Yesterday, on Twitter, I noted a fascinating conversation between Madeleine Davies of The Church Times, Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, and Andrew Graystone, broadcaster and theologian. It was a fascinating exchange, made all the more interesting because I respect and am fond of all of them.
Madeleine was – with good reason – exhausted with the endless negative press and attitudes about the Church. She wrote, ‘Starting to get bit frustrated with v negative commentary about state of CofE - if you actually look at what ordinary people are up to in parishes, it's really heartening, & I worry it goes uncelebrated. Encouragement is such an important gift.’
Paul then tweeted, ‘I agree with Madeleine. Critiquing "the Church" has become a bit of a blood sport. Meanwhile (thank God) hundreds of thousands of Christians continue to follow Jesus effectively and prayerfully in their local contexts.’
Andrew’s response was, ‘Isn’t it the case that when people criticise “the church” they are usually speaking about the Hierarchy? When they praise the church they are usually speaking about the laity in the parish. I find that the further the @c_of_e gets from power, the more effective it is.’
I cannot pretend I'm always one of the positive voices about the Church, though I do attempt to frame most of my critical comments in terms of hope, based on a belief in grace and a wider mercy.
Yet, I felt challenged. So, for Madeleine, Paul, and Andrew, and perhaps all of us who want a reminder of the glory in the midst of dust…
Let me sing-out in joy for St Nick’s, Burnage. Not because (or just because) it's the parish where I happen to serve, but because it – like hundreds of other parishes around England – simply gets on with service and worship and finds wonders in the rubble.
St Nick’s Burnage is not some super-parish or uber-glamorous church plant or resource church. It is simply a parish church in a small part of south Manchester.
It reminds me again and again what people who are committed to Christ in their locale can model and achieve. It reminds me of the centrality of confident and passionate lay people working in partnership with clergy. We are not a huge congregation. We face many of the challenges faced by the majority of C of E parishes – limited financial resources, an ageing congregation etc. - but I don't think we want to let those challenges hold us back. We simply want to get on with loving and caring for people and inviting them into deeper relationships with Christ.
That may sound rather banal or cheesy, but oh what wonders! Today was our Christmas Fair. Lay and ordained rallied around to serve up a festive feast: a place of welcome and joy and friendship, where all were met with kindness and respect. It was a delight to see people smile, chat and laugh, or witness children ask, ‘When is Santa coming?’ I am no sucker for the tinsel of Christmas but I, like others, came away tired yet happy. It was a huge amount of work for Wardens and people to prepare, but – in miniature – it captures many of the rewards of parish life.
And there is so much else that this little church models that moves and inspires me. We have an amazing cohort of volunteers exploring ministry through Foundations for Ministry, others involved in testing their vocation to priesthood, and a willingness to have a go at almost anything. Can we put on a musical? Well, let’s have a go! Can we be involved in running a food bank? Let’s have a go. Can we host events for the wider community that build confidence and trust? Let’s have a go.
Members of this modest parish church volunteer to run a food bank, run a community choir, are involved in a dozen different ways of showing God alive in our community. They are friends, neighbours and pastoral visitors. They make time.
As an inclusive church we set ourselves the challenge to be a place of celebration for people from every part of our community; it’s not always easy, but we choose not to follow the easy way, but the challenging one. We want to follow the path which says that all, whether LGBT, disabled, etc., are people of God’s delight and have a central place in worship and fellowship.
As I said, that's not always easy. And I appreciate we have it easier than some other parishes. But we try to discover God in what is here rather than in presumed ideal conditions.
We struggle and we pray; we become tired and scared and worn down, but we are also refreshed by the community we seek to be, in God. God provides. We seek God as he seeks us. And in hope, despite very stretched resources, we make our response in service and love.
We are just one parish among thousands; so many others must be up to so much more than us, often with fewer resources. So don’t tell me God is done with the C of E just yet. In partnership with sister parishes in deaneries, dioceses, even bishops (!), I reckon modest little parishes like ours will continue to make the wonderfully radical and generous God known.