The church has to get out of its head and get into its heart
A churchwarden's thoughts on a deanery plan - the Christian Church must rediscover its mystic, contemplative heart
What follows is the response of a rural churchwarden to a deanery plan about ministry and the push, yet again, for more giving for the “quota” (MMF / Parish Share or whatever it is named). These thoughts were sent not only to deanery members but to the diocesan bishop.
First the Plan. We are invited to discover what is the ‘unique selling point’ of our church. There is much about how to attract more people into church and there is, unhappily I feel, a conflation between ‘rejoicing in the generosity of God’ and canvassing the congregation to put more into the collection plate. This is a marketing plan really, overlaid by biblical quotes employed as straplines. The bishop is quoted as saying ‘’ business as usual could well be the death of us’’. He is quite right and yet this is business as usual, the same preoccupation with targets, fundraising and congregational footfall!
In essence, to quote one of our parishioners , it is all about doing but nothing about being. The thesis being that what the church needs is not frenetic and desperate initiatives but rather it needs depth , real grounding , a profound commitment to develop true compassion – agape – and true wisdom. And from that the answers will come. The synod meetings that I have attended have been predominantly about the MMF and how to apportion it. But I should really have been paying much closer attention.
I was, for example , only dimly aware that a large parish church is a Transforming Mission Church. I had vaguely heard about it, I was aware that fairly considerable funding was involved ( and quietly wondered why that could not have been spent on more full time clergy of high quality for the rural parishes ) but I really didn’t know what it was all about. Late in the day then I have had a closer look at that parish’s website. Under ‘What we believe’ I found that ‘we believe’ that we are ‘corrupted by sin which incurs divine wrath and judgement’. Actually I don’t believe that. Then we believe in ‘the supreme authority of the Old and New testament Scripture which are the written Word of God’. I don’t believe that either ( the Old Testament, for me, being the history of a nation painfully trying to grope towards the truth. And often failing.) Then, under ‘What is Christianity’ I discover that ‘God won’t let those who reject the King live with him. So we face what Jesus called Hell. An existence without any good, forever’ . Sorry, don’t believe that either.
I prefer to hold on to the perception of an awesome yet loving and eternally forgiving God, Abba , the Absolute , whatever title we give but way beyond our understanding. I think we should recall that Christ spent much of his time with tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor and the downtrodden. Not with the Pharisees. This is a real problem then. We are all in the same deanery but I am far from convinced that we are all part of the same spiritual tradition. And without that surety how can we all cooperate and work with each other? In the discussion of the Plan it is noted that ‘’Our current form of....services doesn’t appear to be attracting or retaining young families’’. But can this really be a surprise given that the church is pushing the concept of original sin and casting all other creeds into the outer darkness? We live in apocalyptic times, the true meaning of which apparently is a time of great revelation. The Evangelical take on Christianity has been a great revelation to me and not a happy one.
I find my beliefs and opinions very much align with those of Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton and are much influenced by many short retreats that I have taken at Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Scottish borders.
In response to the call to 'do church differently' I will particularly cite my experience at Samye Ling and what I think it can tell us. Samye Ling was set up in the1960's by two brothers who escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet and came to settle in the West. They overcame the kind of obstacles, physical, mental and spiritual that would have destroyed most of us. Suffice it to say that they set off over the Himalayas in the company of 300 others but only 13 survived - the rest died or were captured and killed by the Chinese.
Remarkably they hold no bitterness whatsoever (one of the brother's still survives and is Abbott of Samye Ling). They see the whole pursuit of life to be the development of wisdom and compassion from which all good actions will flow. Like the Christian mystics of old the Tibetans hold that the powerhouse of spiritual depth and authenticity arises from meditation and contemplation. In the pursuit of this we learn to see past our egos and recognise our essential Buddha Nature or Christ Nature ( they are the same) and to see how this connects with the Absolute ( God) just as a wave is an expression of the ocean.
Buddhists hold that everything connects, all sentient beings connect and that it is our sacred duty to nurture every living thing on this planet. It is noticeable how every year there are more and more people visiting Samye Ling, people of all ages including many children who seem to immediately sense the spiritual charge of the place and the radiance of the monks and nuns who live there.
There is a special resonance with the call to love all and everything in Creation. Young people see Buddhism as uncontrived, truthful, relevant and ultimately transcendent. Apart from very reasonable accommodation costs I have never been asked to donate money for anything and yet miraculously Samye Ling has expanded now to Holy Island (off the Isle of Arran) where people of all faiths live and go on retreat. There are centres now in major towns throughout the UK and Europe and a charitable organisation relieving the needy particularly in Africa and the East. All of us donate without being requested simply because the cause is so obviously worthy.
The lessons that I draw from this are that the Christian Church must rediscover its mystic, contemplative heart. Long and deep retreats for clergy and lay assistants alike where the individuals really get to know themselves profoundly and honestly and then move further into a genuine intuition of the nature of God. This is really a lifelong process but as time passes the effect on practitioners is evident. In time their authentic nature starts to change the atmosphere around them and from this good things will come.
Good works naturally flow from a good heart, others are drawn in, momentum develops and a real and authentic mission is established. In short I believe that the church has to get out of its head and get into its heart. Then all shall be well and ' all manner of thing shall be well'.
A concerned churchwarden
Letters to The Church Times show this churchwarden is not alone:
Church of England finances and the parish system
From the Revd Simon Douglas Lane
Sir, — John Radford’s letter (8 January) identifies a fundamental problem that must be solved. It is not so much the question whether the C of E can survive the pandemic as whether the C of E can survive itself. We have learnt from the pandemic that those who are badly remunerated are often those upon whom we depend the most. We need to learn that if you are going to rationalise an organisation, it needs to apply throughout, not just in one sector.
The Church of England has a unique jewel at its heart: the parish system, which needs to flourish, not wither. Thus we hear about the Chelmsford model (News, 4 December), scything its way through parish clergy, and, if the first cull is not enough, then a second one will follow. It is hardly Christian. Think about the clergy and their families bearing the brunt of this — and probably, soon, others across other dioceses.
What has brought this about? I hate to say it, but ineffective leadership, an inability to proclaim the essence of faith in a country of Christian heritage, and seeking refuge in secular practice, which is no good for an organisation that must be spiritual and bring a unique perspective to a nation in a time of crisis.
If, to save money, the parish clergy are to be reduced, the foundation of what we are is being removed, and collapse will follow. Some of us weep at the state in which we find our beloved Church: long interregnums, appointments that don’t fit the tradition of the parish, and the inexorable rise in head-office posts with interesting job titles. Resource the parishes with able clergy, and the “mission enabler” at the diocesan office will be redundant.
So, in an age of transparency, we need to tell the parishes on what their hard-earned income and fund-raising is spent. The concentration on money is a severe hindrance to mission and growth. When the General Synod meets next month, can we at least see an alternative to clergy cuts and parish closures — and some vigorous leadership to put the C of E at the centre of our national life?
SIMON DOUGLAS LANE
30a Belgrade Road
Hampton, Middlesex TW12 2AZ
From Alexandra Hyde
Sir, — The diocese of Chelmsford intends to cut 61 stipendiary clergy posts by the end of 2021, while simultaneously advertising for a “chief executive” on £85,000-£90,000 a year to support the work of a diocesan bishop, three area bishops, and seven archdeacons. If that was the answer, then what was the question?
Essex CM0 7JN
From Canon Charles Masheder
Sir, — It is with considerable sadness that I have read about the situation in the Chelmsford diocese, as I served my ministry for 35 years there. I fear that some of the issues apply to the wider Church, too.
Finance will inevitably play a part in the organisation of ministry, but questions need to be asked about priorities. The Chelmsford diocese is one of the larger ones, but it has no fewer than seven archdeacons, more than any other; perhaps this is necessary. When I left in 2007, there were only four, who, I personally know, worked hard and whose ministry was appreciated. Many dioceses have concentrated on “specialist” ministries often at the reduction of parish clergy. I am not the first to wonder how many people come to faith through such ministries.
At one point, I served for two years not only as a parish priest in country parishes, but also as personal assistant to the Bishop of Barking; this gave me an insight into the conceptions of the Church held by the “hierarchy” and the person in the pew. Both may be valid, but not necessarily compatible.
One small suggestion would be for all (like archdeacons) to have a small and understanding parish. This would not only help such people not to lose sight of the significance of parochial ministry, but, at festival times, would give them the joy of ministering to their flock, something, I know, that is often missed by senior clerics.
Enock House, 2 Musson Close
Abingdon OX14 5RE
From Mr Dennis Cooper
Covid rules for Lent and Easter ceremonies issued
THE imposition of ashes will be permitted during Ash Wednesday services next month, with precautions, for Church of England churches that are open for public worship during the current lockdown, new guidance states
Sir, — You quote the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker (News, 8 January), as saying that “any reduction in the overall number of dioceses, or smaller ones, was not under discussion.”
It is disheartening that an organisation in such a parlous situation is not taking time for radical thinking. I doubt that I am the only person who thinks that there are far too many dioceses, with all the hierarchy and officers that each bishop seems to feel entitled to. Do we really need more than, say, eight or nine dioceses?
Perhaps it is time that all appointments above parish priest were put on hold until the full cost of the pandemic is known.
DENNIS H. COOPER
The Willows, School Lane
East Keal PE23 4AU