Easter Triduum – Iona Style 2017

I spent Easter as a guest at Iona Abbey.  The communal side of the Abbey is run by the Iona Community, while the Tourist side is run by Historic Scotland. Most importantly the worship that regularly happens in the Abbey is largely under the auspices of the Iona Community. Therefore if you go to the communion service on Easter Day at Iona Abbey you are attending a communion service that is run in line with the principles of the Iona Community. The Iona Community has two areas of concern that play significant roles in what goes on during Easter week. These are:

  • the building of the common life between the guests, volunteers (vollies) and resident staff.
  • the renewal of worship as the activity of the people

Therefore guests had part in the preparation of worship as well as sharing household tasks and serving at meals.

I have separated that into three the people who live and work around the Abbey under the auspices of the Iona Community. Those are the boundaries as used by the community but the boundaries are not as clearly drawn as such. The guests do work, that includes serving and washing up after meals, household tasks including cleaning toilets and participating in the preparation of worship.  The tasks are less arduous than those undertaken by the vollies and Residents but still necessary for the well functioning of the Abbey. They are not purely symbolic. Technically most resident staff are also volunteers but long term with contracts (between nine months and three years). There is a subtle and complex interplay between these three groups.

The worship team, i.e. the resident staff who have a contractual responsibility at present for worship are Rosie (Director), Deborah (Sacristan), Richard (Musician) and Callum (Musician).

I was a guest. There were around 37 guests present this week and in three chore teams. Most of the rooms were shared with twin or bunk beds. The rooms are cosy space wise and this is good because it also helps with their cosiness in other ways as the building has limited heating.

From our perspective, the preparations for the Triduum started on Monday when people start preparing for the stations of the cross on Good Friday.  The Iona Community takes overall organising responsibility with Bishops House Retreat Centre for the one at the Heritage Centre and the Parish Church doing the one at the Parish Church. The Iona Community then asks the guests for the week to prepare the other five.

The second part of preparation that was handed over to us was the sermon slot for the communion on Easter day. This, however, only started on Wednesday. Actually, you could say we divided ourselves into seven teams. The five for stations of the cross, one storying team and a movement team who eventually ended up being involved in the Easter Sunday  Evening Service.

The third part, and it is only third because I keep forgetting it was done, was the Big Sing and the not so Wee Sing. These are times when guests are taught the music for upcoming services. This is not a choir rehearsal but a chance to familiarise us with the music and teach parts. If you have ever been to Iona Abbey services and participated in the congregation singing happily in three parts, then this is how they do it. Basically, a significant proportion of the congregation has already been primed. I was spoilt as the number of musicians among the guests was large and therefore we did four part rather than the usual three part harmonies.

The first service was the foot washing which happened on the Tuesday in the Chapter House.  That might seem odd being outside the Triduum but Tuesday is the day the Iona Community runs pilgrimages around the Island.  There are two an on-road and an off-road. Therefore there are lots of tired sweaty feet in the afternoon.  In other words, the timing was chosen so it was at the point when feet needed washing. Oddly we were a fast group and three of us had already gone through the process of cleaning our boots! It was low key. Rosie explained what was going on. The song “Brother, sister Let me serve you” with resident staff and vollies making sure that water and towels were available. The process of washing feet was mutual. Anyone could sit in a chair for their feet to be washed; equally, anyone could take the place of the foot washer on the floor.

However, like all modern Protestant liturgical Triduums it really kicked off properly on Thursday Evening with a Gathering in the upper room. This is probably Protestants nearest equivalent to Corpus Christi. This was held in the refectory

A meal in the refectory

This focussed both on the foot washing from John’s Gospel but also the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There has been a large use of John this Lent, not quite sure whether that is because Matthew is difficult or just people wanting John for a change. The room was packed with the tables put up against the walls, the benches and upright chairs in front of them. The poem “Directions for using a towel” was read, the hymn “Great God your love has called us here“. That hymn is one of my favourites simply because it catches the complexity of the human condition in ways that speak to the sociologist in me. There were four stations at which communion was served: one for Judas, one for Peter, one for Thomas and one for another disciple with us being asked to go to the one that reflects where we are at.

Stripped high altar at Iona Abbey

The service closed with us leaving singing Jesu Tawa Pano  and processing to the Abbey. The Abbey was then stripped. That is any ornament that could be taken out of the Abbey was removed including the  Celtic Cross that is normally on the high altar. Anything that could not be removed was draped in black and all the candles were put out. The photo shown was taken I think the following afternoon but it gives an idea of the starkness of the stripped church. This was all done in total silence and the residents and volunteers doing the stripping were all dressed in black. We left our way lit by battery lanterns and we all went out by the main door rather than to the cloister.

Friday was the busiest day worship-wise. It started with the normal morning office in the stripped Abbey. Then it was on with tasks but pretty soon had to set out for the stations of the cross. As far as I can recall the progress was as follows:

  1. Martyrs Bay – Jesus Condemned
  2. War Memorial – Jesus is mocked
  3. Nunnery – Women Comfort Jesus
  4. Heritage Centre – Jesus Falls
  5. Parish Church – Jesus is Crucified
  6. St Martin’s Cross – Jesus Dies
  7. St Columba’s Shrine – Jesus is buried

Now I am going to have to give an impression. The day was dreich and full waterproofs were a good idea. On the other hand, it certainly attracted people and by the time we got to jetty there was a crowd following the cross including Iona Community members who were not part of the staff at the Abbey. In between each station, we moved singing a short chant quite often from Taize. I am afraid it did not really get going for me until the women at the Nunnery where we heard the interaction between Mary, Jesus’ mother and modern women’s stories. The Bishop’s house connected Jesus’s fall with all the whys we have. The cross was dropped and instead of a man picking it up a woman did. The Parish church was a meditation by Barabbus asking us whether if we could get out of suffering we would not let someone else take it for us. The crucifixion was two monologues by two soldiers taking different aspects. One took the Dorothy L Sayers idea that one might have been the centurion whose servant had been healed by Jesus. The final one involved taking the body of Jesus and laying it in St Columba’s Shrine. Then the door of the shrine was slammed shut.

From 2:00 to 3:30 pm there was a vigil kept in the church. I along with many others by this time was flagging. I dropped off a couple of times during the vigil but stayed. However, quite a few others left early precisely because they were falling asleep. The result was the Abbey which was about half full at the start of the vigil was only a scattered few mainly in the choir seats and we drifted out after the end.

That evening it was a dispersed service. This was services in small spaces around the abbey. For instance, there was one gathering in St Columba’s Shrine, one in the Abbey Library and the one I attended in the Burrows. I went to the Burrows for two reasons. Firstly it was warm and worshipping in the warmth appealed to me. Secondly, it is a utility space used for washing and drying clothing and sheets and as a short cut to the kitchen. It really was the core space for me while I was a vollie on the Abbey Housekeeping team over a decade ago. The service was short and focused on a reading of Lamentations 3. In the Burrows, there were 6-10 people present and we were full.

Easter Eve started once again with the morning office in the stripped Abbey. This was very routine. The differences from normal were slight in that there was no music playing when we came in and we sang unaccompanied. On the evening was a service of waiting. This gave time to reflect on the actual importance of paying attention to waiting. Again a very stripped down service and quite meditative. This was kept as a partial fast day as I think was Friday and no puddings were served but only fruit. Oddly enough outside of worship, an excitement was beginning to boil as the last preparations were being done for the Easter day service.

Easter day started with a 6:15 at St Oran’s Chapel. This is the chapel in the burial ground beside the Abbey. The day had a damp start and once again I could have done with waterproofs trousers as well as coat and walking boots. The acclamation was joyful and we were handed a flower (not necessarily a daffodil). There were candles representing Easter fire but in the damp, they were rather poor. A good volume of Halle, Halle, Halle as we walked from St Oran’s to the Abbey where we left our flowers at the font before progressing through the cloisters for the Wee Breakfast still singing. The Wee Breakfast consisted of Simnel Cake and Hot Chocolate (alright I was a party pooper and chose hot cross buns and tea but that was just me).

Sometime between the waiting service and 9:00 am on Easter Sunday the Abbey had been re-decorated with daffodils everywhere. The cross with the daffodils on it was actually carried down at the start of the service and the high altar had a white communion cloth on it.

The candles were lit unlike in the photos which were taken on Sunday afternoon.  I had a reserved seat for the service because I had been part of the storying group and needed to be able to get to the microphone at the main desk.

The attendance was such that people were standing outside the Abbey and therefore the doors could not be shut. Handbells were used twice during the service and we also had a group of guests doing shape-note singing. The hymns tends to be modern versions of Easter classics so we had “God given Glory” instead of “Thine be the Glory” and a new version of “Jesus Christ is risen today” both by Jan Sutch Pickard. Equally the form was actually very strongly based on the form given in the Iona Abbey Worship Book with seasonal words used. The text for the service was John 20:1-18, this got represented three times. Firstly it was read, secondly the modern form of “Jesus Christ is risen today” tells it again and finally, the storying group had interwoven this story with the stories of others told during the week and finished with an invitation to create a new story.

You would think with all that, that Easter was over but this was the final day on Iona for us guests and we would be leaving on 8:50 ferry next morning. Thus, as is customary the night before guests leave, there was a service of commitment. It was a quiet abbey in the evening where a good number of people gathered for the service. I know because I was sat in the choir stalls when we were asked to come forward for the act of commitment and for a considerable time after I returned to my seat people filed in. The movement which was based on actions symbolising community was done in silence in the space before the act of commitment. It felt the most personal service. This was odd. Commitment services usually have high guest inputs but because we had been so busy during the week we did very little apart from the movement and yet it still drew us in.

 

Testing the Waters – Reaching out to “Dones”

This is a think piece because I am reassessing.

About a decade a book came out called “A Churchless Faith” which broadly argued that those who were leaving the Church were Stage IV  in the Fowler Stages of Faith and that this made them less than docile sheep in the flock.

Now I am not convinced. Certainly I understand that there are congregations and traditions that like conformist sheep. I have two cautions. Firstly this is to overlook the role power plays in this situation. The transition between III and IV is often connected with a change in power dynamics. The desire is often to be more actively engaged in the decision-making process. Now it might be genuinely a difference of stage, or it might well  be a situation of the abuse of power. If it is abuse we are being dishonest by referring to it as a stage difference, equally if it is power struggle does the stage actually matter? The second reason is that it typecasts all congregations as a certain type associated particularly strongly with independent Evangelicals and denominations with strong hierarchical control. There are a lot of congregations out there where this is not the norm. Indeed my experience of URC was that the desired church member was someone in stage IV. That is questioning and engagement with theological ideas and such was actively encouraged.

That said I am in the process of reassessing. Firstly I have come increasingly aware of the number of members in United Reformed Church congregations who were “Dones” and are testing the water again. Secondly, I am struck with how hard many “Dones” have worked to maintain a relationship with the institutional church. Quite often people who have given up have tried several congregations before finally leaving.

There are several things that I notice:

  1. Unlike many “Nones”, “Dones” may have a fair grasp of the gospel. The idea that sending them on Alpha or another basic introduction to Christianity is they way to start them off is often a BAD Idea. It is a denial of where they are coming from.
  2. They may indeed have a wrong understanding of the gospel but that is not the same as no understanding and what one congregation considers “wrong” another might accept. Correcting ideas that people have already accepted needs to be done carefully.
  3. The  like many people who have been hurt they are pastorally and politically difficult to handle. They are likely to have sensitivities that you know nothing about. They may be cautious about saying anything at all or go to the other extreme and always have loud views. Both approaches are methods of testing the water.
  4. There is a good chance that they have some sort of involvement burn, whether that is burnout because too much has been expected of them or catching too much of the heat from a hot internal politics.
  5. You need to consider that there has at least been a breakdown in fellowship in their Christian experience. Even if it is the case that the congregation they previously belonged to has had to close and they were happy with it right to the end.

A congregation which has a lot of former “Dones” can thus be very turbulent indeed. Ever so often things will get blown out of all proportion to the intention. It maybe something as simple as singing a hymn two Sundays running.

A congregation who wants to be a place where “Dones” can edge back into membership, and I happen to think many URCs could do this, needs to think seriously about how it deals with the following:

  • Good governance and open decision-making structures –  You want to be trustworthy and seen to be trustworthy. Remember these people have been hurt in their encounters with power in the church previously. Be clear about what you expect from people with responsibility and make sure it applies to all. Work on having checks and balances.
  • A theology of restoration – partly a theology of healing, partly one of forgiveness and with something more as  there is a need to get beyond the grievances and hurts that “Dones” carry.   They have often made the first step but can you offer then something that is worth risking being hurt again for or are they better off in the safety of being done with Church
  • A big emphasis on pastoral care – as the place where restoration is worked through. I do not simply mean the building of the relationship between minister and “Done” or elder and “Done” but the care that the congregation gives each other.  How does pastoral care fit within church arguments? It is worth thinking about because the one thing I can be certain of is these arguments will arise.

Works Cited

Jamieson, Alan. A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK, 2002. paperback.

Fowler, James W.. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995. Paperback.

 

A gym encounter and evangelism

I started going to the gym about 20 months ago. This was after a slow realisation that Ph.D. had left me in a relatively poor state. I was obese according to my BMI although nobody commented on me being overweight.  I was also relatively unfit. I came to acknowledge that my lifestyle was largely sedentary and I needed more exercise. One of the things that had scuppered previous exercise routines was that they got disrupted by circumstances. Walking depended quite a bit on the weather and people to go with swimming was cancelled whenever there was a competition in the pool and  yoga was simply too much effort most mornings. Actually, I was intermittently doing yoga but that was really it apart from general walking with life. The ability of Ph.D. to eat time that was available and still be hungry did nothing for my routine. What I needed was something that I could fit around my life and was less likely to be cancelled. That for me meant reluctantly going to the gym. As it turns out gym suits me when it is part of a wider regime.

Now fast forward 16 months and they gym is being refurbished so changing rooms are less comfortable than usual and there is no hiding away in a cubicle. Another girl came in while I was changing for a gym session. I could see my sixteen-month-earlier-self in her and could sense she was nervous. I also suddenly realised I was one of the reasons she was nervous.  You see having been going to the gym regularly for little over a year I looked like a person who went to the gym.  I think I had only just got down to a normal BMI but I was confident in the settings and I as long as I stuck to my routine I knew what I was doing.

Having heard others talk in the gym, I would say that the same is true of most of them. There was a time when they were that new, totally unfit, klutz, trying it out for the first time. Indeed, I suspect many like me still by default think of ourselves that way. It means that the gym goers when they notice a new person (many gym goers are very much working on doing their thing) think not “look at that slob how dare they come here” but “good on you, hope you stick at it”. However, that is not how they are perceived by the new gym goer.

Now this is not an article encouraging people to take up the gym. I could write that but there are plenty out there. Rather it is an article about people who come to church. It is so easy in a church to look at other people and think they have their lives together, that they know what they are doing. This is particularly true of when looking at those who have been at the church for a long time. That is not how many of us see ourselves in the church. We see ourselves as messed up individuals who are struggling to make it up as we go along. We are often focused on our needs and getting those dealt with, just as gym goers are. We are not the super religious that others look up to. This is our perspective.

When people less familiar with the setting come in they do not know this. What they see is, like a new gym attendee, that everyone else is more proficient and able to cope than they are and that includes us. I wonder how much the accusations of “hypocrite”, so often thrown at people who attend church, is not the equivalent of “gym rat” used of those who go regularly to a gym. It comes from a person’s feeling of inadequate and is addressed to those who they as making them feel that and judging them. Whether of not they are in fact being judged is irrelevant, the perception is all.

I cannot say that I got it right, but that time I broke the changing room taboo and spoke with the girl telling her my story. I hope it encouraged her. The questions is how do we let people in the idea that we were all once the newbie with our congregations and we are not always as sure of how things work as they appear.

Groupings – A historic memory of why

There is a lot of hitting out at groupings suggesting that they are causingdecline at present. I have a memory that goes back to the early days of grouping within the URC, and I think it is time to tell the story of why they originated. I am talking of things that happened in my teenage years.

Let’s be clear Congregationalism had a loose form of groupings probably going further back than the 1950s. My father’s first pastorate was “Oundle and Wheeldon” i.e. two separate congregations who had combined resources in order to be able to employ a minister. Equally in my childhood from 1972 my father was the minister for a group of churches. The key characteristic of these groups is that a number of congregations came together to employ a single minister.

In 1976 my Dad stopped being in parish ministry, and we worshipped in an experimental group of churches. That is it had a team of ministers and also a large number of churches. It was a deliberate attempt to go against the then policy which was often to merge small churches together. The statement I remember went along the lines that merge two churches with fifty members and in then years you have a congregations with fifty members. In other words, it was a serious attempt to reduce the decline closure and merger was creating. The argument was that people were motivated to keep their congregation going but were often not motivated to keep the merged congregation going.

They worked at least short term. The group I was part of lasted from the seventies through to the nineties and maybe even into the zeros. Some of those congregations found through various initiatives a lease of life during those years and actually the level of lay leadership increased through those projects. The congregation I was closest associated closed shortly after its social outreach was taken from it. I suspect that if it had remained there may have been another decade of life in the congregation. In other words it worked, it slowed the rate of decline. There is one church (maybe two) in an area of Manchester where under merge and close there would be none.

Now the study was not academic, the ministers who were trying different things to see if they could halt decline were of course the innovative and go ahead ministers. You cannot sort out the quality of the minister from the experiment. It also gives a hint of what might be wrong with the current debate. If a successful minister is one who has a single pastoral charge may it not be that there is a tendency for ministers not to seek group positions if they can get a single pastorate?

Of course, the big problem is not that groups cause decline. The sort of grouping being talked about is what the Methodist have done for centuries and forgive me although Methodism is currently in decline, I would be very reluctant to describe it as that in the middle on 19th Century! So what to make of it.

The problem is that grouping that is often talked of is done without concern for the Ecclesiology of the tradition. The relationship between the minister and the congregation is not the a top-down relationship within the Reformed tradition. Ministers are NOT appointed by Bishops (like the Roman Catholics), General Assembly (like the Methodists)  nor by other ministers. They are appointed by the local Church. The local Church has normally been associated with the local congregation. There is however no reason why it should be a single congregation. Could not a local Church consist of a number of worshipping communities serving different  constituencies within a wider community? These constituencies could be defined by place, age, theology, worship style preference or missional service. The one thing they would need to agree on is an Ecclesial structure (or how they interact formally with each other)

A grouping of local congregations under a central-governing body is not something new within the Reformed tradition.  This is what seems to have happened with the Geneva Consistory. It needs to be noted the consistory did not belong to one congregation but to the whole of Geneva and had responsibility for discipline of ministers among other concerns.  It was however primarily made up of lay people with the chair being the senior minister and as far as I can tell no other ministerial representation. Ministers were given responsibility for specific congregations or missional work by the Consistory.

I do not think this will be popular with anyone, but I do think that it highlights what is theoretically missing in the current discussion. That is a coherent thinking on the relationship between congregation and minister. At present I see the talk of grouping and the resistance to it being a discussion about power. If the local congregation can retain the power to appoint a minister then the members understand their connection to the minister. If, however, groups are created with minister or synod appointing other ministers then we become a denomination ruled by ministers.  Unfortunately that model, I can see members deciding that the denomination has lost interest in them so there is no reason to belong.

Mission in Urban Priority Areas (personal reflection)

I am tired after a hard week in work, it has been frustrating checking the fine details of papers to be submitted to journals and by 5:30 p.m. I am exhausted. All I really want to do is go home to my warm flat and relax with a glass of wine and a book but I need to shop for the weekend still, so that I can spend tomorrow working on my thesis.

So I set out and head to the supermarket. In doing so I walk down a major road, with ice still on the pavement from the snowfall about a week ago, past a few equally weary workers who trudge up the hill to where they live. By doing this I walk through a small area of with quite a high level of social deprivation. However although there are lights on in my home church, I see people come out of car park carrying large black cases which have the outline of brass instruments. there is Samba drums coming from the local community centre, but when passing the high-rise flats not a single creature stirs, not even the overfed pigeons. Nearby is the old Methodist Church that the Jesus Army have taken over and are redeveloping as a Jesus Centre.

On the underpass to the supermarket sits Mike, he has his battered blue parker hunched around his thin body, his black eyes sharp in his thin face, and before him sits his cap, waiting for any spare change the straggling passers by might put in. I stop and ask if he is getting on and if he wants anything to eat. In doing so I learn he is seven quid short of his B&B money for the night having ‘slept’ rough the previous night.

As I go to buy him his egg sandwich and a chocolate milk shake I ponder what to do. It is clear to me that tonight of all nights nobody should be sleeping rough. I am not sure that ringing emergency accommodation has any point even if I knew the number, which I don’t. I know Mike is in contact with the authorities at least for the last six months. I also have never seen him clearly drunk or under the influence, I know he is ex-services and he smokes. I also know that most of the places I could send him during the day (or better still go with him to) are shut. In the end I give him the £7, he offers to repay, I reject saying that he should do something for himself with any extra.

It takes another eight months, a trip to hospital with serious illness before Mike is housed. His first plan on being housed was to go and help at local charity. Now I know I did not fix anything, I maybe gave Mike a bit more comfortable existence for twenty four hours but that is it. I may even have allowed him to get drugs that were the cause of his homelessness in the first place. I don’t know. I do know that one of the problems of trying to help people like Mike, and there are plenty, different stories but similar difficult circumstances, is the fact that they live chaotic lives.

Expect them at church dressed in clean clothes at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, and then to behave politely is just not reasonable. I am afraid the chance of getting them to a church is negligible. Mike was invited at least three or four times including people willing to walk in with him, to a community breakfast at my church less than half a mile away, he never came let alone to Sunday worship with many middle class people.

The problem is that in many ways church has to be twenty-four seven in these communities, it is no good expecting them to come when church is open, church needs to be open when they come. What is more they often need more support and effort at least initially than your average middle class person. In order to even start to comprehend the faith they will need a small affirmative accounting community. A place where they are helped to tackle the chaotic forces that rule their lives.

Yet I know equally the high cost of trying to do such work. I have lost count/track of the cases of burn out when people have tried. These were people of faith, why else would they do it. Even to live your life in close proximity to these people (by that I do not live in the area, I have done that for years and it can be done with very little contact, but actually living so you shop at their shops, socialise where they socialise) is extremely draining work.You are faced with an overwhelming need that could drain your spirit and your finances very single day.

I have come too a conclusion that really only two groups have the ability to deal with such a challenge. On the one hand there are the Roman Catholic orders who specialise in living alongside the marginalised. They manage to do it, partly because they have systems that watch peoples reserves, because quite often the brothers and sisters who do this have as much money as those they help (i.e. none) and because you normally do this as a community.

The second group are from the other end of the spectrum and are groups like the Jesus Army, again the do it by living in community, actually by quite strong discipleship and again by having a communal rather than an individual purse. The difference is that people from the area can join the Jesus Army where as the Roman Catholic brothers and sisters would expect people to join the local RC church and are not looking for others to have a vocation to their order. In some ways this makes the Jesus Army more vulnerable to the stresses of the people around them.

Which of the two is best?

Well the Roman Catholic has the advantage of not expecting people who want to be involved locally to make the commitment the brothers and sisters have made. The supply of people for the presence is not from the locality and what they want is to create a worshipping community around them that will be part of the Roman Catholic Church. The problem is that as soon as you start to help people in these very dire circumstances in a way that really does challenge the chaos, then they normally start rising up the social ladder and quite often end up moving out of the area. So you have an continual mission situation with the need for constant support.

With the Jesus Army approach you actually do develop a local community. There are people from the neighbourhood and they tend to stay because the amount they have invested in the Jesus Army, i.e. housing, job and friendship means that leaving is very difficult. What should the Jesus Army do for people who want to leave. They may well have come in with nothing, been given shelter and then experience of employment by the Jesus Army. If that person leaves and the Jesus Army gives them nothing then that person is destitute again and open to fresh forces of chaos. However given the amount of support the Jesus Army gives such people why should it be expected to support them still when they no longer want to belong?

It seems to me both are flawed but both work better in these circumstances than standard church model as practised by many churches in this country. Getting the balance right, for there to be a church which really is open to the community will always be extremely tough.

Church poem

I write poems as a way to be creative, normally my poems try to take you into something, this one doesn’t it is polemical. Perhaps it is worth saying that this poem is actually arguing with those that claim that church is only any use because it gives you the chance to go to heaved.

Church
What use is this institution
kept alive by its few elderly followers
who recite ancient texts,
sing communally
and perform odd ceremonies?

None

Unless
you want to live
and by that I don’t mean
to keep breathing
or to seek your own survival

but rather
to open to the possibility
that you are not
the flotsam or jetsam
of the gene pool
but part of a connected whole
where other lives touch yours
and yours theirs
and to chance by so doing
that you may find reflected in the pool
the image of God.

Older Generation and the Church

This was a mini rant I was giving to my parents and thought it was perhaps worthy of a blog post.

Lets be clear, there are certain things that I don’t want to hear from the older generation. Firstly I don’t want to hear them grumbling about the mess the church has got into. Not because the church is not in a mess, but because its a method of seeking to make other people (i.e. the younger people) responsible for getting the church out of the mess. Lets start with facts, the church did not get into this situation overnight, it has taken decades to get into it, and in each preceding decade it would have been easier to rectify than it is now. The people responsible for things in previous decades are now older people. So the grumbling is asking others to get you out of your mess.

Secondly I don’t want excuses not to engage with the younger generation. One of the things that has happened is a disconnect between the Church and the vast number of younger people. It started before 1970s, as I can remember sitting in school in the late 1970s and finding myself the only person familiar with the Easter story amongst my class mates in high school (I hope it was Easter, it may have been Christmas). They already did not know the grand narratives of the Christian gospel. That gap is partly your making, help us bridge it.

Please don’t think you can pass this onto us. What you tried to do then obviously wasn’t enough because it did not halt it. This means there are fewer of my generation in church than of yours, in case you had not noticed it. Expecting us to make the effort to connect with those younger and provide a chaplaincy service for you that allows you to stay within your comfort zone ain’t fair. I suspect our priorities have to be to get the gospel out to those who are younger than us. So yes things are going to be more uncomfortable for you. Believe it or not, its not half as uncomfortable as it is for us.

Now I am really not interested in blame, blame does not solve anything but I am interested in getting you on board, realising that you have a role to play (your retirement from church is cancelled just as mine from work is).

What is more it means change, its not the church kids we need to connect with or keep. I am sorry but we have consistently failed to find a way to keep them through college, when grants came in in the 1960s we should have started looking for new ways to connect. Chaplaincy is often under funded and does not connect back to the local congregation.

It is the secular 20 to 30 years olds who are just setting up a home in the area. How do we reach them? I don’t know, but we have to try experimenting to find a way.

That of course means our resources are directed elsewhere, not to keeping the body of the church functioning as it is, but on trying to develop relationships with people , people who are distinctly different from most of us in their attitudes and ideas. People who are a lot younger and therefore a lot more technologically au fait.

So if you are up for the challenge, welcome to the team, we need all the hands we can get, no matter how weak and full of arthritis they are. If you are not, then I am sorry, but we have more important things to do and at least you can stop grumbling.

Calvinist Church Finances

Yes John Calvin did say something about church finances. He said 25% should go on acts of charity and 25% on mission, I think it was also 25% on ministry and 25% on upkeep. Doesn’t sound like any church finances I have ever seen!

Okay so in Geneva the council kept up the buildings. So how about 20% on Ministry, 20% buildings, 20% upkeep, 20% on acts of charity and 20% on mission. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but I will bet now that a church that did that would look very different to any church around today!

Sometimes others say it better

Two things I have come across say things I am thinking better than I ever could. An interview with Malcolm King when he was warden on Iona Abbey which talks of how renewal might just come out of building community.

Secondly there is this blog article from the Alban Institutes on why churches need to identifying their primary and secondary customers. It simply points out that the church has primary customers who are not yet part of the church. In other words congregations wrongly define who their primary customers are by excluding a very large number. In fact if the church is to survive then it is dependent on people who are not yet members.

Overfished mission

This is a guess but I think there is at least some historical evidence behind it. The Church lives by mission. That is if it is to survive it can only do so by the act of people who are not yet its members!

Historically the church has had a fairly broad understanding of mission. Yes it ran evangelistic campaigns but these ran side by side with social groups and welfare provision. It clothed the naked as well as preached the good news. A church was a multifaceted organisation.

Then the church realised and I think around the 1950s, that certain actions brought in more members than others. So it argued that concentrating on these were efficiency. You did not need all the suprastructure of the other mission activities nor the random pastoral visiting, nor the social chit chat with friends. What you needed to do to grow was concentrate your resources on the receptive. Social outreach could be just for the sake of helping others it was not part of the churches central mission. A very good way to dishearten the volunteers.

Lets take the old Sunday Afternoon Sunday School. Well yes that was largely child minding so the parents could have sex without the kids around or go down the pub. So we concentrated on the Sunday morning Sunday School for church children which was far more productive in terms of immediate numbers. Except that now the children end up down the pub with the adults, or some other activity (e.g. junior football and rugby clubs often meet on a Sunday). So the kids instead of learning about Christianity, learn sport or go to pubs with their parents. That means they don’t gain the basic language in which the church puts the gospel. So we are talking to people now who speak another language. Children don’t know the Christian stories any more, this is a cultural and an evangelistic loss to the church.

The problem is that many of the other less effective programmes actually created the receptive demographic. The result of not cultivating them made people feel the church was “hypocritical” only interested in looking after those who were interested in it. The church was cutting what did not suit it and not necessarily what people around wanted the church to cut.

What is more the apparent success rate of some began to make the people in the churches began to feel inadequate in just doing the ordinary things that had supported people through generations. They felt no longer able to talk about their faith because they weren’t as good as Billy Graham. Not realising that unless they talked Billy Graham could not reach their friends.

Basically the church got into harvesting and forgot to plant.

To change metaphors for the last fifty years or more, we have fished in a non-replenishing pool. The stock is almost gone and we have not taken care to see it is replenished. In other words the Church has over fished.

This is bad news because the catches are meagre now, and the only way that the catches are going to improve is actually to put resources into replenishing the stock. To do that we have to take effort away from the catching and reinvest it in all the things we gave up fifty years ago. Yes that means social outreach, yes that means social activities for people around the buildings and yes that actually means putting their desires higher on our priority list. Only there are not as many people to fish and we are not as fit as we were fifty years ago.

The good news is that there is the wider sea, the bad news is our boat is less sea worthy than it was because we have not had to keep it up to standards for the last fifty years.