It is over twenty years since I joined a newly re-shaped diocesan mission and training team, with the radical approach of it being led by a member of the Bishop’s Staff. Bill Ind as Director found creative ways for parishes to express their knowledge and outward looking service of their communities. John Cole, who had been a diocesan missioner, promoted Robert Warren’s developing Missionary Congregation approach (which was then published in 1996) with its emphasis on being distinctive and engaged – rooted in both faith and locality. Joan Butterfield, who had been adult education officer, championed lay development which was not just about eventual ministerial recruitment. I, as the new Clergy Training Adviser, sought to help clergy see new ways of working. Together we and others shared commonplaces such as ‘pilgrim’ being a better model than ‘family’ and about building ministry around the gifts available rather than simply around the needs perceived.
Last month a newly re-shaped diocesan discipleship development team was commissioned, with a member of the Bishop’s Staff leading it, and a new Continued Ministerial Development Officer also came into post. I attended a training day which one of them put on last week – and the paragraph above is actually a result of my playing a version of Bingo when I got home (once I’d updated the Robert Warren reference to Healthy Churches Handbook published in 2012). I was much less disturbed by the absence of corporate memory than by reflecting on the ways what I had once taught and now attempt to practice hasn’t really made the difference in our parish which I would have innocently predicted twenty years ago.
Anyway, the new team is now ready to lead the diocese’s Year of Discipleship 2015, with a Lent Course and a new parish Discipleship Development Programme as the flagship provision, and details are being known in places such as this training event. I would so much love it if the Lent Course bore less similarity to the sorts of material with which we have actually been seeking to energise people’s faith and commitment in most recent Lents. I would also so much love it if the Discipleship Development Programme didn’t appear to require us to go back to the beginning of the process in which we’ve been fully involved for a while (awareness of context, Mission Statement, Parish Day, immediate goal statement, and specific limited action plan). I would really love it if instead someone could come alongside what we are doing and help us see its strengths and weaknesses and suggest genuine creative next steps rather than take us over what may actually be the same ground again. But I’m repeatedly told to guard against being so negative.
There was mention of a fresh element (at least to me) in the Lent Course – something about which I’ve been thinking a lot since. Each participant is to be asked to score (literally, on a scale 1-10) six features of his or her own discipleship. This is to be done both at the beginning and at the end of the course - and (the new feature to me) the cumulative picture produced is to be fed back to the Church Council to give the parish a strong indication of where scores are low thus indicating which areas of preaching and resourcing need tackling next.
The rub could, of course, be exactly how one defines the constituent features of discipleship, mature faith and thus healthy churches. In the same way the recent list in the Church Times of the one hundred most important Christian books is both an enormous help but also provokes cries of ‘how could you have [failed to] include that one?’, I’d find it very hard to draw up my own definitive list but very easy to suggest ‘improvements’ to someone else’s (which I hope is an indication of engagement rather than simply further evidence of my terminal negativity, but who knows).
The Course’s selection, we were told, will be: the level of factual knowledge and intellectual assent to faith; the level of public and private religious practice; and the level of impact this has on one’s religious experience and on one’s lifestyle. So that this won’t look too abstract or obscure, specific examples are given helpfully in these six areas (each followed by an ‘etc’ presumably to indicate strongly that they are simply illustrative and not definitive): knowing facts about the Bible and Christian belief; believing that Jesus walked on water; going to church services and groups; praying and reading the Bible privately; having felt the presence of God and heard him speaking to you; and having faith affect your lifestyle, spending and voting.
I’d buy engaging with the Bible, praying and having faith affect lifestyle every time. Nevertheless, I wonder whether not being sure about biblical miracle stories, not being member of a specific church group and not feeling one hears God speak directly are such sure indications of Christian immaturity or ill health? Might a Church Council given a steer about low scores here be tempted to take remedial action to create certainty rather than confidence, more fellowship rather than deeper faith and emotion rather than joy? Or perhaps I simply reveal why engendering church growth is so elusive for me and it is in fact precisely the provision of robust teaching, close shepherding and exuberant worship which my tradition lacks but which is actually required.
For what it is worth, I’d have put in bids explicitly to include feeling fundamentally secure even when faced with difficulty, doubt and failure, the practice of giving and receiving forgiveness, and the whole range from loving service of neighbour to working for justice and peace – confidence which is trusting rather than certain, faith honed as much in external as in internal encounter, and joy which is discovered to have been the surprising quiet surreptitious infection of God and God’s ways.
The self-seeded ash which, especially in full leaf, obscured the view of the east end of St Nicolas’, and a branch of which may have recently been responsible for knocking the cross skew there, was felled last week. At Matins this morning, I noticed from inside how crisp and clear the colours of the east window appear now it is not shaded from the outside (although I actually regret that I have been party to destroying an accidental phenomenon which used to entrance and feed me). And outside the roofers had arrived to re-fix the cross - which they said to me looks like an easy task as it is held in place by a copper pipe which they may even have straightened by now.