More than a year has passed since “Setting God’s People Free” was issued by the Archbishops’ Council as part of the Renewal and Reform agenda. It was received by General Synod and passed on to the dioceses for study and, presumably, action. It starts with the words “A great opportunity lies before us” and calls for a shift in culture, not a narrow, centrally driven strategy. It stresses the need for laity and clergy to become convinced that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission, before they are capable of evangelising the nation.
So, how is all this working out in practice? Well, there are lots of chirpy new Diocesan straplines to encourage us: – “To know – Love – Follow Jesus”; “Living the story. Telling the Story”; “Worshipping God, Making New Disciples, Transforming Communities”; “Faithful – Confident – Joyful” and “Discovering God’s Kingdom, Growing the Church” to quote some samples from the advertisements pages.
But how do we assess whether a shift in culture is starting to take effect? Has the increasing presence of women at all levels of ministry made any difference? How is the drive for equal worth and status between clergy and laity progressing? Are those who are trained and immersed in church culture connecting effectively with the laity, inside and outside our congregations?
Perhaps before trying to evangelise the general public and attempting to attract into church those who really are not interested, we could make a better job of looking after those already involved. Maybe we should concentrate on those on the fringes who might just be persuaded to give it another go, or take a tentative step towards commitment?
Reading the adverts for parish clergy posts is fascinating. Along with the chirpy Diocesan straplines they contain lots of current ecclesiastical jargon about strategic/missionary/visionary/collaborative/empowering leadership; the need for a person of vigour/inspiration/innovation/discernment/spiritual depth; a requirement for one with a devotion to developing the role of laity/ecumenism/outreach/youth & children’s work/community engagement; and a sense of humour!
Many years of church involvement at parish and diocesan level leads me to ask why so much time is spent on putting such adverts together, along with job descriptions, parish profiles, or diocesan statements of needs?
All that is really needed is some idea of the local geography and social demographics, information about the house, and an idea of the theological slant of the parish, including whether they discriminate on grounds of gender.
Personal and anecdotal experience of newly appointed clergy shows that sadly some will ignore anything in the parish profile once they are appointed. They will do what they want to do, and dismiss the advice of lay people who raise questions about their plans.
What can be done to encourage clergy to take more time to get to know people and understand something of the history of the place – factual, spiritual and emotional? There will be committed lay people already there who do also want the congregation to grow, the local community to come to know God, and the world to be a better place.
I have seen what can happen when services are altered on a whim, support groups are disbanded, or new innovations introduced without consultation. The church’s culture of discouraging any handover process or advice from the previous incumbent can also hinder a smooth transition of leadership.
We are all part of the body of Christ. How do we encourage better ways of working together? All organisations have to change and develop, and the church must not be an exception, at parish, diocesan or national level. But change for the sake of it which leads to unhappiness is counterproductive, and the ramifications of it spread wider than those immediately concerned. We need to balance trying to find new ways of evangelizing those outside the church with listening to those we already have and attending to what they say, valuing their gifts, and building on what is good rather than destroying it.
A better way is possible – good, affirming, encouraging, collaborative working practices can be found, and excellent clergy/lay leadership patterns can be established which are fulfilling for all concerned. Perhaps something good will come out of way church culture has been exposed by the IICSA proceedings, and real changes will be made.
This reflection has been written on Good Friday, and has perhaps been affected by the somber mood of the day. But resurrection comes on Easter Day, as it does for each of us in many ways as we go through our own lives. I hope and pray that it will be so for the Church of England, and that I, along with everyone else, will be able to be part of it.