Mary & Elizabeth: Renewal & Reform

I absolutely love the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth (today’s Gospel reading – Luke 1 39-45). It is a story we can fully enter into finding ever new and deeper levels of meaning, and challenge.

I think in reading and reflecting on the story we have two choices: We can domestic the story, reading it  simply as a necessary precursor to the main action (the birth of Jesus), regarding Mary and Elizabeth as attendees at a coffee morning, or maybe even some early version of a NCT class, or we can we read it as an encounter to between two highly suspect and scandalous characters who are both about to contribute to the ultimate socio-religious upheaval.

So we have a choice: we can either read the story through the lens of safety, or the lens of scandal and challenge. We should of course opt for scandal and challenge even if only for our own interests sake!

Of course the story isn’t only about the meeting between two cousins, for there is also a third character involved: the Holy Spirit. So this is also a charismatic story.

The Holy Spirit, it seems, is up to something bold, big and, creative. His agents of change are a virgin and her elder, barren, cousin. It isn’t really very plausible is it? If you or I wanted to effect change would we select a young woman, who had mysteriously gone and got herself pregnant and her elder barren cousin, who by the way is married to a mute? I suggest not.

Yet from these two women comes the re-shaping, or renewal and reform, of world religion!  God chooses to legitimize his very presence and being in a thoroughly illegitimate manner, through Mary, whilst planting his evangelist in chief in Elizabeth’s barren womb.

The story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth should challenge the C of E to its very core as we contemplate what Renewal and Reform looks like in the here and now. We should at least ask the following questions:

Where has the Holy Spirit already planted the seed of renewal? This may of course be in a very different place to where we would like the Holy Spirit to plant his seed.

Are we prepared to identify, train and equip the illegitimate and seemingly barren for ministry?  I suspect that religious leaders through the ages possibly wouldn’t have immediately thought of the likes of Mary and Elizabeth as worthy ordination candidates. I suspect that this may still be the case!

Are we looking for growth in the seemingly barren places, or are we in retreat? Both Scripture and the history of Christianity seem to suggest that real renewal and reformation come through the unlikeliest of characters; characters who live on the periphery socially, geographically and institutionally. Growth, renewal, reformation frequently, normatively, comes from where we least expect to see it. In itself this is a hugely counter cultural statement for strategists, leaders and planners like to be able to predict and manage growth on their own terms.

The trouble is that Christian renewal seems not to work like this. It  has to take place on God’s terms, with human cooperation epitomized by the likes of Mary and Elizabeth, two of Scripture’s most unlikely ‘strategists.’

Maybe Mary and Elizabeth should be given patronage over our contemporary focus on Renewal and Reform, after all they have an awful lot to teach us.

 

Renewal,Reform and the ‘resource church.’

It is perhaps a statement of the obvious to suggest that when considering strategic investments it is always worth referring back to the investment objective. Professional fund managers, or at least the most effective of them over the long-term, tend to be extremely mindful of their objective or mandate. If the mandate is to produce a specific level of income whilst protecting capital, they will normally invest the majority of their portfolio in income producing stocks and shares, that is to say companies that pay a high, and hopefully sustainable, dividend. If the objective is to outperform the FTSE All Share Index a prudent manager will invest in a manner that broadly replicates the index, seeking to add value through a series of calculated risks.

The Church of England has, through the Renewal and Reform initiative, made the decision to act as an investment manager. We are not investing in stocks and shares but rather in strategic mission initiatives. The C of E if it is to achieve the desired outcome should, by analogy, constantly make sure that any investments genuinely and demonstrably facilitate the process of achieving the desired objective, or mandate.

R&R’s mandate is of course ‘the re-evangelism of England.’ This is a bold and audacious mandate, nevertheless it is the one that the C of E has set itself. What this means may in fact need a little unpacking: What does evangelism, never mind re-evangelization, mean in a multi-faith context, for example? Are we talking conversion or some other way of making sure that the Christian faith is seen as ‘good news?’ The same question actually applies at the general level: in what way is the Church of England good news for the communities in which it is lodged?

If the parish system is to be maintained the C of E must presumably be good news for all in the parish, irrespective of any prior or future commitment to faith? Unless, that is (re) evangelism is simply short hand for conversion.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, affecting conversion experiences should presumably be normative to the process of (re) evangelism. Normative to is, however, not the same as reducible to. So questions remain over precisely what is meant by (re) evangelism, in the context of Renewal and Reform.

But, there can be few questions, at least on a geographic basis, over what is meant by England. When the Church of England talks of England what we are referring to is a land mass of 130,395 square kilometers, comprising 10,449 civil parishes. Currently around 1:81% of the population (960k/53 million) worship at a Church of England service each and every week. So, what ever way you look at it there is a heck of a lot of land mass, and an enormous number of people to (re) evangelize.

Is the mandate fit for purpose may be a sensible question. I would say yes for the simple reason that the C of E is a national and, established church. As such it is the only mandate available to the C of E.

The Church of England to be there for the entirety of the population irrespective of whether they live in the leafy suburbs, rural backwaters or, inner city estates. It has to be there for those of no fixed abode, and those living at her majesty’s pleasure. It has to be there for the asylum seeker and, the refugee. It has to be there for the disabled, the dying and, the house bound. It has to be there for those living in hospices and, those living on service bases. It has to be there for those who feel disaffected, alienated, rejected and, turned off. It needs to be there for those who love the church and, those who currently regard it through the lenses of apathy or even contempt.

It has to be there for all, irrespective of class, creed, color, gender, ability or sexuality. It has to grow and sustain the widest possible nexus of relationships. If we don’t reach out and seek to both serve and evangelize everyone we will have lost our legitimacy to be regarded as the national and established church. Establishment would become a matter of mere legal and constitutional convention; dry, arid, hollowed out and missionally ineffective. This is the point that my so called liberal friends Martyn Percy and Linda Woodhead have repeatedly, and correctly, sought to make.

So, the mandate is correct and, achieving it will require flexibility, open mindedness and, skill. I would love to be able to provide a simple and straightforward model for success, but I can’t. The Church of England’s strategists in chief will, however, need to do so.

The scale (and scope) of the mandate demands that the C of E will need to create the ultimate highly diversified portfolio of strategic investments in order to successfully achieve the (re) evangelism of England.

So where can we start?

One of the success stories of recent times has been the resource church. Resource churches tend to be found in the cities and typically have been HTB style plants. As Ian Paul has pointed out in a recent thought piece resource churches have achieved rapid growth, through focusing predominately on a discrete group (the 18 to 30 age range). Their astonishing growth in numbers includes a significant number of returnees to church and new converts (around 34% of their congregations comprise these two groups). Resource churches tend to be well resourced in terms of staff numbers and, have demonstrated success in terms of planting, and resourcing, new congregations. They are in other words porous.

So far resource churches have tended to be characterized through a commitment to an evangelical and charismatic expression of faith. Resource churches of this sort are not for everyone but they have been successful; up to a point, or more precisely a geographic point. They have shown an ability to reach from the centre to the suburb, but perhaps no further. But, perhaps, we can learn from the existing model of resource church, amending and extending our understanding of the term? We could, and in my view should, consider extending it to include a wider range of ecclesiologies and geographic territories.

Maybe some real work needs to be done in identifying churches that are potentially and genuinely capable of serving rural England, less we stop at the suburbs? We must invest in potential for real growth, as every good investment manager knows. We must seek out and invest in churches which are currently undervalued and, through a prudent investment strategy seek to release value. ‘Value investment strategies,’ in the financial markets, tend to perform really well over the long-term. Identifying undervalued stocks and then providing the capital to release value demands both real skill and, conviction. The C of E’s strategists may need to start acting as value managers in order to achieve long-term success.

One of my own churches, St. Laurence Winslow, was established (as a plant!) by St. Alban’s Cathedral to serve the surrounding villages. We are trying to re-capture some of that vision in various ways. We are trying to do so without dominating or imposing an ecclesiology on our neighbours. We are trying to do so in practical ways such as hosting a Royal Society of Church Music day on ‘music for smaller churches.’ We have developed a set of liturgies including a Communion set to Nursery Rhymes and Well Known Tunes, and Pimms and Hymns (a service of the word), which we offer to smaller village communities. We ‘export’ our choir, and we invite those with a love of singing to join our choir at special ‘themed’ services. We invite guest preachers from the local area and beyond to speak at these themed services (typically Choral Evensong). We have joined the Prayer Book Society and, Inclusive Church. Outside the church is a poster which declares ‘All, yes all, are welcome in this place.’ We don’t have a mission statement but we do have three aspirations: Hospitality, Holiness and Healing. We believe these three are evangelical virtues and, we are constantly trying to discern what they mean in practice. It isn’t always easy or straightforward!

We are in the early stages of considering how we might serve those suffering with dementia (something we have been asked to do by asking some local doctors how they feel we might enact our aspiration to be a place and community of healing), both pastorally and through the provision of carefully crafted acts of worship. We have made a commitment to operate as a parish church, in the broadly modern catholic tradition, whilst reaching out beyond our geographically determined parish boundary. We host a vibrant Roman Catholic congregation and, are exploring ways of bringing the two communities into a closer relationship without eroding our own distinctive expressions of faith.

The Roman Catholic Vicar General for the diocese of Northampton preached on the Catholic Jubilee of Mercy at a well attended ‘Ecumenical Evensong,’ the month after a Methodist Minister preached on Wesley, at an evensong where we sang only Wesleyan Hymns.

Our own community of faith has grown over the last eighteen months and we remain committed to growth both in number and, holiness. We are committed to growing both our core and our periphery. In this sense, although a liberally minded modern catholic church, we take the mandate to ‘proclaim the gospel afresh in every generation’ seriously, as an evangelical imperative.

We want to re-capture the vision of those wonderful medieval clerics of St. Alban’s Cathedral.

But, to do so we need resourcing and, resourcing properly in the same way that the HTB style inner city churches are properly resourced.

There are surely countless churches like ours that are perfectly capable of reaching out to and serving beyond their parish boundary. These forms of resource church might not plant new congregations (although they could), but they could be resourced in order to purposefully serve others. To serve other communities purposefully requires significant stocks of good will and, integrity. The resource church model should never be about colonization and subjugation. It should be about ‘a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over,’ (Luke 6, 38).

The resource, or minster church, model if it is to be effective, might necessitate new ways of working and new models of clergy deployment but there again one of R&R’s concerns is ensuring that the right resources (human – with apologies to those who, like me, don’t like the term human resources – and financial) are effectively deployed.

I would guess that rural focused resource churches are most likely to be found in market towns and, we need to acknowledge that many market town congregations are not flourishing, but there again the city centre churches now populated by the likes of St. Peter’s Brighton were in a sad old state before investments were made and, resources allocated. These churches have reached out into the suburbs.

My fear is that if we fail to regard the market town churches as resource churches and then resource them accordingly we might just end up becoming a church which is successful in a variety of city centre and suburban settings only. The results of these individual investments will look stunning but their contribution alone will not, cannot, lead to the successful achievement of the Church of England’s objective or mandate.

In fact if the notion of resource church is only applied to HTB style plants then then the result could be to undermine the portfolios overall performance! In my old industry (investment/fund management) you didn’t need to look very far to find managers who had backed several stocks that performed exceptionally well yet whose aggregate portfolio performance was poor. The reason was normally that they had failed to pay due attention to the remainder of the portfolio. The Church of England must not make the same mistake. It is an extraordinarily easy mistake to make.

Is it now the time to resource other churches to reach out to and support rural England, after all we have got 130,395 square kilometers to serve and (re) evangelize as the national and, established church?

Creating more resource churches isn’t the only answer, of course it isn’t, but it might be an excellent way of adding real value to the stated aim and objective driving the Renewal and Reform initiative; the re-evangelism of England (all of it).