Inside of the edge

Pioneer ministry is still a new creature in the ecology of the Church of England. The speed of its addition and establishment has been astonishing for an organisation not exactly given to rapid change. In my experience the complex structures within most Dioceses are still struggling to know how to adjust, reform and respond to the presence of ministers often seen as being ‘outside of the structures’.

That was the phrase used by a senior member of the Diocesan staff to describe my role not long after I was licensed. I responded at the time that I thought it wasn’t quite right to describe me like that. I said I would prefer to be seen as on the edge of the structures, though perhaps looking outward.

However in truth, he was right, I am outside of the structures. The reason I responded as I did is that I am very much committed to remaining within them. And I believe this is the case with many people I know who are called to an apostolic ministry, many of whom are ordained.

In some cases sadly it seems that the structures, as they exist at present, struggle to cope with us pioneers. I have had conversations with two such pioneers recently, and their teams, who are effectively in ecclesiastic limbo, because the local structures either cannot accept that they ‘fit’ or cannot find a category to accept them or the emerging community they are developing.

Richard Rohr has said that we need the kind of people who are ‘inside of the edge’. I like that phrase. It seems to me that the edge is an exciting place. A place of opportunity, creativity, entrepreneurialism, emergence. Isn’t it precisely at the edge that we see the Spirit at work, creating new order out of chaos?

But what do we mean by the edge? I think we need to think of two kinds of edges.  Firstly the hard edge of denominational structures, canon law, legal entities. Pioneers more often than not work outside of these, exploring new areas and potential new forms of church. But secondly we might define another edge that is not so much structural but relational. A fluid edge that is defined rather subjectively and organically by the stories emerging from the accountable relationship a church structure has with a pioneer.   Pioneers then are ‘outside the structures’ but in a positive sense. Through a consistent and valued relationship with the structures they are ‘inside the edge’ – the edge where God’s Spirit is calling the church out to explore new ground, new opportunities and where the birthing of new structures takes place.

Within these two edges we need to cultivate a kind of ‘structural liminality’ – a positive attitude to the absence of structure and a faith and confidence in the work of pioneers, following the missionary Spirit to see new structures emerge. This they will do through relationship with the sending church, a church that will need to offer patience, trust and imagination to give the necessary form to what emerges without imposing poorly fitting forms too early.

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Our church I didn’t go to

derelict church

I am in a dilemma which has caught me by surprise. The church in the village in which I grew up is going to close. It is a small church in a small village of perhaps 120 houses. When I lived in the village 20 – 30 years ago the congregation was small. On some Sundays it now numbers 3.

When we first moved to this village in 1979 the pub had already closed down but there was a village shop, a garage, a village hall and the church. By the time I left home both shop and garage had closed and village life, though strong, centred around the hall, the annual village fete and the church.

In the churchyard are now the remains of my grandmother, my father and my sister. I never went to this church and nor did my family – it was our church that we didn’t go to. But it was, as for so many other villagers, our church. It holds a significance and a memory that unites me with all those with whom we shared life in those years. And so as I hear news of its demise I feel that this is undoubtedly a loss to a village and community which is slowly losing all of the communal resources that quietly make community life what it is.

And yet…there is a reality here that can’t be ignored. The 120 houses of this village were all leafleted and all given an opportunity to offer time and skill to keeping the church a village church. Only 3 people responded. The cost of maintaining and heating this building, even for the occasional service, on the basis of an electoral roll in single figures, is not sustainable. The local vicar has this, plus another 7 or 8 churches in the area to oversee. The clergy resource is being spread ever more thinly across these small villages and their historic buildings. This makes clergy less and less effective and more and more exhausted and liable to stress and burnout.

Since leaving home and the village church which I didn’t go to I have found faith and a vocation as a vicar in the Church of England. I have ministered so far in urban settings and now lead a ministry that is seeking to create church communities amongst people who are unlikely to engage with traditional forms of church. At present, certainly in my part of the CofE, I am seen as something of an experiment. I am not paid by my Diocese. And the future of the work I do and the kind of church communities that are emerging within the wider institution of the church is far from clear.

I am a little surprised then about my feelings toward the closure of a church I never went to. Except that perhaps it connects with the feelings so many feel toward the gradual erosion of something precious in villages up and down the country, the loss of a way of life that has survived for centuries. Even I am open to a dose of nostalgia for something that seemed boring when I was growing up, but which I now realise has immense value.

And yet… 2 principles tell me that this is the right thing to do, and indeed that we ought to be braver and do it more.

  1. The people of God are nomadic not sedentary and their gathering places should reflect that.

God’s people have always been sojourners, nomads, people called from place to place. We need structures. We need places to gather and places that can focus our worship and our sense of God’s presence. But once those places become so rooted, so fixed, that we cannot move on we risk losing something of who we are as God’s people. We are much more people of the tent than the temple – when we are truly living up to our call.

  1. The church is ultimately future oriented because it is animated by God’s Holy Spirit.

It is the Holy Spirit that births the church and then sends it out into the world and into the future. Of course there is an important dimension of celebrating and reflecting on the work of God in the past, but only is so much as we can be encouraged to move on into the future, in our own walk with God and as communities in mission. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world and then calls us to where He already is – so we are constantly moving into the place and time where God already is – not back to somewhere where God has been.

So in a small way I have to do what I believe the church constantly needs to do in order to continue to fulfil its call to be nomadic people of the Spirit – let go of the old structures, listen to the Spirit and move into God’s future. This is a death and so will be accompanied with pain and sadness. But that is what we must do if we are to truly be the church we are called to be.

Some might say that my old village church will just turn into a symbol of the demise both of the church and of the community. Well, perhaps it will. But in a world longing for community, but sometimes struggling to know how to recreate it, it must surely be an enlivened church that, listening to God’s Spirit, will discover new and more relevant ways of building community and creating new communities of faith in our historic rural villages.

 

Glorious chaos

A phrase that has proved rich for me and my experience of pioneer ministry was given to me by Bishop Graham Cray when he came to launch Poole Missional Communities. As we got up to leave the restaurant prior to the service he was to speak at he took the opportunity to speak two words of wisdom on the nature of pioneering to me, it is, he said, ‘glorious chaos’.

Nobody enjoys chaos. Few people choose it. We run from it because our self-centred selves like form, we like structure, we like consistency. They give us a sense of safety, stability and control. All too easily we get rather accustomed and unhealthily attached to our structures, and when they are threatened we will fight hard to preserve them. And so rarely do we choose to break them up, sink them or voluntarily leave them. In fact such is our desire of comfort, safety and control we might even rather die than be forced beyond these limits and into the unknown.   WH Auden once wrote, ‘We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die’. And yet it is in these spaces, structureless, chaotic, out of control that we stop reigning with our counterfeit crowns and allow God to reign.  In these spaces we also have to drop our pretence of success, or self-satisfaction and recognise our continued need to be transformed.

None of wants to change, really, because deep down we know that real change requires death. Something inside of us needs to die in order for something new to come to life. The thing is that everything in us rages against this truth and we fight tooth and nail to avoid it. We employ all sorts of elaborate mechanisms and neurosis to avoid it. We are so good at this that for the most part we think we are fine and can argue against this truth with great clarity. Until the storm comes. Which it inevitably does.

What we seem as humans to want to negate is that life is essentially tragic. Written into the truth about the universe is a pattern of death and resurrection, suffering and transformation, chaos and order that we struggle to embrace. Richard Rohr calls this the ‘tragic sense of life’ He argues that for us 21st century westerners imbued with modernism and Newtonian physics we find this truth even harder because we expect life to be ordered. We have lived in a culture that has placed its faith in a causal view of the world that says that if I apply enough logic and determination into a given situation progress can be made. Things can only get better, and through our own effort.

But the Biblical world view is quite different. This ‘tragic’ world view is that it is precisely at the point where we have lost control, where we have come to end of our resources, where we have tried everything and failed – at that point there is life, new and exciting. The truth of the world is that it is in fact more disordered than ordered. Life is the constant tension played out at the edges of chaos and order, in the liminal spaces between death and new life. In this life, in this age, to cling on to order and structure is unrealistic because the truth, the reality of life is not like that. Life is found when we let go of order and comfort and confront disorder and death. The pinnacle of this theology of course comes in the gospel; Jesus enters the chaos and darkness of death only for the new life he came to bring to emerge at the resurrection.  John’s gospel, in speaking of these events,  speaks of Jesus ‘entering his glory, the glory of life transformed by apparent failure, with followers scattered and in disarray – chaos – but glorious chaos nonetheless.