Monday, 17 September 2012

Polishing leaves

Our Area Bishop has announced his retirement at the age of 59. Although we might well have expected him to carry on for another five to ten years, one can understand why a Bishop, after twelve years in post, wants to take what he calls the ‘risky step’ of exploring whether the years before final retirement could be used doing new things.

We shall be poorer for the absence of his strengths - everything from his personal way of conducted Confirmation services to his clear sighted view of the changing landscape within which the church operates.

It is a challenging image from a Sabbatical he undertook a while ago which I may remember best - set out here from the beginning of an article in his own old Blog:

The most valuable aid to my thinking came from a fig tree... When I arrived, the tree looked magnificent, with leaves of a dimension that could cope with any Adam. The fruit was forming, although still bright green and firm.

What I had not realised was how sterile a fig tree could be in terms of other life... [until], as the summer moved on and the fruit ripened, the tree developed a community of its own - a community drawn to the fruit. There were insects and birds eating the fruit, birds eating the insects, and birds eating other birds.

Inevitably, my mind was drawn to the passages in Mark and Matthew where Jesus goes to a fig tree looking for fruit, finds none, and curses the tree so that it withers and dies… Israel, with so much potential for responding to God’s desire to engage with his creation, had let God down.

The cursing of the fig tree and other episodes such as the clearing of the temple and Jesus’ turning water into wine, speak of God moving on in the person of Jesus – the new wine of God’s relationship with the created. God’s agenda was not to be held back by the Jewish religiosity of the time which produced vast amount of religious leaves – but when those hungry for God reached into those leaves, there was nothing there. It was all leaf.

Observing the fig tree, I realised that as the fruit was eaten or fell to the ground, the vibrant community which had gathered and established itself, disappeared with the fruit. The tree became very dull – still plenty of leaves but very dull…

The danger for a Church is that it can be all leaf. It may ‘look the part’ on the human landscape but it may in fact be fruitless – and God moves on. It is fruit that reveals God’s relationship with his creation, and the religiosity, the system and structure of Judaism, had let God down – and Jesus cursed that tree…

I could not help but see the danger for the Church in our age. It can be good at producing leaves of religiosity – reports from Synod; new liturgy; umpteen commissions and renewal schemes – but where is the fruit?

With this in mind, as I studied church growth, I found I was frequently reading about institutional survival. This was true even of material from the evangelically minded independent churches. When we talk about growth, we’re usually talking about more members for the institution, and fruitfulness comes a long way down the list of what the Church might offer the world.

In a tree there is an essential balance between leaves and fruit. Leaves are essential for the producing of fruit. They are essential for the health of the whole tree, but they are not the purpose of the tree. There is a delicate balance between the need for a tree to have the structure and mechanisms needed to give it life, and the fruit, which is the purpose and future of the tree.

We talk about how to ‘grow’ the church but we are caught up with conversations about institutions and ‘leaves’. Yet without fruit how dull the tree is – no community, no vibrancy of life, nothing for those who hunger. The question hangs there: ‘what is the purpose?’

When I recognised the dullness of the fruitless tree, I recalled the rubber plants and cheese plants of the 1960s and 1970s. In truth, they were very dull plants, but we tenderly cared for these monsters growing in our living rooms. We bought bottles of leaf shine, so that with leaves carefully polished they looked splendid, but actually they continued to be very dull plants. For me, it sometimes feels that much of what we do in the Church is actually polishing leaves!

The picture is of the Deserted Mediaeval Village site at Brackenborough Hall.

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