Friday 31 October 2008

Welcome home

The work to create disabled access at the entrance to the churchyard at St Michael's, Little Coates was both completed and vandalised while we were away for four nights, but I'm trying to admire the work (including the rather fine reinstatement of the lantern above the entrance) rather than knock my head against the damaged wall.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Wednesday 22 October 2008

'The good that I would I do not do'

Why do I go on doing the job in a way I know it can’t or shouldn’t be done? A conclusion of my last post was that incumbents are mad to go on trying to run parishes rather than giving them creative oversight, but that is in fact what I try to do most of the time. That post referred back to an earlier one which identified the things we can settle for in place of real priesthood, and, yes, I settle for them a lot of the time as well. I can think of the beginning of at least four answers.

First, I don’t try to run the parish and settle for inferior priesthood all this time. Indeed, I’m aware of the way not meeting the expectations that I should do so creates dissatisfaction particularly in one of the three churches. The development of a Shared Ministry Team in the parish, and the times when we do actually work through it, is an indication of this. The rare moments of genuine ‘kingdom seeking’ in the church and community witness to it.

Secondly, an important part of the Bishop of Grimsby’s paper referred to in the last post is about ‘cognitive dissonance’ - the way in which the new ideas to which one gives intellectual assent crash against the way the old ideas have actually formed one’s character, habits and understanding. Particularly when under pressure, people revert to instinctive ways of behaving which probably don’t rely on their most recent thinking.

Thirdly, if there was to be a total change in behaviour there would need to be substantial changes in the requirements of the job. The legal framework of being an incumbent is quite demanding, and I spent some time yesterday fulfilling routine responsibilities as Rural Dean and a Surrogate for issuing Marriage Licences on top of these. We have even discussed whether if we are able to appoint a new colleague, the post should be as a ‘Priest Missioner’ rather than as a ‘Team Vicar’ to spare him or her this trap.

Finally, I enjoy a lot of it, including extraordinarily much of the care of the ancient buildings and their churchyards. The other day introducing some school children to the architecture and digging through my predecessors’ old registers to help someone identify a family grave felt more like a hobby than a displacement activity.

Monday 20 October 2008

Models of ministry

Doing this job is a bit like trying to direct a pantomime. Thirteen years ago I was hawking round for fellow clergy an article from the journal Theology which used this image. Each new pantomime grows out of a specific shared tradition which is made new that once. The director has a role equal to the actors in enabling both the rootedness in the tradition and the creativity needed for them to pull this off.

I also hawked around an article from the same journal published eighteen month earlier which suggested the job was like being a midwife. The image is of someone with training and expertise who is alongside those bringing forth new life - being responsible for the environment in which birth happens but not taking credit for God’s creation itself.

At exactly the same time the then Bishop of Grantham gave me and others the images of ‘jobbing theologians and popular hermits’ in the hope that we would recognise that there is something about our talking and praying which are the distinctive things to which people might look to us as general practitioners even if not as expert specialists.

This week I’ve just read properly a new paper by the present Bishop of Grimsby in which he offers ideas about developing models of ministry which will be sustainable and worthwhile for incumbents in parishes in the future. I could hardly believe the coincidence of the four images he uses: the impresario, the catalyst, the community theologian and the missioner.

The images of the impresario is a slightly different take on the image of the director of the pantomime. We can’t go on running the show, but we can take every opportunity to make sure an attractive variety of shows go on.

The images of the catalyst (which I used in my Michaelmas post on 30th September) and the midwife are getting at very similar things. The extra thing present (an element or a person) is not changed by what goes on (the reaction and the birth) but has a distinctive role in facilitating what is waiting to happen (bringing it about and ensuring it happens safely).

The image of the community theologian or jobbing theologian is one image. You hope your plumber has kept up with the technology in your system and doesn’t drive a nail through a gas pipe, and you hope your incumbent can make the right connections without doing inadvertent damage to near by explosive parts of your life or the life of your church.

There isn’t an exact match between the images of the popular hermit and the missioner. One is paying attention to God in secret and others happen to notice this, use this and value this. The other is seeking ways in which to make the secret known.

The point thirteen years ago and now is that we shouldn’t ever have felt we were meant to be running parishes. We are mad going on trying to do so in places where the responsibility is for more and more parishes. And the sort of oversight to which incumbents are now called is close to what our priesthood should always have been anyway.

Meanwhile, the picture is of work continuing last week on disabled access at St Michael’s, Little Coates (which, ironically, is a project into which I've put a huge amount of time - and last night a Churchwarden told me we may have to tackle major roof repairs at St George’s, Bradley).

Saturday 18 October 2008

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Gas price dominos

The level of provision of ministry in disadvantaged parishes and support for charities (and also the health of local churches) may be unexpected victims of the rises in electricity and gas prices. The domino effect is not difficult to understand, and has already been presented to me twice this week.

On Monday I had an e-mail from the Treasurer of one of the only three PCCs in this area which puts over £35 000 each year into our ministry budget. No, he said, it didn’t look likely that it would keep its support at the same level as this year (let alone offer the increase I’d requested) in part because it expects to pay £2 000 more on heating and lighting. I'm expecting this will be followed by further similar messages from others.

This morning at Matins I found today’s suggestion in the Prayer Diary from the missionary society USPG to be ‘pray for church treasurers, struggling to make the most of limited financial resources; pray that PCCs might find creative ways to provide financial support for world mission’, which I take to be (in part) a not very heavily coded plea not to be the subject of cuts.

The fear is that any form of external financial giving is often an early victim of pressure on church budgets. And, as well as creating severe problems for those we would otherwise support, we also know this isn't very healthy for us. The point is well made by our neighbouring parish priest who happens to be the one quoted in the introduction to this week’s topics in that Prayer Diary. Canon Ian Shelton says ‘Our church’s link with USPG enables us to be outward-facing when the temptation is to look inwards; keeping our link with USPG alive is good for us’.

Meanwhile, the picture is a representation of the ‘harvest of the sea’ created for Sunday's Harvest Festival at St Nicolas’, Great Coates by two children there.

Sunday 12 October 2008

All you need is Psalm 121

The first RE lesson at Secondary School was given over to learning ‘the School Psalm’ so that we could begin the Assembly every Monday (and any number of other special occasions) by rising and singing it without books. It turns out to have been the most useful RE lesson I ever had. Having it by heart has been the most useful tool for ministry ever since, whether reverting to the old Prayer Book text or venturing off into newer translations and even pastiches.

When someone wants me to pray for them but I have no idea what to say, I begin:
I will lift up my eyes to the hills
but from where can I find any help?

When an evangelical wants me to take a turn at extempore prayer and I don’t want to parody his ‘Lord we just want to ask you’, I continue:
My help comes from the Lord:
who made both hills and heaven.

When I’m at the a grave side and the wind has lost my place in the book, I pick up:
He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:
and he that keepeth thee will not sleep.

Being asked to bless someone’s house, I include:
Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel:
shall neither slumber nor sleep.

Called to the Hospital bedside of someone dying last week, I prayed:
The Lord himself is thy keeper:
the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand.

Seeking calm ahead of a hostile encounter, I think:
The sun will not burn us up:
the moon will not threaten us.

When called to reassure someone in distress, I say:
The Lord shall keep you from all evil:
it is he who shall keep your soul.

In circumstances I haven’t yet imagined, I trust:
The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in:
from this time forth and for evermore.

Friday 10 October 2008

Whose church is it?

When I’m thanked for allowing a group from the parish to use ‘my’ church I always point out that it has really been their church all along. I probably do so in the pious tone of voice I find so unpleasant in other clergy. Funders who like evidenced use rather than pious generalisation made me quantify this, and, as work began this week on disabled access at St Michael’s, Little Coates, I’ve been looking at how these figures still stack up.

About 40 people turn up at St Michael’s each Sunday morning at the moment; perhaps as many as 100 different people have worshipped at our Sunday and Wednesday morning services in the six weeks since the beginning of September, and another 30 came to our alternative worship event called The Last Saturday Thing. But I’ve done a rough count and calculate that about 1250 different people have been through the door in that time.

They came from two different schools who asked to use the building in different ways. They came for the weekly WalkWell health promotion sessions, a weekly art class and a monthly Ladies Circle. They came for the national Heritage Open Day or for our weekly Saturday Open Church. They came for fourteen different services of Baptism, Marriage, Funeral and the Burial of Cremated Remains.

So it is clear that the message we try to give to suspicious funders is true: the effort a few regular church goers put into keeping the building open is indeed for the benefit of other people.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Diary room for the disadvantaged

The Big Brother Diary Room turns out to be the key to consulting disaffected or disadvantaged young people. Asking them to take part in formal meetings frequently fails; the format is unfamiliar and the power seems to be stacked on the side of the organisers. But, the advice is, put a camcorder in their hands and simply let them talk; they’ve seen it done on television and the power is theirs.

The advice comes from the experience of a member of staff of the ‘looked after children service’. She and I were at a meeting yesterday of the Trustees of the Shalom Youth Project. The Project has a genuine commitment to hearing the voices of its users, and its funders increasingly request evidence that it is doing so. The advice about the camcorders chimed in with the approach it is already taking.

Shalom is one of the jewels in the crown of the church in Grimsby. St John & St Stephen’s Church is in the middle of the East Marsh Ward which throws up some of the most depressed demographic statistics in the country. Canon John Ellis has been working there since 1972 and sustained quality youth work has been the hallmark of his ministry; it is a while ago that this was recognised with an MBE. The young actor Thomas Turgoose was ‘spotted’ at its provision for those in danger of being excluded from school. One of the youngest newly elected Councillors in the country is part of the Shalom Community, and he was also there yesterday as a Trustee.

I could really do without further evenings out at this additional set of meetings, but it is worth supporting more than almost any other Project in the Deanery, and I'm glad of the by-product of the insights attending gives me.

Meanwhile, the picture is of the new doctor’s surgery going up as part of the Freshney Green development which is the renewal of the deprived Yarborough estate in this parish.

Monday 6 October 2008

The little we know about God

‘The little we know of God makes it difficult to learn more, because the more cannot be added to the little, since every meeting brings such a change of perspective that what was known before becomes almost untrue in the light of what we know later’. This quotation from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom has become something of touchstone for me. I used it most recently in something I’d written for our diocesan magazine about Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

I suggested ‘It may make the most sense for us to admit that we are deeply flawed and failing people, part of a deeply flawed and sometimes abusive institution, and share deeply flawed and partial understanding of what God means. It may make most sense for us to admit that these failures have sometimes been most pronounced when we have been most sure that we are right. When a Dawkins curses us for these flaws we should probably assume that anyone who does so has a perfectly valid point. Our instinct and hypothesis remains that it is meaningful to use this word God about what sometimes seems to meet us in these flawed places and sometimes seems to call, draw and take us beyond them. Our instinct and hypothesis remains that in Jesus of Nazareth we can see most clearly what God would look like when expressed within the time and space beyond which we cannot conceive. Our instinct and our hypothesis is that what we encounter in creativity, love and communication are also echos within time and space of the life of the God who draws us and who we see in Jesus.’

I was asked to talk at the weekend to some local people who’d been interested in the article. I hadn’t realised how little rigorous discussion of this nature happens in my regular ministry, nor how much I miss it. The small local group of ‘progressives and questioners’ affiliated to the Progressive Christian Network include a Unitarian and some agnostics as well as those who feel held by the Christian faith in different ways. They were welcoming, open about what holds them in faith, and stimulatingly engaged in discussion.

I was allowed significant time to share an exploration of the way in which the necessary philosophical framework within which any statement of faith is made inevitable colours and distorts it to a greater or lesser extent, and the discussion sailed on from there. I tried to share a little of the implications of Julian of Norwich’s sense that God ‘cannot be gotten by thought but only by love’ and Thomas Merton’s sense that God cannot be treated as an ‘object’, and how we can speak about and follow that which we cannot properly conceive. They kindly said they were stimulated and encouraged by this, and I certainly was by the opportunity and the response.

Friday 3 October 2008

An Emergency Baptism

He looks like a witchdoctor's doll,
convincingly crafted
apart from the bulging eyelids
and blotched purple fabric,
yet there is just a touch of pink
round his nostrils.

We try to pin meaning on him
with a small jar of the
hospital's sterilised water
so life might start elsewhere,
while round his nostrils there is just
a touch of pink.