“Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a sceptre but a hoe.”
— Bernard of Clairvaux
What follows was written a good few years ago, but as my first post of this new blog, I hope it gives some idea as to why this site exists, and why I bother to put things on t’internet at all.
Social media has many uses and offers many ways of using our voices. It’s interesting thinking about churches and Christian organisations I follow on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Some read pretty much like a newsletter, telling me of events or campaigns, and perhaps asking for prayers for particular ministries. Others add actual prayers or liturgy, while relatively few link to resources I might find useful and things I might be tempted to interact with. Even fewer regularly promote things going on in their wider community outside church activities, ministries, theology and news of interest only to those already involved in the Church. As someone who’s long been involved in online ministry (as well as being active in ministry in the flesh, I hasten to add), I’ve been grappling with this: how does this look from the outside, and am I missing a trick here?
So… what’s a prophet?
The work of a prophet involves calling people to God. I think there is a challenge here for anyone who is seeking to have an effective online ministry. Not everyone is called to the work of a prophet, but I am not entirely convinced that I see much of this kind of ministry being done by individual churches online , and not in a way which engages people. I may be wrong! Do tell me in comments if I’ve overlooked what you are doing – I’d love to promote it, be encouraged by it and celebrate it. However, at the risk of re-inventing this particular wheel, here are my thoughts on how to meet this challenge of calling people to God through how we use social media. To use Bernard of Clairvaux’s words, this means relying less on appearing regal and authoritative (wielding a royal sceptre) and more on actually working alongside people, sharing their lives, concerns and needs and preparing the earth for sowing by hoeing. The resurrected Christ was mistaken for a gardener, so I rather like this image of Jesus offering to equip me with a hoe rather than a sceptre. This also chimes with Jesus’s example of washing his disciples’ feet and telling them to do the same.
A question then: when someone sees my online ministry over time, how would they see Jesus the servant King, holding a towel to wipe his disciples’ feet, reflected in it?
This is quite a challenge, and especially tricky I think if you are representing your church or organisation via social media. How do we call people to God, how do we make the ground ready, how do we work alongside those we want proclaim Christ to? Because our online presence is technically global, I think the local impact of our worldwide-online presence can sometimes get overlooked.
Some ideas, then, tailored mainly for church groups, and mainly aimed at the impact on communities locally.
Promote other events in your community As well as your own events and news, ReTweet and Share things not related to your church but which will serve your community. Become known as a hub of positive news about where you live and show that your church cares about what happens locally.
Encourage others locally As well as a Share or ReTweet of other groups events and news, comment, congratulate, commiserate, encourage and engage.
Engage in the local conversations Even if there is a contentious issue which might not be wise to get your church too closely associated with, or seen as being on one side or the other, how about posting that you are praying for all concerned? It might not always be appropriate, but it’s worth considering letting people know that you are engaging in prayer and are concerned for the people caught up in an issue.
Be part of the bigger picture Consider whether you might become part of a local hub to promote your community and events in general. Talk to your town/parish council and other groups and, if you are the organisation with the most web traffic, find ways to use your online resources as part of a bigger local picture. Just as some rural churches have housed local post offices, shops and council leaflets, perhaps you could become the online place to come for information of all kinds. Be generous in sharing your online resources, impact and goodwill. This isn’t about hijacking other groups’ traffic or of diluting your online presence: it’s about the church being engaged fully in local life and tilling the earth alongside its neighbours.
Risk and Reward There are pitfalls and risks in all the above. I sometimes worry that I may accidentally end up associating my church with something it would not wish to by a careless Tweet. The answer lies in not Tweeting carelessly, of course… and in prayerfully developing a strategy for how to present our church online. And here is revealed one of the secrets: it is very hard for an organisation to be a prophet. Social media by its nature lends itself better, in my experience, to people interacting than organisations. Fortunately, then, God calls people rather than organisations to do the work of prophets. In other words, bring something of yourself to the mix. Invest yourself and don’t be too afraid to do that. Take risks prayerfully and you’ll find that when your Church comes to prophetically call your community to the Lord, the ground is tilled and ready to receive God’s Word. And perhaps your community will hear.
When Archbishop Desmond Tutu died at Christmas 2021, we lost someone who truly shone the light of Christ into the world. I wrote a song, based on some of the words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel which are appropriate for Epiphany, and for remembering Archbishop Tutu, one of those people who really was a light on a hill.
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
A few key principles have guided me in deciding what to do between 19th July and the new school year in September.
One person’s Freedom Day is another’s Fear Day. 3.8 million people in this country remain clinically extremely vulnerable. As communities of hope, our churches must ensure that our approach is inclusive. The Church of England guidance comments that everyone is known and loved individually by God and as many members within one body we are called to be responsible to and for one another, respecting the more vulnerable whose suffering is our suffering (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The move to step 4 means that as a nation we are being asked to take even more personal responsibility around coronavirus than when we were compelled to adhere to Government restrictions. However, we need to keep in mind that our calling is not merely as individual Christians. Rather, we are the Body of Christ and need to act as a body, unified in purpose, hearts set on revealing Christ to the world around us through our actions as well as our words. This includes how we meet corporately for worship.
The Summary of the Law taught by Jesus reminds us of a two-fold calling: loving God and neighbour.
Firstly, our calling is to love God wholeheartedly, and we need to keep in mind that, even if the restrictions have curtailed our enjoyment of services, worship is fundamentally all about God, not us. This involves us as the People of God coming together in ways which may diverge from how people in wider society come together in groups. It may make us feel foolish to continue to take precautions when we see markedly different behaviour in other settings, and indeed experience these ourselves, but our faith does compel us to act distinctively in society from time to time. This is such a time.
The second part of the Summary of the Law tells us that Christians should love all our neighbours. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was especially concerned with those who are marginalised in society. Now more than ever, we should be striving to create places of worship where those who have been made vulnerable to Covid and pushed to the margins of our national discourse are the most honoured guests at God’s banquet. Our churches should be prioritising justice, hospitality and inclusion for all, especially when the rest of society is being encouraged to do the opposite.
On a practical level, after 24th July our group of churches go into our usual pattern of August worship where there is a single Benefice service each week. Therefore, I propose very little in the way of change for the time being, with a view to reviewing the situation in late August for any further changes to be implemented in September.
Singing God’s praises is an important part of worship and one which has been greatly missed. A lot of research has gone into this, and the RSCM and other bodies have produced information which has informed my approach to whether, and how, this might be safely resumed by congregations. I believe that an informed way has been found to enable hymn singing whilst taking into account the needs of the vulnerable.
The decision regarding what to do rests with the incumbent, but I have consulted churchwardens about this and invited comments from the wider worshipping community via the Newsletter in recent weeks. I thank those of you who have helped form these decisions, especially the churchwardens of all four churches.
The following will apply from Monday 19th July onwards in all churches of the Bramham Benefice.
What will stay the same:
We shall keep the Serco Track and Trace poster in place for those who use the app.
We shall keep hand sanitizer available at entrances to churches and encourage people to use it on entry to church.
We shall continue to share communion in one kind only (i.e. the bread). To receive in one kind is to receive the whole Sacrament, in any case. We shall continue the current pattern of distributing these one at a time rather than gathered at a communion rail. Clergy will maintain their current practices regarding safe preparation of the bread and wine.
The words of distribution (i.e. The body of Christ / blood of Christ keep you in eternal life) will continue to be said communally rather than individually.
The peace will be shared contactless (eye contact, nods and gestures as it is at present).
We shall ask people to wear face coverings as they enter, exit, and move around the church building. Masks are to be worn by everyone as they come up to receive communion as is currently the case. Clergy will also continue to wear a mask during the distribution.
We will still only use alternate pews for the time being. This will mitigate the changes below. In the case of the Benefice service in Walton where this may not be possible, a separate risk assessment will take place to allow for a slightly larger congregation than usual.
Services will continue to be shorter than usual (up to 45 minutes) since time elapsed in the same building is an important factor in the build up of this airborne virus.
An online service will be offered every Sunday. Over much of August, this may not be one from our own Benefice due to practical considerations, but our Facebook page will always have a link to an Anglican act of worship. From September, we will resume livestreaming services (usually from St Mary’s at 10am).
Refreshments after services will not resume until September.
What will change:
The full choir at St Mary’s will return. They will sit in a socially distanced way and will continue to be more than 8 metres away from the congregation.
Once seated, members of the congregation will be permitted to remove their masks for most of the service. The singing of hymns by congregations will be permitted throughout the benefice, but behind masks for the time being (not including the choir of St Mary’s who will remove theirs to sing).
Shortish hymns will be chosen (or verses cut). Congregations will not sing the Mass Setting (i.e. Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei) and some cuts to the liturgy will be continued in order to keep service length short.
Those who are less comfortable about the resumption of singing will be invited to seat themselves towards the rear of the church so that people are not singing directly behind them.
The same protocols as currently apply to orders of service will apply to hymn books.
Tapes which currently seal off alternate pews may be removed to make the church look more welcoming. However, if this is done, we will still encourage social distancing when seated: alternate pews will have the cushions returned to them to indicate where we intend people to sit. This should be explained to the congregation by the churchwarden / sides people as they arrive (e.g. “please sit in one of the pews with cushions / a carpet runner on it”). This is one way to make the church visually more “normal” whilst still keeping the degree of distancing to which we have become accustomed. This will also allow a more flexible approach to seating at weddings and funerals. Churchwardens can make the decision as to whether this is suitable in their individual church in consultation with me.
Some simple instructions will need to be given to people as they arrive and at the start of each service for clarity’s sake. A script will be developed for consistency and this will be read before every service.
Further reading to explain what has informed these decisions may be found below:
A standing stone, Place of gathering, Landmark on a hill. A place seen from far off: Somewhere to aim for.
Speaking of more than stone, Being more than a beacon: Emblem of companionship, Presence of encouragement On faith’s journey.
Articulating rootedness: Community of ages, Speaking of destination Even to those Not knowingly on that journey.
Icon of Light. Sign of Christ. Agent of the Holy Spirit.
Virtually visible Yet literally present Where utterance enters heart; Where conversations continue; Where God’s love and relationships bloom.
Witness to life in Christ, Inviting a threshold-crossing Into standing in the flesh Among living stones Who continue to build, be built and to bless.
A standing stone, Place of gathering, Landmark on a hill. A place seen from far off: Somewhere to encounter God.
written 6th June 2015, Upper Church, Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield
I wrote this poem for Sian Lawton as she took on my former role as Ripon Cathedral’s online ministry co-ordinator back in 2015, but here in 2021 it has fresh resonance with the post-lockdown importance of renewing our ministry in church buildings.
It is a reflection on the complementary nature of online and church building-based ministry and worship. The standing stone refers to the Anglo Saxon gathering stone in the churchyard at Ripon (near its southwest corner, and which looks like a spent match) – an ancient place to gather in worship, but a very different expression of gathered worship to even what went on in St Wilfrid’s 7th century church on this site. Places and forms of worship evolve.
Online church, and the church building have in the poem the same role, and are guided by the same Spirit.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”