in, can even be real things! I genuinely have my doubts.

Yesterday our discussions were characterised by gentleness. The decision that synod can meet online means that the Church of England can discuss important issues. For me the most important issue as we seek to rebuild the church is working out the implications of the statement that ‘the local church is the centre.’

As we continue to reflect, synodically, on this statement may we do so with broad minds, compassionate hearts and gentle tongues so that together, we can play our part in ‘rebuilding my church.’

Talking of bishops, truth, & the flimsy altar of political expediency

I don’t suppose that there is a single one of us who hasn’t, at some stage, been ever so slightly elastic with the truth. We are all capable of concealing the truth and stretching the truth. We are all guilty of having an inconsistent and erratic relationship with the truth. In the face of anxiety, difficulty, danger and stress we can all, like Simon Peter, deny the truth. We are all capable of scripting an alternative reality. As Hugh Laurie maintained when playing House, ‘everybody lies.’

If this is true – which I hold it to be – should we be too concerned with truth telling? And, should we hold those who have an overly elastic relationship with truth to account? If we start holding others to scrutiny, or account, are we being overly judgemental for, after all, ‘everybody lies?’ One more question: if holding others, perhaps even significant others, to account is permissible, who should act permissively?

The answer to my last question in some ways feels rather obvious: it depends, and the dependency is context. If our children are telling outright lies, or just stretching things, then presumably it is the parental right to hold them to account? If a spouse cheats on their partner, breaking a sacred vow, then the partner presumably has the right to hold them to account? The situations I have described have a fairly obvious response mechanism for the context is a closed, or at least relatively closed, essentially private, system.

Where the elasticity of truth is stretched within an open system, or public system, things get a little bit more complicated, for the harm caused is less personal and direct. The harm caused is instead systemic, and the problem with systemic harm is that it goes viral, its effects spread uncontrollably.

As yet there is no vaccine capable of inoculating against systemic harm. Wishful thinking and carefully choreographed messaging, in the absence of a vaccine, are the only strategies available in seeking to reduce the symptoms of public harm.

The trouble with wishful thinking and choreographed rhetoric is that in the spin doctor’s mind they become the truth. Truth becomes so elastic that anything that approximates to reality becomes the truth, in the spinners mind. The spinner of truth stands in solidarity alongside that great elastician, Pontius Pilate, and asks ‘what is truth?’ A script is then written to support that truth. Truth becomes a matter of expediency and a mechanism for the retention of power. It is not a very pretty set of propositions.

So, despite accepting that ‘every body lies’ who should hold the spinners to account when truth is stretched within an open and essentially political system? Should, say the bishops, those men and women (in the C of E) who stand in Peter’s line? My answer to this is a resounding ‘yes.’ Because the bishops stand in Peter’s line they fully understand the reality that ‘everybody lies,’ and they know that lies, distorted truths, narratives retro fitted to render the implausible plausible, go viral and the result may well be death.

The bishops, you see, in criticising the masters of spin aren’t doing so from a place of moral superiority, still less perfection, but as men and women who stand in the shoes of the Peter who three times lied; as men and women who fully know the consequences of sacrificing truth, real truth, public truth, on the flimsy altar of political expediency; as men and women (even though ‘everybody lies’) who have been consecrated into the truth, to speak the truth (cf John 17, 19), and especially to those who exercise viral power.

Talking of ‘new vision,’ status, money and prayer.

I enjoyed listening to Archbishop Justin’s interview with the BBC on Sunday evening. I think that he is quite correct in calling for a renewed focus on mental health and for a new post COVID vision for a fairer, more equitable society; one in which each and every citizen feels that they have a legitimate stake.

However, as I have this week been musing on the notion of the ‘new vision,’ I have felt increasingly unsettled for surely the church must also be the embodiment, incarnation and ‘first fruits,’ of the ‘new vision?’

If the church wants, and is prophetically calling for, a ‘bias to the poor,’ alongside a spirit of ‘radical new inclusivity,’ in society as a whole (to borrow two phrases) then this is surely what the church must simultaneously model, and crucially, be seen to model. Our legitimacy to talk prophetically into the big debates of our time is, I reckon, contingent on out willingness to simultaneously look inwardly with a commitment to being a very different church. The church, just like society, indeed needs rebuilding. We should all be Franciscans now!

Rebuilding the church, and relegitimising the church, in the eyes of a public which may well regard us (for the church is the people as well as the building let us not forget!) as an irrelevance, an historical legacy from a bygone age, will take courage, and a commitment to go way beyond the cosmetic, although the cosmetic will, in fact, be very important for as a friend once reminded me ‘real change always starts with the optics.’

So what optics could we start with to get ourselves, the insiders, believing that change is really underway, that a ‘new vision’ really is being crafted? The first place I would be tempted to start would be General Synod, with the removal of the special seats reserved for the bishops. This might seem a small, perhaps even pedantic, but surely if we want to model a sense of equality and stress that all have an equal stake then having only one, standard class, seating plan may well have a significant democratising, and freeing, effect.

I do also think we need to think very carefully about the episcopacy, and optics around the episcopacy. Are purple shirts really necessary and what message do they convey? What is the effect of differential stipends, on the bishops themselves? (I have never understood the rationale for differential stipends). Have supererogatory titles outlived their use, with their tendency to talk to preferment and status as opposed to healthy functionality? Could it be that titles such as ‘The Most,’ ‘The Right’ ‘The Very’ and ‘The Venerable’ should be dispensed with? What do such self-descriptions say about the church, to society? Are they the language of the visionary?

Sorting out the optics will help change the culture, of that, I think, there can be little doubt. But, we clearly need to go further, far further. In particular we need to head to the north, both east and west. It is an inescapable fact that there is a bias, in all of our structures, and all of our finances to the south, or southern province (which is not to say that south equals rich and north equals poor, for there are also real structural imbalances within the southern province). If the Church of England is to model – incarnate – any form of new vision then now is the time to start redistributing assets: money and people. Put simply: we need to put our money and our people where our mouth is.

One of my frustrations is that the need to redistribute is frequently discussed at General Synod, with resolutions calling for ‘every diocese,’ or ‘every parish’ to do X,Y or Z, and then the conversation stalls. We need to move beyond talk and into action if we truly desire to be a prophetic and visionary church. If we are to be taken seriously we need to be the vision we demand to see.

There are no short cuts, or easy solutions to rebuilding the church, to becoming a truly visionary church, even a fit and proper and prophetic church. It will take courage and decisiveness (and the church is not very good at being decisive) and it will mean that the ‘mighty’ may need to voluntarily climb down from their ‘thrones,’ relinquishing power, status, and, yes, cash. If we are going to talk truth to power with integrity, alongside ‘filling the hungry with good things,’ through acts of loving service, then change must start, and be seen to start, from within.

Fashioning a new vision for the church must, or course, be underpinned by prayer. But, what we mustn’t do is to allow prayer to become a stalling tactic, for in reality we perhaps already know what needs to be done. We need to not only pray the Magnificat but be the Magnificat.

Let me finish with a prayer by Percy Dearmer, called New Vision:

O God our Shepherd, give to the Church a new vision and a new charity, new wisdom and fresh understanding, the revival of her brightness and the renewal of her unity; that the eternal message of the Son, undefiled by the traditions of men, may be hailed as the good news of the new age. Through him who maketh all things new, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Talking of being invigorated & tired by church

I don’t know how you feel about the church at present: enthused, invigorated or just plain fatigued?

I suppose, if I am honest, for me, a little bit of both. I have found the ‘great debates’ about whether the Eucharist should be celebrated from home or from within the sanctuary quite tiring.

I can genuinely see both sides of the argument. But, what I can’t understand, or accept, is that those priests who have decided to follow guidance, either out of a sense of loyalty to their bishop, or out of socio-technological necessity, are being in some way less priestly (in the right sense of the word).

I also find it really hard to understand how a congregation brought together through the via media of the internet is necessarily less present than a congregation gathered in a church. The Lord who ‘is here, and whose ‘Spirit is with us,’ cannot be contained, boxed in, domesticated and privatised. I also find the notion that we have become a membership organisation, saying our private prayers, truly depressing, not to say inaccurate.

Yes place is important, and to be sure I don’t know of a single bishop, priest, deacon and parishioner that doesn’t miss being ‘in church, for going to church is part of our DNA, but we are not bound together simply by place. It is after all entirely possible to be ‘in church,’ yet distracted, absent and elsewhere.

We should also remember, I think and believe, that when we gather to pray we are not bound together simply through being in the same place at the same time, but through the liturgy. Liturgy is our common and binding language. Through our common prayers we are ligatured. This was the great insight of liturgists starting with Odo Casel. Liturgy has the capacity to draw us into a common space.

To be clear there is nothing I look forward to more (other than seeing my family) than to being back in church. I miss the bells, I miss the organ, I miss the choir and I miss the smells. Above all I miss the people. I miss the ‘full monty’ of being gathered in a physical community of the young and the old, the male and the female, the gay and the straight, the well and the sick, the able and the disabled. I miss all of this terribly. And, I am not alone for so does every bishop, priest and deacon that I know.

In the midst of these multiple ‘missings’ the criticism of those who see things differently and who are doing their level best, even if they are doing it less than perfectly, is truly tiring.

I don’t believe for one minute that the Church of England is in retreat, or on the way to irrelevance, and the reason I believe this – with all of my heart – is because one of the things we have rediscovered is our diaconal ministry. Church communities up and down the land have discovered what it means to be dismissed, sent, to ‘love and serve the Lord.’ Church communities, and their bishops, priests and deacons, are present to others ‘in the name of Christ,’ and this is what enthuses and invigorates.

Many, many churches are learning and relearning what it means to ‘respond to human need through loving service’ and as time goes on churches, at the institutional and local level will be well placed to make sure that the ‘unjust structures of society’ are challenged. Churches are also partnering with other civic institutions in new ventures, ‘tending’ to the needs of the vulnerable. The church truly is ‘alive and active’ and our diaconal ministry is being ‘sharpened’ through the horrors of these turbulent times.

In these turbulent times let’s cut each other a little slack and exercise some charity, let’s tend to each other, and accept that we are all trying to do our best: bishop, priest and deacon alike. And finally whether we chose to celebrate from the sanctuary or the kitchen table (and we are doing both) let’s retain a sense of confidence that ‘the Lord is here,’ and ‘his (invigorating) Spirit is with us.’

God is not in retreat, and neither, do I believe is his body: the Church.

Talking of ministry: Woes, worries & possible blessings in COVID times

Let me start with a statement of the obvious: I have never received any training on how to minister during a pandemic. There wasn’t a course on it, or even a lecture, when I was at theological college, and there wasn’t a module on it during my initial ministerial training. So there you go, just like every other ordained minister, church worker, and member of our congregations I am having to, broadly speaking, make it up as I go along. Of course we all hope that in doing this we are listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but in a very real sense we are all ‘seeing through a glass darkly,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 12). We are living and ministering in strange, confusing and awful times.

One of the very real challenges for the church, indeed all institutions as well as individuals, is, I think, is the absence of predictability. Most, perhaps all of us, live by rhythm (even those of us whose sense of rhythm is woeful!). In our daily, weekly and seasonal lives we have a sense of where we are and what is coming up; we are in fact liturgical beings.

We are, by contrast, thrown by the unpredictable and we don’t like it when circumstance means that all we can do, the very best that we can do, is look through the proverbial glass darkly. Predictability and clarity are props that allow us to cope well. In the absence of predictability and clarity we find ourselves walking a never ending Emmaus Road, confused, confuzzled, perplexed.

My greatest COVID woe is that I miss the pattern of predictable events that give shape, clarity and even meaning to my life and vocations.I missing seeing my daughters and my mother. I don’t enjoy having to look through a glass darkly in the hope that they are okay. I also miss my regular, routine, week-by-week pattern of activity. I really miss visiting the sick, the dying and the beavered. And, I miss going into church.

The absence of all that is predictable inevitably leads to a constant and relatively low level of anxiety and, the trouble with constant low level anxiety is that it can easily escalate. As someone who has in the past experienced the toxicity of acute anxiety and the numbness of depression I need to be vigilant.

My greatest COVID worry is, let’s put it bluntly, money. Are we going to be okay, are my parishioners going to be okay, is the church going to be okay? I strongly believe that the economic future is going to be bloody, far bloodier, that we are programmed to accept and believe. I also believe that the economic future is going to be highly volatile and unpredictable. We are all going to have to stare into the economic future ‘through a glass darkly.’ It could well be that the assumptions on which planning tools are so frequently based will prove to be about as much use as the proverbial chocolate fire guard.

From a church perspective my biggest worry is that we will be alarmingly slow to acknowledge this and will seek to cling on to our existing ways of financing and arranging ourselves until we are forced, backs against the wall, to accept that we can no longer do so. We will also hold on to our cherished plans and generic strategies for too long, for we will not dare to look into the darkness and admit that those strategies on which we had placed all our hopes (and bets) might be moribund. I worry that what we are hoping is that a couple of aspirin and a course of antibiotics will do the trick when what is actually required is some pretty radical surgery.

Could it be that in church houses up and down the land we need fewer pharmacists and more surgeons? My gut instinct is that this is probably the case but, like all of us, all I can do is look through a glass darkly. Just one more sobering thought: for surgery to be effective is normally needs to be deep and early and the temptation is frequently to delay (in economic terms behavioural finance provides some really interesting insights – insights that might allow us to see through the glass a little less darkly).

Are there any blessings that we as Anglicans might receive, rather than necessarily pronounce or give, in these strange and dangerous COVID times? Well, maybe on the blessings we might be receiving is a renewed understanding of what it means to be an established (and stable) church; a church which is embedded in community and which exists in large part to serve, tend to, and feed the community.

My own experience of ministry over the last few weeks has been a renewed understanding of what the community expects from its parish church and, put simply, what it expects is that we tend (listening to the requirements of those in need with compassion and commitment) and that that we feed those in need, both physically and spiritually. I wonder whether our communities have a far richer understanding of John 21, 15-17 than the church? I also wonder whether the civic community has a greater appreciation of the concept of mission-partnership and, the importance of an established and stable church than we church insiders would dare admit?

Maybe one of the blessings that the church might receive (rather than pronounce) is a renewed understanding of what it means to be a stable and effective parish church? Maybe for too long we have insisted on doing our own thing, in our own ways, thinking that we are a primarily a membership organisation (and our financial models in may ways are based on this assumption), set over, above and in many ways against society? Maybe out of this crisis a renewed focus on the cure of souls, all souls, will arise? Maybe we will (re) learn what it means to be authentically parochial? In the meantime all we can do is continue to look through a glass darkly.

Talking of Church: dispersed yet communal & catholic

A few days ago I watched a talk which explained why attempts to compare the worship of the early church with the worship of the COVID 19 church are misguided.

As I have been mulling things over over on my daily walk the thought that has been uppermost in my mind is that I am not really that bothered in making such direct comparisons between the COVID Church and the early church, or indeed the church of any era. Such direct comparison, even when the motive behind the comparison is honourable, is bound to be wide of the mark.

I do, of course, think that it is important to understand the church of bygone eras. I also think that it is important to receive the good gifts that have been bequeathed to the contemporary church and to cherish them, whilst at the same time jettisoning the dubious beliefs and practices of ages gone. For me this is what it means to be a traditionalist.

The reason why I am non too bothered with direct comparisons is simply this: the eschatological vocation of the church is to preach the gospel afresh in every era. We are the church of the COVID era, so our challenge, is to preach the gospel afresh, through word and deed, in the here and now. Yesterday has much to teach us, and tomorrow’s challenges will be different, but our concern is the here and now, for as Scripture informs us ‘each day has enough trouble of its own,’ (Matthew 6, 34).

One of the good gifts that has been given, handed down, to the Contemporary or COVID Church is liturgy, or language of the church. One of my hopes is that through the experience of being the church dispersed a renewed understanding of the richness, importance, and mystery of liturgy will arise.

Liturgy, put simply, is a means, perhaps the means, through which the catholicity of the church is celebrated. Liturgy is the language that binds us together and draws us day-by-day, week-by-week, into community, even when we are dispersed. Liturgy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, (maybe even one of the tongues) to the church. And yet sometimes we forget, or maybe simply take for granted, the power and authority of our common liturgy? Maybe, because we prize the cerebral (preaching), the appreciative (music and visuals), and the individualistic (expository forms) we have become immunised to the common, communal and vernacular (liturgy)?

In Rev’d Peter Antony’s film the importance of gathering together as community in the early church was, in my view, rightly stressed. Place and buildings remain important and we should lament the fact that we are not able to gather, in person, together, to worship. But, does the fact that we are now worshipping from our homes mean that we are being encouraged to worship (as the films suggests) as individuals? I don’t think it does.

I think what we are being invited to do is to worship in community, as the church-dispersed. The reason I think, and more importantly, believe this is because the tradition has handed on to us, ‘common prayer’ and ‘common worship.’

The great prayers of the church, in fact the entirety of the language of the church belong to no-one and everyone, for as George Lathrop and George Guiver insisted the the language of the church is plural (Our Father, We Believe, That We Might etc, etc). If this is true, private worship makes no sense even when we are geographically dispersed and isolated. Whenever we pray and whenever we worship we are together, even when we are apart. This is the great and catholic paradox of liturgy.

The communal property of liturgy was explicitly stressed by some of the great liturgists of the Twentieth Century including the Benedictine Catholic Odo Casel, the equally Benedictine Anglican George Guiver, the Orthodox Alexander Schmemann, but perhaps it was the Methodist Don Saliers who most powerfully argued for liturgy as the language that binds community together even when the community is dispersed:

‘Liturgy is an intentionally gathered community in mindful dialogue with God’s self-communication…….liturgy is something prayed and enacted, a common art of the people in which the community brings the depths of emotion of our lives to the ethos of God.’

We are the COVID Church, we are the Church-Dispersed and we are the Church that is mandated to proclaim the gospel afresh in and for this generation and in doing so one of the ways we can be renewed, strengthened and emboldened is through a renewed appreciation of our common language; the liturgy in other words.

Talking of mission and finance in challenging times

The world, of which the church is a part, likes big strategic plans.

For the last few years, perhaps decades even, we have inhabited a world where big, macro, generic strategies have held sway. In the world of business this approach was popularised by Michael Porter, a charismatic professor at the Harvard Business School. I think that it is fair to say that Porteresque theories have managed to crowd out insights from other, more relational, more emergent, strategic thinkers. Models and generic strategies are, after all, fairly easy to understand; they are easy to have faith in.

Now to be clear generic strategies have their part to play. From a Church of England perspective such top down generic strategies as Resourcing Churches, Plants, Grafts and Fresh Expressions all have a part, maybe a significant part, to play in the building of the Kingdom ‘here on earth.’ But, what generic strategies should never be is the sum total of the strategic output. God, I think, cannot be easily contained within the generic, for God is equally content in the incremental (J.B. Quinn) and the emergent (Mintzberg). And, anyway, doesn’t God go ahead of us in mission?

The new set of circumstances we find ourselves in talks deeply to the nature of mission and evangelism as relational, emergent and embedded in community.

In the new set of circumstances generic models might be something that need to be gently set aside for a season. It is hard to build a new congregation or plant a resource church in periods of self isolation. Self isolation isn’t however the major point for at some, as yet unspecified time it, alongside social distancing, will presumably come to and end. Money, cash, finance and the potential return on missional assets employed is the major issue.

It is and will remain hard to fund generic models (because generic models rely on significant funding), if we are to be a substantially poorer church over the longer-term. Generic strategies by their nature are costly strategies. The rewards can be substantial, but the losses when they go wrong are truly frightening. To invest the majority of missional assets in volatile and uncertain times in generic models really is to bet the farm.

As we gaze into an uncertain future we can only ‘see through a glass darkly,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 12), but we can, I think, make some basic assumptions and begin to ask some searching questions. One basic assumption that I would make is that the church (and her parishioners) are going to be substantially poorer. I don’t think we are facing a blip or a shortfall in revenue but a potential catastrophe.

The temptation for the Church (and other institutions) will be to plan on the basis of a short fall in revenue of say between 25 and 40% over a six month period. My own view is that this a hopelessly optimistic hypothesis. If I am correct then the ongoing commitment to cash consuming generic strategies should surely be called into question. We need to ask ourselves, as the church, whether our collective faith in such approaches might be now misplaced.

One of the things that I have learnt in the current crisis is that people – non church people – have expectations of the church. Let me illustrate: For several years we have operated a small scale food cupboard scheme. It works like this. We retain a small stock of non perishable goods. When we receive a referral from the school or health centre we contact the family, discuss their needs, and supplement our existing stock with fresh produce which we buy in. Several weeks ago a number of individuals and civic institutions contacted us asking if they could provide us with cash and produce so we could scale up our offering. Other people of goodwill provided us with a timely reminder that part of our mandate is to ‘feed my people.’

Due to the generosity of others we are now able to provide food and other staple products to a relatively large number of families and individuals who would by now be living below the bread-line. Yesterday a local Indian Takeaway contacted us to say that they were going to give a percentage of their takings in April and May to the St. Laurence Food Cupboard Scheme.

St. Laurence was a deacon of the church and an early martyr. Before his death is reputed to have said that ‘these (the poor) are the treasures of the church.’ In my context it feels as though we are being nudged back to pursuing an increasingly diaconal form of ministry, where ‘responding to human need through loving service’ is at the heart of what we do and who we are.

In telling our story I am not seeking to promote yet another generic, do what we are doing, form of strategy. I am simply suggesting that the local church, embedded in the local community, should listen to the community and its expectations of the church.

At the institutional level I do wonder whether the Church of England should gently place aside (maybe only for a season, maybe for a longer period of time) the preference for generic strategies and think afresh about how assets and reserves are deployed?

Do we need to relinquish some of our faith in the generic and instead have a little more faith in the relational, incremental, authentically parochial, and emergent?

Just a few questions!

Talking of coronavirus,church, continuation and concomitance

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

The vocation of the Church of England, as the established church, is to be the church for the whole nation – whatever the creeds and beliefs, or even non beliefs of its citizens – irrespective of the political and civic temperature. We exist, in part, to hold the nation before God, in the words of the preface to the marriage service ‘in good times and in bad.’ Part of our mandate must surely be to ‘enrich society and strengthen community?’ We are both a national church and a communal church.

In these current ‘worst of times’ our mandate, duty and responsibility, strange as it may sound, is to follow the coronavirus where ever it may lead us so that we can reach out with open hands to the poor and needy neighbour in our land (Dueteronomy 15, 11 – our benefice verse for the year).

Of course in following the virus we shouldn’t be foolhardy or negligent. We shouldn’t put ourselves or others at risk, but neither should we be rendered impotent by fear for at a very basic level we have a responsibility to continue praying and to keep communing. Praying and communing are, after all, the very things that equip us to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ through acts of loving service to ‘the poor and neddy in the land;’ especially the poor, the sick, the dying and the vulnerable. We go to church so that we can be fed through word and sacrament to make a difference. An unhealthy nation needs a healthy church, even if it maybe temporarily a smaller gathered church.

When we go to church we should also be mindful of the fact that we should expect to encounter and be fed by the ‘Lord (who truly) is here.’ The fact that the Eucharist is for the time being to be received in one kind (bread) shouldn’t in any way diminish the efficacy of the sacrament. Christ is fully present in the Eucharist in both bread and wine. The fancy name for this is concomitance. For sure it might be desirable that both the priest and the people receive communion in both kinds (this being the spirit of Article XXX of the Articles of Religion), but where this is not possible it doesn’t diminish the power and the potency of the sacrament; where Christ is present He is fully present and when we are fed we are fully fed.

So having prayed and having been fed how can we go ‘in peace to love and serve the Lord’ following where Coronavirus leads?

Here are just a few suggestions; suggestions that have sprung up from within the church and the community:

How about gathering a list of names of people who are happy (subject to their own health) to shop and collect prescriptions for the vulnerable and the isolated?

Or maybe creating a network of telephone and virtual friends?

What about a prayer or reflection for the day or week ahead on the parish website, Facebook Page, or Twitter feed?

Earlier this week I was delighted to receive a request from one of the town’s civic organisations to partner (in our existing scheme) to help those facing food-poverty. Would your local Rotary, Lions or other clubs and organisations be interested in partnering with your church as you seek, in a spirit of mutual cooperation to ‘strengthen community?’ If you don’t ask, you won’t know!

We maybe in approaching the ‘worst of times’ but, perhaps, just perhaps, the opportunity exists for the concomitant church to work with others of good will to enrich society and strengthen community by reaching out, through acts of loving service, to the poor and needy neighbour in our land. The church should go where coronavirus leads.

Talking of trust, mission, leadership and governance

I can’t say that I am particularly looking forward to next week’s General Synod.

For all the entirely necessary discussions, workshops, break-out sessions, and debates it feels as though one subject will cast a shadow over the entirety of synod: that pastoral communication or, as it is now being referred to, ‘statement.’

The archbishops and bishops are right to acknowledge that trust has been broken and that hurt has been caused. I hope, and believe, that trust can, over time, be restored, and that hurts can be, to some extent, healed. In fact it is necessary that they are if the phrase ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’ is to have any future currency. When trust has been broken what is left? When trust has been broken what can it mean to be episcopally led; for trust is the greatest of intangible assets. Without trust there can be no longer-term sustainable and effective leadership; no real authentic polity.

The bigger problem with the original statement and subsequent apology, alongside as the failure to withdraw the offending (and offensive) ‘statement’ is not so much the breakdown of trust, for this is concerned with inter-church relationships, but the significant collateral damage to the mission of the church.

It is a sobering thought that the actions of the bishops has damaged, significantly damaged, the mission of the church. Put simply many on the pews, on the edges of church, and in our civic communities think that, through the office of her bishops, the church has lost the plot.

People, ordinary people, don’t in reality spend much time listening to the bishops, but not this time. The words and actions of the bishops has caused much conversation both inside and outside the walls of my church buildings. Nobody that I have spoken to has been in any way supportive or sympathetic; quite the reverse in fact. The mission of the church has been significantly damaged by her most ‘senior’ leaders.

Part of the reason for the breakdown in trust and the damage to the mission of the church may well be the way that the bishops exercise governance. The affairs of the College and the House of Bishops seems to be clothed in darkness, undue secrecy and a desire to act and speak in concert as some form of C of E Magisterium. This has led to a cacophony of noise rather than a symphony of sound. We also know that various members of the orchestra are being drowned out. The subtle notes, the nuanced voices, are simply not being heard such is the desire to pursue a misguided theology of collegiality.

Rowan Williams has recently written that ‘the bureaucratic urge to homogenize is one which Christians have every reason to resist.’ This must surely apply to ‘in house discussions’ in the church and within the College and House of Bishops, for homogenization can only, ultimately, lead to lowest common denominator decisions.

The misguided desire to present a theology of collegiality and homogeneity also poses a risk to the entirety of the governance system. If the bishops are determined to speak with one voice, and to vote in one direction, on substantive issues then the notion of synodical governance ceases to exist with the Church of England becoming both episcopally led and episcopally governed. Is this what we want? Homogeneity deriving from a shallow theology of collegiality is the last thing that a missionally minded church needs.

I am never quite sure I understand why meetings of the bishops are so secretive. Nor do I understand why sensitive issues relating to sexuality (or even just sex) and gender are categorised as ‘deemed business.’ Deemed business is normally listed at the end of an agenda, when fatigue has set in and members want to go home (some will have gone home!) Sensitive, missionally important issues, should surely never be categorised as ‘deemed business?’

So where do we go from here? My hope that there is something good that can come out of the debacle of the last couple of weeks: a renewed commitment to engaging with the widest possible range of views and perspectives, the ending of the shroud of secrecy in all things bishopy (it really isn’t necessary) and a rejection of shallow theologies of (Episcopal) collegiality and homogeneity. The Church of England has tried such approaches and all they have led to is the erosion of trust, the diminution of mission and significant hurt and pain.

Let me finish with another quote from ++Rowan, one I wholeheartedly agree with:

‘Good governance and government is always about an engagement with the other, a developing relation that is neither static confrontation nor competition but an interaction producing some form of common language and vision that could not have been defined in advance of the encounter.’

If the Church of England is serious about leadership, mission, governance and the genuine possibility for a ‘radical new inclusion in the life of the church’ then it is imperative that our bishops take their governance responsibilities seriously. In fact it is the only way to restore trust and enhance mission.

Leadership, real and sustainable leadership, is forged not through strap lines, or the desire to control through the ‘careful’ management of an agenda, but through the sometimes painful, usually frustrating, but always deep and engaging processes of governance.

Talking of safety in church

Just before Christmas one of my daughters messaged me to ask if I knew a church she could attend for a Midnight Mass; a church where she would ‘feel safe.’

My daughter is both gay and disabled and was staying with her partner for Christmas. Their’s, to borrow a phrase from Archbishop Justin, is a relationship of ‘stunning quality.’ It is a relationship built on mutual care and companionship. I rejoice in their love for each other and would like nothing more than to liturgically bless it; why wouldn’t I?

But, I am troubled that my daughter should feel the need to ask if I knew of a church where she would ‘feel safe.’

Let’s pause and think for a second or two: can it really be the case that there are churches where people might not feel safe, where they might feel marginalised and ostracized?

Sadly, it appears, it is. What an awful and appalling indictment of the Church of England, and to be honest, her leadership.

There is, however, just a nugget, or sliver, of the miraculous in her question for it reveals an appreciation that the Christian story is bigger, more powerful, more attractive story than the one that is frequently told by the institutional church and her clerics. But ‘do you know a church where I can feel safe’ it is still a question that nobody should ever have to ask, or indeed answer. It is a horrible question, a dirty question and a sordid question, but one that, sadly, many need to ask. The Church of England should be a safe place for all, end of, full stop; for if any members of the body feels marginalised and ostracized then the entirety of the Body of Christ becomes weaker, insular and impotent.

To help answer her question I contacted a friend, an archdeacon no less, who initially sent me a list of churches that my daughter would do well to steer clear of. Again let’s pause to think about this: churches exist, really exist, where a young gay women, in a wheelchair, and her partner might not feel welcome, let alone safe. What an appalling indictment on the church and her leadership.

My friend did send me a list of churches where my daughter and her partner would be truly, properly, welcomed and I am glad to say that they went to MidNight Mass and were made to feel very much at home, as though they belonged. The vicar spoke to them, shared the peace with them, and fed them through word and sacrament. He made them feel safe and secure as members of the Body of Christ. For this, as a dad and a priest, I am truly grateful.

My daughter’s story reminds me of two things: First, that the Christian story is bigger than any one of us, and secondly, and tragically, that for many people the church is not experienced as a safe, loving, and pastoral place. Although the story is bigger the church is perfectly capable of hiding its light and majesty under a bushel; a bushel of inhospitable and exclusive relational ethics.

In my benefice we won’t always get it right but what I hope is that we will always truly strive to create an environment – no a community – where all, yes all, are truly welcome. In time I hope that such a welcome will include the ability to liturgically affirm all those who wish to enter into a monogamous, faithful, life-long and coventanted relationship; full stop, end-of. The church should always stand alongside, in (liturgical) solidarity, those who wish to pledge themselves to another human being and who wish to vow to undertake the life-long, hard, and nitty-gritty work of love.

It will take time for the church to get there, to that place of ‘liturgical solidarity,’ (and equality) but in the meantime would it be too much to ask that our ‘leaders’ really do pledge to making sure that each and every church is genuinely a safe place for all?

As a priest and as a dad I never (again) want to worry about whether my daughter is safe in church.