What’s Church For? A Job for Life?

Should locally licensed ministers have a job for life?

Last time I had a moan about the lack of a clear culture of retirement from Anglican ministry. I want to stay with that idea but come at it from a slightly different angle, and do some thinking about the expectations of lay ministers who have been ordained and/or licensed to a particular parish. Let’s hear about the fictional, though all too real, parish of St Mildred’s Newtown.

In the past St Mildred’s was a moderately thriving church, with well-ordered Book of Common Prayer worship and good community involvement. In its heyday there was an emphasis on vocations which was thought to be highly successful, in that it produced five home-grown Readers and two Self-supporting ordained ministers.

But now the church has grown tired and elderly. The Readers are all in their sixties, one of the SSMs is over 70 and has Permission to Officiate, and the other is in her mid-60s but not in good health. They are all dearly loved by the congregation who have seen them nurtured and growing in their ministries down the years, and who enjoy the pastoral care they provide.

Then the vicar announces his departure to a new parish. As people begin to think towards the future, and set about preparing a parish profile, it becomes clear that they desperately need to attract some young families. They note the research which says that senior ministers are likely to attract people within ten years either side of their own age, so without being in any way ageist they set about the search for a young priest with loads of experience and wisdom, but who is lively and young-at-heart.

File:U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Marshall with the 1st Battalion, 45th Engineer Battalion, 157th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East, his wife, Amanda and their young family, celebrate the holidays early 131208-Z-IB445-027.jpgJim is eventually appointed. It is his first incumbency, having served a curacy in a thriving church in a nearby diocese. He relishes the challenge of turning around the decline which has characterised St Mildred’s for decades, and brings loads of exciting ideas. He begins to get to know the team he has inherited, and relationships are cordial. But as time goes by it becomes apparent that they don’t quite understand what he is trying to do. If only we could get back to the days of reverent BCP worship, they believe, all our problems would be solved. Similarly they show little concern for Jim’s desire to bring the church into a digital age: they don’t see the need for a website or a facebook page. Soon it becomes abundantly clear to Jim that the team he has inherited have become the single biggest obstacle to moving the church forwards, and of course they have the support of the congregation who, whilst wanting to attract young families, have no idea of the cost and change involved in doing so. Jim tries to win people over, but the opposition is very strong, and is centred around those who ought to be his closest allies. And the worst thing is that there simply is no mechanism for moving them on and building his own team.

Of course this is a made-up story, and nothing like it ever exists in real life, but isn’t it time that we began to think seriously about inherited teams, those whose focus is in the past rather than in the future, and ways for mission-shaped ministries to grow without opposition from other leaders? Are locally licensed ministers really in a job for life, or might it be appropriate for them to move around if they can’t grasp the vision of new senior leaders? One church leader reported saying to his disgruntled colleagues ‘I’m so sorry that you have been unable to catch the vision of what this church must become’. We shouldn’t say that but then leave them in place as leaders of the opposition.

What’s Church For? Church as Haven

Last week we looked at that most popular of models of church, ‘happy family’, and I suggested that this model was both unhelpful and probably unbiblical, at least as a way to think about the local congregation. This week’s model is different but related: church as ‘Haven’.

If you want a perfect illustration of the thinking behind this model, there is nowhere where it is stated more clearly that in a couple of lines from Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn Abide with me:

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

This hymn, popular at funerals and, inexplicably, cup finals, is about the approach to the end of life. Lyte wrote it whilst busy dying of TB, and actually survived only a further three weeks after its completion. I’m not there yet myself, but I guess it reflects an old man’s bewilderment at a changing world, and his readiness to go to a better place (although Lyte was only 56 when he died). As such it popularises a spirituality common among older people, particularly in an age of rapid culture change and technological innovation. Everywhere I look I find a world changed beyond recognition, almost as though I were living in a foreign land, where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture. So thank goodness that in the shifting sands of life there is one place where I can look for unchanging succour. Church, so the reasoning goes, is meant to be the place where I can go to get my dose of the familiar, a place where I feel safe, where I understand the rules, a place where ‘naught changes’. My church is my safe haven against the changes and chances of life in a world where I no longer feel at home. ‘Change’, note, is synonymous with ‘decay’, rather than ‘growth’, ‘development’ or improvement.

File:A safe haven - geograph.org.uk - 1118268.jpg

Whilst this sense of what the sociologists call ‘cultural dislocation’ is understandable, and while it is particularly understandable among a generation brought up in a stable world where change has suddenly began to spin out of control, it betrays an interesting and ultimately unhelpful view of church, and of God. Note first of all that Lyte sees God as the unchangeable point of reference; God, not his church. We have mistranslated his words to mean that church should never change, a sentiment which manifests itself most clearly in the matters of liturgy, music and buildings. God is indeed unchanging, but it has been said that ‘change is the angel of the unchanging God’. As we have already said in this blog God is actually a God of pilgrimage, a God who constantly leads his people purposefully forward. Sadly churches which see themselves as safe havens against change are often churches on their own deathbeds.

Of course we need to care pastorally for those nearing the end of their lives, and perhaps feeling disorientated and frightened. But to see a church as a safe haven from the storms of life is diametrically opposite to the pioneering and adventuring spirit to which I believe we are called. If we’re quoting hymns, I much prefer this one:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.   (Robert Bridges)

We need a God who guides us through change, not who saves us from it.