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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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.