Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fresh Expressions of Vicar: can we do better than 'the Eucharistic prayer and volunteer management'?

Swathes of Curates are about to be unleashed upon the Church of England. Do they know what they are letting themselves in for? Over the next few years, what shape of local church leadership will they be trained for? Over to guest blogger Andy Griffiths...


Most people either didn’t notice Titus, or they did notice but were disappointed that it was him who’d come.

In the first category is Luke, who never mentions Titus at all, despite at least twelve apostolic team members being name-checked and despite Titus having been (on the evidence of the letters) a key figure in the expansion of the Christian movement.  Outside the book of Titus, Paul names him twelve times in letters, but he does so in such a way that he makes clear that no one else shares Paul’s high view of him.  In Galatians 2.1-3 we learn that the Jewish believers were unconvinced that people like Titus were converted at all; in 2 Corinthians 8.23 and 12.18 we learn that the Corinthians were disappointed that it was Titus whom Paul sent with a letter, and so Paul has to justify his choice at length.  Titus was a disappointing nobody.

In other words, Titus is an ideal patron saint and model for incumbent ministers today.  And a new model is very much required.  Chelmsford Diocese, for example, is calling churches to move from being “communities around a Minister” to being “ministering communities”.  Most parishes will gladly sign up to this aspiration – but where does leave those of us who are “Ministers”?  Take Galleywood, the parish which I have served as Vicar for 10 years.  Its PCC (Church Council) is chaired by a layperson, its life is largely run by a lay “administrator and vision coordinator”, there are multiple licensed and authorised lay ministers doing over 50% of the leading of worship and preaching, and pastoral care in the hands of an able pastoral care team which I do not lead, so what’s my role?  Surely it’s not only the Eucharistic prayer and volunteer management?  Is there a way I can meaningfully discharge my “cure of souls” without being central to church life?

My concern here is mostly with Anglican incumbents – I include Priests in Charge, Vicars, Rectors, Team Vicars, and Ministers in Charge – all those to whom is entrusted the “cure of souls” of a given parish or set of parishes, whether they happen to be paid or not (though as a matter of fact the enormous majority of incumbents are paid).  In the Church of England, there is an additional complication, because a high proportion of incumbents will be retiring in the next 10 years – about half, by some estimates, so that an influential article spoke recently of “the leading of the 5,000”, suggesting that there will be approximately five thousand paid Church of England incumbents left, compared with 23,235 in 1901.  So there’s a danger that those of us remaining will be stretched ever more thinly and be ever more isolated.  I want to suggest that the book of Titus provides a fourfold model that is life-giving.  It has to be worth a try.

Titus (and the letters to Timothy) have a special status in the Bible.  They give us a window into the organizational structures of the early church.  The later they are – and New Testament scholarship continues to debate their date – the more significant this window becomes, because it implies that we are seeing a mature church after the first flush of charismatic enthusiasm.  To put it bluntly, the letters to the Corinthians presume a context extremely different from the contemporary Church of England, but when we read 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus we are on slightly more familiar ground.

And a quick reading of these letters reveals one simple fact: there are no Vicars in Crete at this time.  At no stage is Titus commissioned to be their Pastor or Parish Priest.  Instead, we see teams: an apostolic team that Titus is part of, and a team of elders/overseers in the Cretan church(es) whom he is to select and assist.   

We have relatively little information about how the apostolic team functioned.  For example, was it “a team led by an apostle” or “a team of apostles”?  (Both seem to have been the case at different times – an example that is contested for quite different reasons is Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16.7).  My own view is that apostolic teams were “flatter” in structure than a first reading of Acts might imply.  Paul, though not a person with a lack of self-belief, seems to have been wary of acting alone in any way, and even the letters we commonly refer to as “Paul’s epistles” often had multiple authorship (Paul and Silas or Paul and Sosthenes or Paul and Timothy or whatever).  

With direct relevance to Titus, take Paul’s words in 2 Cor 12-13:
Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

Here Paul – even though God had “opened a door” for his ministry – could not operate without Titus.  It was Paul and his team, or nothing.  If we ask “why couldn’t Paul preach without Titus around?” we might answer psychologically (“he just didn’t feel comfortable”) or practically (“Paul was physically weak, at least at this point, and needed Titus to be his spokesperson, or to physically hold him up.”)  

But there seems also to have been an ecclesiological point: Paul, on principle, was not in favour of going it alone – that would have modelled quite the wrong sort of Christian life.

So Chelmsford diocese is modelling what it calls “Mission and Ministry Unit Teams” (MMU Teams).  An MMU team contains several incumbents, and may also contain other team members including some self-supporting priests, working together to serve a set of local churches and supporting the local (largely unpaid, and sometimes including “locally deployed” self-supporting priests) “ministry teams” in each local church.  

Take, for example, Southwest Chelmsford Churches, a MMU comprising 5 churches in 4 parishes, served at present by 3 incumbents, a curate and a flourishing lay team.  I am one of these incumbents, and have the “cure of souls” for one of the churches in the MMU; but I am also licensed as an associate priest in the other 4, and have responsibility across the five churches in the areas of Vocation, Vision and Pioneering.  My colleagues Stephanie and Carol each have the cure of souls for two churches each, are again licensed as associates to all the churches in the MMU, and have responsibility (respectively) for Education, Evangelism and Worship and for Community Involvement, Pastoral Care and Spiritual Growth.  It so happens that I am at present also “Warden of Ministers”, which means that I have the responsibility of drawing us together for regular clergy meetings, and also inviting lay people appointed by each church to meet with us; but Southwest Chelmsford Churches is a self-consciously egalitarian MMU, and neither Stephanie, nor Carol, nor I are in any sense the “leader” of the Unit.  (I was LITERALLY appointed on the toss of a coin). 

If asked to describe my role, I tend to say “I’m Titus”, which is unhelpful for anyone who has not read this post.  My intention is not to try to recapture the first Cretan church in some fundamentalist, proof-texting way, but to maintain that there is a resonance between the apostolic team implied in the book of Titus and the structures we are discovering here in mid-Essex.

I think this “Chelmsford Model” has significant advantages over similar schemes in other parts of the Anglican communion, which group churches into clusters but then still treat incumbents as sole practitioners.  It has something in common with what I saw when I received the hospitality of the Augustinian Canons in Poitou, in western France. Sixteen local parishes come under the “episcopé » of four (stipendiary) priests, who live in the centre of the area. Each parish has its own équipe animatrice, a lay team which is responsible for the ongoing liturgical and spiritual life of the parish. One Sunday a month, a priest from the central team visits the parish, celebrates mass, provides episcopé, and trains and supports the équipe animatrice as to how they can lead services of the word over the next three weeks. In Poitiers diocese the policy is to avoid communion by extension, as it is felt to devalue the real Mass. In Poitiers diocese, the équipe animatrice (also referred to as ‘anciens’, elders – though they say this makes them feel old!) are all equal members, without one of them being appointed as ‘team leader’.

So the first part of my fourfold description of incumbent ministry today is this: Incumbents have a responsibility to work together in teams.   It would be good if training included how to work in teams  To those who say that incumbents are too eccentric, too autonomous or too awkward to do so, I can only point again to the eccentricity, autonomy and awkwardness of Paul, and say “if he had to do it, so do we”.   

Andy Griffiths has taught in a theological college in Hungary for five years, worked in France for 5 years and is now a Vicar in Essex, but his main claim to fame is that he went to college with David Keen.(Editors note - these are Andy's words not mine!!)  So that’s why he’s “guest blogging” four posts about incumbent ministry.  This is the first. Follow the links below for the others (will go 'live' as the posts go up)

Fresh Expressions of Vicar 2: How to get the Vicar out of the Way.
Fresh Expressions of Vicar 3: The Only Thing We Really Have to Say
Fresh Expressions of Vicar 4: My Generation, Your Generation, Regeneration

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Is Jesus Welcome in the Libdems?

The 'issue' of Tim Farrons Christian faith has become one of the key debates of the Libdem leadership campaign. We've had party leaders before who've professed some kind of faith, quite a few in fact (Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron) but none as boldly or plainly as Farron

2 of Norman Lambs team have got into trouble for asking leading questions of Libdem members. They rang to quiz members on what they thought of Farrons views on abortion and gay marriage, whilst asking different questions about Lamb. One Libdem commented:

I was one of those members called and asked about my opinion on Tim Farron. I knew all the background about his faith etc so realised what was going on with the loaded questions etc

It sounds like they were doing this without Norman Lambs authorisation, but the issue hasn't gone away. It was raised at a 5 live phone in this week (from just after 20m in here), and took up a large chunk of the debate. Farron claimed that it was his Christian faith that lay behind the 'push polling' during the debate, and Victoria Derbyshire followed this up by quizzing Farron about his faith, and his views on abortion and sex education.  It was good to see Farron standing up for his position on abortion: "I'm not saying it should be illegal, but it is always a tragedy... when anyone is in a situation when they feel that they need one.Farron nailed it "(we should) not be scared off by people who are trying to bracket you". It's interesting that for about 8 minutes of the 30 minute discussion, Norman Lamb doesn't get a word in. 

There is an emerging list of liberal 'clobber' issues which are taken as a litmus test for whether anything else you say is worth a hearing. Support for gay marriage is one of them, abortion is another, and I can see euthanasia joining the list before too long. Libdem members are talking openly about feeling excluded:
Current discussions within the party haven’t always been a pleasant experience for me as a Christian. Some in the party seem to have decided that people of faith have no logic, no reason, and shouldn’t hold party positions. I have been told that faith is irrational and that “True Liberals” don’t let faith influence them. 

To have this debate out in the open is better than it progressing in whispers behind hands. Hopefully it will create a line in the sand that is clear that committed Christians can play a full part in the LibDems. There shouldn't be a mainstream political party that's closed to people of Christian faith (or any faith, for that matter). And Christian faith is just as valid a reason for holding political views as socialism, neoliberalism, materialism, or any other philosophy. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Fuel for a good life

Some helpful words written as a meditation on Titus 2, about how we become a people 'zealous to do good':

(we go) beyond a Reformation commitment to sola gratia (by grace alone) – it may suggest sola gratitudine (living by gratitude alone), in which a life eager to do good is motivated 
 - not by pride (you’re better than this)
 - threat (you’d better do this) 
 - or guilt (if only you’d done this) 
but simply by unforced, confident, cheerful gratitude.  

If your zeal for good works is slipping, don’t look to the law, look to the grace of God in saving you.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Deliberate deafness: the Conservatives and Food Banks

"Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered." (Proverbs 21:13)

During the election campaign David Cameron pretended not to know how many people were using food banks in the UK. At least, I hope he was pretending, and actually did know the answer, because any Prime Minister that doesn't know what's happening with the most vulnerable in his society should resign and make way for someone who does.

I'm starting to wonder though. It's almost as if the Conservatives are choosing not to know about food banks. Priti Patel at the DWP claimed in Parliament that 'there is no robust evidence that directly links benefit sanctions and food bank use'. That's apart from the evidence provided by the University of Oxford, the Trussell Trust, Oxfam, the Church of England etc. The evidence is there, so has the government not seen it, or having seen it, are they incapable of accepting it?

The DWP itself has been keeping the Trussell Trust at arms length.  Despite government rhetoric about helping the poor through welfare or justice reforms, it seems odd that they wouldn't want to engage with an organisation that sees nearly a million people every year who can't afford to eat. You can almost see David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith sticking their fingers in their ears and going 'la la la' very loudly whenever food banks are mentioned.

This is all too human. We're well practiced at blocking out inconvenient truths, which don't fit the world the way we've got used to seeing it, or the way we want to see it. The truth sets us free - and in the case of poverty, would set a lot of people free if only the government were minded to see it. But it may also involve admitting that we are wrong. Humility and repentance are costly, but I'd rather have politicians eating their words than thousands of people eating nothing.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Amazing Grace

Its simply staggering to read what the families of the victims of the Charleston shootings said in court this week:
Speaking to Dylann Roof in court, she said"I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again but I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you, and I forgive you.

"Depayne Doctor was my sister. And I too thank you [the judge], on the behalf of my family, for not allowing hate to win. For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry but one thing Depayne ...taught me [is that] we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul and I thank God that I won't be around when your judgement day comes with him. May God bless you."

Gun control will take weapons out of peoples hands, and yet again the USA will agonise but do nothing. Only this God-given ability to love, to forgive and show grace will bring and end to violence. These are truly incredible responses - I'm sure my natural reaction would be revenge and anger, but my brothers and sisters in Charleston remind me that Jesus' people can do better than that. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Is it because I is black?

Rachel Dolezal is a black American race activist who hit the news recently when it turned out she was white. She resigned from the NAACP earlier this week, but claims a 'self-identification with the black experience...that's how I was portraying myself...on a very real connected level.' The interview on the above link shows someone for whom personal experience trumps reality. Her choice to identify as black equates to being black.

(I'm reminded, oddly, of goal celebrations by mercenary footballers. The more kisses they bestow on the team badge after scoring, they less likely they are to stay at the club next season if a better offer comes along. They self-identify as Chelsea on a very real connected level. For this season.)

We've been here before, but not in a serious way. Ali G turns out to be a prophet, as well as a gangsta.  It's an instance of the wider syndrome of personal experience and emotion trumping truth and reality. There is a logic to it - consumer choice (or at least, what we're told is choice) is at the heart of liberal democratic capitalism. Choice has evolved from a virtue to a deity. The prevailing liberal wisdom is that if x is freely chosen by a person, then it is right, whether x is aborting a child, sleeping around, shopping, sexual identity, or when and how to end ones life (preferably on the NHS). The campaign to legalise euthanasia, which the BBC gave another nudge to on Question Time a couple of weeks back, is usually cast in the form of stories, all traumatic and difficult, to make the argument 'who are we to deny people who are suffering so much the choice they most desire?' It's hard to feel sympathy for a generalisation, and equally hard to deny it to an individual. Generalisations deal with principles and argument, individuals deal in choices and personal meaning.

And if we can choose all of these things, rather than have them 'given' by society, culture or religion, then why not race too?

But choice isn't a level playing field. Liberal culture finds it easier to defend the choice of a woman removing clothes for the sexual tittilation of men than a woman who wants to cover herself so as not to be seen as a sex object. Especially if the latter has, God forbid, religious reasons. A recent paper on euthanasia in Belgium notes a change in culture since the law was changed: Social and peer pressure makes it difficult for those who oppose euthanasia to uphold their position in the liberal culture that has been developing. 

Our school ran a session on internet safety a few months back. One phrase which stuck with me was 'for children to be children, parents must be parents'. In other words, its a parents responsibility to set boundaries, to keep their children safe, to say 'no' when 'no' needs to be said. Children who grow up having all desires granted become adults who believe that every personal choice is a sovereign act. To be human is to be limited. Testing those limits is part of being human, living as if they don't exist is simply delusional. This is not the Matrix.

and before you say so, I know this isn't a coherent argument, just some thoughts I wanted to have aloud and see what happened to them. If I choose to blog these words but they make no sense, then who are you to tell me I'm wrong? ;-) Where exactly do postmodern people go to adjudicate between competing truths and choices?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Vein Repetition

Sunday is World Blood Donor Day. The NHS needs around 2 1/2 million units of blood a year - if every Christian in the UK gave blood 3 times a year, we'd never run short.

I thought about giving blood for years before finally getting round to it a couple of years ago, and now its a habit. If that's you at the moment, maybe its time to get round to it. Once you start, those nice blood donor people ring you up to remind you to book your next appointment, so its a much easier habit to keep than going to gym.

You get free biscuits, and you may get to save a life. Tithe your platelets! 

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Are you hiding a tightrope-walking dog?

A tightrope-walking dog won Britains Got Talent at the weekend, or did it? It was a remarkable act, but the dog which escaped from jail by tightrope during the routine was actually a stunt double for the star act, Matisse. The second dog was kept hidden backstage throughout the rest of the act, and it was kept hidden both from the judges and the voting public too, who all thought they were voting for a single dog and its trainer.

The routine is very clever, and very skilful, but its in danger of being overshadowed by what was kept hidden backstage.

I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but it keeps cropping up so I'll mention it again. Author Simon Walker talks of our 'frontstage' and 'backstage' - what we allow other people to see, and what we keep out of sight. Alison Morgan has done an excellent summary of his work, and here's a clip:

The two stages can’t be kept completely separate – what goes on in one will always to some extent leak onto the other. This is particularly so for social and spiritual leaders and those in caring professions – their own unmet emotional needs, pushed backstage, generate resentment, envy, pride, anger or even rage – and these things begin to leak frontstage. 

When the things we didn't want people to see are discovered, or leak onto the frontstage, the response can be as its been with BGT - quite a lot of upset. There are parts of our lives which, despite the running commentary of social media, are best not disclosed and put on general display. I've actually found that people use Facebook, Twitter and the like more to manage their frontstage - to project an image and the story they want other people to see, it's the brave exceptions who still attract admiring comments.

But it's best not to have secrets if we can possibly avoid it.  There is a merciful Judge who knows exactly what is going on backstage, as well as front, and, to our surprise, won't vote us off if we own up.

Monday, June 01, 2015

WATCH with Mother: recreating God in our own image?

“If we take seriously the idea that men and women are made in the image of God both male and female language should be used.”

When I meet someone new, I introduce myself as David. I'm gently riled if they then refer to me as 'Dave'. Dave is a TV channel, my name is David. That's how I've chosen to identify myself. 

WATCH (Women And The Church) have for some time now advocated using female terms to refer to God. The Bible has female imagery (Jesus speaks of himself as a mother hen, for example), and the danger of using one set of words repeatedly is that they can come to confine God to a certain set of meanings, rather than allow God to be God. The issue has surfaced again over the weekend

Under all of this is the basic question: has God revealed Him/Her/Its self to us. Has God given us a name by which to call him? (I'm going to use the male pronoun out of habit and precedent, and because it'll be unreadable otherwise). Through scripture, and Jesus (God incarnate, lets remember), has God given us particular ways in which to understand his character and nature? If so, then these images, metaphors and words have to anchor our ways of talking about God. Alternatively, if these are just the best guess of the people at the time, then we're quite within our rights to talk about God in any way we like. We are more likely to end up making God in our image, but at least we can ditch the words we find unhelpful or upsetting. 

Cranmer has a piece up at the moment on 'truthiness' - our tendency to believe the things we want to be true, rather than the things that actually are true.  History is littered with attempts to rewrite the Christian faith in the image of the writer, or the culture of the time, to have the God that we want to be real, rather than God as he actually is. If God is fundamentally other, then in describing him in the metaphors and titles we prefer there is the danger that we simply end up talking about humanity in a very loud voice, and cease to talk about the God who is who God is. 

In WATCH's terms, this is part of a long-term goal to change the language we use about God: Watch’s chairwoman, Hilary Cotton, added: “We are at a very, very preliminary stage in terms of shifting the language of worship.
“The question of how might we rewrite the worship services of the Church of England in a way that broadens our understanding and perception of God is a really difficult question over which we will wrestle for a number of years to come.

Yes we need to use the full range of Biblical language to talk about God: wind and fire, judge and servant, warrior and lover, etc. But it's a brave person who thinks they know God better than Jesus: 'when you pray, say 'Father....' Of course, I'm a bloke, so this can all be discounted as patriarchal ranting by a theological dinosaur. But once we end up with a definition and an image of God that we're entirely comfortable with, then we're in trouble. We're sinners, we aren't whole people, we will only be entirely comfortable with God when we're fully renewed with him in glory. A God who really is God will never be an easy God for anyone in this life, as a skim-read of the Psalms will testify. 

Yes, lets broaden our understanding and perception of God, but lets make sure it's God we're looking at, not just a reflection of ourselves. 

The story is told of a girl who was hard at work drawing a picture. The teacher asked what she was doing: "I'm drawing a picture of God" she answered. "But nobody knows what God looks like." responded the teacher. She replied "they will when I've finished."

update: if you can bear it, here's a list of links to various comments and opinion blogs on this topic, which for some reason doesn't include Ian Pauls piece