The future’s no longer orange…it’s teal.

cathedral-processionI recently came across a fascinating article on organisational management. It described a growing movement in some organisations which seems to herald perhaps a paradigm shift in the way they will be run in the future.

The piece built on a developmental theory of organisations which argues that organisations have experienced a series of evolutionary breakthroughs to achieve new levels of achievement and complexity (see figure below).

The article then suggested that we are the process of a new breakthrough a movement into a new realm. In the colour categorisation of this evolutionary scheme these new organisations are called ‘teal organisations’. In this new realm, teal organisations embody three important values:

1.       Self-management – management is no longer a top-down process but is embedded throughout organisations giving people at every level the freedom to make decisions

2.       Wholeness – the organisation actively encourages people to express all that they are in the organisation rather than some professional part of themselves. The organisation sees itself as having a role in people development of wholeness

3.       Evolutionary purpose – organisations have a deep sense that they have a purpose beyond themselves that they must sense and respond to. The bottom line is not shareholder value, but on responding well to this sense of evolutionary purpose.

teal-orgsAn example of a teal organisation is Buurtzorg, a care provider in Holland. Founded in 2006 it took a completely different approach to providing care to the overstretched, centrally controlled care companies that have, much like in the UK, proliferated in Holland since the 1990’s. At Buurtzorg teams of 10 -12 nurses serve a clearly defined neighbourhood. These teams self-manage – they decide which patients to prioritise, they liaise with local doctors and pharmacies and collaborate with the local hospitals.  Instead of proving care in the narrowly defined way it often is –  washing patients, changing bandages, administering drugs – the purpose of Buutzorg is to help patients life well. Nurses sit down with their clients and help them design their own support networks to help them lives as well as they can.

Buurtzord has grown exponentially. After 8 years is market share was 60%. It is incredibly efficient, delivering care with 40% less hours than other care providers, because patients become self-sufficient so much quicker. Hospital admissions have been cut by a third making huge savings in terms of the governments health budgets. Buurtzorg is also a profitable company.  It is quite an incredible picture of an organisation doing things radically different.

Naturally I couldn’t help but think of the church as I read this article. Where is the church in the schema of organisational paradigms described? Whilst we might at least be able to discount the first paradigm (red) which describes brutal organisations like street gangs and organised crime, the church finds itself all too familiar with elements of the other paradigms. Organisations that are based on the principle of an army (Amber), a machine (orange) or a family (green) all have operational elements that can be found in the contemporary church.

Perhaps this is what you might expect. The church, once absorbed acquiescently into political empire in the 4th century, has been mimicing the dominant culture ever since.  The last half-century has seen the church import, with relatively little reflection of critique, the business practices of the successful organisation around it. And part of the challenge we face is that most denominations still operate with the structures of a medieval hierarchy in a world that is utterly different and utterly unpredictable. We have as Bishop JV Taylor put it ‘lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned the divine initiative into a human enterprise’. No wonder we are so entranced by the best human enterprises of our age.

The descriptions of teal organisations are fascinating however. They resonate with a sense of what the church was always called to be. The metaphor that best describes a teal organisation is that of living organism – there are resonances here of Jesus’ agrarian metaphors for the Kingdom and of course Paul’s metaphor of the body. Self-management and wholeness relate powerfully with the church’s call to enable human flourishing and personal development.

But perhaps it is with the idea of evolutionary purpose that a key connection is made. Teal organisations are openly embracing the idea that there is something greater than simply the market outside of themselves. They are deliberately seeing to connect with, sense and respond to something beyond themselves that is calling them to a higher purpose. For many this brings into play practices of silence and contemplation, or of what has become known as ‘presencing’, attending to something deeper than just spreadsheets, business plans and management targets. Teal organisations, and those who study them, begin to get very unbusiness-like with their language at this point, God rarely gets a mention, but suddenly the realm of the unseen is entering into the parlance and practice of reputable and profitable organisations.

So, business has entered postmodernity and the New Age. So what? The church’s call is to continually respond to the voice of its founder, not the chatter of the trends of our age. Absolutely, except that in teal organisations I see something fundamental to what the church is, and which it has lost. It has lost a central belief that it is an organism, not an organisation, that it is a community in relationship with a God who calls, not a thing, or an enterprise that just puts God’s name on the letterhead. It has most critically lost a willingness to listen to the voice of the Spirit which is constantly calling it into new places and into new forms. And to a voice that is so consistently challenging to our penchant for order because it is constantly speaking from out there in the world where things are changing and people lives will not fit the categories we would like them to.

Jurgen Moltmann has spoken of three paradigms in the church’s history – the hierarchical paradigm (think Christendom, think amber), the Christocentric paradigm (think reformed churches, think orange/green) and the charismatic paradigm (perhaps think teal?). He says ‘in the charismatic congregation Christians come of age, and acquire the courage to live out their own experience of faith and to bring themselves with their own powers into the community of the coming of the Kingdom of God’.  Yet have we not been in the charismastic paradigm since the day of Pentecost? Did we simply lose our way, our nerve, and get dragged along with the same cultural and organisational trends described by contemporary theorists. Whichever way surely now we are invited to boldly reembody the church’s call to be a genuine charismatic community; diverse, local, agile, that seeks to enable human flourishing and wholeness and which is deeply attentive to the Spirit of God that gives her life and calls her forward.

 

 

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The church of 2030 starts here

I recently received an email to say that the course I had booked on had to be cancelled due to lack of interest. The course was entitled ‘Preparing for 2030: Mission, Megatrends and the Future of the Church Conference’. And I guess I thought it was perhaps church-technology-of-the-futurerevealing that a course looking at the kind of world we will be ministering in in 15 years’ time did not garner enough support. Some will argue that the course was fishing in a pretty limited pool given that a large proportion of current church leaders in the Diocese where I work will be retired in 15 years’ time. There is also the perennial issue of encouraging busy clergy away from their context to engage in the important-but-not-urgent stuff of ongoing learning.

Even so, that a course, oriented so clearly towards the future mission of the church, could not attract enough participants to run suggests to me that we have a problem. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to study what the future might look like. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to seriously consider what changes need to made now to plan for it. Perhaps, even worse, we are not sufficiently aware of the rapidly changing world we are in to see that unless we study the future we are forever living and ministering in the past.

In periods of rapid change any organisation needs to be extremely adaptable in order to remain effective. But to be able to adapt we need to be willing to adapt. And to be willing to adapt there needs to be a commitment to it. Gaining that kind of commitment requires some work, the telling of truth about the present as well as any casting of vision for the future. To some extent we all hold onto the present as the last remaining vestiges of a warmly held past and we do not let go easily. Adapting, changing and orienting ourselves for the future requires three things: reality, relinquishment and renewal. All too often to we clamour for renewal without first doing the work of enabling one another to face reality and relinquish the past.

As part of my ministry recently I have been meeting with a small group who represent a new worshipping community within a local parish setting. The new community was deliberately set up in the hope of engaging new people. Many of the group are committed to the future of the church but have also been a part of this parish for many years. They remember the past with great fondness. I have spent the past 6 months exploring mission for their context with this group. However, it has been hard for our discussions not to be drawn back into concerns for the church, that is the church building, a beautiful old building, devoid of heating, in completely the wrong place for its community. The last time we met however there seemed to me to be a turning point. I presented them with some harsh realities about the place and identity of the church in modern society and culture. I presented them with the concept of a church in exile; on the edge, no longer at the centre, no longer asked for its opinion, or respected for its views, no longer (physically or otherwise) at the heart of community life and able to reside there and see people come to it. As this picture developed and we discussed its merits, the mood in the room grew gloomy, then resistant and then finally resigned. It was a hard truth, but it was nevertheless the truth. The church of Christendom, able to command such an influential and prominent place in society and culture, has gone. We are in exile. And the sooner we face up to the reality of that and relinquish whatever false and nostalgic identities we have for our church the better.future-vision

Much as the exilic prophets did for Israel, telling them the truth of the disastrous nature of the situation they were in, church leaders must do for their worshipping communities. Unless we embrace the reality of our identity as people in exile we are never going to orient ourselves to be the sort of Christian communities we need to be now, or in the future. We need a conversion. We need to relinquish one paradigm and positively accept the reality of another, one where we must learn again what it means to be faithful witness to Christ in a culture that is not oriented by his message or ethics in any substantial way.

Recently Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking at the recent New Wine leaders gathering said this:

“I want to say to you today that I believe from the bottom of my heart that the long years of winter in the church, especially in the Church of England, are changing. The ice is thawing, the spring is coming. There is a new spring in the church.”

Encouraging words. But I am not sure many are truly aware of the reality of the winter we are emerging from. Or if they are, they look nostalgically to a balmy summer of yesteryear to inspire any hope for a new season. Some will not be able to spot a coming spring because, as I believe, it will look very different from the new season that might hope for. Renewal is not a return to some recycled past. Renewal, by its very nature, is the unexpected wonderful new reality of God’s inbreaking into his world and his people.

The concept of exile is powerful truth for us. Like Israel of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem we must face up the reality that the old dispensation has gone. We must learn to live in a new land and embrace being strangers and aliens instead of lords and leaders. To do this we must face the reality of our identity and relinquish hopes and visions inspired by warm feelings for the past. Only then might we begin to embrace renewal, the new thing that God is doing in his church to which he invites us to participate. 2030 may seem a long way away, but it starts now, with a conversion to a new way of seeing, a new paradigm of church identity and mission where we embrace the truth of our identity as exiles in a foreign land.

Teachers, junior doctors and vicars – the precious value of vocations

stressed teacher

In the course of the past few months I have had a similar conversation with a number of very different people in a variety of professions. All have resigned from a profession they largely loved and felt clearly drawn to. And all have come to the painful and difficult conclusion that they can no longer continue in their chosen profession and remain themselves.

Of these, two are GPs. Both have spent huge amounts of time, energy and money and significant personal cost to qualify. Both have worked for a number of years in the NHS and yet both have come to point where they can no longer continue. For these two GPs the pressure to attend to patients at breakneck speed, ensuring that a quota of patients can be seen by lunchtime within the targets set for them by their practice managers, has simply proved too much. They are stressed, demoralized, almost broken. They are also heart broken, drive out by an atmosphere of systemic urgency which mitigates against the kind of time and attention required to really care for a human being.

Two others are teachers. Both have taught, quite intentionally, in schools with a challenging intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And both feel they can no longer attend to these children as people because the system will not allow it. Their vocation to nurture the potential of these children has been crushed by the sheer weight of administrative responsibility, suffocated by an airless atmosphere of one-dimensional achievement and endless inspection.

Asjunior doctors strike I write junior doctors are in the midst of an unprecedented third strike. Whilst the strike is about a new contract, and therefore, in theory, about pay and working hours, at heart it is about value. It is about how much we value a vocation where intelligent people, invest huge amounts of themselves, often at great personal sacrifice, in order to tend to another human being at a point of need.  Junior doctors recognise, in the new contract soon to be imposed on them, not just something that is unfair, but something that ultimately devalues their vocation.

A vocation is something that will motivate the individual beyond the normal relationship between work and remuneration. GPs, teachers, and junior doctors already work far more hours than they are contracted to. They do so because something within them drives them to care, to nurture, to heal. We recognise it in them, we know that it is there to some degree in all of us. We want it to be there when we need it ourselves.

However, what we are witnessing, in all these professions, is the effects of a culture that has significantly lost sight of the value and beauty of vocation. In The Road to Character New York Times columnist David Brooks argues powerfully that our western culture has increasingly become infected by a ‘utilitarian virus’. This culture lives by a ‘the logic of economics’, in which:

Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Maximise your utility. Impress the world.’

And it results in a kind of mean-spirited reductionism that distils everything down to what can be measured, what can be systematized, what can be reproduced and maximized. It is the world of economics translated into every corner of life. And now it is reaching those areas of life utterly ill-disposed to it, the care and nurture of our fundamental humanity, our health, our education.

In that same clutch of conversations I referred to earlier there were also two ordained ministers. I knew them both when, with myself and others, we arrived at theological college to train for ministry in the Church of England. Each of us had articulated our sense of vocation to a substantial number of people within the church and been accepted for training. We were a cohort of men and women, on average in our 30’s, passionate about our faith, hopeful for the future of the church, and committed to lead and serve the church in its worship and mission.  10 years later I happened upon two of that same cohort seriously considering leaving the ministry. Not for a loss of faith. Not primarily due to the demands of the job. They were on the edge of resigning from ministry for the same reason that my GP friends and teacher friends were resigning – the institution they had committed themselves to serving no longer seemed to provide the context in which their vocation could be exercised. Both spoke with a sad resignation at the conclusion they had come to. They remained motivated by their faith, and by the vision of church that is local communities of disciples living out their faith in a local context, yet could no longer see how this deep sense of vocation could be given space in an institution that placed such huge demands of administration on them. This burden of administration; managing graveyards, the paperwork associated with grade listed buildings, the responsibility of service provision across multiple churches over a wide area was becoming a tsunami of managerial drudgery that they saw no way out of – except by moving on.

It was clearly painful for them to come to this conclusion. It was a huge salutary warning to me to hear it. And it ought to be a salutary warning to the church, the Church of England certainly, but perhaps the whole church.

It is some years now since John Drane wrote about the ‘McDonaldisation’ of the church. He described concisely the economic dogmatism of the corporate world, a world which creates a tyranny of calculability, predictability, conformity and control. And he urged the church against these creeping tendencies, arguing instead for values of creativity, relationality, flexibility and proactivity as an antidote.

In an age of continuing decline in the mainstream denominations what Brooks calls a ‘utilitarian calculus’ and Drane ‘McDonaldisation’ can be a pernicious temptation. It can be a potential default mechanism for large institutions struggling to keep going. But the casualties of its dehumanizing tendencies are everywhere. Teachers choosing to teach abroad. Junior doctors striking. Young ministers reluctantly leaving a denomination and seeking a context somewhere else in which their vocation can be expressed.

church vocationsI can remember our college vice-principle warning us not to end up ‘cranking the eccelesial machine’, and yet some of us, despite out best intentions, have ended up doing just that. 10 years into my life as an ordained minister I find myself as a training incumbent, Anglican-ese for a minister with responsibility for the 3 – 4 year post-ordination training phase of a new minister. The cohort of curates of which my curate is one are a phenomenal bunch of young ministers with a passionate sense of their vocation for leadership and mission in the church. Will this young group of fresh ministers also end up turning the crank? If they do we will have failed them. And the danger is we will also have lost them.

What then must the church do? First, we must listen. What is clear from my conversations with GPs, teachers and vicars alike is a sense in which the reality of the pressures of their jobs is not listened to by a distant and stubborn institution. The institution continues belligerently to eke out another year, another turn of the wheel, with staff constantly at the end of their resources. ‘Insanity’ as Einstein once said ‘is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ The church must listen to the vocations of those whose call it has affirmed, as they come into authorised ministry under their care. When I listen I hear people articulating a passion to make a difference, to lead in mission, to see the church change and be renewed. I do not hear a glowing endorsement of a ministry that will result in them wading knee deep in paperwork, or running from one service to another with hardly a moment for a meaningful conversation.

Secondly, in listening to these young ministers we must try to see that in them is a vision of what God is doing, a vision of the future of the church.  If we truly believe in the gift and divine value of vocation, as surely we do, then we must listen to what these vocations are saying, for they are the voice of God for what the church must be. We must be willing to take, in many cases, the bold risk of creating space for these vocations to flourish. We must stop forcing people into roles that give insufficient space for their gifts and call to thrive. This will mean tough decisions. It will mean that certain cogs in the ecclesial machine grind to a halt. It will mean investing in risky vocations, and creative individuals who don’t quite fit the mould. But it will, I believe, mean a shift toward shaping the church around its vocational future rather than its past.

Jugglers and troubadours – St Francis and the Fresh Expression movement

Jongleur

Over Christmas and New Year I finally found the time to read a book which has been on my shelf for some time, GK Chesterton’s biography of Francis of Assisi. I have been drawn to Francis’ story for some time, instinctively sensing a connection between his ministry and the needs and concerns of our own time and of the church.

One aspect of his life and legacy has struck me in particular – the relationship between the growing Franciscan movement and the institutional church of the time. The stories of how Francis imagined and positioned his new missional order of monks are hugely insightful for those leading missional movements within the traditional denominations of the western church.

When Francis first drew a small group together under his leadership, they were three unlikely comrades, living in a hut attached to a derelict church in Assisi. He called the group the Jongleurs de Dieu. Jugglers of God. Or perhaps jesters, acrobats, tumblers of God. Jongleurs were travelling entertainers, circus-like performers whose playful skills were in deliberate contrast to those they were very often partnered with, the troubadours. Before Francis’ vision and call, he had a group of his young friends has been well known in Assisi for calling themselves troubadours. Troubadours, who emerged from southern France, travelled about singing romantic songs and offering a critical satirical, but essentially serious, commentary on love and romance. In shifting from troubadour to jongleur Francis was consciously signaling a liberation from the consciously solemn expressions of love and valor to something more playful, yet still consistent and true. The name Jongleurs de Dieu represented an openness to an expression of faith and service that was open ended, passionate without being weighed down by the heaviness of honour, almost frivolous in its riskiness, prodigal in its commitment to the provision and grace of God.

It is perhaps easy to imagine Francis’ reimagining of himself as a conscious critique of the church’s solemnity and order. However, Francis appears not to have seen it like this at all. His choice of the image of jongleur suggest something quite different. For where troubadours and jongleurs travelled together it was the jongleur who was the secondary partner, the servant in the duo of performers. Francis deliberately positions his movement, even at this embryonic phase, as a servant to the traditional church. His vision of a movement of committed disciples freed from the some of the strictures of life and institution, possessing nothing, giving everything, amidst the people not separate from them, was to act as an essentially servant-hearted movement in partnership with the traditional church. Francis himself has no vision of glory or growth, at least in the sense that we might use it. His was a vision of renewal forged from humility and service to the poor and the ordinary person, so often alienated from the language, culture and structures of the institutions. And his was a vision of church renewal not empire building, or church critiquing. He was not interested in creating a sect, in the way that the Fraticelli, a movement that grew after Francis death, sought to be. He was not interested in creating a perfect vision of the sort of church that was needed, or that ought to be. His vision was of imitating Christ, not imagining the ideal church.

I believe this is a hugely refreshing vision for our own time. God is once again creating jongleur de Dieu, people with a vision to be foolish in the eyes of many and create new kinds of community amongst the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalized. But too often the language and discourse becomes sectarian. A language that starts imagining such communities or movements in contrast to the church they have emerged from. A discourse that begins to battle for supremacy on the field of the perfect of church. As one such jongleur I firmly believe we are called to refrain from critique and stick to our call to playful, risky, frivolous and passionate imitators of Christ in new contexts. And to do so in such a way that we do not set ourselves up as paragons of the new Jerusalem, but humble servants of it and within it. The centre of the church has consistently been renewed from the edge, Francis being only one such example. However, it has also failed on numerous occasions to allow the new life at the edge fully invigorate the centre, either by the centre throwing it out, or the edge spinning off and creating its own distinct centre.  Francis consciously worked for a renewing movement that if it critiqued did so by example. A movement that continued to dance with its rather stiff partner toward a new vision for the whole church.

 

Middle voice ministry

megachurchThere has been a lot of debate with the CofE over the past few months that orbits around the agenda of church growth. The Green Report which was made public earlier in the year, though not primarily about church growth but about preparing people for senior leadership and responsibility, drew a huge amount of criticism for what was thought to be an unhealthy emphasis on the language and techniques of enterprise and business.

More recently there was been a significant debate on the nature of church growth and the role of leadership to bring it about. On my own Twitter feed I was able to witness a sharp disagreement between Ian Paul and Giles Fraser on the relative roles of church, vicar and God in bringing about/or not bringing about growth.

One common response to the Green Report was to criticise its lack of theology. It was in my view unfairly accused of jettisoning theology in favour of the techniques of enterprise simply because the document contained little out and out theology. Defenders of the report replied that it did not set out to be a piece of reflective theology but a contribution to a conversation in which theology was clearly an inportant partner.

Theological reflection on these issues is precisely about dialoguing theologically with experiences learnt in other fields. That is one thing the church does so well, and Justin Welby’s leadership experience in the oil industry, which has been subtly maligned by some in the light of the Green Report, is something we should welcome at a strategically critical time.

But theologies can overreach themselves and become deaf to realities and experience, particularly when these threatenderelict church a strongly held position or expose a weakness or a wound. Whilst Giles Fraser’s piece on the theology of failure was a powerful and brilliant re-emphasis of the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not the whole story. Success and growth in the Kingdom have a gospel trajectory of downward mobility and resurrection. Success is not necessarily an empty church, with the weeds growing through the floor. Success is a church that has experienced failure, perhaps even emptiness, with courage, faith and the gospel of the cross and resurrection. Success is a church on a journey through the cross and the grave and out the other side (perhaps over and over again).

I would want to add another theme to the debate however. As well as good entrepreneurial leadership, and good theology we desperately need good spirituality, good Christian spirituality. This will be a many faceted thing. It will however be something unique, something particular to the nature of church leadership. In light of the current debates there is one aspect of this I would want to try and describe.

The church growth agenda does throw up huge challenges for church leaders. Not least the question – what might I do to enable my church to grow? There are no end of recent books written advising the church leader on what he or she might do. At the same time we are fond of praying in the light of Psalm 127:1 ‘unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain’. Work hard. Pray hard. Work and pray hard. And what will be the end result? Growth? Perhaps? But at what cost? Exhaustion, burnout, depression, disillusionment? A generation of church leaders who can produce results but no-one wants to imitate?

Much of the current language of growth errs far too much on our natural inclination to do something. To be the architects of our own success. We might give the nod to God for doing it all, but as something of an afterthought. Eugene Peterson explores this same dilemma through an insight from the nature of Greek verbs (well he would wouldn’t he!). Greek has passive and active tenses. But it also has a tense that is lacking in English, the active-passive tense. It is what you might call a ‘middle voice’. The middle voice describes activity where ‘I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates

Actively participating in the results of an action initiated by another –  that sounds a lot like ministry!? Ministry earthed in good theology. It is Christ’s Kingdom and Christ’s church which he has founded but which we are graciously invited to actively participate in. We therefore minister with a healthy scepticism toward too much activity rooted in the active tense, where it is ourselves constantly initiating. We are also not inclined to embrace a theology of complete passivity, for God’s grace suggests an invitation to join in. He has something for us to do! We therefore seek to practise an active-passivity, a ‘middle voice ministry’, that encourages us to hold our initiatives lightly, reflectively, humbly and honours the initiative of God highly and reverently.

Prayer handsFor me the key to practising this active-passivity is prayer, not so much prayer of the intercessory kind, though that is important too. No, prayer of the contemplative kind. Prayer whereby we are predominantly in listening mode, listening for God’s initiative so that in hearing it we might more confidently participate.

Bishop John V Taylor wrote a generation ago, ‘we have lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned divine initiative into a human enterprise’.

There is nothing wrong with human enterprise, but everything wrong with it in terms of Christian leadership when it becomes untethered from or outpaces divine initiative. To guard against this happening we must rediscover our middle voice. We must become contemplative leaders, able to lead in an enterprising fashion, but from a place of deep listening.

Finding sanctuary in a world of WiFi

Village churchWiFi logo

The Church Times this week ran a story about a plan to fit all Church of England buildings with WiFi. The idea had been promoted by none other than Andrew Lloyd-Webber and comes with the offer of funding from his own pocket. So what’s not to like? Ancient, often disengaged buildings, no longer at the centre of our worlds, physically or virtually, brought rapidly into the 21st century with a ready source of funding from a celeb to back it.

Well, I am ambiguous about it. I agree with the premise that churches need to act more and more like community buildings, in a way that (as is often cited) they were in medieval times. Indeed many village churches are being creatively reimagined to reengage with their communities, opening up Post Office counters, cafés etc. WiFi is undoubtedly part of our modern connected world and it would be a bit daft to deliberately disconnect ourselves even further by allowing this resource to bypass us. Except that the thousands of ecclesiastical buildings up and down the country are part of a Christian tradition of worship and witness that is both incarnational (engaged with its culture and seeking to be relevant within it) and radical (often living in in committed contradiction to the prevailing culture). And one of the ways in which Christian spirituality and Christian practise is increasingly offering a challenging but life-giving alternative to the modern age is in suggesting the need for non-engagement with the world, disconnection from a world of overwhelming connection in order to tend to an increasingly neglected part of who we are – our soul. The soul needs space, quiet, a gentler pace, the benefit of our full attention, in order to be refreshed and in order that it remains connected with the more external elements of our life, what we say and what we do.

In short we need sanctuary in the midst of all that life throws at us to attend to ourselves. In our modern culture where the value of ‘staying connected’ has been exalted to the status of an uncritiqued axiom, the value of places of disconnection, or solace and quiet, free from the distractions of the world becomes crucial. It is the distracting nature of the ubiquity of mobile internet technology that provides the greatest challenge to us, whether we want to disconnect or not. Those who break into a mild sweat whenever WiFi is unavailable, or whose first thought when entering a building or a train is ‘what’s the WiFi code?’ are challenging themselves to ever find a place of ease in themselves that is free from distraction. Or indeed from the thought of distraction, that something might be happening that I am unaware of and might either need to attend to or miss out on. For those who  value  the need to disconnect on a regular basis, the rolling tide of free WiFi that has swept the UK along with the near impossibility of doing life without a smart phone or other perpetually connected device, means that there is a constant need to work against the grain of a culture that would have us stay connected. As an example, as I wrote this my computer blooped at me to tell me that a message from Facebook had just come in. After a minute or so I found the setting that enabled me to turn this distraction off – but the point is that the default was to have this turned on rather than off. That is the reality, very soon the default of our culture will be a perpetual state of connectedness. Indeed in many places it is already.

So the question is to what extent churches want to remain places that offer sanctuary in the midst of modern life that is increasingly crying out for it? It is no small thing that the church offers, in the context of a rentlessly noisy and constantly accelerating world, a national resource of quiet places of sanctuary where it becomes easy to rest, undistracted from ourselves and therefore more able to attend to our souls and to the presence of God.  I am not arguing for a blanket resistance to the endless call for seamless wireless connection. There may well be a case for introducing WiFi to church buildings to enable greater connection with the community in which it sits. But surely it would be good to give individual churches, who know their communities, and who are listening to the needs of the people around them to discern the impact, for good or ill, that installing this technology would have. One of my particular places of sanctuary is a retreat centre that, because of its geographical location requires guests to walk to the top of a nearby hill just to send a text message. If by whatever means a 4G signal were made available I think I might go somewhere else. I go there precisely to disconnect not stay connected.

So perhaps we can resist the accelerating tide of WiFi and mobile connective technology a little, and not be seduced by the opinions and money of Lord Lloyd-Webber or anyone else.  Churches, PCCs etc. might do well to go somewhere quiet, free from distraction and discern with one another and with God whether this might be a good decision for their particular building or not.

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.