Diluting Distinctiveness?

Is the distinctive vocation of pioneer ministry being diluted? Are (in particular) ordained pioneer ministers (OPMs) being pressed into more traditional roles out of financial necessity? I had a hunch from conversations with some of that it was. And with a key support and advocacy role for pioneer ministry within the CofE (National Pioneer Development Officer) having been cut, my concern is that there is little attention being given to this.

So I set about doing a little bit of research. I invited ordained pioneers to fill in a Google form and got 31 responses. Here is an edited version of a fuller report on the data I received, including quotes from some of those who responded. If you would like the full report please do email me at the address below.

Domestication of the gift of pioneering?

From the responses I received there is some evidence that OPMs are unable to fulfil their hopes of pursuing pioneer ministry full time beyond their curacy. Whilst over half of those who responded hoped to find a fulltime pioneer role after curacy, in the end only about a third succeeded. A number ended up in incumbent or associate parish roles, others in pioneer enabling roles with their Diocese.

There is a financial reality, intensified post-Covid, that might lead people to conclude that actually a third of OPM curates finding a full-time pioneer role isn’t bad. But what is concerning is the degree to which people who have been selected, trained and deployed as pioneers find themselves with little or no option other than doing a traditional parish role. Are we in danger of allowing the critical vocation of pioneering, which needs to operate in a different kind of space in relationship with the inherited church, to be domesticated by the parish system?

The curacy – post curacy hurdle

Finding a role after curacy is really tricky. Lots of respondents spoke of frustration with their Diocese and with an inability to enable the kind of roles that might enable their vocation to continue to be expressed.

“A large proportion of the pioneers I have supported or coached over the years have ended up in non-pioneering roles…they have been exceptionally good and effective leaders, and there have been no stipended pioneer roles available in the area they felt called to. But it has been in my view a lamentable and neglectful stewardship of their distinctive gifts.”

“the CofE and some dioceses still have no idea in how to place ordained pioneers beyond curacy.  I feel that I have to forge a path for myself otherwise I [will] get swallowed into parish ministry”

Diocesan culture

The degree to which the culture of Dioceses was supportive and enabling of pioneering continues to vary widely. There were indications that in some Dioceses the ecclesiology that had been described in Mission Shaped Church and which resulted in the creation of a OPM track has been sidelined.

“My diocese does not understand pioneers and keeps changing the goal posts – my curacy looks nothing like what was promised”

“the posts that are occasionally dreamed up …don’t leave space for a pioneer to do the work of discerning what is emerging in the context, or for the pioneer themselves to discern which context God is calling them to focus on/engage with. There have begun to be exceptions to this in Dioceses who have appointed edgy enough pioneers to key strategic roles, but these are exceptions rather than the norm.”

“In an informal interview I was told that the [Diocesan] leadership team were not in agreement with the ecclesiology of fresh expressions…I found it puzzling – especially given the official acceptance of the Mission Shaped Church report.”

Inherited/pioneer friction

The paradigm of pioneer ministry continues to exist in often painful tension with the inherited system of the parish. Do ordained pioneers experience this tension most strongly? Their ordained status making it that much harder to resist the constant call from the centre for time and energy?

“It seems particularly difficult for ordained pioneers to have longer term pioneer opportunities especially when the system has been created for traditional incumbencies.”

“The disconnect between parish expectations within a hierarchical culture and my vocation for engaged relational, responsive ground-up pioneering grew wider and more confrontational through the years”

“My experience of being an ordained pioneer in the CofE is one of being continually pulled into the centre because I have leadership skills, and then kicked back out to the edge when I say things that are uncomfortable for the centre to hear.”

Good Practice

Nevertheless it was heartening to hear positive experience where Dioceses have enabled pioneers to develop their vocation, and where creativity and courage to make space for pioneers has happened. It can be done!

“I was encouraged to develop as a pioneer through training placement and curacy and am now really fortunate to be appointed to this role which is fully pioneering, though part of a parish staff team.”

“I was asked by the Head of Mission for the diocese to apply for a pioneer estate lead role to take me beyond curacy because of my history and experience in this area –  so I did feel enabled to a degree.”

“[My] Diocese allowed me to stay in the same post for training placement and curacy which gave a 7-yr stint for pioneering which was brilliant and I would highly recommend that model to other dioceses.”

Personal Reflections

My own reflections on this? It seems clear that OPMs continue to inhabit a Church environment in which their vocation, whilst affirmed and supported by the national Church through the OPM designation, still really struggles to thrive at the local level. There is no doubt in my mind that some OPMs are reluctantly taking traditional parish roles out of necessity, hoping that there might be space to do some pioneering if time allows. Inevitably that results in a loss of the charism of pioneering to the church as a whole.

In response Dioceses might well argue that the distinctive role for OPMs is in enabling the pioneer of others. But is it realistic for an OPM as a parish incumbent to give attention and space to this kind of ministry with the demands inherent to that kind of role? Are we basically colluding together to dilute the distinctive role that pioneers bring to the church? Sure, I’ve felt for a while that a key role of OPMs is in enabling the growth and development of lay pioneers. But firstly, I’m not convinced that hitching that ministry up to an incumbency role will do anything other than ensure it doesn’t happen. And secondly, most pioneers feel called to pioneering because they want to pioneer! Some may well have a particular gift in enabling others, sitting somewhere between the pioneer space and the inherited, making the case for pioneer ministry and helping the church reimagine itself into something more like the mixed ecology that is now supposed to be the norm. But many want to give their life to the margins, to mission amongst those with little or no background in the Christian faith, and sadly as things stand OPM (or at least stipendiary OPM) may not always be the best option to enable people to do that.

If you’d like to read the full report that I’ve put together from this research do email me at paul@poolemc.org.uk.


Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia – an icon for the church of today and tomorrow

Wow! A visit to the Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family) in Barcelona did not disappoint. I am not generally drawn to cathedrals or even historic buildings when travelling. But a friend insisted that a visit to Barcelona simply had to involve going. So with a single day in the city at our disposal we did just that. It is an astonishing place which to my mind at least shows us something, not just of what a church might be, but what the church is called to be.

But before I get into that, a brief background and description of the Sagrada Familia if you haven’t been. In the 1870’s a Jesuit Society bought some land at the edge of the growing city of Barcelona and began work to build a new place of worship. The building was to be built in a neo-Gothic style. After 1 year the first head architect left the project and a 26-year-old by the name of Gaudi was given the role. Gaudi reenvisioned the project with a bold and daring design which, whilst true to the neo-Gothic brief, was unlike anything that had ever been built. The building would have 18 towers and 3 ‘facades’ which would tell the story of the Christian faith to those looking at the building from outside. Gaudi envisioned ‘a Bible in stone’ and decorated his elaborate design with immense detail and creative flair.

Gaudi died in 1926 with only one of the facades and 2 of the towers completed. Nearly 100 years later and the building is still under construction with a team of architects and artists working to the vision and design of Gaudi.

Visiting this building was an experience that was at the same time moving and inspirational. Here are 3 ways in which I think this building acts as an icon for the church now and in the future.

  1. A church in the world

Gaudi had a deep sense of the church’s context in creation. So often when you go to an English cathedral, entering into a walled close as though going back in time, and then finding your way into its interior, you feel as though you are being disconnected from the world. OK, so there is a reason for this, to point us to the transcendent and precisely to invite us to consider the things of heaven, not of earth. But in this materially obsessed culture we live in I believe the church needs to show how heaven meets earth, how the world and the presence of God are not separate but related.  

Gaudi was deeply conscious of the context of this building in the world. It is midway between the sea and the mountains that bound Barcelona to the south and north. It is midway on the west/east axis of the city too. Its exterior is festooned with sculptures of lizards, snakes, snails, birds, fruit. Gaudi insisted that the main entrance would be from the south, from the seaward direction, from the origins of the life of the city. On the nativity façade, the figures of the holy family above the main door are help up by two columns. Each are themselves footed by a turtle. On the left as you face the door, on the seaward side is a sea turtle with flippers, on the right-hand side, the landward side, is a land turtle with clawed feet. This is a church in creation, with its context written into the design and stonework of the building. Its as though the church merges seamlessly with its context, within the prior context of creation and the local context of the city. It is a church in the world.

  • A church joining in with the mission of God

This humbler posture of the Sagrada Familia, as though emerging from its larger context in creation, is reflected in the mission of the building. The greatest witness of the building is not on the inside but the outside. You do not have to even go into this church and participate in its worship, or take the sacrament (don’t forget this is a Catholic Church) to connect with its message. Three enormous and dramatic facades tell the story of the nativity, the passion and the resurrection.

But even inside it feels as though God’s own revelation is prioritised above anything the church might do or say. The place is full of the most glorious, coloured light. It is a feast of natural light which streams through stained glass windows without embellishment. On the east side blue and green glass accentuate the clean colours of the morning sun. On the west side oranges and reds dramatize the richer warmer colours of the evening. There is such a wealth of light because Gaudi designed tree-like pillars that could take greater strain and avoid the need for smaller windows and flying buttresses that cut out so much light. The overall effect of standing in the ‘church’ is that of standing in a forest, with light dappling through the trees, and the fingered branches of the trees making a celestial pattern through which the light dances.

The point is that the church doesn’t have to try so hard to tell out the revelation that God has made in creation and in Christ. It needs to reflect it. At the Sagrada Familia you do not feel like you are in a church waiting for something to happen that speaks of God; a service, a prayer, a sermon. God is already speaking. The ongoing worship of creation is already taking place. Anything the church does joins in with whatever is already taking place.

  • A provisional church

Gaudi died tragically in 1926 with only a few elements of his design in place. He knew however that he was never going to see his building to completion and planned for that eventuality. It’s hoped that the building will be finished by 2026, 100 years after his death. As it is, when I visited, a number of the towers (including the tallest) are still to be completed as well as the last of the facades.

The Sagrada Familia has always been under construction. It is also changing. Some of it visible, much of it swathed in scaffolding and plastic sheeting. It is always unbuilt, provisional, unfinished – and being built by a succession of new people drawn from the present, helping shape its future.

Of course, it will be finished in a few years. But in a sense its legacy will be of a building always evolving, never ‘finished’. As soon as the church thinks of itself as something finished it risks becoming a museum piece, always seeking to revive or renew some sacred blueprint. As long as it unfinished it can be humble, provision, open to the world in time and in place, always being shaped by what is to come.

Of course, you might say, the church is not a building. Buildings serve the church in its calling not the other way round. But if there is a church building that speaks to this calling and inspires us to it, spinning us out, rather than dragging us in, then this is it. You can get to Barcelona by train from London in a day. Please go and visit – you won’t regret it!

50 words for ‘church’

I was given a book last Christmas called ’50 Words for Snow’. Riffing on the famous adage about the eskimo language and snow, the book offers 50 examples of words for snow or snow related features from cultures across the globe. We learn for example that the Greenlandic word immiaq means both ‘melted ice or snow’ or ‘beer’. This is because melted snow was the source of drinking water for any travelling hunter. When people began importing beer to Greenland in the 19th century there was really only one word for something you drink – so immiaq became the word for beer.

Language is as fluid and fickle as the cultures in which words emerge and where they travel through. Language is also almost effortlessly creative as new words emerge, fuse, are adapted and reappropriated to keep up with the demands of our experience.

There is good reason scientifically why we might have so many words for snow. For snow is a various, fickle thing too. Each chapter of ’50 words for snow’ is prefaced by an image from the 19th century photographer and mineralogist Wilson Bentley. Bentley perfected a technique for photographing snowflakes. He then spent the next 50 years doing it. And in 1933 his extraordinary photographs were compiled into one book ‘Snow Crystals’. In the book there are 2,453 different images of a single snow crystal. And every single one is unique! Leafing through this book is close to a spiritual exercise in wonder, as your narrow concept of snow is whipped up into a blizzard of complexity, beauty and diversity.

We might learn something though from the snowflake photography of Wilson Bentley to help widen our imagination of what we might mean when we utter the word ‘church’. Because what Bentley’s technical ingenuity and skill was able to reveal to us was something about the nature of snow. For snowflakes are emergent phenomena. What does that mean? It means that their particular form is an unpredictable result of a process of self-organisation from a lower level of complexity to another. Snowflakes form from water vapour when a threshold in the air temperature is reached, at which point the water molecules self-organise into crystalline structures. These crystals have a common basic 6-sided structure. However, the particular conditions and journey of that snowflakes formation and fall to earth shapes (literally) the individual snowflake into a unique pattern.

So what we blandly call ‘snow’ is in fact this unbelievable diverse and complex collection of forms which are the unique consequence of their own particular set of conditions and journeys. History and context are written into each flake. With enough knowledge and experience you can read back from a snowflake’s form and say with some certainty the kind of conditions in which it was formed. Snowflakes ‘carry their history on their backs’.

And much like the word ‘snow’, which at least here in the UK has a kind of dull normative meaning, the word ‘church’ could do with a piece of illuminating work not unlike the photograph of Wilson Bentley. We may experience the diversity, breadth and creative scope of the church – but our language struggles to stretch to accommodate it. Only today a headline in the Times stated that a 1400 year old church was to close with only 2 worshippers left. On Twitter someone commented in response ‘1400 year old building no longer has a church congregation to support it’.

Bur further, the emergent nature of snowflakes give us an insight into the nature of other kinds of reality. Human organisations work on a similar principle, organising and reorganising as external influences bring new ideas and challenges, in tension with the fundamental nature or ‘being’ of who they are and what they stand for. So likewise, church is a fluid and ever moving system, a very complex system, which is the result of the ongoing conversation between its essence and the environment in which it is set. Church’s also ‘carry their history on their backs’ – every, single, diverse and various, expression of them.

And this is so much of the problem with the word ‘church’. We hear the word as if all the context and narrative contained within any expression of Christian community has been stripped out and boiled down into some generic image, probably a pew-stuffed building with a dot-matrix congregation awaiting a venerable cleric. There is no context, no narrative, no complexity, no sense of what this phenomenon was or might become.

Church is not a ‘thing’. It cannot be reduced down to some set of basic practices or principles and then built back up again like a machine. Bentley showed us that snow was not a thing that could be reduced to a single formula or diagram. He revealed it to be wonder of complexity, a myriad marvel of diversity and emergent beauty whose full nature cannot be removed from its particular context. We still use the word snow. But perhaps Bentley’s work means we use it with a more varied, humble and provisional imagination of what we mean when we say it. The same might be said of the word ‘church’. We will continue to use it. But let the word ‘church’ be open to the possibility of its becoming, of it confounding our dull sense of what it has always been and surprising us with new ways of being what it might be now and in the future.

Beyond Measure

I’ve been thinking about the place of measurement in mission and church planting for some time now. This week I gave part of workshop on this at a CMS conversations day and so thought I’d put a summary of my thoughts on here. The background to this is the growth agenda in the church – and within the Church of England the investment of significant amounts of money to support mission and growth through things like the Strategic Development Fund. Within this environment particular measures around making new disciples, attendance at gathered worship etc dominate. These are to the exclusion of many of the other aims that many pioneers value highly eg personal and community transformation, listening to the community, allowing something to emerge over time.

So why are we so focussed on growth? And measuring it in the particular way we do? And what might the alternative be?

I suggest that the focus on growth as a priority is wrapped up in the influence of modernity. Andrew Root in his book The Congregation in a Secular Age argues that the church is doing what institutions in general are doing in the modernist paradigm. To remain stable organisations have to grow – this is the logic of a modern culture which has disconnected itself from any sense of ‘sacred time’ and can only think of time as a series of present moments. The result is of a culture of acceleration. But more than that, a culture where busy-ness and acceleration are a ‘higher good’. So churches need to be busy to be relevant to such a culture and make themselves busy event- and programme-based organisations to appeal to the culture in which they sit.

But there’s a problem – a ‘double bind’ – people are too busy to have the time to support this level of busy-ness. The very culture the church seeks to engage with is undermining the church’s ability to keep up with it, as people find they have less and less time for the sorts of activities the church invites them to participate in.

The point is then, that constant growth, is simply the internal logic of modernity. And its own logic is, as it were, sawing off the branch it sits on.

Another perspective is that of Iain McGilchrist from his book The Master and his Emissary. McGilchrist, a neurologist and philosopher, has argued that the two hemisphere’s of the brain provide two different modes of attention to the world. The right brain is all about the senses, experience, and about holding these experiences in ambiguity and relationship with one another. The left brain is about systematising and codifying this information from the right-brain so that it works for us and provides what we need. The right brain is all about experiences, insight and imagination. The left brain is all about logic and linearity.

His key point though is that we are living in an age when the left brain dominates. More than that an age in which the left-brain’s mode of attention is making the world – as though this is in fact the way the world is. Left-brain thinking also becomes defensive towards information from the right-brain that might disrupt or subvert its logical take on the world. As a result we end up in a kind of hall of mirrors, a systematic view of the world that is a pragmatic reduction of reality, but made out to be all there is.

This seems to me to be exactly the challenge we face in the church – a system caught in a hall of mirrors where it struggles to see beyond particular formularies and structures of church, and a particular means of measuring them. Things become out of kilter because the ‘higher good’ of growth has been hard wired into a system of church which we find hard to break out of. Thus for example, mission is instrumentalised in service to growth in many cases, we can only see much of what we do through this lens.

To plot a way out of the hall of mirrors it might be helpful to reflect on the difference between measurement and evaluation. Measurement has its roots in the division of something into measures, the creation of a unit of measurement that is in relation to a standard. In other words its founded on the principle of something already standardised and predictable. Evaluation however comes the French valuer, to value – it is to find the value out of something. In other words it is upstream from measurement because it is suggesting that we are evaluating something that is in the process of revealing its secrets, unveiling its nature.

Its interesting to note in relation to this that the word ‘invention’, which in modern culture has the connotation of a human agent making something out of nothing, has its roots in the Latin invenire, which means to discover. So to invent something is to discover it, it is the disclosing of something hidden. Pioneer are inventors in this respect, they journey with others and with the Spirit of mission and discover what God is disclosing in the process.

So, measurement will be one tool for the pioneer, in a missional process that is open to the disclosing power of the Holy Spirit. A primary task will be evaluation. But this will be predominantly in a mode of ‘making sense’ of what God is doing. This will involve continual listening, story-telling, collaborative conversation and discerning prayer. Measurement may well be part of this. I wonder for example what measures we might have to evaluate the degree to which we are discerning the Holy Spirit? Surprise is a measure of the Spirit. Crossing cultural boundaries and including the other is also a mark of the Spirit. How might we measure those works of the Spirit?

In general though measurement, as important as this is, needs to be held in constant conversation with evaluation. Measurement must be held lightly. This will keep the church in connection with new experience, new contexts, the new thing that God is doing. If certain measures start to run the show we are pre-empting what God is doing, we are laying our blueprint ecclesiology onto a context. And there will be little to stop us from seeing this context as the place in which the resource for our blueprint can be extracted.

A circular ecology of church

‘I wonder…if compost believes in life after death’ (Naima Penniman)

In a conversation I had recently a colleague was saying to me how the church made significant mistakes in its response to the Covid pandemic. In particular it failed, she said, to talk about death and to give people space for lament and grief.

Whether you agree with that or not, it contains within it the argument that death is something the church could and should be talking about in a prophetic way within a society (perhaps particular a British one) that struggles to do so. I mean, the church does death right? Christianity does death? The symbol of Christianity is a device for killing people. We are brazen in our assertion of death at the heart of our faith, a particular death that leads to a universal offer of life. The trajectory of our faith is life through death, death as a powerful element in the liberation into new life.

Yet I wonder if my colleague is right? We aren’t very good at talking about death in the public sphere. This may well be because we are all too aware of the fact that it’s not a subject that the public want to engage with particularly. Much easier to join with discussions on how to care for and keep people alive, in the context of the pandemic, than suggest an honest conversation about the reality of death and finitude. But, on the other hand, maybe we’re not so comfortable with death ourselves.

Sam Wells argues that there was a point when something changed in the way we talk about the fundamentals of the Christian faith.1 He argues that in the mid-19th century people started to stop believing in hell. And as a result the message of the gospel has shifted from a focus on the issue of our ultimate fate beyond death, to the issue of the fulness (or otherwise of our life now). No doubt this is a good thing in many ways. It has done away with the dubious practice of preaching warnings of hell rather than the invitation to life in Christ. It also brings back into play (as Tom Wright has noted) the majority of the gospel story between the creedal statements ‘born of the virgin Mary’ and ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. But has this shift also dimmed our confidence in speaking about matters of eternity, matters of not just life but also death?

I say this because death seems an almost taboo subject when it comes to talking about churches themselves. We are all for growth, for church planting, church multiplication – all, as you will have noticed, organic metaphors for church life – and yet rarely do we talk about church death. We should be keenly aware of church death from our history. You only have to read the New Testament, perhaps most forcefully the book of Revelation, to realise that many church communities are not forever. And yet we act as though churches of our own experience are a given, with a right to eternally exist that is our role to protect.

Of course, no one wants to see a church close. And there is every reason to lament and grieve such an event when it happens. Sometimes no doubt churches do close when there was still life and witness in them, a premature death if you like. But in the same way there are churches that are essentially in palliative care for which the most dignified thing we can do is gently, and gracefully allow them to die.

I have a small plot in my garden where I do my best to grow a few veg in each year. One of the joys at the beginning of each season is to open up the compost heap which, through the winter, has been slowly transforming the surplus organic matter from the end of last season into the black, odourless and rich resource to kick start the next. Nothing is wasted in nature. Everything is recycled. Every death has the promise of life hidden within it. New life emerges from deaths transformed. Nature is a circular ecology.

Ecology is suddenly a very popular as a way of talking about the church. The Church of England asserts that its vision is for ‘mixed ecology’ of church as the norm. If so then we should also be talking about a circular ecology of church – because that is how ecology works, a constant cycle of life and death where death is not just the end of life, but critical to its beginning.

There is a tree that grows in the tropical regions between Costa Rica and Columbia which is commonly known as the suicide tree. These slow growing trees reach heights of 100 feet with large, buttressed trunks. Suicide trees produce fruit and seeds only once in their lifetime, and perhaps most remarkably, once they do the tree slowly dies and falls to the forest floor. Why? A number of reasons have been suggested. But one reason is that in its dying the parent tree provides two things essential to the flourishing of its offspring – light and nutrients. A circular ecology.

This is not a binary argument for the closure of ‘old’ established churches up and down the country to make space for new and innovative. Rather I’m asking that we have a more theological view of church death. It is absolutely natural and right that we ‘rage against the dying of the light’2. But equally we have to be open to being mid-wives to a good death of churches in many place. Deaths which we will want to grieve and lament, but in which we must look for the seeds of the future.

  1. Sam Wells (2019) A Future That’s Bigger than the Past (Intro)
  2. Dylan Thomas from the poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’.

The monastic spark – a pilgrimage reflection

At the beginning of this year I decide to take a day to walk, pray and reflect before the year draws me in to its busyness. I have heard of St Catherine’s Chapel but never visited. It is hidden in the woods above Milton Abbey, just beyond the village of Milton Abbas. Walking along the road from there you pass under a bridge which appears to carry a road between the Abbey and the Chapel. To access the chapel though is a walk traversing the hill from further on. The path is cluttered with fallen trees and branches, presumably from the devastation of Storm Arwen before Christmas, but leads steadily to the 12th century building through dense stands of beech.

The chapel is a simple rectangular building orientated in line with the Abbey. A bench at its west end gives a clear view down the slope and on to the Abbey in the valley below where for 6 centuries from the late 10th century a Benedictine community lived and worshipped. Milton Abbas grew as a market town in the shadow of this significant monastic community whose life came to an abrupt end in 1539 with the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Since then it has been a private estate, a healing centre and latterly a private school. The church however still plays a part in the life of the place and recently a new expression of Benedictine life has formed, a dispersed community of prayer inspired by the Benedictine tradition and centred on the Abbey.

From the chapel I descend to the road again and then climb the bridleway toward Bulbarrow Hill. Its hard going under foot after so much rain in the past few weeks. More branches have been cleared from the path, their neatly severed ends suggesting the hasty work of chainsaws to make the path accessible. Rotting wood is everywhere, an encouraging sign of the renewed appreciation of the critical importance of death and decay to the life of a wood. The death of a tree and its slow recycling into the earth through the work of huge numbers of insects and fungi is now understood to be a significant part of the life cycle of tree and forest ecosystems.

One particular rotting ash tree catches my eye. Its branches are lined with round black knobs of something that looks like a conker.  A sharp twist on one of them and the ‘conker’ comes off in my hand. It is the fungus commonly known as King Alfred’s Cakes and I know it for its use in bushcraft. When dried it can be cut to reveal wood-like material inside with rings of growth like that of a tree. This surface will hold a spark in a tinder box. In theory you can throw a spark onto a piece of King Alfred’s Cake, or place a small ember from a previous fire on its surface, and carry the spark to the end of the day when you might need to light a fire again.

I walk up through the woods and out on to the gentler, higher slopes of Bulbarrow until I reach the escarpment and the view over the Blackmoor Vale. Buzzards are circling and arcing fast on the sharp north wind. I don’t stay long, returning on a different bridleway down through the woods to the south. I stop to rest and reflect on a sunny slope sheltered from the wind.  Above the tops of the beech trees flocks of chattering fieldfares rush past in small intermittent flocks. Sitting on the stump of a felled tree I am again aware of the sheer volume of forest matter strewn around and left to rot into the soil.

Death and decay are such a critical part of the life of an ecosystem. But this deepening appreciation of the richness of this phase of life is revealing. Instead of seeing death and decay as a difficult by necessary conduit to new life in the future, simply the recycling of organic material, it is increasingly being understood how much death and decay are a critical part of the ecosystem’s very present life. Death and decay are intrinsic generative elements of the whole system, providing habitats for species that the ecosystem cannot do without.

I think of the Abbey again. Protestantism since the Reformation, when the Abbey was dissolved, has struggled to find space for the generative life offered by the monastic movements. These movements spinning off from the edges of the traditional church have historically been sources of renewal for the church over time. And now the church that Henry VIII initiated is decaying, across Dorset and across the country. Parish churches are closing, others hang on year after year with a handful in the congregation and dwindling numbers of elderly folk willing to offer the considerable time and energy required to oversee an ancient piece of listed architecture for the congregation and wider community. In rural areas like this in particular, the future of the parish system is struggling to survive.

The answer to the challenge of decline is not simple, despite the protestations of certain movements who will tell you that simply this or that needs to happen. Something much bigger is happening. Something akin to the cultural upheaval of the Reformation which swept nations into its orbit in the 16th century. Call it what you like; secularism, liberalism, consumer-capitalism, the age of individual expression – the net effect is a marginalisation of the church and the faith it is founded on.

In such times the Christian faith has often found the spark for its future in the small and communal movements of Christian life that emerge on the edges of the institution. It was the Benedictine movement that was credited with incubating the Christian faith through the dark ages and into an era of flourishing Christian spirituality in the medieval age. I take the small black coal of the King Alfred’s Cake from my pocket, a spore bearing body drawn from the slow death of a part of this wood. And I wonder if it is not to the small, the communal, the prayerful and the simple expressions of Christian faith that we might turn to find hope for the future in a secular age? These are the sparks that will carry the Christian life and hope from the decay of the present to light the fires of the future.  

The Manual and the Measure

Much of the reading, thinking and writing I’ve been doing over the past few years stems from discovering a faultline in our understanding of mission and church. Its a faultline that can be described in terms of agency i.e. whose mission is it? whose agency is primary? Or perhaps in terms of flow ie does the church direct the flow of God’s mission into the world? Or does the flow of God’s mission direct the church into the world?

I remember reading this at the beginning of John V Taylor’s The Go-Between God and it struck me so forcefully:

“The chief actor in the historic mission of the Christian church is the Holy Spirit…we have lost our nerve and our sense of direction and turned the whole divine initiative into a human enterprise’ (Taylor 1972, p3)

This seems to me a fundamental choice in our days of decline and dwindling resources – do we continue to trust our agency, ingenuity and enterprise, or do we trust the divine initiative. Ok, so its not a zero sum choice – its more about ordering our trusts, aligning our loves. But nevertheless the choice is one to make.

This then is the third of my ‘pioneer parables’.1 Jesus told parables I think to get under the radar of people’s assumptions and round the side of people’s blind spots. He could have taught just in prose or polemic. Instead he often probed in parables that brought participation into the story. Parables are subversive, critiquing one paradigm and opening people’s imagination up to the receiving of another.

The Manual and the Measure

The Kingdom of God is like an estate owner who went on a long journey to a distant land. Before he left he gathered his tenants and gave them responsibility for all the work of the estate until his return.

He gave them freedom to expand the estate into new areas and to build new barns for the harvest. The tenants asked ‘How will we know where to plant crops and what kind of barns to build’?  ‘Remember me, and everything I’ve taught you, listen to the land and to the wind in the trees’ said the estate owner ‘And you will know what to do’.

So the tenants set to work, planting new crops in new places and preparing for the harvest. When the harvest came they began to build a new barn and when it was finished the harvest was gathered into it. The next year they planted new crops in new places again and built new barns. Years came and went and the estate expanded, with new crops and new barns.

The tenants got together and they produced a farming manual and measure.  A manual on how to farm and a measure to ensure that every new barn built was like the first. People from other estates came and asked how they could repeat their success. So they gave them the manual and the measure and told them this was how they should develop their farm and build their barns.

Then one year the estate’s expansion brought the tenants to a new area. An area unlike the valley of the estate. An area of hills and dry soil. They planted their crops and they built the barns according to the manual and measure. But the crops failed and the barn nearly collapsed in the strong winds on the hillside. That same year reports began to come in from the other estates. People had used the manual and the measure. In some cases it had worked really well. But in others crops and struggled and the barns were a costly expense for such a small harvest.

The tenants met and asked ‘what shall we do?’ An argument developed between them. Some said that the manual and the measure had always worked – ‘just give things time, work hard, and all will be well!’ But others pointed to the hillsides where the crops had failed and the barns were empty and dilapidated. They reminded the tenants of the estate owners’ parting words – ‘Remember me…and you will know what to do’.

Just then the estate owner returned. He saw the fields of crops stretching into the distance and the barns raised high above the fields. And he was sad. ‘Master!’ said the tenants ‘Come and see our fields of crops and the great many barns we have built!’

‘You love your barns and your fields of wheat. You love your manual and your measure’ said the estate owner ‘But you have forgotten the one thing I asked of you – to remember me. I have seen your fields and your barns. But on my way here have I not also seen those starving where your crops will not grow and spending money they do not have on repairing barns which will never be full?’

And with that the estate owner got up to leave. He gave the tenants responsibility for the work of the estate until his return and said again ‘Remember me, remember my teaching, listen to the land and the wind in the trees – and you will know what to do.’

  1. The other pioneer parables are ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘The Farm’.

Slow Church

The world seems to be getting faster. Everyone is busy. We talk about one day slowing down. We talk as if being too busy is a temporary state of life that needs to come to an end at some point. But life just seems to get faster.

There is some good evidence that things don’t just seem to be getting faster, they really are. In the early 1990’s a team of researchers measured the speed at which people walk in 31 different cities across the world. Just over a decade later another team of researchers repeated the experiment. They found that worldwide people were walking about 10% faster than they had been 10 years earlier. What is clear is that the more advanced and industrialised a city is the faster people walk. As cities adopt western capitalist values and culture people walk faster. Cities in China and the far east in particular rapidly caught up their western counterparts in terms of speed once they had developed along western lines.[1]

The thirst for speed is evident in all sorts of ways. Remember those languid days when the post came once a day and you had a whole day to respond to it? No probably not. But even if emails and social media is all you’ve ever known the sheer volume of notifications and messages seems to go up all the time. But more than that the expectation of immediate response seems to go up with it. We feel we are being rude if we don’t respond quickly. Speed is making its own morals.

Speed not only has a moral value in our culture it also has a monetary value. In the world of high frequency trading (HFT) complex algorithms are used to analyse markets and make multiple trading in deals in a fraction of a second. In this world access to the fastest connections is everything, a few milliseconds difference is worth a lot of money. In 2008, Daniel Spivey was appointed by a hedge fund to find ways of exploiting price differences between the markets of New York and Chicago.  His work was made difficult however because the connection was dominated by others firms. So his firm decided to invest in building a new one. By using existing rail networks to run the connection in as straight a line as possible, digging and blasting the route through any obstacles in the way, they were able to shave 4 milliseconds from the connection speed. Enough though, to ensure that any trader in the same business had to use the connection they had created, making them a lot of money in the process.[2]

Speed is endemic part of our culture. And it has become endemic in the church. Church’s are very often busy places. Truth is we quite like the fact that they are often busy places. We like the fact there is plenty going on – ‘there’s a buzz about the place’. Yet there is growing sense that all this busyness is not good for us. More than that a growing sense that its not good for the church. The merry-go-round gets faster and faster and some of us want to get off.

The thing is though that the merry-go-round we are on does not stand alone. It exists in a bigger fairground of the culture we live in. One which is heavily addicted to speed. American writer Andrew Root argues that our mainline denominations are structured around a way of life that is arranged around a multigenerational congregation, a congregation for a lifetime. We aim to provide services and programmes for different age groups, drawing in people to these programmes and as a result resources to pay the staff and other overheads to make this possible. The problem is that the pace of life in the culture around us has sped up so fast that people no longer have the same amount of time to commit to such things. It’s as if people live multiple lives in one lifetime. Where they may have committed to church on a weekly basis as a family, now multiple possibilities compete for their time and church becomes a once-a-month commitment, or a Christmas and Easter visit. The demands of modern life simply do not give time for the kind of commitment congregational church needs.[1]

This creates a double-bind for the congregation. To survive it must continually draw people into its services and programmes to resource its ongoing life. Growth becomes the main aim for congregations because without growth, without attracting new people, the basis of its life is cut off.  To attract people living in the frenetic culture we will live in the congregation presents itself as busy and happening. That’s the appeal that our busy culture demands. But the reality is that people are time poor. There just isn’t enough time to go around. As a church we feel we have to compete for people’s time because to be busy is to be alive. But when we do we create busy churches that demand growth and wear people out.

In 2009 I started a missional community called Reconnect. We started with 10 adults most of whom had, until they joined us, been part of a congregation somewhere in the town where we all lived. None of them were however leaving church, though their absence at the congregations they were part of would have surely registered. But one thing that was clear from listening to people in those early days was that no-one wanted to repeat the experience of exhaustion they had experienced in the congregations they had come from. These were not people disillusioned with church, or faith. Rather they were people looking for an expression of Christian community that practices what it preaches about mission – and didn’t exhaust them!

Reflecting on our life over the years I think there are 3 principles that have kept us able to do our life together at a humanising pace;

  1. Keep in balance the relationship between worship, community and mission. This has meant having a rhythm of Sunday gatherings that, for example, involves freeing up a Sunday for people to invite their neighbours for lunch or do a community litter pick.
  2. Stop worrying about excellence. Excellence is a value of the consumer church which sometimes gets draped with some spurious theology. I don’t think Jesus was that bothered about excellence. He was most bothered about ordinary shabby people (often those at the messy margins) showing a desire to do business with God. Just be yourself and worship as you are and you’ll find there’s a lot more time to give to other things.
  3. Church growth is God’s business. Our task it to be witnesses of the Kingdom. So much of our busyness and enterprise is an anxious instrumentalising of mission in the service of the church – a worry for our own future expressed in activity to get people to come. Fundamentally we are called to witness to the Kingdom and call people to explore being disciples of Jesus – the church is what happens when we do that – its not the main focus.

A funny thing happened when the first lockdown happened. The world was forced to slow down. Overnight, for many, lockdown enrolled them on a busyness detox programme. And people in those days had time for the kind of self-awareness and reflection that opened up space for God to work. We saw incredible numbers of people engage in prayer and access online services in those days – party because of a sense of crisis no doubt, but partly also because stopping and slowing brought space for the soul to breathe and find its voice.

What if we the church held our nerve and modelled a different rhythm and pace to life. A slow church? A church at a humanising pace? A flourishing pace? Maybe speed is one element of our culture that we need to be in but not of.

[1] Andrew Root, The Congregation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2021).

[1] Robert Colville, The Great Acceleration, How the World Is Getting Faster and Faster, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), pp. 1–3.

[2] Ibid., 235–36.

Five Smooth Stones for Missional Community

I lead a small charity called Poole Missional Communities which since 2008 has been exploring and experimenting in mission amongst people with little or no background in Christian experience. We talk a lot about missional community as the kind of basic unit of mission in all we do.

What is a missional community? Here’s our working definition:

Missional Community is a flexible term to describe a group of Christian disciples who form community with a particular missionary purpose. A common commitment to prayer and living out the Christian faith together are the basis for their mission as a community. Mission can be to a particular place, a particular age group or subculture, or around a particular mark of mission e.g. care for environment, social justice.

More recently we have sought to describe some of the principles of missional community. Because missional community is not really a form but what happens when a group of people intentional set out to share life and ministry together with a common set of values inspired by the gospel.

Recently I was reading 1 Samuel 17, the story of David and Goliath and started to reflect on the connections it was making for me with missional community, particularly in the times we are in. The context of 1 & 2 Samuel is of a significant shift in the life of the people of God as the time of the judges morphs into the era of the Kingdom of Israel. Israel asks for a king, just like all the other nations, and God reluctantly gives them a king. But there is a constant theme of the small, weak and unlikely being chosen over the strong one who looks like the sort of person a king should be.

So, similarly with David and Goliath – David, the youngest of all the sons of Jesse, who has already been chosen to succeed Saul comes against the classic powerful warrior. He rejects the armour of Saul – another rejection of the normative cultural expectations of kingship – and advances on Goliath with nothing but a sling and ‘five smooth stones from the stream.’

Sam Wells has written on this story, reflecting how the church in our age continues to think we should be Goliath when really, are we not called to be David? – small, vulnerable, armed with nothing but five small pebbles and a slingshot – and our faith?

I believe the church is being called into a time when it must learn again to trust in the small, the local, the relational and in the rather ordinary business of building connections and being neighbours and loving people in the midst of their lives. We have trusted too much in the big and the flashy, the technique and the enterprise. But the world hungers for authentic human relationship and for an encounter with God that is embodied and trustworthy.

So what might be the ‘five smooth stones of missional community’? Here’s my take:

Small – Christian community that is small enough to enable us to be ‘one another’, to adapt quickly to the changing world around it, to be participative and foster belonging.

Slow – Christian community that rejects the accelerating pace of modern life with event and programmes that must always be better and more popular than the last, that doesn’t exhaust people, that is humanising and spacious enough for the voice of God to be heard.

Local – Christian community that is local and deeply attentive to its context, not just so that it can respond to a perceived need on its own terms, but so that in can join in with the story of a place and make authentic connections between the life of a community and the good news of the Gospel.

Simple – Christian community that is earthed in people lives, the kitchen table, the back garden, the cafe and the street that is stripped of all the accumulated hindrances of buildings and staff teams and therefore simple enough to give space for relationships to be the priority.

Hospitable – Christian community that is open – open to the leading of the Spirit, to building the Kingdom in partnership with others, to conversation and dialogue as means of doing mission with others, to discipleship as a journey together into which we invite others as co-learners.

That’s my take for the moment. Its a work in progress. My hope is to write something fuller, perhaps a book to flesh this out further. If you have a take on ‘5 stones for missional community’ I’d love to hear it. Thanks.

First Swift after the Pandemic

I’ve decided to experiment with writing some poetry in a regular form. I prefer free verse. But there is something about the uncertainty and unsettled nature of the last year that draws me to find a form to guide me.

So (at the risk of setting myself up to fail!) I am going to try and write a sonnet once a week for a bit. Its ages since I experimented with sonnets. Funnily enough the last time was 20 years ago when our son Jacob was in hospital during the first year of his life. I wrote a series of 6 sonnets during that time which found their way eventually into my first book ‘Life from Death Emerging’. The expression of what we think and feel at times of upheaval and uncertainty benefits from form, from being contained, from having a safe place in which to be expressed. Contrary perhaps to the normative thinking of our own time, forms don’t always restrict, the right forms can liberate.

Anyway, I suppose this poem came from seeing a swift last week flying hard against a cold north wind and thinking that I so needed to see it. There is that famous line from Ted Hughes poem Swifts: ‘They’ve made it again/Which means the globe’s still working’. Perhaps that was at the back of my mind. But it was something about the brute fact of nature’s rhythms and miracles against the backdrop of this past year that struck me as I lifted my head to see this first swift. It was oblivious to all we’ve been through. It was here. Because that’s just what swifts do.

First Swift after the Pandemic

What did we go out for? To the fringe
Where the uncertain tide meets the dogged flow
Of the river? And at this time?  Hinged
As we are between then and now,

Between one world we thought we knew
And now struggle to recall,
Between what we thought was fixed and true
What seems like Eden now, through the lens of the Fall.

Perhaps we came for indifference
For the familiar way the reeds sway,
Like a wave of roiling luminescence,
For this, as it was, and is, always?

And for the return of the swift,
Making landfall over the shore, as though nothing’s amiss.