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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Space invaders. When to blast through and when not.

I was thinking about the old-school type Space Invaders. You know (well, if you're a certain age you do), the ones before any kind of home computer that you'd get in arcades? Well, having seen a blimp flying above Ripon Cathedral earlier in the week, I was put in mind of Space Invaders and created this image:

The premise of the game (for anyone who didn't have a mis-spent youth in the 80s) is that you're defending yourself against aliens and have handy buildings to hide behind. These are there to defend you, protect you and give yourself something solid to retreat behind when there's too much incoming fire from above. One thing about Space Invaders is important to know, especially on the higher levels when the aliens start to zip along and fire more laser blasts at you: an effective tactic is to blast a hole through the buildings to get at the aliens, as seen in the pic. You're sheltered well from incoming fire at the expense of damaging your own defences.

With this in mind, my thought is: how do we use our church buildings and the outward signs of our church communities and even our human resources? 
Do we hide behind our traditions, rotas, buildings, ways of doing things? And, if we do, is this necessarily a bad thing?

Blasting through?
Sometimes it might seem useful to just blast through the stuff that's there to protect and defend us - there is something to be said for doing things which fly in the face of feeling too cosy if it is hampering our mission. For instance, if we are so concerned with the upkeep of buildings that our only contact with our communities is when we're seeking donations for a roof appeal, perhaps we need to find a way to turn this state of affairs around. I know from my experience as churchwarden of a lovely Grade II listed building how easily the upkeep of ancient monuments can threaten to eclipse effective ministry. 

And it's not just buildings. Changes to staffing patterns for clergy, especially common in rural areas where priests are increasingly thinly-spread, mean that church communities are challenged to question how much the laity need to take over roles traditionally done by clergy: around the country there are more lay-led services, home communions, hospital visits, pastoral visits, school assemblies etc. than there used to be, and especially so in rural areas. This is invariably and increasingly unquestioningly presented as a good thing: challenging all of God's people to share in the mission and ministry of the Church. The question which gets asked is: which aspects of the priestly role are appropriate for delegation and which need to be prioritised and staffed by the clergy? Any empowering of God's people for more active, considered and mission-shaped ministry is a good, and soundly Biblical concept, though the arguments used tend to be managerial and practical at heart rather than being borne of understanding the difference in role between priest and laity. An article on this by Carl. Olson - a Protestant evangelical turned Roman Catholic makes for challenging reading for those whose model for reorganising is principally practical and managerial rather than theological.

We can lose sight of the fact that the buildings and traditions we inherit are of value to our ministry in ways which might not be apparent if we're too focussed on a particular target. The things we inherit as Church were usually put there for good reasons. If we simply let our buildings rot, don't value them and don't keep them going, we can discover by its absence that the simple witness of a church building's ancient stones was actually one means in which the Holy Spirit was, unseen, moving in people's hearts. Maintaining buildings actually can be one simple means of outreach. Those outside the worshipping community who value the church building sometimes get involved practically and financially in keeping things going and feel they have some stake in things. Many of the key-holders in my previous parish (those who took turns on a rota to unlock the church for visitors during the day and lock up at dusk) were not members of the congregation but valued "their" church being open to all. Many families outside our benefice's congregations were greatly comforted by our vicar's presence and prayers at their loved-one's hospital bedside as they faced their final hours or days. Lay people could have offered prayer and presence just the same, but there is something sacramental and incarnational about the ministry of a priest which even those outside the Church instinctively sense and value at these crucial times in life. As Olson puts it, "Priests, by virtue of their ordination, are a living witness to the sacramental realm and the reality of the Incarnation." I know some parishes have a lay-ministry which does pretty much all the home and hospital visits and would love to hear from people who have found that this has been successful, and God bless anyone who does this difficult ministry, but my experience has been that visiting the very sick (and especially the terminally so) was a role which a priest did best as part of the overall ministry of our benefice. To put this role into the hands of a lay-ministry team would have, I believe, had weakened our witness and represented a misunderstanding of the role of the priest within our Christian community.

Where each church draws the line is different on this and where I would draw the line may not be where you would. All I'm saying is: be careful which bits of church and ministry get blasted through when you're trying to renew how you are doing things or reviewing your use of resources. Even in Space Invaders (which you can play on this link - yay!), being too focussed on a distant target, too focussed on blasting away and racking up a high score can lose you the game in the long run if you blast away too much at the very things which should be there to help.

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