Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Investing in eternity

I’ve been thinking about how a cult and a mainstream church might both use the same theology.

It is a side effect of the three Bishops in this diocese processing all the clergy through a series of breakfast meetings for the first time: I set off for Lincoln at 6.45 a.m. one morning this week to be at Edward King House in times for shared Matins, an impressive cooked breakfast, and a hour and a half seminar about promoting financial stewardship in our parishes.

I suspect that twenty-five years ago such seminars (at whatever time of day!) would have begun by exercises enabling participants to express the theology they use or value when doing this and what they find difficult.  Things have moved on, and this time more than 80% of the time was taken by Bishops’ talks.

The talks centred on a theology often worried away at in posts on this Blog: the total self-giving of God-in-Christ and the absolute call for a sacrificial response to this.

My only contribution was to suggest that we need to be exploring and living the implications of this all the time and then seeking to apply it in different circumstances. 

It is one thing to preach it regularly and to apply it frequently enough in different circumstances.  In this case, it would simply be a mainstream activity to ask from time to time the discipleship question ‘how does this relate to our financial giving to those in need and to the church?’.

It is quite another thing to be seen to practice it rarely (for the avoidance of doubt, it is myself I’m typing about here as much as anyone else) but to produce it suddenly to encourage a good response to our appeal to fund the ministry and mission of the church.  In this case, it could look like the manipulative behaviour of a cult.

To present a congregation with theological guidelines the final question of which is ‘how much do you want to invest in eternity?’ (which is what the one example of apparently good parish practice presented to us did ) might be judged to have strayed too far in the cult direction.

The Church of England has just published Setting God’s People Free, one of the reports on lay discipleship which come round at intervals.  It reminds us yet again that there is a need for a real culture change (this is the report's main point and language) to value normal people’s everyday life as the primary place for their discipleship and to focus on equipping them for this rather than to identify and value chiefly their contribution to the life of the church.

At one point, it asks:

How are Christians who are not in specialist ecclesial roles within the Church (such as Readers) equipped to integrate their regular patterns of Sunday (and weekday) worship, personal devotion, Bible reading and other practices of faith with the demands of family life, finances, personal relationships, politics, media and consumerism? 

This is one of only two points at which it mentions the word 'finance'.  I’ve just had another quick search and found the report does also contain three references to money: an example of the release of capital for mission activities through the sale of surplus Vicarages; praise for initiatives to train people as debt councillors and money coaches; and the sharp claim that ‘some laypeople at times feel little better than pew fodder whose task is no more than to give money, receive teaching, sing nicely and comply meekly’.

There is an obvious irony that the first recent systematic attempt to gather all the clergy for briefings and encouragement should address the issue of promoting stewardship to finance the ministry and mission of the church just at the time that the issue is again raised of promoting a culture change in what we count as lay discipleship in life beyond the ministry and mission of the church, but I’m not sure it would really be that hard for a mainstream church to hold the two together.

Its statements and training would include the report's recognition and encouragement of the careful weighing of the difficult balance all of us face with the resources of time and money we can expend on ourselves, our families, our neighbours, charities and (of course) the ministry and mission of the church.  Perhaps it would begin with a celebration of the sometimes sacrificial generosity which does often flavour many people’s community and family lives.

Meanwhile, here is another quite different picture of St Michael’s, one which shows the whole of the 1915 chancel screen (the gallery of which was lost in the 1970s and the body of which was moved at the beginning of this century).  I think they sang ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’ and ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’.

Revised 10th February

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