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.

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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.

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.