Aliens from the planet #WeHaveBudget

The most profound call towards ‘local church’ that I know is: The word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood. For generations the Church of England has been committed to the land and its people in the parish system. To be ‘a church near you’ is a profound calling. But I have to tell you it’s not working. We are flying into terrain at a frightening rate. Solidarity as the people of God is threatened as larger parish churches function as network churches, resource churches land in nearby cities like aliens from the planet #WeHaveBudget, and pastoral reorganisations put duty upon duty.

Down here in the weeds of the local parishes it feels a very long way away from Church House in London from Synod, from Renewal and Reform, even from the Diocese. In a lot of places we are out of choices and local church is quietly ejecting itself into the river and drowning. Increasingly it doesn’t matter whether the parish is a well functioning unit or a multi headed nightmare who’ve needed six ‘services of reconciliation’ in four years, like our friends in the Benefice of Maple Syrup and Cracked Eggs, with Peculiar Mill and Leaky Churn, commonly known as the Benefice of the Pancakes

The revitalisation of the A Church Near You service is amazing. It Just Works™ It hits the spot for users and meets the web needs of many parishes outright. A Church Near You is a blessing firstly because the service reflects popular understanding that the Church of England is a church near you, whatever you think that means. Literally and metaphorically that’s what people are searching for. The hitch is that too many rounds of pastoral reorganisation have left communities too often with a church near you every third Tuesday in the afternoon. Oops.

A Church Near You is orientated by parish. That might be the greatest gift to the missions of God through the Church of England for years. It says: look local, be local, love locally. Be a church near the people that your bishop and vicar share ‘the cure for souls’ of. It might be inconvenient if you run a multi-headed benefice. But understanding of these larger groups is poor among irregular churchgoers, non-christians, and those exploring faith. We haven’t shared the full facts about what these re-organisations mean into our communities. So why not take this opportunity to use the best of technology to mesh with the understanding that people already have of our church.

As a communicator everything about the A Church Near You approach seems right. It’s research led, has ‘meeting user needs’ as the first priority, and speaks to specific constituencies. I’m a church communications volunteer in a reasonable well functioning benefice of three parishes. Our communications reflect how we the church are organised: as a shared team across three parishes. I suddenly shudder, and wonder if my practice is being shaped as much by the structure I inherit as the Victorians’ were by their lovely impractical and expensive buildings. Because that would be a bad thing right?

It’s painfully evident that a lot of vulnerable people have been abused sexually, or otherwise by churches or while in the orbit of churches. I confess that, as a junior bod in the regional church, I didn’t take this nightmare seriously enough. Neither did I make an adequate linkage of the prevalence of abuse with the number of people who had been execrably treated on account of their mental health, differences in physicality or sexuality. The linkages between the behaviour that permits spiritual abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse are disturbingly clear. I worry about this because I don’t think it’s fixed. Too many churches seem to be in denial that ‘people can get spiritually hurt here’ and live with an unspoken understanding that so long as leavers = joiners-1% then things are ok. I’m still persistently shocked by number of people who I speak to whose mental health, physical differences or sexuality has been cause for deliberate exclusion and discrimination by churches

The problem is the urgent need for the re-evangelisation of England. This isn’t a few churches here or there not doing so well. I don’t think this will come from from large planting operations – whoever sponsors them. Looking around the world I don’t know any other way to do that than hard labour and possibly martyrdom, in it’s many forms, for many evangelists, priests, missionaries, prophets and teachers – working in chaplaincies; in prisons; among those grieving badly; in schools and in every place where people spend money, take leisure, and do work. Improving our communications, digitally and in the flesh is critical to understanding how people in our parishes see the world. Understanding that worldview is key to truthful performance of gospel speaking and gospel acting. What truthful performance means in a postmodern world is tricky. But it is only in the love and truth of God that the holy community can be holy and safe for all.

In a time of national and regional church projects with big budgets, uncertain outcomes, and variable approval or consent between different sectors of the church, The fact A Church Near You and the regular national seasonal campaigns are effective, freely given and tangibly working so short a time after they were first mooted gives them importance beyond their immediate purpose. Look: ‘it says, here are resources, services, and facilities that respect the theological width of the church’. These national things truly gifts given for the common good at local level. They recognise, like the Bishop’s Commission for Mission in the Diocese of Winchester that the time is now, the need is now, and the recent past can be no template for the near future.

Childhood obesity in the Diocese of Winchester

Obesity correlates with issues related issues the bible talks about as matters of justice and mercy. Unofficially for Church of England leaders in Winchester Diocese I’ve mapped childhood obesity prevalence in a way which allows an estimate of the situation in their parish. Click the picture to link to a larger file better formatted for printing

Continue reading “Childhood obesity in the Diocese of Winchester”

Keeping missions at the heart of church events.

Churches can get so involved in running excellent, welcoming events that talking about the big story of God falls out the bottom of the bucket. Starting to get God back into the visitor picture is easy and not expensive. A simple reusable large format printed display can help draw visitor attention to the church and the loving God we worship and adore.

 The practical bit

It’s cheap and easy:

  • You have the camera on your phone. I might prefer something else, but most smartphones are very adequate in decent lighting.
  • A1 printing costs start at around £6 / sheet in the UK (2017).
  • A reusable display board (shown) might be free if you manage to recycle one, or might be a few tens of pounds if you purchase second hand.
  • The software to do the layout is available as libre / free download. Lots of things would do the job, but Inkscape and Scribus would be a good place to start.

 The easy part

Designing this sort of poster is easy to do competently. The example shown uses a very simple grid formed by mutual subdivision. This link is from 2005, but the advice is sound. Everything else is simply a matter of consistency and thinking about the message payload.

 The hard part

The hard part comes down to the people. If you’ve got a church that’s on the edge of managing decline and perhaps needs this event to work financially as part of a tight operations budget, then you may have a struggle. Convincing people the the missions of God are always the primary thing a church is for when they are tired and dejected can be really hard.

 The disclaimer

This is a really quick post, which I popped up after thinking about what the churches I help have been up to over the past few months with Art Exhibitions, History Exhibitions, Theatre performances and all sorts of amazing stuff. I’m blessed to be helping at churches where, despite their very different traditions, it’s an easy ask to make sure God stays in the picture. .

In the end the beginning

In the End – the Beginning The life of hope, Jürgen Moltmann, Translated from the German by Margaret Khol, SCM Press, ISBN 0-334–2961-9

In the End – the beginning explores what three beginnings: natural birth; new life after catastrophe, and resurrection teach us about the nature of God. In writing that retains something of the oral character of the lectures which were in the beginning of the book’s own life Jürgen Moltmann unfolds his views with simplicity and elegance.

Part one opens with a swift but stunning exposition of the ‘promise of the child’. Moltmann explores the biblical history of the messianic ‘child of promise’, reaching into the tradition of Israel to explore the implications of the idea of the’Wisdom Messiah’ which conflated the prophesied coming Christ with Wisdom who was ‘like a craftsman God’s side’ (NIV) during the foundation of the earth. The text then outlines how the birth of the Messiah in principle might abolish: patriarchy; the cultural tying of hope to male descendents and the religious necessity for procreation, while celebrating the validity of voluntary celibacy and shining the light of hope onto every new born child. He writes: “If children are God’s creation, they are also created for the future of his creation. They must be viewed and accepted in this transcendent dimension, in which they themselves exist and in which they can develop.”

Part two opens with a brief personal insight into Moltmann’s experience of war and his escape from the disaster of both the dictatorship of the Third Reich and the shattered and defeated Germany. He turns from this personal experience of catastrophe, in the aftermath of which he was born as a Christian, to the theology of catastrophes in general. The biblical account of the flood, the Assyrian conquest of Israel, and the death of Christ at Golgotha form the pattern for his discussion. These apocalypses are contrasted with the modern tradition of the apocalyptic about which the author says: “today we have to make do with self-made apocalypses, for which human beings have to take responsibility, not God”

He continues into an excellent discussion of the relationship between justice, righteousness and salvation. There is a swiftly sketched, analysis of some reservations about both the traditional Catholic and Protestant doctrines of Justification. The account of what God’s righteousness and justice means in practice for a world of victims and perpetrators embraces the perspectives of both solidarity and representative Christology. In an interesting, and possibly contentious, conclusion Moltmann ends by exploring the consequences of this fuller understanding for God ‘Justifying faith is not just a faith through which human beings are justified; it is a faith through which God is justified too’.

Part three, which physically accounts for the second half of the book, addresses death, which Moltmann sees as a ‘beginning without ending’, resurrection, and the Last Judgment. Included with some conventional questions about Hell, Purgatory, and the nature of the soul, Moltmann discusses the implications of belief in reincarnation, and addresses the question of what happens to humans whose life is apparently ‘cut short’. On this topic he writes: “I believe God will also complete the life which he has begun with a human being … So I believe that God’s history with our lives will continue after our deaths, until the completion is reached in which a soul … will find rest and happiness.” There is an interesting discussion about mourning, or the lack of it, in modern culture and this trends naturally into an exploration of the ‘community of the living and the dead’. Here the experience of the church in countries which venerate ancestors is explored. Addressing the common question about praying for the dead Moltmann writes: ‘I myself do not believe that we can or must do something for the salvation of the dead through our prayers. But I do believe that the Christ risen from death also has his means of salvation in the realm of death too.’

The final chapters of the book look at the Last Judgement and the promise of Eternal Life of which Moltmann says: ‘Where men and women perceive Christ’s resurrection and begin to live within its horizon, they themselves will be born again to a living hope which reaches beyond death, and in living love will begin to experience eternal life in the fulfilled moment’.

The book’s origin as lectures, which were given to both theological and secular audiences, is a mixed blessing. On the positive side there is something thrilling about watching Moltmann propelling his arguments with such drive. However some will find the lack of detail and almost complete absence of references a source of frustration. Equally because of the excellence of the best parts of the book the variety in the quality of the content of the chapters comes as a slight disappointment.

Jürgen Moltmann is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology on the Evangelical Faculty, University of Tubingen, Germany