Thursday, 21 May 2015

"Mission Communities"

Is the diocese of Lincoln serious about forming mission communities?  One can’t imagine it isn’t.  But if it had been trying to give the impression that it isn’t, it couldn’t have organised things better.

To encourage parishes to group together not in benefices (units defined by the available quantity of clergy and by the authority of incumbents) but to group together in mission communities (units defined by the ability to generate the energy and resources needed for new vision and action) would be a fascinating exercise - and it could be a significant step to develop a habit consistently to name mission (rather than maintenance) as a purpose and community relationship (rather than structures) as the mode of operation.

Some such intention was announced as long ago as 2013 - and then nothing was heard for nearly a year.

Finally paperwork came from the diocese - timed to arrive the day after the last parish in the diocese would have held its AGM in 2014 where such things could have been be floated and explored.  The paperwork gave less than two weeks notice of briefing events and then an eight week interval before a thought through response which would affect the parish’s strategy for years to come was expected.

Then, after the submission date, silence again for another nine months. 

At Easter 2015 an e-mail from an Archdeacon’s Secretary broke the silence with an attached progress report.  The single sheet announcing that ‘we were delighted that nearly 80% of our parishes responded’ – who ‘we’ were and why a failure to catch the imagination of nearly a quarter of the parishes in the diocese was the cause of such delight was not explained.

‘The vast majority of parishes think that the current groupings of parishes into benefices (under the pastoral care and leadership of your vicar or rector) offers the best shape for allowing the church to flourish in your area’, it says, a failure of vision which the process thus far almost invited. 

So the bold initiative turns out to be one allowed to revert to being a re-branding exercise for the existing structures.  Medium term memories will recall the moment the radical mission area proposals of yesteryear began to stall – when it was decided that it was simpler if existing deaneries operated as mission areas and the gravitational pull of accustomed deanery practice began to pull us away from anything new.

‘At the Archdeacons’ Visitations in May this year, you will received a ‘certificate’ from the Bishop of Lincoln which we hope you will display to inform congregations which parishes and communities you have decided comprise your mission community’, it continues.

It doesn’t.  Our single parish, benefice and team ministry is (I assume in the absence of any engagement with us over the previous nine months) to be our mission community and is named at the top of our certificate – which says the Bishop is ‘delighted to affirm and celebrate that you have agreed to work with the other parishes in your mission community’ of which there are in fact none, making the certificate displayable only at the risk of someone taking it seriously, asking what that actually means and discovering it doesn’t accurately state our position at all.

‘The archdeacons will tell you more about this in the visitation services that all churchwardens will be attending in May and June’, it almost concludes.

They didn’t.  At least, the archdeacon who led the particular service I attended didn’t let the words ‘mission community’ pass his lips. 

But then neither did the Diocesan Secretary or the Suffragan Bishop in their major strategy presentations to the most recent Diocesan Synod.  Nor does the diocesan website (not that it has lips): there are no identifiable pathways to follow to find the vision or implementation of mission communities set out; entering the term in the search box  only throws up the forms sent out over a year ago; the parish profiles of five of six vacant benefices don’t use the term, and the sixth uses it only in a context which mistakenly elides the concept with a ‘church categorisation’ process which the diocese ran alongside the initial mission communities consultation.

My admittedly unworthy and deeply childish thought is that the diocese is clear that there is a gap between the standard at which I operate and the standard at which senior members of diocesan staff operate, and cumulative evidence seems to show that this is in fact true.

Meanwhile, we will get on with the task of getting one of the diocese’s new Discipleship Development Advisers to come and see what we have been doing with developing our Mission Action Plan and what we might be doing improving our approach and/or seeking to access the different funding, staffing and/or training resources it is making available.

The mid-Victorian font at Snelland was another attractive find during the recent West Lindsey Open Churches Festival.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Social prescribing?

The National Health Service in North East Lincolnshire is looking to take £1 million out of its funding for the care of the elderly. 

Last week, four days after the General Election, it put out a consultation.  It appears to it that several years of pre-election cuts have exhausted what can be achieved by efficiencies and reorganisation.  So three things seem to it to be unavoidable now. 

Reduce the numbers using Day Centres by reassessing all users to see how many of them might have their needs met by suitable community group alternatives; a reduced number of Centres could then care for the most vulnerable. 

Reduce the numbers for whom transport is provided when accessing this sort of provision; those with transport benefits will mainly be expected to use these for their own travel and a reduced level of provision could then be needed for those with particularly specialist transport needs. 

Remove any subsidy for meals-on-wheels provision; people should meet the full costs of their own.

This obviously ties in with my last post suggesting that the level of cuts in local services which we will face in the next five years will dwarf those of the last five years and that individuals, including those much less prosperous than me, will have to pick up costs. 

I wonder whether or how this also ties in with the first initiative the newly re-established North East Lincolnshire Voluntary and Community Sector Forum has been exploring.  The successful model elsewhere has been GPs making net savings to health care budgets by prescribing participation in things like lunch clubs and social events.  

But will any budget have provision for what is called 'social prescribing' in the new situation?  And what are the implications of the question I asked in another recent post when saying I wonder whether anyone in authority really appreciates how the national shift in provision depends on the availability of... venues and who is to fund the sorts of provision or improvements these need.

Meanwhile, we saw the angel carrying the grid-iron symbol of St Lawrence (who faces another carrying the cross-keys symbol of St Peter) at St Lawrence and St Peter’s, Wickenby when we visited some of the West Lindsey churches specially open to visitors on Saturday.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Election clarity

There are five things I don’t read about in the standard press coverage of the General Election.

First, Ed Miliband actually did better than David Cameron in increasing his party’s share of the overall vote: Labour increased by 1.4% while the Conservative increased by only 0.8%; it was all the other variables (including the SNP taking 40 Labour seats in Scotland and the LibDem collapse producing erratic outcomes in first-past-the-post system in England) which meant this Conservative increase of less than 1% took Cameron to an overall majority while the Labour increase of nearly 1.5% meant they ended up with 26 fewer seats than before.  The amount Miliband did better was even clearer in England: Labour increased here by 3.6% while the Conservatives increased by only 1.4%; here the electoral maths delivered only 15 extra seats to Labour compared with 21 extra seats to the Conservatives.

Secondly, the result was one which was predictable a year ago.  By a combination of luck (I had no idea, for example, that the SNP would win 8.6% of the seats in the new Parliament) and judgement, I got close to an accurate prediction with a post which concluded: If in a year’s time the Lib-Dems are punished as severely as they deserve for what their previous supporters see as delivering five years of punitive Conservative government, that unravels  all the old ‘three party politics’ maths which gave us a ‘hung parliament’ last time.  If in a year’s time UKIP enters a first-past-the-post election with only a quarter of national voting support [we now know they got half this], that will simply make no impact.  It will be two party politics time again – and one of the two parties would be likely to come out of the election with an absolute majority.

Thirdly, if the former Lib-Dem voters were really seeking to 'punish' that party 'for delivering five years of punitive Conservative government' then the ploy backfired spectacularly: the Conservatives picked up 15 more former LibDem seats than Labour did; without those 15 seats the Conservatives wouldn't now be in a position to deliver a second five years of government unfettered by any coalition restraint.

Fourthly, and almost most strikingly, it wasn’t quite a quarter of registered voters (24.4%) who put their crosses against a Conservative candidate – a proportion which is, of course, legitimately enough to secure an absolute majority of seats for them in the Parliament.  This quarter will not correspond directly with the most prosperous quarter of the population (some Tory voters are comparatively poor, some comparatively rich voters support other parties), but it will correlate with it (a high proportion of those in a room of random Tory will be comparatively rich, a room of the most vulnerable in society will contain few Tory voters).  Few will bother with the moral implications if a Government elected without the active consent of most of the ‘bottom’ three-quarters of the population turns out to increase the wealth of top earners, dismantles much of the welfare support for bottom earners, withdraws Human Rights protection and increases surveillance of the population at large, but, if anything like that happens, I don’t imagine history would be kind.

Finally, the level of cuts in local services which we will face in the next five years will dwarf those of the last five years.  Someone like me in the middle (a stipend and tied house places me close to the average position for earners) can afford things like the £60 I’ve just paid for a previously free garden waste collection service and to buy the new book I’m reading in a parish in which the last library has just been closed, but this can only be the beginning, and those much less prosperous than me will not have such freedom even if to any extent ‘we will all benefit from wealth creation and a stronger economy’.  If the stock of Housing Association property goes the way of the previous stock of Council Housing, their children might eventually not even find affordable homes easy to come by.

The picture is Great Billing Parish Church.

(Slightly revised, and third point added, on 11th May.)

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Rulers, resources and relationships

I wonder whether the recognised triad of State, Markets and Civil Society is also something which might mutual illuminate the monastic vows of obedience poverty and chastity?  This is one of the reflections I’ve had after reading part of the House of Bishop’s letter about the election.

The present welfare state is a legacy of the 1942 Beveridge Report - and the 1945 Atlee Labour government which implemented much of it by creating, among other things, the National Health Service and bringing together a single system of state schooling.

Thirty-four years later (and thirty-six years ago), the 1979 Thatcher Conservative government also ‘changed the political weather’ (a phrase in the letter) with a focus on less intervention and less regulation of markets.

These two things simply became normative, as the letter says:

Just as successive administrations between 1945 and 1979, Conservative as well as Labour, tended to regard the collectivist structures introduced under Atlee as part of a strong national consensus, so different administrations since that of Margaret Thatcher have treated the market-orientated and individualistic emphasis of her governments as part of the undisputed political landscape.

But, as the letter goes on to observe, ‘neither was, initially, as lacking in nuance as they have often been portrayed’.  Beveridge had also reported on Voluntary Action ‘which affirmed the principles of personal responsibility and local, informal activities which built stronger communities’ while Thatcher was keen to promote values of charity and self-help.

So we wrestle, the letter suggests, with the values and dangers of each: state intervention which provides for all but can disable initiative; market forces which generates wealth but can victimise the vulnerable; social structures which form and sustain community but are in danger of being fragmented by either state control or market competition.  The triad is, as I say, well recognised.

Now, I’ve written before about the warning in Deuteronomy that the King should not have too many horses, too much gold or too many wives – potential monopolies of state power, market resources and civil relating.  And about the way these mirror vows of obedience, poverty and chastity – setting aside personal power, resources and relating, any of which would distort equal membership of the community.  (For this purpose, I ought to clarify that the vow of chastity is not so much ‘I will not have a sexual relationship’, although, of course, it does imply that, as ‘I will not seek partnership and family other than this community into which I am now vowing commitment’.)

So, a starting point might be that we are only able to operate as human beings in the context of rulers, resources and relationships; this is obvious when one considers the alternatives which are the nightmares of lawless anarchy, of exposure and starvation, and of isolation.

We have our rulers – from absolute monarchs with direct control of the army to Abbots who listens to their community and articulate a way forward for them.  We have our resources – from those accumulated in the hands of a small number to those shared by the whole community.  We have our relationships – from the exploitative to the mutually supportive. 

We cannot always avoid operating at times in a mode of intervention – from calculated manipulation to acts of rescue.  We cannot avoid operating at times in a mode of competition – from getting ahead by disadvantaging others to selecting the best person for a job.   We cannot avoid operating at times in a mode of collaboration – from pragmatic partnership to interdependence.

The juggle of human living may be how we recognise the three and how we find the most constructive way of operating each – whether in a national political approach or within a family or community.

Meanwhile, I can’t begin to think of the significance of the next illustration to hand which is of the stunning large Old Rectory at Great Billing where my great-grandfather was living as incumbent a hundred years ago (Rector 1899-1918); it is on the edge of Northampton and we looked at it taking a break from visiting my mother in hospital there a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday, 3 May 2015


The very large tree in the churchyard at Holy Cross, Byfield underneath which my father's cremated remains are buried is heavy with blossom.  This is the view of the church tower and spire from the spot taken on 1st May, the nineteenth anniversary of his death and the day before we buried my mother's cremated remains in the same plot.  The canopy of blossom and the knowledge that it will return at this time each year seemed a real gift.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Election ennui

I find that I have been avoiding the election campaign.  Perhaps the verbs are too strong - I am aware that I’m not attending to it.

In one sense that is odd.  Five years ago, I was the one asked to write the ‘it is important to vote’ column for the diocesan magazine and the one invited to chair the Churches Together organised hustings in Grimsby.

So why am I indifferent to the campaign going on around me?  It is because I don’t see any evidence that the candidates want to engage with the questions I might want to ask.

At one level this is simply obvious and explicit: my wife e-mailed all the candidates with questions about one issue and received replies from only two (Green and Lib Dem) and certainly not from the three theoretically electable in this constituency (Conservative, Labour and UKIP).

At another level, this is hidden by the noise of large numbers of questions appearing to be asked and answered; it is on this that I have been reflecting in particular.

For example, I would like to know from a Conservative or LibDem candidate why Coalition defence of the “bedroom tax” was always based on the freedom to move of the tenant when it was known from the start that there was insufficient supply of smaller properties for this to be true.

Putting a question like this, however, only ever provokes the appearance of an answer – the person questioned says what his or her party wants to communicate about benefits cuts.  A question on this topic has been asked and an answer on this topic given – but I am none the wiser about the point I wanted tackled.

A few of the candidates have put literature through my door inviting me to return a pro-forma indicating which issues matter to me.  I am supposed to feel that there is a genuine interest in my priorities – but I know it is data the party needs for marketing (in exactly the same way that supermarkets gather data via “reward” cards).

The most high profile indication of politicians’ unwillingness to allow the questioner to set any genuine agenda was the reaction to the House of Bishop’s public letter about the issues for this election. 

A Cabinet member was sent out simply to rubbish the idea of the Bishops setting any agenda.  He said that no such letter had been issued last time when Labour was in office - despite, as a practising Catholic, his being fully aware both that the Catholic Bishops issue such a letter each election and that the new Archbishop of Canterbury has been explicit about how much he values this expression of ‘catholic social teaching’ and wanted to follow this example.

This is, of course, exactly what happened when the former Archbishop of Canterbury tried to provoke real debate as the guest editor of an issue of the Spectator in 2011.  Now the election has come, the parties have got their own planning grids of the issues to be raised – and simply dismiss anyone who seeks to explore any  agenda outside this grid.

Meanwhile, having found larch flower in Bradley Woods recently, we found ash flower when we were in Pickworth churchyard soon after that.