Monday, July 28, 2014

The APR of the Soul

“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.” (CS Lewis)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The best thing anyone can do

There's an encouraging and challenging interview with Justin Welby by the evangelist J. John, done a few months ago, with an edited transcript published here at God and Politics.  Here's a few snippets

What does it mean to be an Anglican?


It first of all means to be a Christian – to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The most important decision any person can ever make is to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s the best thing anyone can do. Secondly, they follow in a particular tradition, which varies around the world. (I love the clarity of this answer, so refreshing, no small print)

So Archbishop, what are your hopes for the Church of England, your hopes for Britain?

My hopes are for a Church that learns much more to disagree well and to cope with diversity, that is incredibly flexible, that holds to the traditions where they serve the gospel and is incredibly flexible about living in a rapidly changing culture and learns how to deal with that. A Church that grows in the number of the faithful, committed disciples of Jesus Christ, year in and year out, and has a new confidence in the gospel and, above all, a Church that is consumed by love for Jesus.

Archbishop, how can we pray for you?

You can pray first of all for wisdom to know what to do, because it’s sometimes very difficult. Secondly, for patience, to know when to do it, because timing is often everything. And thirdly, for courage to do it even when it’s going to be really difficult.

worth reading in full. Or if you want to watch/listen for an hour.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Women Bishops: The Morning After

Do you ever have those chats where the other person takes ages to get round to what they wanted to say in the first place? It's felt a bit like that as a vicar in the CofE over the last few years - we were going to get round to having women bishops (or 'bishops' as they're now called) eventually, but by 'eck it's taken a long time.

Self-indulgently long in fact.

I tweeted a couple of things on the #synod hashtag yesterday, which got 75 retweets/favourites between them, so must have struck a chord:

"Looking forward to the day when 85 people want to speak at #synod about evangelism" (85 people had indicated that they wanted to speak in the debate)

"Well done #synod, good call. Now back to that tedious old stuff about making disciples of all nations."

It's scandalous that we have taken up so much time, energy and angst over this - yes it's an important issue, but I don't see people queueing up to talk at General Synod about the main thing Jesus set the church up for in the first place, to make disciples of all nations (involving baptising new believers and teaching them the ways of Jesus). It doesn't matter whether a man, a woman or a goat is dressed in a purple shirt if we are not actually making disciples. Yes lets get this right, but lets also remember that it's not the main thing. 

Alongside this  - and this is where I get thrown out of the CofE completely - is whether we really understand what a bishop is in the first place. The CofE claims to have a 'threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons'. It doesn't of course, it only has a twofold order of bishops and priests, Deacons used to be a holding pattern for women who were called to the priesthood but not allowed to go there by the church. Now it's something that priests do for a year before, through an episcopally-applied software upgrade, they're then allowed to bless people and run a church (I simplify, of course...). 

Several dioceses don't have permanent deacons: people who have a call to be a deacon in the church, and have been ordained specifically to that role. Which makes a bit of a nonsense of the 'threefold order' claim. In the meantime we take a word used for a member of the team leadership of a local church in the NT (overseer/episkopoi) and freight it with 2000 years worth of historical and theological baggage. The God and Politics blog summarises the early part of that history. It's always seemed a bit odd for evangelicals to be debating who should or shouldn't be a bishop, when our understanding and practice has such a slim biblical basis in the first place. 

But then, perhaps that's what God intended. The first batch of deacons hardly stuck to the job description: they were supposed to oversee the distribution of food, but we know of one who became a travelling evangelist (Philip) and another (Stephen) got himself killed after doing lots of miracles culminating in a showdown with the authorities. The labels and roles matter less than the authorisation, and the priority, in everything, to get the word out. 

In all this there are positive signs - the national priorities of the CofE now include growing the church, and reshaping ministry, so there are signs we're alive to the issues above. 

Final point: in the inevitable 'who will the first woman bishop be?' over the coming months, lets keep coming back not to the personalities or the politics, but to the mission of the church. Because if we aren't doing what Jesus set us up to do, then we are not truly the church. Female or male, I'm not that fussed who we have in leadership in the CofE as long as they have the same priorities as Jesus. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Church Leaders: The Legacy Thing

I'm enjoying, and being challenged by, Tim Chesters 'Unreached: Growing Churches in Working Class and Deprived Areas'. It's packed with good insights - e.g. on the contrasts between middle and working class culture (e.g. on reliability - middle class meaning = chronologically reliable, turning up on time etc., working class = emotionally reliable, there for you when you need them).

Here's a bit that's got me chewing: bits in brackets are my paraphrases. And it applies in any culture.

"What is church growth? According to the parable of the sower (where 3/4 of the seed is wasted) it's not about numbers, but about the fruit of changed lives...the size of our Sunday congregagtion can all too easily become the focus and measure of how we feel about ourselves. (But) the goal is not numbers, but heart change. 

This brings a very different focus to the ministry. We don't need to feel insecure about leading a small church. Jesus has a small 'church' who all ran away when the crunch came! It means we can be bold in challenging unbelief, because we're not worried about people not attending....It means we can and will rely on God...when we aim for heart change, we are forced to realise it is not under our control (and therefore we pray more)

It means we leave a legacy. A church in our areas fell apart when the pastor left. The pastor had been caring, but had not taught the gospel or confronted sin. When he left, there was nothing. I want to leave behind a legacy of changed lives."

All too often we leave a legacy of changed premises (according to the wife of one theological college head 'show me a vicar who has been in post 7 years and I'll show you a building project'. Guilty m'lady) but not changed lives. The former is easier than the latter. We find ourselves encouraging deeper involvement in the church, rather than deeper growth in discipleship.

I want to leave behind a legacy of changed lives, for Jesus. Chester is reminding me why I do all this in the first place, and making me wonder about whether I'm aiming for that legacy, or something else.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On not assisting 'assisted dying'.

I'm also uneasy about the effect the Bill will have on the relationship between doctors and patients. Frankly, I want my doctors to be the sort of people who recoil from ending someone's life. Unless they are, it's a degree or two more difficult to trust my loved ones or myself into their care. If I or my loved ones were disabled or had limited mental capacity, I would be even more wary. 

excellent piece by Jan Henderson, read the rest here

I'm in agreement with Jan, and she states many of the reasons better than I could. The Belgian journey has already taken them to legalising this for children, and the UK experience with abortion - legalised for exceptional circumstances, but now used routinely as a method of birth control - shows that reality can end up a long way from where those drafting the laws intended it

So I'm with Justin Welby, rather than George Carey on this one. Freedom of choice tends to serve the strong, rather than the weak and vulnerable, because the weak have fewer choices, and less power to use them. The law is there to protect the vulnerable. It's interesting how the terminology has changed to emphasise choice: dying (something done by the patient) rather than euthanasia (something done by the doctor). 

Having talked people through a desire for suicide who ended up living happily, I have an intrinsic caution over the nature of a 'choice' to die. It's not made in a set of clean, clear-minded circumstances, and changing the culture around death with complicate things even further.

Update: good response to George Carey here from Ian Paul.

And the BMA is still opposed to assisted dying, despite an editorial in its house journal in favour.

I was struck by a comment I saw on Nick Baines blog 'we already have assisted dying, it's called a hospice'

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Do you have an Ecclesiastical Exoskeleton?


One of the problems of having growing children, is that each time they shed their skin we have to dispose of it in a separate waste container to keep the council happy. I'm joking of course. But churches, that's something else. Churches have exoskeletons, they can grow a bit within current structures/buildings etc., but any serious attempt to change size requires some skin-shedding.

I've just finished 'The In-Between Church' by Alice Mann, (summary here), and it rang a lot of bells. She argues that church growth occurs in steps, rather than a smooth gradient, and the big steps are between 4 exoskeletons (my word). Here are the 4 size categories, the numbers refer to membership, and the descriptions are broad-brush:

Family size 0-50: like an extended biological family, all know each other, addition is by birth and marriage, new members incorporated very  slowly, matriarchs and patriarchs hold authority, clergy part time and short term, function as chaplains to the family. They normally have 1 good community ministry, offered in ‘down home’ style. Clergy are there for pastoral care, but will find it hard to lead change. These can survive both good and bad leadership.

Pastoral size 50-150: multi-cell organism, coalition of several family/friendship networks, unity is based around the pastor. Big enough to look like ‘real church’, small enough to feel personal. 2 or 3 strong ministries, personal touch in worship. Everyone knows the vicar and the vicar knows everyone. Clergy are expected to meet spiritual needs of the members. Works well for clergy with good interpersonal skills, but starts to break down at 130+, as people start to feel they don't know each other. Growth will often depend on the effectiveness/popularity of the pastor.

Program 150-350: Leadership team, has quality and variety in programmes. Critical mass of people from several demographic groups (children, youth, seniors etc) and entry points for people  from various backgrounds. Staff team, often with paid heads of ministry. Basis of unity is a shared vision and programme, rather than shared relationships with leadership/key people. Role of pastor is recruitment, training, supervision, vision & strategy, key ministry is to other leaders, not members. Not a great place for a leader who loves pastoral ministry. 

Corporate 300-500+ institutional presence in the community, key location, big building, large staff. Figurehead leader. In the CofE these are mostly cathedrals, plus a few churches in the larger population centres.

Growth between the sizes can be limited by several bits of the exoskeleton:
 - physical: e.g. parking, cramped buildling, rooms for childrens work
 - community - e.g. fixed population or low-flux culture (church growth is fastest in London, which has a larger population churn rate)
 - organisational: i.e. a plateau between one of these two size categories. A newcomer in a larger 'pastoral' church misses out on a visit because the vicar is too busy. A newcomer in a 'family' church finds they can't break in to the set roles and relationships and gets disillusioned. Etc.

Mann encourages churches to plot their membership/attendance history and note where the plateaus are - are there regular zones where membership levels out, or gets stuck?

Transition from one size to another is a crisis: the church starts to feel the pressure of outgrowing the exoskeleton, and needs to reorient its way of being: from family to pastor focused, from pastoral to programme etc. Evolving through the size stages will be like the Exodus - there'll be times when the cost of leaving 'Egypt' will seem to outweigh the promised benefits, which haven't fully appeared yet. When the old exoskeleton becomes compromised, it has to be shed or the church will hit a ceiling and fall back again. 

It's interesting to compare this to our experience in Yeovil. We have two churches. St. Peters is a 'family' style church, run by a close-knit group of people almost independent of clergy leadership for quite some time. In recent times some of the older members have gone to glory, and several new people have joined us. Several of those, with experience of larger churches, are struggling to work out how things work at St. Peters! The transition is coinciding with a number of new bits of outreach, and some growth.

St. James, the larger church, seemed to be plateauing at 100-120 (combined parish membership 120-140, one vicar, which fits the model). My post was a new 0.5 appointment 8 years ago, followed by a childrens worker 2-3 years later. St. James is now at 160 members, but faces a new exoskeleton, the building. We can't fit the regular congregation into the church, so we're reshaping the building to put in some extra seating. After that, we'll have to look at staffing again, and possibly looking at repeating the main service in another time slot or venue, which will mean identifying and training up some more worship leaders and preachers (which is getting into 'programme' style).

I'd be interested to hear if this all rings true with anyone else, and whether there are particular things which hit particular denominations - Anglicans have lots of 'family' sized churches (240+ of our 500 churches in Bath and Wells are 24 members or fewer). Looking at our recent membership stats (2011-12), out of 37 churches larger than 130 members, only 7 grew year-on-year. In the zone where you''d expect 'pastoral' churches to be compromised (140-200), 20 of the 22 churches in this size group were flat or declining. 

This may also explain one of the findings in 'From Anecdote to Evidence', the report on church growth in the CofE earlier this year. It found that amalgamating parishes was a good way to ensure declining members. Churches in 'pastoral' mode which have to cope with a smaller share of their vicar, will end up with smaller congregations. And it will be very hard for stretched leaders to put the time and energy needed into a church which is trying to shed a skin and grow. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Perfection, Stress, Worry and Guilt

PSWG widescreen

The splendid people at Mind and Soul are running a day conference in the Autumn on Perfection, Stress, Worry and Guilt. If you can't make it but are interested in exploring faith and mental health, then the site has an excellent back catalogue of talks, interviews, handouts etc. on lots of topics in this area.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A theology of terrible things

"In the course of this month I’ve lost most of the use of my right hand because of a stroke, together with something akin to neuralgia, also connected with the stroke, which causes a continual, throbbing headache. It’s a long haul, and the future is uncertain, but medication and hard work are already beginning to show results. The thing I want to make clear, though, is that, however shitty things get, they will never be a measure of God’s love for me or those who are close to me.  Terrible things happen to Christians. They die in car crashes. They become paralysed. Businesses fail. Dreams plummet. Nightmares become reality. Our leader was crucified. If we can’t beef up our puny little theology by embracing and incorporating these inescapable facts we might as well give up our ridiculous faith and join the Ember Day Bryanites. They do coffee and biscuits. They’ll do.
            Not for me. I’m in for the long haul..."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The mental health 'car crash': a little more conversation, a lot more action.

The outgoing head of the Royal College of Psychiatrists is deeply unhappy with the way the Coalition government have handled mental health.


"It's a car crash," said Prof Bailey.
"The system is in crisis and we need people to listen.
"The sums of money that could make a difference are not huge but they could make a large difference."
Prof Bailey, who steps down as president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists later this week following three years in the role, strongly attacked the health secretary for failing to engage.
Asked whether Mr Hunt takes mental health seriously, she replied, "He has a basic understanding of it but whether he takes it seriously, the proof of which would be making it a priority, then sadly not."
There is the standard dead bat response from the government (that's a cricketing term, rather than anything to do with deceased flying mammals). It's even more frustrating to have a government that promised plenty on mental health but failed to deliver, than one which said nothing in the first place. Demand is rising, but provision is falling. If you thought the 4 hour wait in A&E for your broken leg was bad, you should be grateful it's your body that's broken and not your mind. We need both a little more conversation (there is still a great stigma over mental illness) and a lot more action.
It's very hard for people who are 'in the system' to speak out about it. For many with depression, anxiety etc., simply getting through the day is enough of a challenge, let alone having the confidence to challenge the system if it's letting you down. A few years ago, if you wanted my vote, a concrete promise of cash and provision in this area would have swung it. But until we get a health minister who has either been a patient or a carer for someone with acute mental health problems, I'm going to take the promises with a large pinch of salt. 
The recession has triggered a further rise in the number of people on anti-depressants. It's not hard to see how someone on a zero hours contract is going to get anxious, or a student facing an increasing mountain of debt, or a child struggling to hit the scores their school needs to top the league tables whilst their parents are splitting up and their so-called 'friends' are bullying them on Facebook. In most of these areas there are demand-side reforms to mental health (like this), but they don't always sit well with the austerity agenda. Mental ill-health costs £70 billion a year, according to the OECD. More than that, it's people's lives, and you can't put a price on that.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Beyonce 'where you lead me Lord, I will go'



I don't know what was more of a surprise, Beyonce in a Gospel song alongside fellow Destinys Child singers Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland, or the fact that she's almost dressed modestly. I must admit I don't quite get the US music scene (and don't follow it that closely), with artists publicly tweeting their Christian faith one week then doing something daft a week later.

But anyway, good uplifting song for a Monday, and nice to watch a pop video that I don't have to shield my children from.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Justin Welby at Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast

An inspiring, challenging and encouraging talk 'the global church in the 21st century' by the AB of C at the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast earlier this week. The full text is here, video here, below are some snippets which jumped out at me:

whatever else the Church is, I hope and pray and we will never just be useful – what a dreadful condemnation that would be. There have been moments when we’ve fallen into that trap, and the walls of Lambeth Palace are lined with Archbishops looking useful [laughter], a bit like Hogwarts. But it’s always happened when we’ve lost sight of the fact that at the heart of being a Christian is knowing Jesus Christ, so that together as we meet with Him and share in worship, we find ourselves renewed and strengthened for the call of carrying the cross and following Him.


"The Church, though, is a suffering church in this century. It is growing and in growing it suffers. It carries a cross. That is as true today as ever, and the last few years have demonstrated the truth and cost of that reality. A couple of weeks ago, Caroline and I were in Lahore in Pakistan....  We met some of the clergy and the Bishop of Peshawar who were involved in the bomb explosion last September at All Saints Church, an Anglican church, in which over 200 people were killed. And you ask them: “How are things recovering? Are people still going to church?” “Oh,” they said. “The congregation has tripled.” It is a suffering church and a church of courage.


all Christians belong to one another as sister and brother, not as mutual members of a club. Through all our differences of culture... and we belong to one another not because we choose to but because God has made us that way; you can choose your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives, and I have to tell you that all who follow Christ are relatives, so you’re stuck with me and I’m stuck with you, so we’d better get used to it.  And that last point is essential to understanding how we act as the Church in the 21st century. We do not have the option, if we love one another, of simply ditching those with whom we disagree. 

In the Church of England we are seeking to start a radical new way of being the Church: good and loving disagreement, a potential gift to a world of bitter and divisive conflict. What can be more radical than to disagree well, not by abandoning principle and truth, but affirming it – agreeing what is right, acting on it and yet continuing to love those who have a different view?

"The poor are not served by a divided church obsessed with inward issues.

even 20 years ago it took months to reach the far corners of the earth now, as we know, take seconds. Instant reaction has replaced reflective comment. That is a reality that you deal with in politics, and it demands a new reality of ways in which we accept one another, love each other, pray for each other. The best answer to a complex issue on which one has heard a soundbite from a sophisticated argument is not always given in 140 characters.

"International aid. The Church of the 21st century is among the most efficient and the best deliverers of help for the poor that exists on the face of the earth... Isn’t it wonderful, let’s celebrate what’s good – it’s easy to be cynical about politics – but let’s celebrate what’s good: that with cross-party support in this country we have maintained international aid at 0.7 per cent of GDP.

"In the South Sudan, again in January, Caroline and I were there, and we were called a couple of days before we got there by the Archbishop, Daniel Deng, one of the great heroes of the faith, and he said: “Would you come up to Bor with me?” A town in the middle of the fighting zone. Well, we did, with a slight objection from some people, but we did. And we went out and we found the town that had been taken and retaken four times. Bodies on the streets, the smell of death in 40 degrees of heat everywhere. Mass graves to consecrate. And what does Daniel do? He goes on national television in the South Sudan and calls for reconciliation. Isn’t that extraordinary? Doesn’t that speak of what the Church should be? And in Sudan, the Church is also speaking heroically for an imprisoned woman and her two children, Meriam, for whom truth matters enough to die. A 21st-century global church loves the poor and the victim, and stands for human dignity, challenges oppressors and supports victims. It speaks for women killed in lynchings called “honour killings”, or for those imprisoned under blasphemy laws. It does all that despite its own suffering. Truth and love embrace.

"And it’s a forgiven church because it’s a failing church. The Church is always full of failure, and I’m sorry to say that’s because it’s always full of people. Without wishing to be controversial, you’re sinners, and so am I. I once said that in a sermon and someone came up afterwards and said: “I’d never have come and listened to you if I knew you were a sinner.”

"And lastly we are a hospitable church in the 21st century if we follow Christ – utterly at home in a world of numerous faith traditions. Open about the hope we have while listening to others. In Lent I spent some time with Ibrahim Mogra, the remarkable Muslim leader from Leicester, and we shared together our scriptures: I read bits of John’s Gospel with him, and he read bits of the Qur’an with me. Hospitable. That belonging to one another, being different, diverse and yet authentic to oneself and to one’s tradition and the truth, is a gift this world needs. It’s the opposite of all this Trojan Horse process. It is a generosity of spirit and openness to listen. The 21st century Church knows that the good news of Jesus Christ is a gift which is to be shared in witness. 

"The church is not an NGO with lots of old buildings. It is the Church of God, rejoicing in the realities of cultural diversity in a way never known before: global, cross-bearing, confident and welcoming. The Church holds for the world the treasure of reconciliation, and offers it as a gift freely given out of its own experience of struggling with the reality of it, of being reconciled ourselves through the sovereign love of God in Jesus Christ. The global Church is above all God's church, for all its failings, and in passionate devotion to him will offer the treasure He puts in our hands, unconditionally, always pointing in worship, deed and word to Jesus Christ.

Sorry, that's a lot of snippets, but there is a lot of good stuff in there. Well worth a read/listen.
Some links to the media coverage of the breakfast here

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How to sort out the preaching rota

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Ht The Church Sofa