A vision revisited

On holiday around Easter 2012, I was in Scarborough and had a vision. Here it is again, but with a few thoughts about how this seems to me 9 years later, and especially as we consider how church communities and networks might appear in the light of Covid19.

An immense shape appears – so huge you cannot see all of it – rising up from the landscape, looming over the landscape but not coming out of it as such, more a distinct presence among the panorama of the South Bay of Scarborough, including the Spa Conference centre and Grand Hotel. Its shape is indescribable: very beautiful and with many surfaces, colours, textures and materials. Some parts are jewelled, some are rough, some glass and see-through, some shiny, some opaque, and all of this is visible in incredible detail, far beyond what I could have really made out with the naked eye had I been seeing it in the flesh. It is astonishingly beautiful and I cannot for the life of me say why as it is almost formless, shapeless, artless in its construction, impossible to say which way is up, where it begins or ends. It is architecturally incoherent. It is absolutely, indescribably huge.

I say to myself, “Is this a good thing or a distraction? Is it from God or not?” And I hear the answer as another question: “What would a child think?”

A child would see it is beautiful too. It’s attractive, there is lots to get involved with, many ways of seeing it but almost impossible to see all at once. The outside is what we see, in all its weird variety and, as I look closely I see that there are pathways, handrails, tracks leading in from every surface, every part of it, continuing around the structure and leading further into it.

Accept it as a child, then. All the surfaces have a way into the centre, into the heart of it. All the surfaces are a way in, potentially. I muse that you could still admire or decry this thing from the outside without actually exploring it or engaging with it.

I look at it with my youngest daughter. She is drawn to different faces of it to those I noticed most. She sees coloured, see-through, glass-like flowers with layers of other shapes in different colours nestled behind. I had seen grander, more stained-glass-like structures at first. The whole thing is historic and huge, ancient, but very new; very old indeed and changing; moving all the time, never still; always in the “now”. On looking again, I see parts which don’t attract me at all: dull surfaces, odd angles and shapes which say nothing to me at all. They all lead into the same structure though.

And the image faded and the seagulls began their racket. And I knew I had seen a vision of the Universal Church throughout all ages and was shaking in wonder. I needed to think, reflect and pray on this.

The next morning, I prayed through this vision. The sheer variety of the appearance of the Church was wonderful. Just imagine the sheer variety of expressions of what it means to be Church in ages past through to the present and in cultures worldwide! Many of these expressions of Church will be unattractive to us. Some will be, frankly, incomprehensible. That’s all good. We are whom we are, here and now. That is true for God’s people throughout history, and our Church will not look like theirs and will not even look like that of all our contemporaries, either. Whenever we think of equipping ourselves and our churches for ministry and mission, we can lose sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, on whom we rely for that equipping, is a wild goose that blows where it will and, as this vision reminds us, shapes the Church in more ways than we can possibly imagine.

You only have to read Paul’s epistles to see how varied even the early church was: the sheer variety of the issues Paul deals with pastorally in these letters, and the variety of focus in his teaching in order to equip each Christian community for its life and ministry together, tells us that they were not identical in character. God meets people where they are, not where we think they ought to be. The Church has to reflect that reality.

So, as we listen for God’s voice, pray for equipping and invite the Holy Spirit to work in us and our churches, we do so in humility, knowing that we are not creating a blueprint for every church. We are called to shape our facet of the Church into something beautiful, but something which is part of a far more awesome whole.

and so, to the future…

2021 coda:

We have been forced by circumstances to explore new ways to worship and to express what it means to follow Jesus lately. With varying degrees of agility, and in many different ways, church communities came to very different solutions when faced with the lockdown conundrum: how to love and serve God and neighbour, and how to enflesh Jesus in the world at a time when to meet in the flesh was unwise and not even possible in most circumstances. It looks at the time of writing (May 2021) as though we dare hope that a renewal of in-the-flesh fellowship and worship can be resumed, though we cannot take for granted that pandemics and infection control are all in the past. We have seen the Church expressed from different angles to those we were used to, but where the Holy Spirit has been at work, all these visible glimpses of a varied Church always lead into the centre – into the life of God, into Jesus, into God’s kingdom.

So what now? My hope in Church of England terms is that new networks and structures emerge. The difficulties of governance and operating the old networks of deanery, archdeaconry and diocese during lockdown in many cases proved a blessing, in that the time and energy released from top-down models of teambuilding, vision-building and measuring of ministry were redeployed into a more natural, less formal form of mutual support, and into “just getting on with it as best we can, as the Spirit leads”. Networks sort of “just happened”; materials, ideas and support were generously flung around to be experimented with by each other, long before the national church was even out of the starting blocks with resources and support. We became agile.

It is tempting for any organisation as large and cumbersome as the Church of England to attempt to “build back better” through top down initiatives and vision building. Yes, it’s laudable to make sure nobody remains unsupported, to ensure there is some sense of shared purpose, but the Holy Spirit’s “wild goose” needs space to honk, too. Because we are a hierarchical structure, we find it almost impossible to invert the pyramid and be informed by what the Holy Spirit is doing across the broad base of everyday life in Christ. We’ve heard much honking over the past year or so – by which I mean, God’ Church in communities all over the place, have not been silent or inactive, and the Holy Spirit has let loose Christ in the world. So what have we learned?

How about the following naive, unformed and shapeless picture, which is not dissimilar to the weirdness I saw in Scarborough 9 years ago? What are the keys to revealing new facets of the Church which we might glimpse, and which will attract others into the centre, to Jesus, to life in God?

Local church communities, loving and serving their communities. Let’s learn from rural churches and estate churches: what leads from what people see, into the centre – to Jesus – where you live? Alongside these, let’s learn from chaplaincies: what leads from what people see, into the centre – to Jesus – where you work or study?

Online and informal networks of folk in not-dissimilar situations. Yes, there are more formal expressions of this which are key parts of the picture (Mustard Seed, Multiply, the National Estate Church Network, rural church networks such as Germinate and so on) but the energy for all these has to come from the roots up – from the lived reality of what the Spirit is doing in people’s lives, and in God’s Church in their daily lives and communities.

Ways of equipping the Church which are agile. How about contracting out of much of ministry support and training away from diocesan staff? The current mindset seems to be that for each Important Thing We Do we employ people. Instead, each “unit of ministry” (the jury is still out on exactly what this term means) is given a budget to contract in advice and support appropriate to their culture, community and missional priorities. For me, a unit of ministry should be as small as possible, and the idea should be that the budget is not centrally-mandated but applied for where it cannot be covered locally, and wealthier units of ministry pay into the pot for others to draw upon. Units of ministry could combine budgets to share in advice where this makes sense on a project-by-project basis, but the idea generally is that, from the dazzling array of organisations out there who can offer this expertise, local church communities can receive support, resources and training, and as time goes on, people within these communities become able to train others, since our expectation should be the equipping of every Christian for discipleship. None of the above is to diss any diocesan officer (I have reason to be grateful to many of them!), but if we are questioning how we do ministry, that’s where I have got to in my strategic questioning: are we getting enough targeted bang for our buck in the way we currently do the equipping and supporting?

Our Structures and governance are antiquated, and the pace of change is far too slow. Roles such as churchwarden, treasurer and synod members have been hugely outpaced by cultural and sociological changes. The internet and mobile technology (magnified by homeworking practices under lockdown) have led to a culture of working long hours, well beyond the traditional nine to five. There is little time, energy or headspace left at the end of what the world of work, family life and any down-time leisure leaves over for many people of working age. It’s little better for those those in retirement: volunteering and other activities tend to be varied. It is unusual for a retired person’s time and energy to be confined to church, and indeed we don’t really want that, do we? We’re called to everyday discipleship, so being out there doing pilates, playing croquet, tending an allotment, playing in an orchestra, walking the dog with friends, being active in the community litter picking group, or green issues group, singing in a community choir, or playing bridge (to select some examples in my parishes) is what we want members of our congregation to be doing, and to be taking Jesus there with them, isn’t it? So there is a problem at the parish level with the demands and expectations inherent in certain roles. Yes, as part of our response to the same trends, we also need to be more effectively and urgently developing a culture of everyday discipleship, but many churches are onto that already – I’d like to hope very widely so. A more collegiate approach to fulfilling statutory and leadership duties is what is emerging naturally in many places. Perhaps this can be caught up with “officially”.

At a national level, the ponderings of Diocesan and General Synods are manifold, interesting and largely relevant to ministry, yet embed a sense of centralisation of thought and process. We need to be sure what needs national, co-ordinated thinking, and what needs to be left free for local discernment under episcopal oversight. Similarly, there is something to be said for pressing reset and nationally redrawing parish, deanery and diocesan boundaries, and making the edges much fuzzier (i.e. easier to co-operate across and to embrace an agile, networked approach). There is also the fact that this is currently legally impossible to implement, and for the time being, all that happens is that clergy moving on, retiring or dying are the only times which offer wriggle room, and this means that mere tinkering at the edges of structures is all that happens, seldom strategically or based on a missional imperative. I really do understand the ecclesiological problems with some of this as well (and yes, it would need General Synod’s manifold and careful pondering to achieve!) and have no desire to break with geographically-based episcopal oversight (as any other kind of pick-n-mix approach leads to schism and unholy power play). That being said, if our desire remains to be a Christian presence in every community, we need to recognize that “community” looks different to how it did when boundaries were created. Lives are lived differents and community is not only expressed geographically. A far more agile, networked approach is what the Holy Spirit has taught us through this Covid experience and needs space to be expressed in our governance and structures. It needs to be implemented in some way other than adding additional, networked layers over existing ways of doing things as we need to be working smarter, not more complex and time-consuming.

This may all sound simplistic, unworkable and naive – I have never sat on any Diocesan finance committee for good reason. I am, I hope, more useful on the praying, listening, discerning, vision and “cracking on with the job” side of things. But I am absolutely sure that agility alongside an ability to listen to the Holy Spirit will be key to growing in Christ in these times we live in. And the latter is where Diocesan structures really do come in: the spiritual leadership of our senior clergy. As a Priest in Charge, I am licensed to locally and vicariously express the apostolic ministry of my Bishops. Along with the Archdeacons, what I particularly need is their blessing, their teaching, and their spiritual leadership as my fathers and mothers in Christ. I’m not saying this is lacking: I’m simply stating how I see things joining up in terms of the big picture stuff. I want them to be freed up to express their apostolic calling by devolving much of their managerial responsibilities without us becoming a corporate monolith. This is tricky given the perils of this (i.e. to whom is what devolved, and how), and the legal complexity of running an organization of this size with such a huge hinterland of ecclesiastical law which is not easily understood, and is often overlooked, by lawmakers in Westminster). And I want for myself the humility to listen and be led by my Bishops as I ponder (together with the flocks entrusted to my care) how to do this kingdom of God stuff in the 2020s and beyond.

Conclusion

As I continue to pray and ponder, let’s return to the vision of 2012 and consider our ministries and the obstacles to it, external or self-inflicted, in the light of some words of Jesus. This is lest I start overthinking, or overestimating my own importance… (using the translation “The Bible for Everyone”)

At that time the disciples came to Jesus. “So then,” they said, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. “I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven. And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me. Whoever causes one of these little ones to believe in me to trip up,” he went on, “it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea. It is a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come.”

Matthew 18:1-7

From the vision of 2012: I say to myself, “Is this a good thing or a distraction? Is it from God or not?” And I hear the answer as another question: “What would a child think?”

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