Who has pottered by this way, then?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Pastoral Letter. No, not that one.

Following the publication of the House of Bishops Pastoral Letter regarding Same Sex Marriage, an unofficial Tent of Non-Bishops have issued their own pastoral letter.

Dear Same Sex Couples,
We (quite a few members of the Church of England) would like you to know the following:
1. We love you, albeit a pale reflection of how God loves you, but we're doing our best.
2. If you're in a civil partnership or married, we will do our best to support you and love you both, and affirm and celebrate your fidelity to each other.
3. Like those who oppose your relationship, we take sin seriously. So we look forward to continuing to confess our sins to you as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Fingerpointing works so much better when the finger is pointed (lovingly) towards oneself. *Mumble... mumble... splinter... eye... plank...*
4. For those of you whom the Holy Spirit calls to the priesthood who are in committed same-sex relationships, we regret that you will have to forswear marriage in order to pursue your anointed vocation. We will love and support you as best we are able.
5. Actually, now we come to read 4, for 'regret', please read 'are outraged and find it baffling'. Lord have mercy.
6. We will not define you by your same-sex relationship. If we define you at all, it will be on equal terms, as a a precious human, made in the image of your Creator God. We will seek to see and nurture all that is Christlike in you, as we seek to see it in ourselves and in each and every child of God.
7. We love God and we love you. We love because God first loved us. How can we do otherwise and call ourselves followers of Christ?
8. er... that's it.

And we're sorry that our Church is hurting you.
Did we say that we loved you yet?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Body of Christ - valuing all its members?

I've noticed, among the legitimate celebration of the Church Growth figures, notably among things labelled Fresh Expressions and Cathedrals, a strong seam of anti-clerical sentiment. There seems to be a sense that we are involved in niche-marketing of the faith in some respects. This isn't true of most Fresh Expressions, mind you - when you look at the more successful ones, they tend to be very aware of their local communities, meet local needs but integrate getting alongside people with gathering as a church across the whole communities. Actually, when you talk to the leaders of some of these FX groups, they quietly admit there's nothing actually 'fresh' about what they're doing - these are successful pieces of mission on a model which churches have been involved in for centuries.

However, alongside all that is worth celebrating in these figures are comments which imply that clergy are no longer welcome in the Church of England, as reimagined by some lay-led groups. "Why do we need a priest or a bishop to do baptisms when our own elders can do it?". A bit of selective re-translation of episcopae into elder rather than bishop and Bob's your Church Leader.

So where did this strand of anti-clerical sentiment originate in this latest form?

The Turnbull report's response to the Church Commissioners losing most of the C of E's money in the 80s and early 90s was to create a new narrative: one which means that the mission of the Church is equated with a marketing model. But we're not selling membership, we're about introducing people to Jesus and leading them in discipleship. The problem was that there was no pot of money to pay clergy pensions - even the existing ones - so the thought of recruiting clergy at traditional levels filled the accountants at Church House with dread. Understandable. But hardly missional as an approach. Alongside this, the very scriptural understanding of the 'priesthood of all believers', and the model of active discipleship rather than passive affiliation were widely discussed. Now the latter were, and remain, good things. Churches grow not when there is a Vicar-shaped Church but when the whole Body of Christ in that place discerns together how to communicate the Good News of Jesus and lets the Holy Spirit get to work through them. Alpha and other courses emerged, at least in part, to re-energise the Church - invite Christians into deeper discipleship and break away from any sense that faith was something best left to the clergy. And of course these helped church communities reach out to people too and people became followers of Christ as a result - praise God! So there were lots of things going on, parallel developments, but a deep financial malaise at the centre.

We say we cannot afford clergy as if this is Gospel truth. It is only true if we make it so. If we are serious about being a missional Church, serving our communities, we need to continue to listen to the Holy Spirit as to whom is ordained for the priestly ministry - not forgetting that this is only one aspect: we need to help everyone in the Church listen to what their vocation is: how do I serve? what now, Lord? should be a prayer for all believers. It is not enough to look for managers, marketers, administrators alone and say that church leadership is all sorted.  These are important roles in the Body of Christ too. But so are priests. The Holy Spirit is still ordaining deacons, priests and bishops and the Church is continuing to acknowledge and affirm these callings.It is a nonsense to say of a body that, since we have historically undervalued elbows we no longer need feet.

It is tempting I know, to rewrite early Church history in romanticised ways to pretend that an episcopally-led, sacramentally worshipping community led by deacons and priests was not part of how the Holy Spirit moulded the Church over the first couple of centuries. It is our heritage, which is not to say it is set in stone as how the Church must always be, but we need to have a reason to change better than simply "it's old". Reimagining the C of E as growing out of a Mediterranean housechurch movement with lay leaders does have a certain appeal, but it's a romance. Rewriting things that way does make us all feel more affirmed - and that does indeed highlight a problem: that we have ended up with a hierarchical view of the Church with lay people at the bottom. This is of course absolutely wrong, unscriptural, and FX has been an excellent way to challenge that mindset.

But if we ditch Anglicanism to embrace a lay-led housechurch only model, we will find that we're reaching out to people and welcoming them into an empty shell: a Church created in society's image alone and not that of Christ. We do need to pursue a generous vision of vocation for everyone in the Church: where do we fit in the Body of Christ? To what are we called as disciples and servants of Christ? Priests and Deacons are not any more indispensable than anyone else in the Church. But they are called to a specific function in the Church. They are no more indispensable to the Body of Christ than any other member. But they are no less.

Let's pray for a Body of Christ which grows, reaches out and nurtures each of its members to discern its vocation. Some leadership is lay and let us affirm that. But let's not continually discourage our clergy by denying their vocation to their place in the Body.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Before Jerusalem

Before Jerusalem

The palm trees untouched.
The donkey still tethered.
And we wait.
And we watch.
And we listen.

The Via Dolorosa
Is just another road.
The upper room:
Just a room upstairs.
We wait.
We watch.
We listen.

And down the road,
So far away
That we cannot watch,
We cannot hear,
A jar breaks
And beauty fills a room:
Perfume sweet,
An outpouring of love;
Grateful tears
In a house of dear friends,
Of a man who was dead
But is now alive.

Precious love,
More precious than
The adoration of crowds,
More joyful than
Any shouted Hosannahs.

No premature triumph here,
But a King is anointed
And a house is filled
With beauty.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving & Incarnation


Today, November 22nd, it's Thanksgiving in the US and St Cecilia's Day throughout the Church. So, as women and thanksgiving seems to be the order of the day, and this week more than most, it seems appropriate to combine these themes in a personal prayer for women priests, and priests-in-waiting who have had an impact on me. It's not a prayer of intercession that they might some day all aspire to be Bishops, rather it's that I need them to know how valued and loved they and their ministries are in what is most probably a pretty negative week for them. It must be hard not to take the General Synod's decision on the Women Bishops legislation personally. And, actually, if I were them, I'd take it personally too. So now is a good time to give thanks for them all, and for all women priests.

Lord I give thanks for all the women priests who've inspired and sustained me so far.

Rev Dianna Gwilliams for giving such sensible advice and care to us as a young family and giving me friendship, space, encouragement and, where necessary, prods to get on with my personal ministry.
Rev Karen Gardiner for showing me a great model of calling to ministry and just getting on with it.
Rev Sarah Hartley for first teaching me some of the ways of the anglo-Catholic and kicking my backside into gear about being serious about evangelism.
Rev Barbara Lydon who came out of retirement to officiate at my marriage.
Rev Jan Goodair for her thoughtful and practical help and advice.
Ven Janet Henderson for her online encouragement and wise example of thoughtful blogging.
Rev Ruth Hind for showing me a great example of how to love a rural community.
Rev Elizabeth Sewell for her infectious enthusiasm and good sense in tackling new challenges.
Rev Lindsay Southern for her integrity and commitment to the work of WATCH.
Rev Kate Bottley for being authentically herself online.
Not-yet-rev Bryony Taylor for her online friendship and invaluable insights into online ministry.

Thank you Lord.

Moving on towards Advent

I'm sure others have lists just as long, or even longer than mine. I think it's important for all woman clergy to know that so many of us in the laity of the Church of England are wholeheartedly behind them, even if the House which is supposed to represent us has not listened to our consistently expressed support for your ministry, and that our reasoning is one of theology rather than mere liberal humanist pleasantness and wanting things to be 'fair'.

As we head towards Advent, it is all the more important to reflect that we await the coming of Jesus: God incarnate. The Incarnation is about God being among us. Its significance lies not in Jesus being a man, but in him being, like us, a human: the image of God. I believe that the events at Synod this week challenge us to theologically engage with the issue of the Incarnation across the Church of England. Once we address our own humanity in the light of the Incarnation of God, we can move beyond the language of equality and fairness (which the House of Commons will join the mainstream media in using on pretty much every contentious issues facing the Church of England) to our identity as images of God.  This is a wide-ranging conversation we need to have and will encompass issues of gender, sexuality, genetics, disability and the very definition of what it means to be human. These are issues of theology, no matter how much they intersect with questions of science, legality, rights and sociology. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female - and we need to engage with how that list might be added to in our times. Then, recognising the significance of the Incarnation and how it applies to all humankind, we need to replace the word Christ with the word Humanity and work out what that means for our ministry and for what it means to 'be Church'. Then we will become a Church which more truly reflects the Incarnation, but also has a deeper understanding of the true, human-wide scope of salvation through Christ's death and resurrection and the scope of our mission and ministry.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Year 7 Homework is hard in Lincolnshire

A friend of mine, Barry Coward, sent me and other Christians of his acquaintance, an email this weekend. In it, he explained that a local 12 year old daughter of friends of his had been asked to write an essay on "Why do Christians Believe in God?". It's been ages since I actually thought of something so foundational, so I wrote the following in a stream of consciousness... I'd be interested to hear what others would have said in the same circumstances.

Dear young, Lincolnshire friend of Barry,

That's a tricky bit of homework you have there!

For a lot of Christians, I think that this homework title seems strange. God tends to be the 'given' - the 'obviously there' thing that we just know, experience and accept already. I believe in God and am a Christian, but it's not that I came to the conclusion that God exists following a lot of reasoning-out, which seems to be the way the mainstream media, the British Humanist Association and even the RE curriculum imply I should!

All I can do to help is share my own experience of being a Christian and what I know of God from that.

Christians believe that God created humans in the image of God. This doesn't mean that God looks like a human - it's more about the kind of spiritual beings we humans are. In all human diversity, whatever our gender, nationality, culture, sexuality or age, there is something of God in every person. This is one reason why Christian morality focusses on loving others. Jesus taught that the most important rules to live by are to love God and to love each other.

The Incarnation - what Christians call the historical event of Jesus being born - is about God physically being on earth as a human being. This wasn't done because God somehow had to prove he existed, but was part of this same story, about a relationship between God and those who have been created to be like him: we didn't create God in our own image, as some perfect, never-dying kind of super-human. It was the other way round. God created us to be individual reflections of God, and to reflect all that is good, wonderful and God-like in ourselves to each other. Once you start to see other people in this way, and look for the Divine even in those who hate you, the imperfect world of humans starts to look more hopeful.

For Christians, the question of God's existence is closely linked to Jesus. The message of Jesus isn't so much his teachings - indeed, other religions have made similar points about loving God and each other. Rather, the point is about who Jesus is: the Son of God who was with God at the very beginning of everything and then was born and lived just like you or I at a particular point in human history. So it is because Jesus is God in human form, he himself is the message, and the message is "God is with us". Jesus is a huge reason why Christians believe in God.

In the end, though, it isn't a question of proof of God's existence, but of faith. St. Paul wrote "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1).

There's a huge amount I haven't written, and some people spend their lives writing book after book on this, but I hope this personal take on your homework helps.

Kind regards,

Nick Morgan

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Yorkshire Diocesan Reorganisation: a view from the fringes.

A reorganisation based on community and mission. Or is it?

Three Cathedrals or one insuperable mound?
Three Dioceses are to be merged, but
 how will this look from the rural fringes?
As Bishop Nick Baines explains in his blog, the West Yorkshire Diocese proposals have been agreed upon in principle. The title of Nick's blog entry is telling, though, as it makes no mention of North Yorkshire, significant parts of which are affected by the proposals.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story so far, the idea is to combine the Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds to create a mega-diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, the rationale for which is i) that the current way things are organised are based on historical factors which no longer reflect the communities the Church of England is serving, and ii) combining the Dioceses and restructuring will help mission. These are both reasonable enough grounds for reorganisation, but I am uneasy about whether the proposals, as they stand, will address either issue effectively.

My interest is that I live in the part of North Yorkshire concerned, and I'm commenting as someone who has campaigned on rural issues nationally, has experience as a teacher of working in rural communities whose issues of poverty, lack of social mobility, access to services are largely ignored politically, but where the Church, and notably the Church of England, does a great deal of good. And I'm commenting as someone who lives at the Ripon end of the current Diocese of Ripon & Leeds where I see excellent things going on in the rural parishes, the excellent support given to these by their Archdeacon Rural Officer, Children and Young People's Officer and many others, and a friendly, outward-looking Cathedral engaged in supporting its local community, engaging in moral issues in society and acting as a focus for mission in the Dales already. And, I also have recent experience of life in a rural parish elsewhere in North Yorkshire over in neighbouring York Diocese and can't help worrying that they are another area not really being taken seriously in this re-organisation.

The Rural Fringe - off the map?

The first rationale for change is that current boundaries are historic hangovers, and this is true. Ripon, historically, was a West Riding city and the Bishop of Ripon oversaw a Diocese which took in a lot of the West Riding before the other Dioceses were created (in response to massive social changes in the industrial revolution and beyond). However, the reality for the communities of all the areas under discussion today is different. Ripon is firmly North Yorkshire in feel nowadays with more in common with Helmsley, Northallerton, Richmond or Thirsk than with Leeds, Halifax, Dewsbury or Bradford. As a community, Ripon looks to its north and north-east as much as it does to its south. It is not part of the West Yorkshire industrial conurbation which it is proposed that it remain bolted onto. Ripon is one of those places which gets bolted onto other places in reorganisations. Bizarrely, it shares an MP with Skipton, a town to the north of Halifax which is lovely, West Yorkshire in its architecture and major road links, but with which Ripon has no other link and very little similarity. Rather than wondering what to do with this weird bit of the county which doesn't really fit easily with what the rest of the West Riding to its south has morphed into, the Church of England might well be missing a trick. Why pretend that Ripon and most of the Richmondshire Archdeaconry is the northern fringe of West Yorkshire? By embracing the reality on the ground and using Ripon as a missional centre for the communities it really does resonate with, something far more exciting could emerge.

A less timid re-organisation

Radical shapes often work well.
A more radical and mission-shaped way organising things around the reality of many North Yorkshire communities would be to create a North Yorkshire diocese stretching from pretty much the east coast, across Northern Ryedale, Mowbray and into the eastern Dales. Expertise from across these rural areas could be pooled easily. Communities have a lot in common and share similar challenges, notably from being rural or market towns. Road links run east-west across this area, straddling the A1, A168, A19 and A170 - the railways were taken away from this area (with the exception of those parts which lay on the main North-South links, such as Northallerton and Thirsk)  in the Beeching cuts. Fast rural broadband is (we hope) being rolled out in North Yorkshire, and there is growing expertise across all these rural areas about how to harness social media and the internet for mission and serving the community (including those not online). It is realistic for these areas to support each other in mission and work together from an ecclesiastical base in Ripon and from Diocesan offices created in Northallerton, the county town.

Conversely, the parishes to the north of Bradford in the western Dales would be a long way from a rural centre of mission based in Ripon. The present proposal puts the two together, but that is not how these communities work in practice. For significant amounts of time each year, people in the western Dales cannot drive over to Ripon due to weather and poor road links. And as for those rural parishes on the western fringes of Wakefield diocese, perched on the very edge of Lancashire, they already find getting to Wakefield difficult enough given the road links and rail timetables available to them. Being on the edge of a mega-diocese can make the fringes feel unloved. A reorganisation which doesn't take account of the sheer isolation and relative difficulty of getting around from many of our rural parishes isn't taking them seriously enough as vehicles for mission. I suspect some similar new boundary moving outside familiar Diocesan lines would benefit this area too. So one of my criticisms of the proposed merger is that it does not go far enough: why merely merge existing Dioceses and not consider where the actual boundaries should be based on a mission-centred model for all the communities involved, rural ones included? The shape of churches on the ground is changing, as Archdeacon Janet Henderson notes, and I think that there is a lot to be said for making sure that we think in terms of encouraging effective networks rather than shoring up hubs.

The Numbers Game

One problem - and I may lose one or two friends in saying this - is that the Church of England has got drawn into the numbers game in the way it thinks about resourcing. For example, a while ago, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds moved house from Ripon (the geographical centre of the current Diocese) to Leeds because "that's where 75% of the population of the Diocese lives". But I question this logic. Our mission is to communities. It is not a numbers game. To "make disciples of all nations" is to minister to communities and preach and live the Gospel there, whether they be densely populated areas of cities, market towns, small villages, or mainly isolated dwellings. Are there actually more communities in Leeds than in the Richmondshire Archdeaconry? I am not convinced.

The rural poor and disadvantaged. They are invisible in the media, electorally insignificant and therefore ignored politically, and the rural church often does very well at being there for them. There is much academic research which shows that life in rural areas is far different from the cosy Vicar of Dibley vision of popular culture. North Yorkshire has long been an area where higher than average numbers of people are in, or on the margins of poverty definitions, but the indicators which create that data only tell part of the story as the 'norms' are all based on urban life. The reality can be quite harsh for many on low incomes in rural areas.

 If we only think in terms of the number of people we serve, we'll get the equation wrong: we are to make disciples of all nations, which means preaching and living out the Gospel in every community where there are people, irrespective of how many people live there.

The trump card which those who support the centralising of power and the subsequent sidelining of rural areas (though this is never how it is actually termed, of course) is, of course, the "stewardship" card. It is surely good stewardship to concentrate resources on where 'the most good can be done'. In other words, put the money, clergy, real-estate and administrative resources in the urban centres where most people live. Organise a diocese around the urban areas and use the relative affluence of some rural parishes to help fund urban ministry. I don't have a problem with a flow of cash from richer areas to poorer, incidentally, but rural parish ministry needs to be valued for its own sake, rather than just as a diocesan cash-cow! Seeking God's Kingdom first is the key... building up our own empires is a real danger.

Putting the cart before the horse?

Are we re-organising around the right things?
Organising resources and centralising decision-making 'where the most good can be done' in the most densely populated areas is a great way to run a business and looks great as far as Diocesan accounts goes, but it can be a lousy way to organise the Church for mission unless it's accompanied by a genuine empowering of churches at the local level throughout the mega-diocese. Pooling administrative and back-office functions is one thing, but if resourcing, personnel and decision-making are too centralised, I can't see that ending well.

The pull of the numbers game and the world's way of measuring success and effectiveness is all-the-more alluring when control is centralised. It's easy to go native and behave like an Empire builder if you... er... build an Empire. Faithfulness to the great commission is a suitable measure of success. Pew numbers is not. No really - you did read that correctly: the number of people attending Church of England services is not our yardstick for doing our jobs as the people of God. Increased numbers in church is often the result, the fruit of our mission being faithful, but, counter-intuitive as it may sound, it shouldn't be what drives our sense of mission. God's grace is the driver of salvation, we are the vehicle and we have to work at it, but let's remember which way round this works: "for the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people"  It's also worth remembering that David counted his followers and was judged for it!

This might seem like I'm just messing around with words: church growth is important, but it is not actually our job to set this as a goal. In faith we believe it will happen. By God's grace, it will happen. By preaching and living out the Gospel wherever God has put us, it will happen. But it isn't a goal, a result to be planned for. A results-led model where we create a bigger, more important edifice is as far from the wonderful, rural potterings of Our Lord, proclaiming the Kingdom of God around a backwater of the Roman Empire as I can imagine.

The Servant of All

The Holy Spirit moves through the people of God. Our job is to allow ourselves to be used in service, in mission and in ministering to communities. If we are to re-organise, please let us not use the world's way of measuring success. We are not primarily after value for money, whatever those who have to deal with Diocesan finances might have to say on the matter (and bless them, their service and work is important and appreciated). We are after God's values being incarnate in our Church structures, in the way we organise ourselves, in the way we resource mission and in our ministry. After all, "anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." and so our structures should reflect the servant ministry of Jesus and exalt the humblest, less visible, less valued communities, including those rural ones which are, so far as I can see, not entirely on the Dioceses Commission's radar.

My questions are:

  • are we seeking to make disciples of all nations, all communities, or just the ones where it looks like we'll harvest the biggest crops?
  • how will the re-organisation promote mission in the areas on the edges?
  • how will mission in rural areas be enhanced by the changes?
  • is this reordering mistakenly using 'value for money' as a driver rather than mission?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Consultation paper on female Bishops

The Church of England has today published a consultation document on "Women in the Episopate - the Final Legislative Step". which you can read in pdf form.

It can be read in pdf form here.

What happens now?
This paper also goes into the procedure for how this process works and lays out the timetable. At this stage the next deadline appears to be August 24th by which any comments on this paper need to be emailed to william.fittall@churchofengland.org by Synod members and members of the House of Bishops. If you are not one of these, now is the time to be getting in touch with those who are, once you have read, pondered, prayed and worked out how to help them reach a decision, of course.

After this deadline, August 30th sees a Standing Committee meeting, the result of which will be a "more focussed paper" in preparation for the HoB meeting on September 10th-12th. This will be discussed on the afternoon of September 12th.

Interesting excerpts which struck me:
They seem to be allowing the House of Bishops a reasonable amount of room for manoeuvre, giving the option of leaving the amendment (Clause 5(1)(c) "as is", amending it or replacing it with a new clause, plus discussing the Code of Practice alongside the Measure itself. This seems wise and could provide a way forward in terms of making it explicit how things will work in practice. There is an "illustrative draft" of the Code of Practice at the very end of the paper.

That being said, it is only this Clause which the HoB will tinker with at this stage - the terms of the General Synod resolution make any other amendments beyond this one clause impossible within the part of the legislative process we've reached.

November will see a vote on whatever the Bishops come up with as a result of their September meeting. There will be no scope for further amendments, so the HoB have to come up with a response which will be passed or rejected. In other words, the whole legislation seems to hang on them getting this bit right. The document points out that this is, in fact, the proper role of the HoB under Article 7 of the Synod's Constitution - another reminder that it is this kind of ecclesiastical power and role which we are discussing whether women can fully participate in.

The paper is well worth a long and prayerful read. It says it offers 5 options (which somehow end up being 7 options by the time you read on to the actual options themselves!) which they believe they will discuss but leaves the door open for others to suggest other possibilities. The mechanism for suggestions is detailed above but needs to be done via a Bishop or General Synod member.

Sheep suggests you read the paper, discuss and send prayerfully considered thoughts and suggestions to member of Synod and the House of Bishops.