Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Love Is....

The following piece was penned for the local newspaper, but as a dedicated recycler....

"Love is patient
love is kind
Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud
Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth
It always protects, always trusts
always hopes, always perseveres."

It’s the height of the wedding season. In line with national trends, we’re doing more weddings this year at St. James than last year, which in turn was busier than the year before. More often than not, the couple choose these famous words as one of the readings. Originally written by St. Paul 2000 years ago to a feuding church in Corinth, they’ve stood the test of time as a vivid picture of love in action.
Standing in front of the newly married Mr and Mrs, I ask them to take that reading, and cross out the word ‘love’. Then write in their own first name. David is patient (#fail) David is kind (sometimes), David does not envy … I’ll stop there. You can tell a lot about the character of the bride and groom from the amount of laughter coming from their guests at each line!
The words from Corinthians act as a plumb-line, a standard that we can measure ourselves against, because love can grow, or it can decay. One trend that really encourages me is the number of couples doing marriage preparation with us. Not preparation for the event, but for married life after it. How to talk, how to forgive, how to resolve conflict, agreeing your goals and values, working out a pattern of time together and apart.
All the couples who do marriage prep find it hugely helpful. Often the men need dragging along to the first session, but by week 3 everyone is telling their workmates about it. Having time to take stock, to learn, to invest in each other, is the best time a couple can spend before their wedding day.
It really doesn’t matter how much you spend in cash on the celebrations, its what you spend on each other in time, attention and love that makes the difference. Marriages might be made in heaven, but the couple pick up the maintenance contract.

And what’s true for marriage is true for friendship, and for our own characters as well. We reap what we sow. CS Lewis wrote “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of.” (yes, I know I posted the same quote yesterday)

When I stand in front of the happy couple, I pray that they’ll make a daily decision to love. When it’s easy, and when it’s hard. So that each time they put their name into the Corinthians reading, they’ll find it’s a little closer to the truth. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The APR of the Soul

“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.” (CS Lewis)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The best thing anyone can do

There's an encouraging and challenging interview with Justin Welby by the evangelist J. John, done a few months ago, with an edited transcript published here at God and Politics.  Here's a few snippets

What does it mean to be an Anglican?

It first of all means to be a Christian – to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The most important decision any person can ever make is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s the best thing anyone can do. Secondly, they follow in a particular tradition, which varies around the world. (I love the clarity of this answer, so refreshing, no small print)

So Archbishop, what are your hopes for the Church of England, your hopes for Britain?

My hopes are for a Church that learns much more to disagree well and to cope with diversity, that is incredibly flexible, that holds to the traditions where they serve the gospel and is incredibly flexible about living in a rapidly changing culture and learns how to deal with that. A Church that grows in the number of the faithful, committed disciples of Jesus Christ, year in and year out, and has a new confidence in the gospel and, above all, a Church that is consumed by love for Jesus.

Archbishop, how can we pray for you?

You can pray first of all for wisdom to know what to do, because it’s sometimes very difficult. Secondly, for patience, to know when to do it, because timing is often everything. And thirdly, for courage to do it even when it’s going to be really difficult.

worth reading in full. Or if you want to watch/listen for an hour.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Women Bishops: The Morning After

Do you ever have those chats where the other person takes ages to get round to what they wanted to say in the first place? It's felt a bit like that as a vicar in the CofE over the last few years - we were going to get round to having women bishops (or 'bishops' as they're now called) eventually, but by 'eck it's taken a long time.

Self-indulgently long in fact.

I tweeted a couple of things on the #synod hashtag yesterday, which got 75 retweets/favourites between them, so must have struck a chord:

"Looking forward to the day when 85 people want to speak at #synod about evangelism" (85 people had indicated that they wanted to speak in the debate)

"Well done #synod, good call. Now back to that tedious old stuff about making disciples of all nations."

It's scandalous that we have taken up so much time, energy and angst over this - yes it's an important issue, but I don't see people queueing up to talk at General Synod about the main thing Jesus set the church up for in the first place, to make disciples of all nations (involving baptising new believers and teaching them the ways of Jesus). It doesn't matter whether a man, a woman or a goat is dressed in a purple shirt if we are not actually making disciples. Yes lets get this right, but lets also remember that it's not the main thing. 

Alongside this  - and this is where I get thrown out of the CofE completely - is whether we really understand what a bishop is in the first place. The CofE claims to have a 'threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons'. It doesn't of course, it only has a twofold order of bishops and priests, Deacons used to be a holding pattern for women who were called to the priesthood but not allowed to go there by the church. Now it's something that priests do for a year before, through an episcopally-applied software upgrade, they're then allowed to bless people and run a church (I simplify, of course...). 

Several dioceses don't have permanent deacons: people who have a call to be a deacon in the church, and have been ordained specifically to that role. Which makes a bit of a nonsense of the 'threefold order' claim. In the meantime we take a word used for a member of the team leadership of a local church in the NT (overseer/episkopoi) and freight it with 2000 years worth of historical and theological baggage. The God and Politics blog summarises the early part of that history. It's always seemed a bit odd for evangelicals to be debating who should or shouldn't be a bishop, when our understanding and practice has such a slim biblical basis in the first place. 

But then, perhaps that's what God intended. The first batch of deacons hardly stuck to the job description: they were supposed to oversee the distribution of food, but we know of one who became a travelling evangelist (Philip) and another (Stephen) got himself killed after doing lots of miracles culminating in a showdown with the authorities. The labels and roles matter less than the authorisation, and the priority, in everything, to get the word out. 

In all this there are positive signs - the national priorities of the CofE now include growing the church, and reshaping ministry, so there are signs we're alive to the issues above. 

Final point: in the inevitable 'who will the first woman bishop be?' over the coming months, lets keep coming back not to the personalities or the politics, but to the mission of the church. Because if we aren't doing what Jesus set us up to do, then we are not truly the church. Female or male, I'm not that fussed who we have in leadership in the CofE as long as they have the same priorities as Jesus. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Church Leaders: The Legacy Thing

I'm enjoying, and being challenged by, Tim Chesters 'Unreached: Growing Churches in Working Class and Deprived Areas'. It's packed with good insights - e.g. on the contrasts between middle and working class culture (e.g. on reliability - middle class meaning = chronologically reliable, turning up on time etc., working class = emotionally reliable, there for you when you need them).

Here's a bit that's got me chewing: bits in brackets are my paraphrases. And it applies in any culture.

"What is church growth? According to the parable of the sower (where 3/4 of the seed is wasted) it's not about numbers, but about the fruit of changed lives...the size of our Sunday congregagtion can all too easily become the focus and measure of how we feel about ourselves. (But) the goal is not numbers, but heart change. 

This brings a very different focus to the ministry. We don't need to feel insecure about leading a small church. Jesus has a small 'church' who all ran away when the crunch came! It means we can be bold in challenging unbelief, because we're not worried about people not attending....It means we can and will rely on God...when we aim for heart change, we are forced to realise it is not under our control (and therefore we pray more)

It means we leave a legacy. A church in our areas fell apart when the pastor left. The pastor had been caring, but had not taught the gospel or confronted sin. When he left, there was nothing. I want to leave behind a legacy of changed lives."

All too often we leave a legacy of changed premises (according to the wife of one theological college head 'show me a vicar who has been in post 7 years and I'll show you a building project'. Guilty m'lady) but not changed lives. The former is easier than the latter. We find ourselves encouraging deeper involvement in the church, rather than deeper growth in discipleship.

I want to leave behind a legacy of changed lives, for Jesus. Chester is reminding me why I do all this in the first place, and making me wonder about whether I'm aiming for that legacy, or something else.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On not assisting 'assisted dying'.

I'm also uneasy about the effect the Bill will have on the relationship between doctors and patients. Frankly, I want my doctors to be the sort of people who recoil from ending someone's life. Unless they are, it's a degree or two more difficult to trust my loved ones or myself into their care. If I or my loved ones were disabled or had limited mental capacity, I would be even more wary. 

excellent piece by Jan Henderson, read the rest here

I'm in agreement with Jan, and she states many of the reasons better than I could. The Belgian journey has already taken them to legalising this for children, and the UK experience with abortion - legalised for exceptional circumstances, but now used routinely as a method of birth control - shows that reality can end up a long way from where those drafting the laws intended it

So I'm with Justin Welby, rather than George Carey on this one. Freedom of choice tends to serve the strong, rather than the weak and vulnerable, because the weak have fewer choices, and less power to use them. The law is there to protect the vulnerable. It's interesting how the terminology has changed to emphasise choice: dying (something done by the patient) rather than euthanasia (something done by the doctor). 

Having talked people through a desire for suicide who ended up living happily, I have an intrinsic caution over the nature of a 'choice' to die. It's not made in a set of clean, clear-minded circumstances, and changing the culture around death with complicate things even further.

Update: good response to George Carey here from Ian Paul.

And the BMA is still opposed to assisted dying, despite an editorial in its house journal in favour.

I was struck by a comment I saw on Nick Baines blog 'we already have assisted dying, it's called a hospice'

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Do you have an Ecclesiastical Exoskeleton?

One of the problems of having growing children, is that each time they shed their skin we have to dispose of it in a separate waste container to keep the council happy. I'm joking of course. But churches, that's something else. Churches have exoskeletons, they can grow a bit within current structures/buildings etc., but any serious attempt to change size requires some skin-shedding.

I've just finished 'The In-Between Church' by Alice Mann, (summary here), and it rang a lot of bells. She argues that church growth occurs in steps, rather than a smooth gradient, and the big steps are between 4 exoskeletons (my word). Here are the 4 size categories, the numbers refer to membership, and the descriptions are broad-brush:

Family size 0-50: like an extended biological family, all know each other, addition is by birth and marriage, new members incorporated very  slowly, matriarchs and patriarchs hold authority, clergy part time and short term, function as chaplains to the family. They normally have 1 good community ministry, offered in ‘down home’ style. Clergy are there for pastoral care, but will find it hard to lead change. These can survive both good and bad leadership.

Pastoral size 50-150: multi-cell organism, coalition of several family/friendship networks, unity is based around the pastor. Big enough to look like ‘real church’, small enough to feel personal. 2 or 3 strong ministries, personal touch in worship. Everyone knows the vicar and the vicar knows everyone. Clergy are expected to meet spiritual needs of the members. Works well for clergy with good interpersonal skills, but starts to break down at 130+, as people start to feel they don't know each other. Growth will often depend on the effectiveness/popularity of the pastor.

Program 150-350: Leadership team, has quality and variety in programmes. Critical mass of people from several demographic groups (children, youth, seniors etc) and entry points for people  from various backgrounds. Staff team, often with paid heads of ministry. Basis of unity is a shared vision and programme, rather than shared relationships with leadership/key people. Role of pastor is recruitment, training, supervision, vision & strategy, key ministry is to other leaders, not members. Not a great place for a leader who loves pastoral ministry. 

Corporate 300-500+ institutional presence in the community, key location, big building, large staff. Figurehead leader. In the CofE these are mostly cathedrals, plus a few churches in the larger population centres.

Growth between the sizes can be limited by several bits of the exoskeleton:
 - physical: e.g. parking, cramped buildling, rooms for childrens work
 - community - e.g. fixed population or low-flux culture (church growth is fastest in London, which has a larger population churn rate)
 - organisational: i.e. a plateau between one of these two size categories. A newcomer in a larger 'pastoral' church misses out on a visit because the vicar is too busy. A newcomer in a 'family' church finds they can't break in to the set roles and relationships and gets disillusioned. Etc.

Mann encourages churches to plot their membership/attendance history and note where the plateaus are - are there regular zones where membership levels out, or gets stuck?

Transition from one size to another is a crisis: the church starts to feel the pressure of outgrowing the exoskeleton, and needs to reorient its way of being: from family to pastor focused, from pastoral to programme etc. Evolving through the size stages will be like the Exodus - there'll be times when the cost of leaving 'Egypt' will seem to outweigh the promised benefits, which haven't fully appeared yet. When the old exoskeleton becomes compromised, it has to be shed or the church will hit a ceiling and fall back again. 

It's interesting to compare this to our experience in Yeovil. We have two churches. St. Peters is a 'family' style church, run by a close-knit group of people almost independent of clergy leadership for quite some time. In recent times some of the older members have gone to glory, and several new people have joined us. Several of those, with experience of larger churches, are struggling to work out how things work at St. Peters! The transition is coinciding with a number of new bits of outreach, and some growth.

St. James, the larger church, seemed to be plateauing at 100-120 (combined parish membership 120-140, one vicar, which fits the model). My post was a new 0.5 appointment 8 years ago, followed by a childrens worker 2-3 years later. St. James is now at 160 members, but faces a new exoskeleton, the building. We can't fit the regular congregation into the church, so we're reshaping the building to put in some extra seating. After that, we'll have to look at staffing again, and possibly looking at repeating the main service in another time slot or venue, which will mean identifying and training up some more worship leaders and preachers (which is getting into 'programme' style).

I'd be interested to hear if this all rings true with anyone else, and whether there are particular things which hit particular denominations - Anglicans have lots of 'family' sized churches (240+ of our 500 churches in Bath and Wells are 24 members or fewer). Looking at our recent membership stats (2011-12), out of 37 churches larger than 130 members, only 7 grew year-on-year. In the zone where you''d expect 'pastoral' churches to be compromised (140-200), 20 of the 22 churches in this size group were flat or declining. 

This may also explain one of the findings in 'From Anecdote to Evidence', the report on church growth in the CofE earlier this year. It found that amalgamating parishes was a good way to ensure declining members. Churches in 'pastoral' mode which have to cope with a smaller share of their vicar, will end up with smaller congregations. And it will be very hard for stretched leaders to put the time and energy needed into a church which is trying to shed a skin and grow.