Church plants and the problems of ecclesiology and doctrine

Church Planting and the Mission of the Church makes interesting reading. In some ways it would be hard to argue against the principle of church planting. As the bishops rightly say church planting has been a feature of ecclesial life throughout Christian history, and should remain so.

The largest church in my benefice was established as a ‘plant,’ or more precisely a minster, way back in 1290 by the then St. Alban’s Abbey to serve surrounding villages. St. Alban’s (according to google, so it must be correct) to Winslow is 34.9 miles. I wonder why the abbot, Roger de Norton, fancied Winslow for a ‘church plant?’ In recent times we have been trying to recapture some of the essence of what it means to be a minster or resourcing church, as a market town in a rural area.

This brings me to two of my concerns about planting, and they are geographic concerns: where are most of the plants, or grafts, to be located and what socio-economic group are they set to serve? Will plants be established in poorer, less fashionable, maybe even less urban locations?

Another concern I have about plants is the tendency to regard them as the solution, rather than as part of the solution. It is my strongly held view that traditional forms of church also require significant investment and, that such churches, particularly in market towns, can, and should be, significant engines for renewal and reform. Some of our market towns need just that little bit of impetus to push onwards and upwards, others need re-energizing so that they too can become ‘rural minsters’, for of this I am sure, the big city plants reach is limited to the urban and the suburban. I would welcome strategic initiatives to energize those parts of the church which the urban plant simply cannot reach. Indeed if we are serious about being a national church we must surely do so.

My biggest concern is over neighborly relations. The bishop’s guidance makes it clear that good, and hospitable, relationships between the established church, and the new arrival should be the norm. In some ways this is a bit of a motherhood and apple pie statement! Of course neighbours should get on. But, I am worried about just how well some neighbours will be able to get on. I worry about this because my market town parish is set for stratospheric population growth. In many ways it looks like a planters dream; we are very, very, Middle England (but look below the surface………….)

We have worked exceptionally hard at establishing our identity. We are intentionally liturgical, choral, and sacramental. We take growth seriously both in terms of numbers and holiness. We aim to serve the wider geographic area, but without colonizing it. We are members of Inclusive Church and the Prayer Book Society. We have a significant breadth of worship and we take ‘life-events’ very seriously. I would want to be ‘jealous’ of our identity. It is an identity that we offer to the town and surrounding area. Its a purposefully missional and evangelistic identity.

And so I read the following, motherhood and apple pie, paragraphs with concern:

‘We expect those responsible for church plants to commit themselves to work to the best of their ability in cooperation with the other churches in the local area, including the church in whose parish the new church plant is located, as an integrated part of deanery and diocesan structures. They should aim to use some of their resources to support the mission of their neighbours and expect to make regular financial contributions to the diocese, as an expression of the mutual responsibilities that are a normal part of church life.

We expect those responsible for churches neighbouring a new church plant, including the church in whose parish the new church plant is located, similarly to commit themselves to work to the best of their ability in cooperation with the new church plant or churches, to welcome them into local structures, and wherever possible to use some of their resources to help support the new church plant.’

The point is that any plant can only be located in an existing ‘(whose) parish’  and that it is the vicar of that church who has been charged with the ‘cure of souls’ in that parish. The inclusion of the relative pronoun ‘whose’ makes this clear. So here’s the problem: what does cure of souls mean and, who decides how the cure is to be exercised? Traditionally this has meant the vicar ‘in whose parish’ the parish church is located. The vicar, or parish priest, is the ‘who’ to the ‘whose.’

Now as a parish priest I am delighted that others join with me in exercising the ‘cure of souls;’ why wouldn’t I be? However, those who share in the ministry of a specific church, in a specific parish should, presumably, have a fairly common understanding of what this means and looks like in practice?

I would expect, as the Parish Priest, that anyone exercising ministry in the parish would have a similar ecclesiology and set of doctrines around the big (and contentious) issues, and I don’t think this is an unfair expectation. Mixed or even competing ecclesiologies within a bounded parish would seem to me to be highly problematic, and ultimately unworkable.

As a parish priest with responsibility for the cure of souls my hospitality is, like all hospitality, bounded. And, if you think I am being an illiberal-liberal just pause and think about whether someone of my theological ilk would be offered the freedom and hospitality of the pulpit, or a share in the ‘cure of souls,’ in a conservative evangelical church, for instance.

I would be happy for any plant, in my parish, to be ‘lower church,’ or ‘higher church’ (less likely). I would be very happy indeed to work with a pioneer minister. I would be okay with a plant, or fresh expression, being less sacramentally centered. I am not worried whether the priest responsible robes or not (although I will continue to wear vestments and, I would hope that any ordained colleagues leading public worship would wear a dog collar). But, what I would not be happy about is sharing the ‘cure of souls’ parish with a plant, graft, or fresh expression, operating from an entirely different understanding of what this means.

If a plant, fresh expression, or graft, were to be established in Winslow terms and conditions would have to apply and these would include a commitment to inclusivity with regards to gender and sexuality, alongside a broad soteriology, for these are integral to this parish priests understanding of what it means to exercise the ‘cure of souls,’ in the parish context.

I suspect my problem is that very few natural planters are as committed as I am (we are) to inclusivity as being core to their understanding of the ‘cure of souls.’ But, maybe I am wrong?

So, yes, I have a lot of sympathy with planting, but it must not be done recklessly. Planting isn’t just about mission and evangelism; it’s also about ecclesiology and doctrine. Above all its about understanding and being committed to a particular and common understanding of that most parish based concept, ‘the cure of souls.’

Speaking of mental health; which we must

I don’t think I have ever included the full text of a sermon in my blog before! The reason I am doing so is that since I gave a sermon, at St. Paul’s Wokingham, on Mental Health a couple of weeks ago a fair number of people have talked to me about their mental health problems. Anxiety, depression, fear are very much the diseases, or dis-eases, of our time. They are realities that the church needs to take seriously, and respond to, if we are serious about our healing ministry.

In a funny way, I was grateful to give my first sermon on mental health, away from my home patch! Something about keeping my light under a bushel, perhaps, for my light is my life. However, working with a couple of colleagues we are now in the early stages of developing a mental health liturgy, hopefully to be unveiled in October. The plan is that this will be a short practical liturgy that can be used both in church, in smaller groups, or at home. It will be a form of Christian mindfulness which will draw on the riches of Scripture and some of the strategies I learnt on the mindfulness course I attended a couple of years ago at the Oxford Centre for Mindfullness.

So here’s the text of the sermon; make of it what you will!


Mental Health: Psalm 40, 1-8 & the Beatitudes

Let me start with a confession: I have no idea why I volunteered to talk on mental health, specifically, anxiety and depression this evening. Perhaps, I was caught in a moment of weakness and vulnerability. Perhaps, it was a Holy Spirit thing? I have in the past written about mental health, but not spoken about it; at least not in public.

But, the point is that I care deeply about mental health. I care because I have suffered with poor mental health and because I encounter it each and every week in my ordinary pastoral ministry. Poor mental health, is sadly, ordinary, in the sense that it is commonplace and widespread. It is very much the disease, or sense of dis-ease, for our times.

The Beatitudes rank amongst Scripture’s most beautifully poetic texts. But, maybe there is a danger of getting lost in their beauty, because they are also a call to practicality and realism. They are also calls to action: if, for instance, we aspire to live in a world where mercy is a lived out phenomena, the onus starts with us. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.’ The beatitudes are also concerned with identity: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.’ A third characteristic is their pastoral imperative; ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ I don’t propose to go through each and every beatitude, but I do want, to focus on one of the spiritual-geographic beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven,’ (the other, is of course, ‘blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth’).

Now, as a person who has suffered with anxiety and depression I need to make my second act of confession: there is something I find really uncomfortable with these two beatitudes. Maybe you do too, or maybe there are other beatitudes that disquiet and challenge you? I would also want to suggest that my reading of these two, especially the first, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit,’ is shaped through experience. I fully acknowledge that in some ways I am departing from the traditional Matthean correlation between poverty of spirit and humility and Luke’s more radically political understanding of poverty of spirit. But, I think that this is both okay and valid and that we should allow ourselves to be shaped through, in the words of the Magnificat, ‘the imagination of our hearts.’ We should bring our experiences, hurts and pains as well as joys, to our engagement in Scripture. Scripture shouldn’t be limited to something we read from a safe distance.

Let me be honest there have been times in my life when I really, really wish my spirit has been a little richer, my self-esteem a little higher. I have known times when my spirit has felt crushed, annihilated, bankrupt even. There have been times when I have ended up as a soggy mess on the floor, feeling completely incapable of trusting God for anything. There have been times when I have felt so lonely and isolated, despite being surrounded by people, that my night prayer has been simply this: ‘make it better or make it end.’ There have also been times when I have felt so ashamed of my vulnerability, and if I am honest, lack of capacity. There have been times when my prayers have been screams and, my worship has been arid. But, here is the interesting thing; during these times God has broken through and I have made new discoveries about the nature of both the world and the kingdom. And as I look back on these times of seriously poor mental health from the perspective of being at least to some extent ‘re-clothed in my rightful mind’ I have begun to see much of Scripture in a different way and, specifically some of the Psalms and the Beatitudes. The other strange thing is that poor mental health exploded the bubble I lived in and brought me into contact with new people, providing me with the compassion, understanding and energy to keep going.

The first person I spoke to about how I was feeling was my doctor. Well, I didn’t really speak, I cried. Guess what, she understood. Guess what, this highly capable women was a fellow sufferer. And guess what: she believed faith was part of the solution. Yes my doctor treated me, but she also dared to share with me. Her poverty of spirit, her willingness, to take a risk, to lead an undefended life helped me on my journey. In a very real way she opened a door to the Kingdom of God ‘here on earth as in heaven.’ I could give you many other examples of people who have been instrumental in my journey. They all have one thing in common: they have helped me to de-power the stigma of poor mental health in my own mind and, more importantly, in my pastoral work.

Because I am transparent about my own battles I get asked to talk to others who are suffering. This week I was asked to visit a man crippled by anxiety. We shared together and we prayed together. His spiritual ambition is to attend our midday Eucharist on a Wednesday. Could I ask you a favour: could you pray that he will be so strengthened that he may do so?

I strongly believe that mental health is something the church should be actively talking about. If we don’t how can we claim to be a healing presence in a deeply tortured world? For the many people have suffer from an acute poverty of spirit, one of the things we can do, through the gift of prayer, is to ask God that he will draw them out from what the psalmist describes as ‘the desolate pit,’ and, ‘the miry bog.’ Anyone who has been a fellow sufferer will know that these descriptors are so utterly apt.

I have asked you to pray for my parishioner and others. I have done so because I believe in the power of prayer. Prayer has been, and remains, the most significant part of my own healing process. I think, however, because I have suffered with my twin imposters, that I have learnt to pray differently. I definitely regard God, not as my solver and fixer, but as my accompanier (something of psalm 23 here – ‘surely goodness and loving mercy shall walk with me all the days of my life.’)

Through prayer I have also learnt to hope. The psalmist writes that he ‘waited patiently for the Lord and he inclined my ear and heard my cry.’ I too, like all sufferers, have had to learn the inconvenient art of patience; believe me it doesn’t come naturally! Healing can and does occur, but it takes time. When the healing process began, after what I now see as nearly thirty-five years of suffering (by degree), the amazing thing is that we genuinely begin to understand that being ‘poor in spirit,’ might possibly be a virtue  to be shared. For being poor in spirit means accepting ourselves as we really are – as fragile and vulnerable – whilst trusting in the God who journeys with us through life and loves us into eternity.

My hope and prayer is that many churches will engage with the reality of poor mental health through prayer and through being honest about its devastating reality and, that those who suffer from anxiety and depression won’t be seen as problems but, as the hymn writer Marty Hagen puts it, as ‘words within the word,’ for then we will truly be churches that provide a gateway leading to ‘the kingdom of heaven,’


Speaking of words within the word

I love the phrase, penned by Marty Hagen, in His Hymn ‘Let us Build a House:’ ‘words within the Word.’ I long and pray for a time when all who come to church, for whatever reason, will be truly regarded as ‘words within the Word.’ If this hope, vision, and aspiration is to be realized the starting point must surely be a recognition that all are made in the image of God (Genesis 1, 26), and that in God’s kingdom nobody is a second class citizen.

I suspect that such a depth of understanding is a stretch for most of us, most of the time. It is a very (fallen) human propensity to believe that there are first, second, third, perhaps even fourth, class citizens. Perhaps the worst consequence of the fall has been the human instinct to demarcate, categorize, rank, and exclude?

When we categorize and rank, when we refuse to regard others, ‘words within the Word,’ the tendency is to build a house where the highest ethics we can aim for are pity, benign tolerance, and cold charity. The building of a house where ‘love is found,’ where ‘all are named’ and, where the church becomes ‘a banquet hall on holy ground, where peace and justice meet,’ becomes nothing more than a pipe dream and shallow utterance. When we categorize and rank, privileging one group over and above others, maybe all we are left with is a religious assembly, or cult?

Recently we have heard several stories about people being afforded or denied their God-given status as ‘words within the Word.’ Those who have to live with the appalling consequences of the Grenfell Tower disaster have finally been given the opportunity to tell their stories. Victims of sexual abuse in the Church of England have said that they have never been given the opportunity to tell their stories or to assist in the creation of liturgies of post abuse reconciliation. LGBTIQ+ Christians repeatedly say that they are more frequently talked about than talked to. There have been occasions, in recent history, where people have been offered the opportunity to speak to great effect. I am thinking, for instance, of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission. I have come to believe that such is our innate, and fallen, propensity to rank, categorize, and talk about, rather than to, that allowing others to be fully ‘words within the Word,’ is something that needs to be, at least initially, until it becomes natural, something we will into being.

I am fairly used to being in environments where two of my loved ones are talked about, as though they were problems to be solved, or worse still second class citizens. Let me give two fairly recent examples: My elder daughter is an occasional wheelchair user (she has C.P. and occasionally her legs cease to function, she also has seizures on a fairly frequent basis). When out and about in her wheelchair my daughter, if caught short, needs to use a disabled lavatory. Unfortunately disabled lavatories are not always looked after as well as they might be, and so my daughter decided to complain at the (appalling) state of a facility she has just been forced to endure. The manager (eventually) came to discuss the situation, and as often occurs talked straight past my daughter, to me. Now Katherine (for that is her name) is extremely bright, highly articulate, and knows her own mind. Trust me I am her dad!

The manager through the way he behaved made it clear that he couldn’t regard my daughter as an equal in any way, shape or form. I suspect that the manager’s bias was innate rather than thought through and that he very possibly thought that he was talking to Katherine, rather than over and past her. Is there a danger that the church might fall into the same trap? Its a fairly easy trap to fall into; thinking we are talking to, when in fact we are talking through.

At a churchy do the other week someone asked me whether my daughters have boyfriends. I gave an honest reply: one does, the other has a girl friend. My reply brought and abrupt, and to my mind rude, end to the conversation. My questioner made it perfectly clear that my younger daughter was to be placed in a category of which they disapproved. In both of these examples my daughters were denied the opportunity of being ‘words within the Word,’ which for me is the definition of what it means to be‘in Christ’.

The Church must, as already suggested, will and learn the art of listening to ‘others,’ so that they can truly be regarded as being ‘ words within the Word,’ and ‘in Christ.’ After all, we don’t suggest that ‘us’ heteronormative types pretend our other identities somehow don’t matter, or are somehow not ‘in Christ.’

However listening to the words ‘others’ speak isn’t enough. If we are to relate to and converse with others, we can only do so by responding in kind: ‘words within the Word.’ Sometimes the words we use will be pastoral, occasionally they may be words of rebuke, frequently they will (in the Church of England) be liturgical words.

Liturgy is Anglicanisms genius and epistemology. Liturgy is also both conversational and consequential: confession is followed by absolution, proclamation is followed by thanksgiving (‘this is the word of the Lord’………’thanks be to God,’) petition is followed by affirmation (‘will you the families and friends of x and y support and uphold them in their marriage now and in the years to come?’…….’we will.’) Discernment is also followed by affirmation (‘is it your will that I ordain a,b,and c?’……..’it is.’) The point is that words always beget words of some form or other. The words we use in Anglicanism to express both our ethos and our beliefs are shared, formal, and liturgical.

In relation to LGBTIQ+ (and other) issues the Church of England has to make a straightforward theological decision: are LGBTIQ+ Christians made equally in the image of God as  ‘words within the Word,’ or are they some other category of human being?

Having discerned the answer to this most basic theological question, the issue then becomes what words to use in response: words of rebuke, or words of affirmation? If the answer is words of affirmation the only way that this can be done is for those words to be formal liturgical words. Individual LGBTIQ+ members of the body, should always be given the words of sacramental recognition (‘the body of Christ’……’the blood of Christ.’) LGBTIQ+ couples should be offered liturgical rites.

After all we are all either ‘words within the Word,’ or none of us are.

Speaking of worthiness and sacraments

Rod Thomas’ letter to the Bishop Michael and members of the Lichfield College of Bishops makes interesting reading, for it exposes a very particular slant on sacramental theology. In some ways, paradoxically, given Rod’s churchmanship, it all feels a little pre-reformation. It seems to indicate that access to the sacraments of the church is a matter of good works, where man, is the arbiter of what is held to be good, or worthy. I was bemused, but not amused, by his line of theological reasoning. As I read his critique of the Lichfield letter I couldn’t help but here echoes of Luke 18, 11 where we are told that ‘the Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Rod is adamant that there is a difference between what he describes as worthy and unworthy participation in the sacraments of the church. He uses Canon 25 to validate his point:

 ‘As part of the national church, I would fully agree that we want to encourage everyone to participate in the life of the church to the maximum extent possible. However, I wonder whether the reference to ‘a place at the table’ for all might be taken by some to imply encouragement for all to participate in Holy Communion. This understanding would create a tension with the BCP Article 25 distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ participation. One of the practices in many churches is to draw attention to this distinction and to welcome those who have sought to repent and have placed their trust in Christ’s atoning work on the cross; it is then up to the individual members of the congregation to decide on their participation. In this respect, the Church of England has always had the practice of ‘charitable assumption.’

Now interestingly in letter Rod doesn’t refer to the Liturgy of the Sacrament. This is somewhat bizarre given the principle of Lex Orandi Lex Credendi. I will return to the liturgy shortly, but in the meantime let’s stay on Rod’s ground by looking at Article 25 which starts as follows:

‘Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s will towards us, by the grace he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.’

Canon 25 makes it clear that participation in the sacraments can never be a badge of honour, letter alone worthiness. For sure the Canon then goes on to say that ‘they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as St. Paul saith.’ 

So, the question then becomes what is meant by unworthiness, and can any of us ever be deemed worthy to receive the body and blood of Christ? My own view is that when we regard ourselves as remotely worthy, due to our good works and the sacrifices that we make, then we are truly unworthy! The eucharistic paradox is that we become remotely worthy only when we acknowledge our unworthiness. We know this because the liturgy tells us so.

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the peace, the call to be reconciled one to the other, as we begin the journey of prayer towards receipt of the sacrament. Unworthiness, according to the Scriptures, and captured through the liturgy is in taking the sacrament whilst remaining in a state of enmity. Worthiness and unworthiness can therefore be regarded as communal and relational virtues. The stress on the relational and communal should be expected given that the Eucharist is our shared meal.  So, another problem I have with Rod’s theology of the Eucharist is that it is so highly individualistic! The stress on worthiness, and unworthiness, (and judgment) would seem to lead to a situation where, like the Pharisee in his prayer, we can only ever stand alone when we come to the communal feast, which would seem to undermine the whole point!

When we share in the church’s common meal,  we should do so in a state of true humility (not that any of us can ever truly achieve this, in our own strength) and, in a spirit of expectation; expectation that through God’s grace we will be transformed and equipped to live better, more Godly, lives. In the Eucharist the initiative is all God’s.  Rod’s beloved canon 25 makes this clear! Our responsibility is to come to the table, in spirit of humility and in love and charity with our neighbour. Everything else is up to God!

The fact that we continue to be unworthy recipients can be further evidenced through the liturgy, in particular the Prayers of Humble Access:

‘We do not presume to come to this your table trusting in our own righteousness (worthiness) but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not WORTHY (there it is in black and white) so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table. But, you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy…..’

Or, in the alternative form:

‘Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs under your table. But, you Lord are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinners. So cleanse and feed us with the precious body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in Him…..’

The Liturgy of the Eucharist begins with a call for peace and reconciliation between believers (worthiness to proceed) and ends, through the Prayers of Humble Access, by reminding us that we must continue to hold fast to the notion that we are unworthy to proceed. There in lies the great paradox of the Eucharist: any worthiness to partake is contingent on the total acceptance that we are all, yes each and everyone one of us, entirely unworthy. Our hearts can never be truly prepared, our hands can never be clean enough, our lives can never be sufficiently righteous. It’s not about us and the sacrifices we make. The Eucharist is not about a theology of works. Participation is not a badge or token of honour. The Eucharist is all about grace and the radical, inclusive, hospitality of God. The wonder of the Eucharist is that when we accept this then the effect is that we are ‘made clean by his body’ and ‘our souls are washed through his most precious blood.’ If we come believing in our own worthiness no cleansing and washing can take place for, once again, the liturgy tells us so.

The fact that a Church of England bishop seems to adhere to such a thin Eucharistic theology is worrying. The fact his argument is made, primarily, through a very particular understanding of one article of religion, is troubling.






Speaking of spreadsheets and the cross

I read Bishop Philip North’s article, ‘The spreadsheet or the cross – time to choose’, in the Church Times (1st June) with considerable interest.

This autumn I will, once more, be leading a Mission and Evangelism course in my own archdeaconry (Buckinghamshire).  I also sit on my diocesan parish share review group and, the Glebe Investment Committee (before ordination I worked in the investment management industry) . Mission and money, and in particular the relationship between the two, is close to my heart.

In a spirit of honesty I get very frustrated when the argument is put forward that mission and evangelism can somehow be effective separate from financial support. Mission and evangelism can never be cost-free. This is surely a lesson that should be learnt from those churches who invest, because they are able to do so, directly and financially, in mission strategies and action plans?

The trouble is that many churches are unable to allocate significant sums of cash to mission and evangelism either because there is no money in the first place (poverty), or because the demand of parish share is so onerous that there is little, or nothing, left to invest directly, over a sustained period of time, in mission (the squeezed middle or only just managing). In my own parish, according to the ‘spreadsheets’ 88% of our voluntary income is directed towards parish share. In some of our largest churches, well, I will leave you to guess the figures……………

Like the Vicar of Ribbleton, many of the clergy in my locale work pretty much ‘entirely alone.’ And, it’s getting worse. Team ministries exist, for sure, but they are stretched to breaking point. In fact they are so stretched that they don’t in any meaningful sense operate as a team. Ministers are so busy fulfilling their basic commitments and obligations to pastoral ministry, and satisfying the needs of the rota, that there is little time or energy left to do anything else.

Bishop Philip’s concern, is rightly, focused on areas of deprivation; the outer estates. My concern is the squeezed middle and the countryside. Rural poverty is a real thing, even in Buckinghamshire. I come across the devastating effects of poverty each and every week as do my deanery colleagues. Mind you urban poverty is also a very real thing, even in leafy Buckinghamshire. Towns like Slough, High Wycombe, Aylesbury and Milton Keynes all have ‘no go areas.’ If the Church is to devise a new and more just system for the allocation of resources what it mustn’t do is pit urban against rural. This is my only real concern with the overall thrust of Bishop Philip’s argument.

Bishop Philip’s concern, again rightly, is for a fairer distribution of resources across dioceses. His proposal is for a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure’ that would allow ‘historic assets to be held centrally so that we could deploy clergy nationally on the basis of need rather than history.’ It is a good proposal, however I would agree with Bishop Philip that ‘the chances of the General Synod’s passing such a measure are roughly the same as Accrington Stanley’s winning the UEFA Champions League.’ This level of realism depresses me beyond words.

I suppose my more modest hope would be that dioceses would deploy their historic assets, and the mechanics of the parish share scheme, more strategically in order to invest directly in areas of poverty, whilst also relieving the burden on the squeezed middle. If we are serious about the cross this would appear to me to be a no-brainer. It is something that I have been arguing for, with some passion, in our parish share review group. I have no doubt that the spreadsheets work to the advantage of the large and successful. The spreadsheets that I have studied prove this.  The spreadsheets tragically testify to the fact that the Acts Chapter 2 (43 – end) is, indeed, an inconvenient text.

So if the notion of a new ‘Endowment and Glebe Measure,’ in conjunction with an economically more just share scheme, operationalized either at the national or regional level, or pragmatically some combination of the two, with wealthier dioceses, such as mine, also making a greater contribution to the common good, in the recognition that some dioceses, when they were formed, were set up to fail is a no-brainer why won’t it be enacted?

Well, again, I think Bishop Philip provides the answer: structural injustices are easier to live with. Of course structural injustice can always be explained away or legitimized. I have been repeatedly told that asking large, essentially gathered churches, some of which are the grateful recipients of vast sums of discretionary giving, to contribute more to the common purse, would be to penalize them for growth (or size). To my mind this argument is the ecclesial equivalent of the suggestion that a modest increase in income tax on the super wealthy would lead to a mass exodus to other, more favorable, tax regimes. It is an argument made from a place of fear. The unspoken message is that we would like the wealthy to make a greater direct contribution, but we dare not put in place a system that corrects the structural injustices, and facilitates meaningful redistribution of either historic capital or current income, which so manifestly prevails. Until these issues are courageously addressed the best we can aspire to be is a faded caricature of the the apostolic church, as described in Acts 2, 43 -end.

I have also been told, repeatedly, that largest and wealthiest of  churches invest directly in mission, using their ‘own’ funds. This is true, for the simple and straightforward reason that they can. Part of the reason they can is that they pay far too little into the common purse through the parish share system but even with a relatively substantial increase in contribution to the common purse they would still be able to invest substantial sums directly in their own mission initiatives; the spreadsheets tell us so. I have also been told, again repeatedly, that should any attempt be made to ask the wealthy churches to pay more all that will happen is that they will use the skills at their disposal to engineer their accounts, moving increasingly large amounts of money into restricted funds. To me this is a little bit like wealthy corporations moving assets offshore and off balance sheet. Its legal, but……

I would imagine that churches up and down the land would love to have the opportunity to invest directly in mission and evangelism so that day by day the Lord might add to the number those who are being saved (Acts 2, 47), but the financial and missional reality is that they, or should I say we, can’t. The fact that a large number of cash strapped churches are managing to sustain and, in some cases, grow is nothing short of a miracle and, yet, such churches are seldom celebrated or held up as exemplars of good practice. I wonder why not?

In his article the Bishop of Burnley speaks prophetically as follows: ‘if the Church of England is to play any part in the renewal of Christian life in this nation, it will come from the edges, from the margins, from the forgotten, and from the poor.’ He is surely right and yet the problem is that few head office, central planning, types will want to believe him, and others, who offer such a critique, for such critiques are regarded as being unworldly and insufficiently managerial and, yet history shows that in the church, as well as in the economy, change, transformation and renewal does in fact frequently come from the edges and the margins. Two of the late twentieth centuries best management thinkers (Henry Mintzberg and J.B. Quinn) proved this. The recent revival in ‘forgotten’ or retro products is also interesting. Is there a danger that traditional parish ministry, and worship, is increasingly regarded as past its sell by date? I fully accept that fresh expressions, church plants and the like must play their part, but they can never be the complete answer. Growth, both in number and in holiness, can also result from a real and sustained commitment to traditional patterns of ministry and worship, if they are given the opportunity.

I suspect, like Philip North, that a real financial commitment to invest in areas of poverty and, simultaneously, traditional parish ministry, will reap huge missional dividends.  Investing, or even subsidizing, the big, shiny, glossy and new will take the Church of England so far, but by no means far enough.

Like Philip North my concern is that if the spreadsheet system, and the structural injustice it perpetuates, continues mission and evangelism will become the exclusive preserve of the urban, wealthy, and already successful and that the Church of England will cease to be a truly national church.

Yes, it really is that stark.