Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Random Opinions

The government decision to cut foreign aid is a terrible one, and will cost thousands of lives. It's great that we've produced a low cost vaccine for the world, but pulling the plug on essential programmes will be catastrophic. The Conservatives have had plenty of practice at U-turning this year so hopefully they can put that to good use on this one. 

Justin Welby is perfectly entitled to a sabbatical. I would say that, I'm having one at the same time. We don't have a pop at Jesus because he was only in active ministry for 3 years, took 40 days out in the desert, and repeatedly disappeared off to pray without taking his mobile phone with him. The NHS has sabbaticals and nobody complains that the doctors should get back to work and stop faffing about. If you were in charge of an 80 million member organisation, you might need a bit of time out yourself. 

The news about Megan Markle's miscarriage is very sad, but she was worthy of respect and courtesy before we found out about it. If you were ripping her to shreds before, don't bother feigning concern now. 

The maths of the Christmas bubbling bothers me. If you can spend up to 5 days in the same house as 2 other households, and 1 of you has got covid, the chances are that everyone else in the house will have it by the time you go home. The R rate will go through the roof won't it?

We see the Premier League footballers taking a knee on Match of the Day every week, but has anything actually changed in their sport? They also could show a bit of concern for their fellow footballers by offering a tithe of their wages to clubs in the lower leagues. £950,000 (10% of Gareth Bales annual salary) is around half the wage bill of some lower league clubs. Gareth if you already give it away, well done you.

Joe Biden is a flawed human being too, I hope our media don't do a Barack Obama on him and turn him into some sort of Messiah. He will be a better president than Donald Trump. He will make mistakes. Those two things are about all we can be sure about. 

Remember, 25% of what I say is wrong, the trouble is I don't know which 25%

Church Growth in the Church of England - the other side of the story

After depressing everyone with the latest CofE membership stats the other day, it was encouraging to read some very good news in this General Synod report

Yes you heard that right. The Strategic Development Fund is a 10 year project by the CofE to invest in mission. It focuses on areas where the church is struggling to make an impact - mostly deprived urban areas, children and youth. 

Here are some snapshots from the report, of the impact the funding is having:

 - In a seriously deprived parish in Bristol Diocese, a weekly meal after Sunday worship started in 2019 and feeds dozens from the neighbourhood, for many it's their only hot meal of the week. A midweek service (with food) aimed at addicts and life recovery now has a congregation of 30-40, with several coming to faith. 

 - Rochester diocese’s project to invest in church growth in four priority parishes will include growing two new ministries established at Christ Church Anerley: Kings Car Wash helps ex-offenders to get back into work habits and Kings Boxing works with young gang members as an alternative to knife crime.

 -  A project awarded SDF in Leeds diocese has plans to support those battling addictions and mental health problems in the deprived town of Keighley, including launching a social enterprise with a coffee shop and prayer space.

 - Birmingham Diocese have been placing Children and Families workers in several parishes, and seen 800 new disciples in churches which are hosting them.

 - Canterbury diocese’s ‘Ignite’ project, which was awarded SDF in June 2018 to develop new worshipping congregations in the most deprived areas of the diocese and the Channel Islands, has launched eight new communities with attendance already of nearly 350 and testimonies emerging of lives being deeply touched and changed. 

 - At ‘Top Church’, a new church-planting-church in the deprived town of Dudley in Worcester diocese the worshipping community grew to 110 at the end of the first year (far exceeding the anticipated target of 30 in the first year) with four people exploring ordained ministry.

So far it's estimated that over 10,000 people have become new disciples through these projects, many 
of which are in a very early stage. 

And the report finds that intentionality in mission is fundamental. Churches grow where they have an active, outward-facing focus to create opportunities to develop new relationships; and then find ways to intentionally share the gospel with those new contacts, whether through explorer courses, social engagement, small groups, appropriate forms of worship, or through one-to-one discipleship.

All of which applies just as much to individual churches as it does to a national fund. I just pray that all of these have found a way to continue and to grow through Covid.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Government Consultation on 'Faith Engagement'

The government has just launched a survey on how it engages with faith groups, with an online consultation open for 4 weeks. Here's part of the introduction:
On 10 October 2019, the government announced that Colin Bloom had been appointed as the Faith Engagement Adviser at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
As Faith Engagement Adviser, Colin is leading a review into how best the government should engage with faith groups in England. He will make recommendations to the Communities Secretary about how the government can best celebrate and support the contribution of faith groups, break down barriers and promote acceptance between faiths, and promote shared values while tackling cultures and practices that are harmful.
Colin Bloom’s initial proposal is to structure the review around 4 main sections:
  • the first section asks the question, “Are faith groups, places of worship and people of faith a force for good in society?”
  • the second section explores the extent to which government and its agencies have sufficient faith literacy and considers the partnership between faith groups and the State
  • the third section looks at some aspects where harm might be caused through religious or faith-based practices and a review of the government’s role in tackling them
  • the fourth and final section will be a set of recommendations for the government to consider and respond to
The call for evidence will pose a series of questions around how those of all faiths, or none, perceive the government’s engagement with faith groups. Because the review is specifically about faith and religion, priority will be given to responses that fit within those parameters. However, space is given for respondents to share their views in a way that they feel is appropriate.
Respondents should feel free to make use of a range of sources, reports, case studies, surveys or even personal anecdotes to underpin their points where a general response is requested.
There will doubtless be well co-ordinated campaigns by interest groups to flood the responses with a particular message. It would be great if it was just filled out by ordinary people, so the government hears what's actually happening, rather than just getting the same shrill voices by another means. 
A few notes on the survey itself
 - you may find some of the questions phrased in an odd way, I wouldn't describe myself as 'having a Belief' - I have a relationship with God through Jesus which is sustained and expressed in conversation (aka prayer), action, attitudes etc., the same way that most relationships are sustained and expressed. I 'believe' that vaccines will make 2021 a better year than 2020 in terms of covid, but that thought/process is of a completely different order to my faith. There's a definition of 'Belief' on the very last page of the survey, which is ok, but it would be better to spell it out on page 1 so people know what they're agreeing to!
 - there are 50 questions, with opportunities to say both what positive contributions churches/faith groups make to society, schooling etc., and what you think is negative. There are plenty of comments boxes, so even where an answer is multiple choice, there's usually a chance to expand on your ideas. 
 - the survey is happy to take citations and evidence, so I would think the more of this you can supply the better. I've answered one of the earlier questions, on the positive impact of faith on society, with quite a few hyperlinks, covering everything from John Wesley to Street Pastors.
 - if you're not fussed about commenting, you could take 15 minutes to complete this. But you could spend hours on it. 
'History is made by those who turn up' - I never know how much notice is going to be paid to these things, but it doesn't appear to be a survey with an agenda (like previous government ones on, e.g., marriage). A good clutch of positive responses from Christians, church leaders and Christian agencies may be a fruitful use of time. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Review: Seven Sacred Spaces by George Lings

 Back in the days when books were published on paper, and the literature about Fresh Expressions and emerging church could fit on a single shelf, the Church Army began producing Encounters on the Edge. Written by George Lings and his research team, they profiled the growing number of church plants and experiments happening around the UK. Lings visited, interviewed, reflected, and drew lessons for the wider church. 

As well as feeding into the whole Fresh Expressions/Mission Shaped Church initiative in the CofE, one or two of the Encounters took on a life of their own. 'Seven Sacred Spaces', published in 2009, was picked up in a variety of settings, including an entire Welsh Diocese, and is now a full length book. Bible Reading Fellowship, the publishers, have also published a suite of study, follow up and application materials

If you want Lings' summary of the Seven Sacred Spaces, its here. In brief, his work focused on monastic communities ancient and modern, and the discovery that the same key spaces were found regularly across all of them. These spaces expressed different aspects of monastic life, and Lings explores whether they give us a creative and fruitful template for discipleship and church life. The 7 spaces are

Chapel – for worship together

Cell – for personal prayer

Scriptorium – for study and passing on learning

Garden/Kitchen – for work/service

Refectory – for hospitality

Chapter house – for decision making

Cloister - for community - planned and unplanned encounters. 

Lings questions whether local church life, which invariably focuses on the 'Chapel' - both the building and the act of corporate worship - is missing a trick. Many local churches have a thin parody of the other 6 spaces if they have anything all, from grim coffee (refectory) to a dated bookstall (scriptorium),  with work nowhere to be seen. What would we look like if we had a balance of all 7? 

The 7 Sacred Spaces book takes us through Lings discovery of the 7 spaces, with a chapter explaining each one in more depth and looking at where it is found in the Bible, in monastic rules and Christian communities, and in the world at large. One chapter shows how different groups have put the Spaces into practice, and there are separate sections applying the Spaces to mission, discipleship and life (the chapter on the latter is mostly a critique of current church practice). Lings, refreshingly, closes the book by downplaying it, cautioning against taking these insights as a new reformation or a silver bullet, but as a resource, lens, portal or diet which can help us grow more in our life in Christ: ‘the mental battle of living a life in Christ, alone and together, is central. The spaces are but the arenas in which that life is played out’

Each chapter is worth reading on its own - the chapter on Cell will help you reflect on your personal prayer life, the chapter on Chapel should be required reading for anyone looking to rethink their church building. I can't remember the last time I read a good Christian reflection on meetings, despite the fact we spend a large proportion of our life in them. But in the Chapter chapter, Lings throws out this challenge “The church should be a community where decision making together becomes sacred, because it faces down grumbling and judging, and where it listens well, because it expresses mutual respect and humility. Bring it on.” 

The section on Cloister - the connecting place in the monastery which allowed for meetings, as well as bumping into the people you wanted to avoid - focuses on the quality of community life. 'Community is the cheese grater of the soul'  The monastic rules tend to say very little about what happens in these spaces, but often this is where the quality of community is found out. Every organisation has rules, but studying the rules won't tell you what it's like to work or live there. 

 There are plenty of insights in the chapters on Work (garden) study (scriptorium) and hospitality (refectory), each of which is probably a post in its own right. Whether you buy into the 7 Sacred Spaces or not, each of these is worth a read on its own. How do we rediscover work as a spiritual practice, part of the 'work of God? What would a church look like if it was centred on a kitchen and shared table rather than a worship space? In a culture which churns through information and attention at high speed, how do we treasure and pass on true knowledge? 

Our Story Part 1

Skip this bit if you want to get back to the book. St Peters church on the Westfield estate in Yeovil is one of the two churches I'm vicar for. Last year we demolished the 50 year old church hall and built a new Community Centre, wrapped around the church. We've ended up with a single building, with a kitchen/cafe area at its heart (refectory), connected by a single door to the church building (worship). The vision for the centre includes skills and learning (scriptorium - we have a mini library in the building already), drop in (cloister), and as a hub for volunteers and the local community association to use to serve the community (work/service). Committees are part of the running of the place (chapter). The vision is not simply to be a building for hire, but to be a community hub which brings positive change to the community - better literacy, skills and employment levels, less isolation, better mental and physical health, stronger community etc. During lockdown, the sole users have been a health team, the local community midwives, which is a bit of a nod to the '8th space' of hospitals and hospices which were often found in monasteries and convents. 

The 7 Sacred Spaces has given us a framework for thinking about the mission of the new Community Centre, and how it expresses the life of the church. More than that, it has given us a way of looking at discipleship. We had an away day in a nearby village hall last year. During it, we tried to tease out the values which underpinned each of the 7 Spaces. For Cloister, we identified Availability. One of the group took a walk through the village during our extended lunch break, and deliberately sought to put that into practice. She came back bouncing with excitement, having had several conversations with complete strangers as she ambled slowly up the main street, smiling at anyone she met. She now makes it her practice to 'bimble' around Westfield, usually taking way longer than she'd planned to get anywhere, because of the 'chance' conversations she gets into. 

The main mission activity of St Peters is..... wait for it.... a coffee morning. Is that it? you cry. But Mondays 'Community Coffee' (Refectory/Cloister), held initially in the church and now in the cafe space, has been the way into church membership for several people over the last 5 years. A couple of years ago when Christmas Day fell on a Monday, the regulars all asked for it to continue on Christmas Day as many of them were living alone, and 15 of them turned up. St Peters has grown from 15 to 50 in the last 10 years, principally by prayer, hospitality, and being available to the community. 

Our Story Part 2

Lockdown shut us out of our churches back in March, and did so again last week. Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth lurks the question: is there a way of being church which doesn't depend on gathering together in the same building at the same time every week? Can we be a local church if we can't meet as one body for worship? Again, the 7 Sacred Spaces offer a tantalising answer. Is it possible to be a local Christian community based on some form of rule of life and set of shared values and practices? They include corporate worship, but they aren't defined or exhausted by it. So when corporate worship stops, the church continues. 

So we created a workbook of bible meditations with a week on each theme, and encouraged people to meet in 2s and 3s to reflect together each week on what God was saying. And a set of videos on each theme to complement them. And quite a few people - both from St Peters and from the main parish church -  have taken these up and found them powerful and helpful. Where we go next..... we don't know!

Questions and Comments

1. I would recommend the book for anyone who is frustrated with how we do church now, and wonders if there is a better way, but is weary of cavalry charge solutions. Lings is always worth reading, and you are bound to find something which challenges or stimulates you.

2. I see that the original 7 Sacred Spaces booklet is no longer available online. That's a shame - there are people who might read a 40 page booklet but not a 220 page full length book. The BRF resources are some help here, but there's still a space for a substantial explanation of the 7 Sacred Spaces which isn't book length. 

3. There are 3 areas where I was longing for the book to go further

 - Biblical material: in some chapters there were fewer Biblical examples than I'd expected, and some of the 7 Spaces take on different qualities when seen through the lens of scripture. For example, if Cloister is to do with availability, then you see this time and again in the mission of Jesus and the early church (many of Jesus healings, the beggar at the beautiful gate, Philip). The workbook we produced on the 7 spaces is based on a daily bible reflection over 7 weeks, and there were dozens of possible verses and stories which didn't make the cut. 

 - Mission and outreach: monastic rules tend to be inward looking, and focus solely on those who are in the monastic community. There are missional ways to look at prayer, study, hospitality, work, and cloister. Lings notes with sadness that mission - sharing the good news of Jesus - has disappeared completely from the Franciscan 3rd order. This is a failing shared by the local/institutional church too. 

 - Social transformation: which connects to the previous point. After the fall of the Roman Empire (bear with me), monasteries play a significant role in the history of Europe. As well as spreading the Christian faith, they became the hub for thousands of towns and cities. They transformed the land, draining and irrigating swathes of territory to make it productive. They preserved and passed on learning - monastic libraries were often the only place literature was kept safe, and the monks themselves were among the few people who could read and write, so often ended up in key administrative positions. The monasteries housed travellers, cared for the sick, educated the young, invented new technology, developed trades (those Belgian monastic beers......) and pursued science (Bacon, Grosseteste, Copernicus, Lull, Ockham). Though Lings notes that several voices are calling for a renewed form of Christian community within society, there is more to be said about the initial impact of such communities when they first spread across the UK, and what we could learn from this. 

4. How the 7 Sacred Spaces can underpin both an individual and a shared rule of life. This brings things back full circle, as the monastic spaces are themselves expressions in architecture of the monastic rules. There are glimpses of this in the stories Lings shares, but I guess we don't know what this really looks like until there are communities living it. 

I'm so grateful to George Lings for doing this work, and putting it into a framework which can be used in so many different ways. The 7 Sacred Spaces framework is a challenge to the way we 'do church', and Lings calls for a form of Christian community life which gives equal weight to all 7, rather than orbiting 6 as minor satellites around the Chapel space. Historically, the Church of England has always seen worship as the defining activity within the parish church. Out main buildings are for worship, and our main investment in human resources - clergy - puts them in a special caste of worship leaders. But in the days prior to the parish system, it was monasteries which spread the faith and established new Christian communities. Maybe a community along these more holistic lines is a more suitable form of church for  post-Christian England than parishes centred on a worship building for a gathered congregation. And covid makes this an even more pressing question. 

Monday, November 02, 2020

Archbishops Lockdown Letter

 The letter below was issued yesterday by the two CofE Archbishops, and the Bishop of London. It centres on a call to make November a month of prayer. I spotted the letter this morning on Thinking Anglicans, a few minutes after a conversation about our monthly parish prayer meeting, which we'd scheduled for Thursday. Which all now seems quite timely...

To the clergy of the Church of England

1 November 2020

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Greetings to you on this All Saints Day and as we are reminded again that we are indeed part of a universal company of saints.

We are writing to you to set out some of our thinking in the light of the most recent announcement by the Prime Minister. We are very aware that details are still not clear and there is much discussion still to be had about what the impact of the new lockdown will mean. We are also writing to assure you of our prayers for you and our thanks for all you do. We are clear that we do now need to call all Christian people to pray and to do so continually over this next month. In this letter as well as reflection we also set out an invitation to you to join in this call to prayer and to keep both praying and serving our communities.

This is a difficult and challenging time for all of us. We are sure that some of you reading this letter will wish we had made other decisions during the period of the first lockdown, or even challenged the government harder on the decisions it has made. You may be right. However, it is our view that the best way we can serve our nation now is by pouring our energy into doing the things that we can do, which is to pray and to serve. We also dare to hope that we will be kind to each other and that God will give us the courage and humility we need to be faithful witnesses to the gospel of peace.

A second lockdown will be upon us on Thursday. It is going to be different from the first one. The days are getting shorter and colder. We are anxious for ourselves, for those we love, especially those who are vulnerable and elderly, and for our families. We know that this pandemic is having a devastating effect on our economy and on people’s mental health. Thousands of people are dying. The National Health Service is being stretched to the limit. We also know and must continue to bear witness to the fact that the poorest communities in our nation are suffering the most. We are in for a long haul. It is going to be a hard winter.

But this second lockdown will also be different in other ways. There is much that we have learned from the first lockdown and there is much to celebrate and be proud of. Of course we are full of gratitude and respect for the amazing courage and commitment of all key workers especially those working in the NHS. Their contribution is rightly and widely recognised. We also applaud the many creative ways that churches up and down the land have been serving their local communities and working with others to make sure that the hungry are fed and the vulnerable cared for. We have managed to maintain and, in many cases, extend our outreach by streaming worship online and by developing other ways of building community online.

We are grateful for people’s energy, hard work and creativity in making this happen and we hope and pray this will continue. We are grateful that the new guidelines being introduced on Thursday not only allow churches to remain open for private prayer but also enable online worship to be broadcast from the church building. We were cautious about these issues during the first lockdown – perhaps overly so – but in this second lockdown we want to encourage church buildings to remain open for private prayer wherever possible, making sure that their buildings are Covid secure in the ways that we have learned in recent months, and to broadcast services from their church buildings. However, if you do not have the resources or wherewithal to do this, please do not feel that you have failed in any way. The good thing about provision of worship online, is that people can join in from anywhere and therefore we can support each other more easily in this endeavour. Our national digital team will continue to offer training and support and provide national services each week.

However, worship online still means that the people of God do not have access to the sacraments which are so central to our life in Christ. This is a huge loss and since we were not consulted about the lockdown provisions, we fully intend to speak with government about why certain exemptions are made and not others, emphasising the critical role that churches play in every community. The sacramental life of the church cannot be seen as an optional extra. Nor can we separate out our worship from our service, it is always both and not either or.

Nevertheless, we will of course abide by the law and ask you to do the same. We must do all that we can to keep our communities safe and to enable the NHS to manage this crisis. The Recovery Group chaired by the Bishop of London will be issuing specific guidance in the next day or two.

Bearing in mind our primary vocation as the Church of Jesus Christ to pray and to serve we call upon the Church of England to make this month of lockdown a month of prayer. More than anything else, whatever the nation thinks, we know that we are in the faithful hands of the risen Christ who knows our weaknesses, tiredness and struggles and whose steadfast love endures for ever.

Above all we recall people to some of the fundamental spiritual disciplines that shape our Christian life. How we do this is up to each congregation and clergy person. We will publish resources to support you before the first day of lockdown. During the first lockdown we cheered for the NHS every Thursday. During this second lockdown we invite you to fast in a way appropriate to you as well as pray for our nation every Thursday, for its leaders, its health and essential services and all those who suffer.

We thank you for your service and ministry and pray that God will sustain you and encourage you. After consulting the House of Bishops we will be writing a more general letter to the whole nation we serve, a letter expressing the hope we have and calling for courage, calm and compassion.

In one of the climactic passages of the New Testament, Paul says to those who follow Christ that their “love must be genuine, that they hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.” He asks them to “serve the lord”, exhorting them to “rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (See Romans 12.9-12.) None of this is easy. Especially not at the moment. But it is our calling.

Yours in Christ,

The Most Revd & Rt Hon Justin Welby

Archbishop of Canterbury

The Most Revd & Rt Hon Stephen Cottrell

Archbishop of York

The Rt Revd & Rt Hon Dame Sarah Mullally

Bishop of London