The Christian story is not just an old but, a timeless story. The plot never changes nor does the chapter outline. The colour coded story, at least from a C of E, perspective begins in Advent and moves through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost and Trinity. The chapter headings never change. The plot outline is never re-written. Yes, various sub chapters are added in to further animate the story: harvest, remembrance, saints days and so forth, but the basic story line remains constant. Thank goodness for this, for to change the story would be to cheapen the story. And, it would be wrong to cheapen a story which seemingly ends with the most painful of all deaths. Of course, for the Christian, the story line can be summarized in the phrase ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…..’ (John 3, 16).
The Christian story is the consummate love story. It is the story of the God who constantly gives. It is the story of the God who gives of himself in creation, in and through the pangs of labour, from the cross, through the resurrection and, then again at Pentecost. ‘Our’ Christian God is no-misery-guts instead he is utterly selfless and always self-giving. So we are not at liberty to tweak, amend, or even change the story line.
And, yet I was struck at the midday Eucharist on Wednesday when I read from Psalm 98 which begins with the phrase ‘O Sing a New Song,’ (it then makes it clear that the new song is to be sung ‘unto the Lord’ – the psalm is one of praise). Over the last couple of years I have become increasingly convinced that the church does need to sing a ‘new song.’ Singing a new song doesn’t imply putting the record collection in the loft for safekeeping. I have far too much respect for the traditions of the church to suggest that, but it does mean reaching out in new ways and trying new things, so that God can ‘do a new thing,’ (Isaiah 43, 19).
Let me clear, transparent and up front: the churches I am responsible to and for as their parish priest could be described as liturgical, choral and sacramental. We happily occupy what might be thought of as the modern catholic tradition in the church. We are corporate members of Inclusive Church and the Prayer Book Society, and we are growing in number and, hopefully, in holiness. We care about the story we are obligated to tell and seek to do so through both word and sacrament. We are not about to jettison our inherited tradition and, neither should we. To do so would be an act of reckless folly. It would also be a missional disaster.
But, and this is my sneaking anxiety, for I would love everyone to accept and endorse my tradition, it’s simply not enough. If we are to meet our aspirations to grow in number and holiness new ways of telling the greatest of all love stories need to be developed and incorporated into the missional mix.
The only reason I ‘know’ this is experience. ‘Our’ way of expressing ‘our’ communal praise and adoration for God works for many and not just those who are steeped in the traditions of the church.
Young couples, those seeking baptism for the children, families and friends of those we have taken funerals for, have all remarked on the beauty of the liturgy, the experience of community and the dignity of our worship, but others have been left confused and, if I am honest, ever so slightly wary of the formality. For some new comers our liturgical, choral, and sacramental style of modern catholic worship really is a ‘new song,’ for others it simply cannot be their song. So we, not they, need to do a ‘new thing.’
Because the story won’t change, just the ‘set’ and method of delivery there is nothing to fear. There is simply no competition over the overall story, and the chapter headings, for the simple reason that God, not we, is the author. God is the narrator, the alpha and omega, of the story.
Its funny, or perhaps it’s not, a few years ago I was fairly cynical about Fresh Expressions and Pioneer Ministers and now I am not. I still, again in a spirit of honesty and transparency, have reservations about church plants (but maybe I will get over myself). I would prefer to see existing parish churches being resourced and equipped for mission and evangelism than new churches being planted. I have no problem with new (parish) churches being established to serve new communities. I continue to believe that the parish system should be central to the Church of England’s ‘mission strategy.’ It is hard to see how the C of E can be a truly national and established church, serving the entirety of the nation through maintaining the widest and deepest nexus of relationships, separate from the parish system. If the parish system is undermined or eroded any notion of being the national and established church will simply be a matter of constitutional niceties. The Church of England should avoid any temptation to do mission by project.
I believe our small-medium and medium-sized parish churches can and should be powerful engines for growth in the communities they serve, if strategically resourced. I now believe that such churches should be encouraged to find new ways of telling our never-changing story, whilst at the same time honouring, even deepening, their existing tradition. It’s a about a complimentary theologies of worship, mission and evangelism. It is not either-or but and-both.
For me it’s not out with the old and in with the new, but about equipping parish churches up and down the land to invest in both, for then, and only then, will we be a true missionary church; only then can the stated aim of Renewal and Reform to evangelize the whole of England stand a chance.
I hope that one of the Renewal and Reform strategists overarching concerns is how to resource the ordinary parish church to achieve extraordinary returns. I was encouraged to see a letter from William Nye, the Secretary General to the Archbishop’s Council, sating that ‘we have also supported churches in outer estates in Blackpool, rural ministry in Salisbury and Cumbria, parish development across County Durham and, traditional parish work in the diocese of Coventry and in the Bishop of Ebbsfleet’s traditional catholic parishes.’ I would like to see much greater levels of strategic investment funding, both through R & R and directly by dioceses, in ordinary parishes, although not just in their ‘traditional work.’
One of my greatest desires, as an ordinary parish priest, is to work with a Pioneer Minister sharing in the job of story telling, mission and evangelism, so that those who know and love the Lord will grow in number and in holiness. They will do so by listening to different, yet entirely complimentary, new songs telling an old and never-changing story.
And, I never thought I would say that!