Thursday, 21 May 2020

A Sermon for Ascension Day

A Sermon for Ascension Day


Thursday, and I’m required to speak of heaven, of take-off,

First and final flight; my hand shakes, my pen breaks

Line of page, refuses ruler’s rule.


Does God break lines too?

Now that’s an image and an old one: God as poet –

First Transgressor, Bird who hovers over page’s


Unruly seas, endless white. That’s a bird I could love –

Greasy feathered, storm-bringer, O Petrel, come:

Land with filth and ink, stain your story on tree and linen.


Let me write of Word made bird-bone, feather

Made heaven-bound, made Heaven. Hollow me till

Word flies, till Ascension, till God, till unruled, broken lines.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Where do we go from here? Towards An Unknown Church ... Part Two ... REST

While this post should be able to stand alone, it may be helpful to read Part One on Fragility before plunging in to this offering. The previous post offers a rationale for my decision to blog about the future of the C of E.

It is, perhaps, a token of my need for extended rest that it has taken me a long-time to bring this post on ‘rest’ in to land. As ever, these thoughts are provisional and conversation starters. I suspect my ‘not-so-hot take’ shall be proven very wide of the mark as a post-COVID Church emerges ...

Made for Rest? Rest made for us?

The Church rather loves to talk about rest. The Bible is littered with injunctions to rest and Sabbath. The great spiritual writer Fr. Gerry Hughes even claims that we are made for rest. I think the stresses and pressures generated by coronavirus – a time when clergy can feel their ministry is both more weightless and more intensely stressful than at any time – require a re-start on, or, at least, a reassessment of the priority to rest.

I want to hedge this carefully. Someone in my position – a long-established incumbent, an Area Dean, an honorary Canon etc. – is, in ministry-terms, exceptionally privileged and I say what I’m about to say with caution. I am, like all my kind, inclined to overestimate the value of ordained ministry. I also always run the risk of smugness, delineating situations in such a way in which someone likes me pays little of the cost. (I hope my previous post shows that I want to avoid that tendency, but I suspect I fail …)

I also acknowledge that, while being a single person household has some profound downsides, I have considerable flexibility in the way I organise my daily life. Finally, I write as someone with considerable middle-class privilege. When I say, ‘we shall all wish to work less’ that may be true across a wide spectrum; the reality will almost certainly be that only those with considerable existing financial and social capital shall be able to do so.

It will come as little surprise, given what this time has revealed, that I think it’s clear that both clergy and laity need to work less, pray more deeply, and work in a more clearly delineated way. It’s time for a more sustainable pace. I love work and at heart I’m a workaholic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever achieved more as a result of working absurdly long hours, seven days a week. Indeed, one of the things revealed to me by this time is the personal unsustainability of endless, driven work. There was a time when I could be ‘on’ from 0630am through to 11pm at night. This now feels comedically, horrifically unsustainable.

The discovery of rest as vocation is surely going to a culture-wide thing. Friends, lay and ordained, with young family are simply utterly exhausted at the moment. To be a parent is surely one of the most extraordinary responsibilities and gifts a human can have, and it strikes me that there is no immediate prospect of a full return to school in a physical sense. Holidays will not provide a huge amount of respite in a time of coronavirus. This nation is going to be exhausted by this experience and the scars will be present for years.

I suspect we shall all want to work at a less fever-pitch pace. More to the point, we may have to. I think I’m going to have to. I’m a workaholic and I love being intensely involved in things. But I feel it in my bones: there is going to be a reaction in my body to this time of strain. I won’t simply be able to click back in to old ways of working. I have much less emotional and physical slack.

Soon (when?), everyone – of faith or none – who can afford it is going to want a holiday, maybe many holidays. However, the point of this post is not simply to say, ‘Moar Holidays’, though that may be welcome. I pray that we learn to work more slowly, carefully and kindly. Holidays – whatever they may come to mean – will be desirable, perhaps even necessary; a culture where rest becomes the defining characteristic will, I sense, be essential. Sabbath will need to be rediscovered.

What might happen?

I am ever hopeful. While it is dangerous to generalise from one’s own case, one of the curious side-effects of life under COVID-19, is how I’ve felt invited to pray and pray more richly. I’ve felt called to spend more time in God’s company. This has felt more like an invitation to rest with God rather than struggle with God. It is an invitation to mess-about in God’s company. Rowan Williams famously compared prayer to sunbathing. To sunbathe doesn’t take any great skill. One simply needs to be where the sun can get at you. Thus, with prayer. One simply needs to be where God can get at you. The limits on busyness and flashiness created by lockdown have placed me and many others in a situation where God can get at us a little more. I hope and pray this will have significant practical effects:

In the light of lockdown and its necessary rescopings, I sense (hope?) there will be an uptick in vocations to the religious life … both vocations to the religious life in ‘Third Order’ settings, as well as potentially in enclosed community. I certainly believe there will be an uptick in enquiries, as individuals consider the meaning and shape of their lives. Coronavirus has exposed the profound needs many of us feel for richer, deeper connection and life together. I hope and sense there might be exciting developments in both new, digital, and established religious communities.

In wider society, there could well be a profound reassessment of what is of value materially. There may be an uptick in interest in living in a more relational, slower way, as well as a diminished appetite for consumption. Rightly, I think one should approach the likelihood of this with caution. There will be many, both within the Church and without, who feel their futures are too intimately intertwined with unrestrained consumerism to even consider a rescoping. Those of us, for example, who draw ever closer to pensionable age and wish to receive a decent pension should not be naïve about the role of international capitalism in generating our future benefits.

However, we are first relational, affective beings and I sense – from my own case and those of others – that this time presents an opportunity to discover a truth and gift at the heart of the universe: each of us is in the hands of others. To live well, especially in a time of virus, requires a preparedness to treat with ‘handed-over-ness’. Given how dangerous ‘touch’ is right now, there is a certain irony in discovering we are ‘in the hands of others’.

I become ever more convinced we are not discrete individual units. We are in-dwellers. We dwell in and through each other. To note this and live this requires attention (and not simply ‘alertness’) and time. And if time is genuinely to be constructed on different terms, that requires community and political will. Otherwise it will simply be the case that those who can take more time and space shall, while an underprivileged lower class is left to cover the gaps. In short, a kind of theological reconstruction of cultural value (which may or may not be religious) is required.

Some Practical Possibilities?

Perhaps I only speak for myself, but I sense a real need to (re-)discover the joy and delight of play, ‘messing about’, and wasting time. If the world is genuinely gift and all we hold and receive is gift, then I see no imperative to construct everything in terms of achieving things or acquiring stuff, or of establishing effective programmes and proving outcomes. I feel we need to rediscover the open texture of God’s reality. Why the heck should our lives – religious and otherwise – be programmed out to the final detail? Maybe we should dare to enjoy God a little more. Maybe we should waste time. Maybe trying to be endless productive for the sake of what … the Church? the Kingdom? pleasing God? … might be a token of insecurity rather than trust or love …

Perhaps, then, when we seek to be agents of change and communities of goodness, we need to take time to discern, pray and listen. Perhaps it is a question of learning to slow down and spend more time with the questions. Perhaps the question we need to ask is, ‘What is the question or questions God wishes us to wrestle with?’ That is, what is the heartbeat of God in this time? And in the time which is to come? What is the single simple thing God is asking of us? I suspect the space will generate unexpected answers. Yes, the response shall entail activity and activism, but of a focussed, sustainable kind.

In a recent conversation with St Nick’s stipendiary curate, Andrew, we discussed the significance of the call to be a ‘watcher’ and ‘sentinel’ in one’s ordained identity. I’ve long considered it an unjustly overlooked and unglamorous dimension of pastoral ministry (‘See my previously published works …’ ;-)). If I understood Andrew aright, he suggested that to be a watcher entails an active attentiveness (an ‘alertness’? ;-)); this dimension of ordained ministry can feel especially acute And difficult when one feel one’s ministry is rather lacking in action. However, to be alert to the signs of the Kingdom and God’s abundant grace is always a dynamic vocation. It can be challenging, demanding and disturbing. It may become a defining characteristic of much ministry in the years to come. In watching and waiting, perhaps we may be better equipped to see what God is up to and get involved.

 … I know. That’s all very well and good, but it sounds rather airy … so, at a little more grounded level …

Beyond lockdown, I would hope for the establishment of a genuine commitment from senior leadership to a five-day pattern for ministry. This will require both a rescoping on the part of clergy at all levels – and as a parish priest I acknowledge we are our own worst enemies – as well as a profound level of honesty about relationships between lay and ordained. It will require a level of honesty about what actually can be achieved in local churches which I’ve rarely witnessed.

What do I mean? Well, as previously indicated, I think stipendiary ordained people are going to become scarcer. The risk is that either those remaining stipendiaries will be so loaded down that they burn out very quickly or SSMs and lay officers will feel like they must take on so much in addition to their day jobs that they will make themselves ill.

Clergy working shorter hours should not mean that small numbers of active laity work so hard at plugging holes they lose their own rest.

Discernment – prayerful discernment and practical discernment – will be crucial. It will not be the case that we can do all we did as the national church or the local church. We shall need to target and be focussed. If we are to remain sane and well, some things will just have to go. What those things are will most likely be discerned at the local and diocesan level.

How can we begin to model this truth and husband our resources? Well, this is a formation as well as a commissioning issue. Stipendiaries are not contracted workers. We have terms and conditions but we often sit lightly to the rest and holiday aspects. This is a formational problem (which I believe has a gendered dynamic too) as well as a cultural issue. Stephen Cottrell has often spoken about how Jesus was ‘radically unavailable’. Those charged with the formation of clergy need to locate their work in this call to radical unavailability from the outset. In a world of serial overwork, an increased focus during formation and ongoing in-service training must be centred on rest, refreshment and retreat.

Our parochial lay officers, including church wardens, will need to begin to call their priests to account. At the point of commissioning or admission to office for lay officers, Archdeacons and Bishops will likely need to inscribe the imperative (!) to rest and holiday. These may even become part of the words of commissioning. At the very least, rest and refreshment might need to be almost agenda items on the table at PCCs, staff meetings, Deanery Synods.  Those who exercise leadership at all levels will need to start from rest rather than seeing it as an add-on.

It is a simple fact that lots of people, lay and ordained, are both knackered now and shall be for a while to come. Much as our senior leaders rightly emphasise the need for clergy to take rest days/days off and take leave at this time, frankly this is currently mostly meaningless. At the best of times, it is really difficult to take a staycation when one lives above the shop. Right now, I find it mostly meaningless. If too much has been made of comparisons between this time of COVID and war conditions, where I do think there is an intersection is in the bone-wearying effects of a life without proper rest and holiday. We, you, I … all of us are going to deeply worn-out at the end of this … if there is a defined end of this … the side-effects will be felt in our bodies for years to come …

While I sense that the Church will commend that clergy’s untaken leave should be carried over into the future, the only way many of us shall find the time and space to get the kind of restoration our bodies need will be if we learn to work less, prioritise the essentials and learn to let go of a whole bunch of stuff which looks important but probably ain’t.

I hope that the Church, locally and nationally, will find ways to hold fewer meetings. Clusters of parishes, clergy and lay leaders will increasingly find it necessary to develop administrative centres to coordinate occasional offices at a central point. Clergy and lay will need to be more integrated to ensure our Human Resources recover. This may mean fewer services, an end to the fetishisation of the Parish Eucharist and a honest, almost ruthless letting-go of the vestiges of the ‘we do everything’ Parish Church model.

In short, it may be time that the Church, finally, properly wrestles with an old question: what is God calling the Body of Christ to be, in this locale, with these profoundly limited but amazing human and financial resources? What, indeed, is the question God is inviting us to answer?

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Where do we go from here? Towards an Unknown Church … Part One … FRAGILITY

‘O brave new world, that hath such people in’t …’

‘Our revels now are ended …’

I want to reflect on what kind of Church of England might emerge out of a time of Coronavirus. The two lines above, both from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, strike me as indicating two, simultaneous reactions to what we face: the voice of naivety, promise and innocence represented by Miranda, and the voice of experience, broken dreams and endings represented by Prospero.

Perhaps the C of E, indeed the wider Church, always lives between poles of innocence and experience, promise and cynicism. The emergent realities generated by a global pandemic have only brought them into sharper focus. In this short reflection, I want, provisionally, to speak into what I sense is the direction of travel for the Church of England in the light of pandemic. I want to set some hares coursing, in the knowledge that others will challenge, reform and add to my reflections.

At the ground of my thinking is two premises: firstly, you can’t keep a good God down. God is, yesterday, today and tomorrow. Secondly, the C of E is going to look very different in coming months and years (or, if you prefer, that which was already true of the emerging C of E is going to be foregrounded in startling ways).

Why reflect at this point? Well, in part, because that’s what I do. I think and reflect. I also want to participate in a conversation. Truth is, none of us has a working crystal ball. I fully expect most of my thoughts to end up being proven quite absurd. I also acknowledge that none of my thoughts is especially original. That’s good.That implies my thoughts are part of a discourse. I hope it’s one you want to contribute to.

Here are some of the things I hope we – in the church, both lay and ordained, senior and junior – can begin to take seriously.

The Fragility of Goodness? The Goodness of Fragility?

The church which comes out of lockdown will, I think, be digitally promising, physically smaller, more financially precarious and tentative, and potentially more flexible and interesting. (In a future post, I want to suggest we may be more restful.) Yes, there will be an uptick in bullishness – ‘Rejoice! Let’s get our programmes started! Let’s show everyone we’re open for ‘business’’ – and there will be many who, rightly, will wish to research whether there will be a ‘prayer premium’, in which those who have prayed and watched with us via digital means remain with us.

I am excited about the virtual and streamed possibilities of church and I’m fascinated to see how the virtual church continues to grow and emerge. However, the materiality of the church matters and it will be different. I also think God calls us not to be fantasists.

Anyone who imagines that – come the end of lockdown – we shall, in the short to medium term, gather en masse together once again in church buildings is (in my view) losing the plot. Lockdown will, as the Bishops indicated, be phased.

Choirs (and congregational singing) may be banned for months; huge Cathedral and parish church gatherings (traditional ordinations etc) simply aren’t going to happen; there may be strict limits on how many people can be in a building at any one time. Also, those who are older or have limiting health conditions may effectively be barred from being in church for months, perhaps years.

There will be others who may take months and years to have the confidence to be in confined spaces.

There are going to be a number of people who will not be coming back to church in the physical sense again. Yes, there may be new people, but let’s not get too excited. I’d like to see the evidence trail from past upheavals to support the belief that there will be an upsurge of religiosity (rather than spiritual engagement).

Money will, almost certainly, be much tighter, not only in poorer ‘northern’ dioceses, but across the C of E. I sense that already difficult financial decisions will need to be brought forward.

What might happen practically?

N.B.: I don’t offer these thoughts as commendations, but - from my small perspective - reasonably likely outcomes of the situation we face ...

Those churches which can integrate their digital and physical offerings are likely to have great advantages … in a world where a person can ‘see’ (from their bed or sofa) what a church offers, those churches who can speak into this ‘marketisation’ are likely to see high engagement. This may … yes *may*… lead to increased physical attendance in due course … more likely, it will finally expose the Anglican parish system – based on physical territory – as humbug. Location will still matter, but the C of E will, finally, become a 21st century institution among 21st century institutions …

Given an increasingly precarious financial situation in parishes, dioceses and the national church, it is likely that trends in the national picture will be accelerated: churches which can afford to pay for their own minister will be the only ones which will be assured a full-time minister … churches will, increasingly, be led by lay people and non-stipendiary ministers … stipendiaries will become rarer and, in time, rarities (if they are not so already) …

Huge questions will be raised about the stewardship of buildings … which buildings will be required, which will not? I suspect we shall witness an enormous church closing programme … just as the need for office space in the secular world diminishes, the need for church real estate will diminish …

Some of our finer buildings (especially those with unsustainable finances and small congregations) may need to be offered to Trusts, including the National Trust (assuming the NT, which I adore!, will be in a financial position to take them on …) ... worship will continue within them, but on different terms ...

Older clergy will, I suspect, look to retire sooner than they might; indeed, from a financial and mission perspective, senior leaders are likely to be under pressure to encourage and incentivise those who can to retire, freeing up parishes for reorganisation …

Clergy, like me, in single parish benefices, will have to look hard at whether their parish can justify them; senior leaders may need to incentivise or – assuming Canon Law permits it – force us to move on, take on other parishes, or even leave parish ministry …

Given the likely shortage of money, senior leadership will probably need to work very hard to force a reordering of the Church along simpler, less geographically driven lines. Dioceses will almost certainly need to be amalgamated, as happened in the current Leeds Diocese. Liverpool and Chester might come together; Manchester, Blackburn and Carlisle might. Perhaps Liverpool and Manchester might join together with Chester …

We shall probably end up with dioceses that look much more like ancient sees, organised over large distances. Clergy will become scarcer and more scattered. Laity will take centre stage  …

From this summer, I could see a situation where leaders think is financially prudent to tell those going into training for ordained ministry that their future will not, in the medium term, likely be in stipendiary ministry. I can see a situation emerging where the assumption will be that most if not almost all will end up in mixed mode, part-time non-ministry job, part-time ministry …

I’m sure there will a range of opinions and responses to my speculations, including ‘Why speculate?’ I offer these thoughts as a kind of ‘conversation starter’. The Church may be led by bishops and governed by Synod, but we all have a stake in the future of our beloved institution. I should very much welcome your responses …

PART TWO: REST ... to follow (once I’ve had some rest ...)

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Of 'Shelfies' and 'Shelfishness': The Power of the Bookcase ...

The biblical book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘Of the making of many books there is no end.’ On the evidence of various spats on social media recently, as well as the very funny twitter account Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility), this should be amended to, ‘Of the display of books there is no end.’

I’ve done my fair share of ‘shelfies’(i.e. photos of book shelves), but this pandemic has led to a bit of reassessment. Unlike many clergy, my set-up for Zoom meetings and streamed and recorded services is not in front of book shelves.

Rather, I’ve set my screen up in front of some curtains in the study. This has led to my bishop, the frabjous Mark Middleton, suffragan Bishop of Middleton (amongst others) to wonder what lies behind them. Indeed, my set-up does rather look like I’m making an announcement before the curtain goes up on an Alan Ayckbourn play.

The near ubiquity of ‘book shelf/case’ shots in religious and non-religious ‘broadcast’ settings has led me to wonder what is going on in my own case (I want to be clear: I don’t wish to criticise anyone who has a book-based backdrop for worship, interviews etc).

Then it came to me: right here, right now, when – despite being effectively forced to shield – I feel, ironically, more exposed to the world than ever (because of the constant demands of streaming and virtual meetings), I feel a deep need to keep something back for myself.

What I want to keep back is my books. Not because I’m worried that someone will spot a dodgy book,* but because these artefacts are personal treasure. My library brings me hope and comfort. It represents a vast hinterland of cultural accretion and story-telling. And, as a person living alone but living – in a small beer way – a public life, I want at this time to keep them for me.

I want to rejoice in the private delight of books. In saying this, I want to reiterate: I don’t criticise anyone who has a book-based backdrop for worship, interviews etc. Rather, I want to say this: at a time of crisis, I think we need to find that which comforts, heals and grants us encouragement and rest. For me, it lies in the delight of books … their physicality … their presence … and most of all, for the worlds of wonder and thought they contain. And that delight, right now, is not for public display.

* For what it’s worth, I’ve read and own a whole panoply of books which I’m sure some prig will decide are dodgy, should be banned from canon, etc.