Church Growth – Not Just About Numbers

It’s not just about the numbers

The Church of England has an unhealthy fixation on numerical growth, says Martyn Percy. We should be more concerned with quality, not quantity

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THE beguiling attraction of the very first Christian heresies and heterodoxies lay in their simplicity. They presented the most attractive solution to any immediate and apparently unsolvable problems. For the first generations of Christians, these usually lay in the sphere of doctrine and praxis.

For us as a Church today, the presenting problem appears to be declining numbers in our congregations. Ergo, an urgent emphasis on numerical church growth must be the answer.

Right, surely? But wrong, actually. The first priority of the Church is to follow Jesus Christ. This may be a costly calling, involving self-denial, depletion, and death. Following Jesus may not lead us to any numerical growth.

We are to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. There is no greater commandment. So the numerical growth of the Church cannot be a greater priority than the foundational mandate set before us by Jesus.

Karl Barth observed, more than 50 years ago, that the true growth of the Church is not to be thought of in mainly extensive terms, but rather those that are intensive. He argued that the vertical (or intensive) growth of the Church does not necessarily lead to extensive numerical growth. He went on to say that “we cannot, therefore, strive for vertical renewal merely to produce a wider audience.”

Barth concluded that, if the Church and its mission were used only as a means of extensive growth, the inner life of the Church lost its meaning and power: “The Church can be fulfilled only for its own sake, and then – unplanned and unarranged – it will bear its own fruits.”

Many parish clergy, and those working in all kinds of sector ministries, already know this to be true. The Church does not exist to grow exponentially. Mission is deeper than that. The Church exists to be the body of Christ.

THE pastoral theologian Eugene Peterson once said that the one thing he had learned in mission and ministry was how complex measurable growth could be. He draws on the theologian, essayist, poet, and farmer, Wendell Berry, learning that “parish work is every bit as physical as farm work – it is about these people, at this time, under these conditions.”

The pastoral turn towards an agrarian motif is arresting. Jesus told a number of parables about growth, and they are all striking for their simplicity and surprise, especially the allegory of the sower. This should probably be the template for all diocesan Mission Action Plans, because Jesus is saying to the Church, “Have regard for your neighbour’s context and conditions.

So, you might work in a parish with the richest soil, where every seed planted springs to life, where the seasons are kind, the vegetation lush, the harvest plentiful. But some places are stony ground, and faithful mission and ministry in that field might be picking out the rocks for several generations.

The question the parable throws back to the Church is this: what kind of growth can you expect from the ground and conditions you work with? This is where our current unilateral emphasis on numerical church growth can be so demoralising and disabling.

Is it really the case that every leader of numerical church growth is a more spiritually faithful and technically gifted pastor than his or her less successful neighbour? The parable says “no” to this.

I mention this for one very obvious reason: if we continue to place the heterodoxy of numerical growth at the heart of the Church, we risk eroding our character, and our morale.

SOME will argue that if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time. Better to have a target and a plan than just keep plodding on.

Maybe. The Charge of the Light Brigade had vision, courage, objectives, and some strategy; but the rest, as they say, is history.

So, the key to understanding numerical church growth might be to engage in deeper and more discerning readings of our contexts – the soil we seek to nourish and bless – so the seeds can flourish. There is work to be done on the ground.

Factors producing numerical church growth and decline are always complex. But the Church might need to do some basic maths. In the secular world, one plus one equals two. But counting whole numbers in the Church is not straightforward.

Is a newly baptised infant one unit, in terms of believers? Does the person who comes every week, but has more doubt than faith, count as one, or a half? Is the regular, but not frequent churchgoer, one, or less than one? And what about the person who comes to everything at church, but has a heart of stone?

We know that God counts generously. The poor, the lame, the sick, the sinners – all seem to be promised a whole seat at God’s table in his Kingdom. That is why Jesus was seldom interested in quantity; the Kingdom is about small numbers, and enriching quality.

Fortunately, God is loving enough to tell us plenty of counter-cultural stories about numbers: leaving the 99 and going after one, for example.

God’s maths is different from ours. No one denies the urgency of mission, or the need for the Church to address numerical growth. But the Church exists to glorify God, and follow Jesus Christ. After that it may grow, or it may not. Faithfulness must always be put before the search for success.

OF COURSE, we need leaders who can ride the cultural waves of our time. But we also need other leaders who can read the tides, and the deeper cultural currents of our age. Our recent emphasis on numerical church growth has led to the unbalanced ascendancy of mission-minded middle-managers.

It is hard to imagine a Michael Ramsey, William Temple, or Edward King receiving preferment in the current climate. The veneration of growth squeezes out the space for broader gifts in leadership that can nourish the Church and engage the world.

As with all things Anglican, it is a question of balance. There are no bad foods, only bad diets. And the continued over-emphasis of numerical growth skews the weight and measure in the body of our leadership.

This is a more subtle disproportion than it might at first appear. It was said of the late Cardinal Basil Hume that “he had the gift of being able to talk to the English about God without making them wish they were somewhere else.” The value of this gift should not be underestimated.

And, for our national mission, this is precisely why we need a leadership that incorporates space for the holy and devout: the gentle pastor, the poet and the prophet, the teacher and the theologian – and possibly a radical or two for good measure.

The Church may not always draw near to such leaders. But the nation often does – especially those who do not usually go to church. For the first time since the Reformation, we now have no bishops who have held a university post in theology. The nation may not notice this explicitly, but, at a subliminal level, it will certainly sense the lack.

So, for the sake of national mission, and our credibility, we may want to intentionally develop a broader range of leaders than the singular objective of numerical church growth currently allows for.

BUT let us return to numbers. There are some anomalies. The 2010/11 Church Statistics show that many dioceses that had well-developed mission strategies showed continuing numerical decline.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was to discover one diocese that had enjoyed significant numerical growth – a whopping 17 per cent in average weekly and usual Sunday attendance. Ironically, this was led by a bishop who had seemingly little in the way of experience in mission and ministry.

Like Basil Hume, the bishop had not been a parish priest, and could not tick any of the boxes that indicated he had led any congregation to numerical growth.

The diocese was Canterbury. And the bishop was someone who also had the gift of being able to talk about God in public. Having a knack for imaginative, reflective, and refractive public theology and spirituality does, indeed, intrigue and draw people in who might not otherwise pay attention to the rumour of God.

By welcoming some teachers, poets, and prophets among our leadership, who point us imaginatively and compellingly, to Christ, we might yet discover an even richer, more effective purpose in our mission. And, in so doing, we might find some other routes to numerical growth along the way.

Canon Professor Martyn Percy is the Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

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In the present yearning in the Church for growth in numbers, this ‘Church Times’ article reminds us all that this is not the most urgent task of the Church. Canon Martyn Percy, Principal of Ripon Theological College in the Church of England is right to point to the fact that the Church exists for the purpose of glorifying God our Creator and Redeemer. This is the first principle for which God’s people are made members of the Body of Christ.

Over-emphasis on ‘bums on seats’ can sometimes lead to mega-churches with no soul – a cyclical congregation and a guru mentality – which can take attention away from the Gospel of Redemption for the world outside of the Church for which Christ died. What the author of this article is saying is that Church leaders – both clergy and laity – should be concerned for quality rather than quantity in the numerical statistics of Church attendance.

Growth must come from a proper formation of Christians who actually do attend Church, whose lives should then be so attractive, with a Christ-like concern for others outside of the Church, that people are drawn in by the love of God evident among the believers – rather than being enticed by clever schemes that are man-made and liable to failure because of a lack of spiritual content. Youth culture, for its own sake but without any serious and loving commitment to the deep, inner sacramental life of Christ, may provide a passing interest. Whereas a drawing by love into a living relationship with one another in Christ – that can then be harnessed for-practical pastoral outreach to others –  will ensure a continuance of life within that community of faith.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Rise of Fundamentalism damaging Christianity

Attorney General: Rise of fundamentalism is ‘damaging’ Christianity

The rise of religious fundamentalists with a ‘deep intolerance’ to other people’s views has made Christians reluctant to express their beliefs, Dominic Grieve warns

Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Justice Secretary.

Dominic Grieve has warned that fundamentalism is turning people away from religion Photo: Andrew Crowley

Christians are increasingly reluctant to express their religious views because they are being “turned off” by the “disturbing” and “very damaging” rise of religious fundamentalism, the Attorney General has said.

Dominic Grieve said that atheists who claim that Britain is no longer a Christian nation are “deluding themselves” and must accept that faith has shaped this country’s laws and ethics.

He said that 1,500 years of Christian values are “not going to disappear overnight” and said that many people remain believers even if they choose not to go to Church.

However, he warned people are being discouraged from openly declaring their beliefs because of the “deep intolerance” of religious extremists of all faiths, including Islam and Christianity.

He told The Telegraph: “I do think that there has been a rise of an assertiveness of religious groups across the spectrum. That is why those with softer religious views find it disturbing and say they don’t want anything to do with it.”

His made the comments after David Cameron faced criticism for openly talking about his beliefs and declaring Britain to be a “Christian country”.

In a letter to The Telegraph, more than 50 celebrities, scientists and academics accused the Prime Minister of sowing “alienation and division” and fuelling “sectarian divides”.

Mr Grieve was one of two senior cabinet ministers who on Tuesday defended Mr Cameron’s comments and criticised the letter’s signatories.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, joined Mr Grieve in his criticism on Tuesday and said those denying Britain is a Christian country are “absurd” and “ignoring both historical and constitutional reality”.

He said: “The idea that his comments have alienated those of other faiths is questionable given the range of religious leaders from other denominations who have welcomed them.

“It is arguably our Christian heritage, with its innate tolerance and inclusivity, that has ensured the freedom of all voices – religious or non-religious – to be heard and to be valued.”

Mr Grieve said that “atheism hasn’t made much progress” in Britain and that “our state, its ethics and our society are underpinned by Christian values”.

He said that the “basic premise” of the people who signed the letter, who included the authors Philip Pullman and Sir Terry Pratchett and the TV presenter Nick Ross, is “wrong”.

Mr Grieve said: “As I go around and look at the way we make laws, and indeed many of the underlying ethics of society are Christian based and the result of 1500 years of Christian input into our national life. It is not going to disappear overnight. They [the atheists] are deluding themselves.”

The 2011 census showed that 59 per cent of people in England and Wales – or 33.2 million people – identified themselves with Christianity.

But that proportion plunged from 72 per cent a decade earlier and those reporting “no religion” almost doubled from just under 15 per cent to more than 25 per cent.

Mr Grieve said: “I do think that the rise of religious fundamentalism is a major deterrent to people. It is a big turn off away from religion generally, and it’s very damaging in that context.

“It encourages people to say I’m not interested, [it encourages] an unwillingness to express commitment.

“The evidence in this country is overwhelming that most people in this country by a very substantial margin have religious belief in the supernatural or a deity.

“To that extent atheism doesn’t appear to have made much progress in this country at all, which is probably why the people that wrote this letter are so exercised about it.”

The Church of England hit back on Tuesday, accusing the secular and humanist campaigners of a “shameful” and even “dishonest” attempt to “eradicate” recognition of faith in shaping British culture.

The Very Rev Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster, whose position places him at the juncture of church and state, said: “What is clear to me is that Christian values have formed our nation and are fundamental to who we are and how we are.

“There is a sense in which those things have disappeared into what we regard as our own values in a broader sense but they owe themselves to our Christian heritage and beliefs.

“To reconnect values to the beliefs that gave rise to them, I think is extremely important, and that is not in any sense offensive to people of other faiths and traditions and is about the particular character of our nation.”

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There can be little doubt that so-called ‘Christian Fundamentalism’ can, to a degree, be compared with other sorts of religious fundamentalism (e.g. Muslim Fundamentalists) with which it has been compared by people of more tolerant faith communities.

Religious fundamentalism can be the enemy of true religion and spirituality – which, at its best, can be a unifying force for good in both local communities and  the infinitely broader diversity of religion in the international sphere.

Religious tolerance is greater testimony to the ‘Unknown God’  whom Paul was directing attention to in Athens, whose reality can most effectively, for Christians, be found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why present day efforts made by Christian Leaders – e.g. successive Popes and Archbishops of Canterbury – to meet together with other faith leaders, for the purpose of securing fraternal relationships, are to be encouraged.

Sadly, fundamentalist Christian groups can offend not only their more tolerant fellow Christians, but also frustrate any effort to reconcile all humanity to the understanding of God as ‘Creator and Father of ALL humanity’. What is sometimes forgotten by such enthusiastic fundamentalists, is that Jesus was put to death by such in His own faith community.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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A Day in the life of the Archbishop of Canterbury

‘I am not the Pope,” says Justin Welby, not once but several times as we talk. It has become a catchphrase, after a year as Archbishop of Canterbury. “People have this illusion that you can somehow click your fingers and all kinds of extraordinary things happen around the world. They think you can hire and fire, and all the rest of it, which is almost universally untrue.”

Can the leader of such an argumentative bunch of believers not bang a few heads together? “You can convene heads together,” he says with a wry smile. “What you quite quickly learn is that you have no authority but quite a lot of influence. You can bring people together and help to make things happen. That’s one of the most wonderful parts of the job.”

That is how an unlikely agreement was reached over women bishops, but the Church’s attitude to sexuality is an even more divisive issue that could lead to walk-outs, if it hasn’t already. There will always be some people who just don’t want to be brought together. “Yes. Quite.”

He also has little control over what the Church does with its money, as we shall find out

Justin Welby speaks carefully, but warmly, in a voice that is flat and nasal and just a little bit posh. He has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour and shares the same frugal tastes as Pope Francis, who was enthroned a week earlier than him.

On both the Sundays we spend together he wears a dark suit that looks like the one he bought for £10 in a charity shop. And this trim 58-year-old jogs through the streets around Lambeth in the mornings in shorts that are frankly unepiscopal.

Having sped up through the ranks of the Church, he had only been a bishop for seven months when he was called to Canterbury. Those who know him say he still can’t quite believe it has happened. “It’s a very strange feeling,” he admits. “I don’t know what it feels like to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s just that, from time to time, you think, ‘Goodness, that’s me’. ”

Is that because the archbishop is traditionally a commanding figure? “Oh, absolutely. The Archbishop of Canterbury is someone of whom one always has a certain awe and fear. And I look at him in the mirror when I shave in the morning and that is very unsettling. Because he doesn’t look very awe-ful or fearful. Well, maybe I do look awful. But not very fearful.”

The archbishop no longer has a chauffeur but travels by public transport or is driven by his wife, Caroline, who insists that she is the better driver. When he takes the bus, people rarely recognise him. “Or if they do, they are incredibly polite.”

Both Welbys have a cutting sense of humour that can at times sound brutal. Sitting in the back of his car, the archbishop suddenly orders his wife to “reverse backwards into The Sunday Telegraph photographer”. Mrs Welby chuckles at the wheel, but tells him the photographer is out of the way. “Is he? Pity.”

You have to be confident to go in for affectionate bullying such as that, but does he ever feel he’s not up to the job? “Frequently. That’s no different to everything else I have ever done, to be honest. As a parish priest, you get a call saying, ‘Could you go and see a family whose child has just died?’ You don’t think, ‘Oh that’s a pretty easy one’. Your heart sinks and you pray as you go, ‘God, if you don’t give me the wherewithal, I can contribute nothing to this situation’. This job is no different. Every day, there are moments when I think, ‘This is impossible’.”

Unlike the Pope, he has no power to challenge directly the investments made on behalf of the Church of England. This subject arises when we visit a refuge centre in north London for men caught up in the failings of the immigration system. Archbishop Welby is with Cardinal Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, as part of a joint week of prayer called Listen to God: Hear the Poor. But as one man there whispers loudly, “How can they hear the poor when their churches have so much money?”

The £5.5 billion assets of the Church of England are handled by a secretive body called the Church Commissioners, and the archbishop doesn’t always know what they are doing, as became painfully obvious last summer.

The defining moment of his first year in office was when he took on the high-interest lender Wonga and threatened to “compete it out of business” with a network of community banks run by churches. It then emerged that the C of E had a financial stake in Wonga, through a third party.

The newly appointed archbishop was embarrassed. He had trusted that any such holding would be filtered out by the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group. But why did he not just ask?

“Honestly, they have I don’t know how many thousand holdings. I only have an idea what some of the top 10 are. I don’t get involved in day-to-day management of investments of the Church of England. I’ve got a million other things to do.”

He’s a bit cross now. But Welby’s financial expertise as a former oil company executive is part of the reason he was chosen to be head of a church that needs to reinvent the way it works and funds itself. From property speculation to hedge funds, the Commissioners’ investments have undermined every attempt by recent archbishops to speak out on money matters. But isn’t he the one who is supposed to get to grips with them?

“Get involved in the day-to-day management of investments? I’m not an investment manager. I know nothing about investment. My job is leading in worship, telling people about the good news of Jesus Christ, building the life of the Church spiritually across the country,” he says, with increasing irritation.

‘No large organisation runs on the basis that the chief executive knows everything that is going on. You have to work with systems and you have to trust people, and there will be mistakes. It is an inevitable part of it.”

Doesn’t it become an issue when they undermine what he says? “Absolutely it is an issue.”

So have they managed to get rid of the Wonga-related shares at last? “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. When I last asked, which was about a month ago, they hadn’t. It’s a very small holding of about £85,000 or £90,000, which is indirectly held through about three other holdings and apparently it is very difficult to get rid of. But they are continuing to work on trying to extract themselves from it.”

So the Church still has an interest in Wonga, nearly a year after he spoke out so strongly against it? “First of all, it’s not Church of England investment. It’s Church Commissioners’ investment. So I can’t just say, ‘Sell it’. I do not have the authority to do that. I have the authority to say, ‘I warmly encourage you to sell it, I would really like you to get rid of it’. That I have said on several occasions. They have said, ‘We are trying to do that’. They are doing their best, but it is one of the bits where I don’t have the authority to give an order.”

Isn’t that frustrating? “Yeah. Slightly. But every job has frustrations.”

Justin Welby is said to have a temper, so we are both relieved to reach the Rainbow Centre in Folkestone, an impressive church project with a contact room for estranged families and a crisis centre for those who fall through the welfare net.

“Hi, I’m Justin,” he says to one woman, and within moments he is down on his knees talking to her five-year-old. Both are charmed. “I didn’t expect him to be so down to earth,” says the mother.

There is an awkward moment when he meets Graham Sopp, who smiles and asks who he is. The Archbishop of Westminster? “No, Canterbury,” says Welby, smiling across at Cardinal Nichols, who used to hold that title. “I’m the married one.”

Mr Sopp was a submariner during the Falklands conflict, but has lately been down on his luck and unable to work because of a frozen shoulder. He and his wife, Lisa, were let down by an Armed Forces charity and found themselves living in a tent. They were so desperate that one day they decided to link arms on the cliff tops nearby and jump to their deaths. Before they could do so, someone told them about the Rainbow Centre, where they found help and support. “This place saved our lives.”

The archbishop listens carefully, but what can he do? “Oh. Well you can take it to God and pray. You support the people who are doing the front-line work. Those are the key things.”

The Sopps are on his mind as we leave. “There is no system in the world that will stop people having huge problems, but we must have a structure of support for people that meets not merely their financial needs but also their need to be treated as distinct human beings of infinite value.”

But while the Sopps go back to a tiny damp flat, the Welbys are on the way to the Old Palace – their second palace – at Canterbury, where they spend weekends.

How does he reconcile that with what he has heard? “I think that is always uncomfortable. There are all kinds of reasons why you live where you live, reasons of history and that sort of thing, but in a sense that doesn’t really answer the question. We don’t live in the whole of Lambeth Palace, we live in a flat up the top. But the only justification is to use it responsibly and do everything you can with it for the best use of those for whom you care and are responsible.”

Again, he says it is the Church Commissioners who are in control. “It’s not my house, it’s their house.”

He has opened Lambeth to four members of Chemin Neuf, the first Catholic-led community to live there since the Reformation. Some of his five children also have rooms, as does the Bishop at Lambeth and several members of the administration staff.

But the archbishop admits: “I think it is uncomfortable when you are living in a really grand, big place.”

Insiders say he has swept away the atmosphere of a medieval court, replacing it with a management team. Spiritually, he was converted into a strident evangelical faith and nurtured in the charismatic powerhouse that is Holy Trinity Brompton, but has a Roman Catholic spiritual director and reads the Rule of St Benedict at night.

So is he the man to save the Church of England? “The answer to that is obviously no,” he says quickly. “Clearly. It’s God who does the work. It doesn’t depend on the individual. The moment we start doing this Superman act, we are in cloud cuckoo land.”

The people in the parishes are the ones who matter, he says. It’s his job to tackle “arcane” Church structures so their work becomes easier. New ways of worshipping are being invented across the country all the time. But he is not ready to scrap the ailing parish system just yet.

“When it works, it is brilliant. What it gives us above all is that we are pastorally responsible for everyone in England who doesn’t choose to be outside it. Everyone has the offer of support and love and care from their local parish church. If we lost that completely, it would be a huge loss.”

The trouble is that while lots of people believe in God, they no longer believe in Church. Some 20 million adults in England have faith in a deity, but don’t belong to any religious group. What would he say to them on Easter Sunday?

“I would want to start by saying that the experience of those who put their trust in Christ is of a living presence, of someone they know, who changes life in the most extraordinary way that one can possibly imagine. How you do that is discovered in a community with other Christians, not by oneself. Together we learn the hope that He brings in good times and bad. That comes from my own experience and our own experience as a family.”

Archbishop Welby has known hard times, particularly when he and Caroline lost a baby daughter in a car accident in 1983. He wears a silver replica of the Coventry Cross of Nails, the symbol of the peace and reconciliation team for which he once worked, risking his life as a mediator in war-torn parts of the world.

Trying to hold the Church together must seem easier. The average weekly attendance looks to have bottomed out at 1.1 million, although that’s partly because the statisticians started counting more than just Sunday services. The average age of a Church of England member is 62. The archbishop is a realist; he admits there is a crisis.

“Yes, the Church is facing a particular challenge in terms of its age profile and its numbers, but you will find as many signs of growth as decline. The fact that we have held our numbers in the past few years is quite striking because in order to do that, given the number of people who have been dying, we have had to draw a lot of people to join the Church. Just to stay level. That is happening.”

So what should believers do? “There have been many crises in the Church’s history. We go back 1,400 years. There are two mistakes you can make in a crisis. One is the Dad’s Army reaction: Corporal Jones saying, ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ [And obviously panicking]; or Private Frazer saying, ‘We’re all doomed’. The other is complacency: ‘It’s all going to be fine because we have had worse in the past.’ Each time there is a sense of crisis, the first thing to do is to come back to God in worship and prayer.”

He is not fearful. “The reason why we don’t panic is nothing to do with sociology or demographics, it’s to do with trust in a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and can therefore – if we co-operate with him – raise the church to new and fresh life.”

That’s why there is a sense of calm about Justin Welby. Most of the time. He is convinced that he can only do his best, and have faith. “It’s in the hands of God.

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This interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury appearing in the ‘Telegraph’, gives us a valuable insight into a typical day in the life of the spiritual (titular) Head of the Church of England – on the road. His meteoric rise to his present appointment, after being made the Bishop of Durham only seven months before, is unique. His obvious determination to get on with the daunting and enormous task of trying to reconcile the different elements of controversy existing in diverse parts of the world-wide Anglican Communion is compelling.

Whatever one might think about his management skills as a reconciler in the Church, Archbishop Justin Welby has had plenty of practice in the material world – experience that the Church may be hoping will stand him in good stead in the present situation of stand-off tactics being pursued by the more conservative provinces of the Communion – mainly in Africa and the Global South – that threaten the unity that has lately become fragile on the issues of gender and sexuality which have become important in other parts of the Communion.

However, the Archbishop’s commitment to the task ahead – as ‘primus-inter-pares’, first among equals, of the bishops of the Anglican Communion – is complicated because of its different authority structure from, say, the Roman Catholic Church with its magisterium residing in the historic papacy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, though nominally the chief bishop of the Communion, has no power of veto over what other provinces of the world-wide Communion decide to do about internal polity. Each Province has its own Presiding Bishop, or Primate; and its own synodical form of government, consisting of Bishops, clergy and Laity; free to make their own canons and structures, without consulting the ABC.

That having been said, it is refreshing to see in a provincial Anglican Church Leader the level of commitment shown here by Archbishop Justin, as contained in his final statement here:

“The reason why we don’t panic is nothing to do with sociology or demographics, it’s to do with trust in a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and can therefore – if we co-operate with him – raise the church to new and fresh life.”

That’s why there is a sense of calm about Justin Welby. Most of the time. He is convinced that he can only do his best, and have faith. “It’s in the hands of God.” he says

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Triduum : Trials and Triumph from Glasgow Cathedral

What a joy to be in this place today celebrating the resurrection. We began on a high last Sunday and have made our way though this Holy Week. People sometimes call that a journey, a waymarked path, a pilgrimage.

But for me, that doesn’t begin to describe it. For me it is more like being on a rollercoaster of emotions.

  • The glory of processing on Palm Sunday. Local pipes and drums somehow taking us right into the holy city of Jerusalem here in the West End itself.
  • The intimacy of washing feet on Thursday Night – an exercise that somehow always confirms for me a deep theological truth which is that I have the ugliest feet in all of Christendom.
  • The brutal reality of the stripping of the altar – somehow as all the beautiful things are violently removed from the church we find ourselves taking part in the arrest and trial of Jesus.
  • The stark reality of a bare church on Good Friday –the one day when the Scottish Episcopal Church somehow turns Free Presbyterian and likes it.
  • And the spruce and polish yesterday when we try to make sense of the awful things we have seen and get ready.

And through it all – people and stories from the passion of Christ 2000 years ago interweaving with the people and stories of right here and right now.

Every year I learn something new about the story.

I remember one year I was working in a church which had just appointed a new sacristan before Easter – that’s the person who looks after all the kit in a church.

This person was a great support. And like so many people at this time of year, very keen to help.

At this particular place the stripping of the church was particularly effective. Just like here, everything that could be moved was hauled out of the church. Here we drag out the choir pews, steal the cross from the altar and remove everything that shines and glitters.

Doing it in any church results in two things – firstly a church just right for Good Friday. Stark and plain. The bitter, stark reality of the cross represented by a plain undecorated building. Shocking. Moving. Bewildering. You want the whole church on Good Friday to feel empty. To be still.

Secondly, the stripping of the altar results in a sacristy absolutely full of the rubble of the night before. Carpets and pews and silverware and statues and goodness knows what all upended in a hurry into a small room. And there it stays to keep the church plain and pure for the devotions.

On this particular year, I remember getting a phone call from the new sacristan at 9 am on Good Friday when we had a service at 10 am.

She came on the phone and told me that she’d been in church since 7.30 am. I have to admit that I was pleased and awed by her devotion. Sitting praying in a plain church all that time is surely commendable.

Until she said the words that no priest wants to hear on Good Friday – “Don’t worry Rector, I’ve been into the sacristy and the church and managed to get all the stuff back. The church is looking lovely.”

That year the church was stripped twice and I pulled muscles I never knew could be pulled.

There is a truth there though – Jesus won’t stay dead.

By the time I get to the end of Good Friday – one service after another where we go through the agony of the crucifixion I find myself at the last service of the day hoping that if we crucify him properly then maybe this time he’ll stay dead.

But of course…

But of course, he won’t stay dead. And our message today is very much that nothing will keep him in the grave.

Death has been vanquished. The grave has lost its sting.

Christ the Lord is risen from the dead not simply long, long ago but here and now and in our lives and in our world.

What we celebrate today is that the seed of hope grows in the human heart.

What we celebrate today is that the grave – the place of destruction, violence, decay, boredom and pain is ultimately empty.

What we celebrate today is that life is stronger, yes stronger than death.

Our God has conquered. For love, true love will always win.

I stand here because I believe goodness is always stronger than evil. Because love is stronger than hate. Because the joy of resurrection power is the new life that belongs to us to share with all people of goodwill.

You don’t have to go far to find Good Friday.

But love wins out in the end.

I remain in Good Friday though if I accept that violence is the best way to solve differences.

I remain in Good Friday if I do not challenge prejudice when it comes from any man, woman or archbishop in the street.

I remain in Good Friday if I do not share my belief that a better world than this is not only possible but essential.

This week there has been yet more sickening violence and terrorism in Nigeria and in other places around the world.

Well we as God’s people believe in a better way and are committed to a better world. We stand against the tyrant, the bomber and the bully.

And, this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury has once again tried to link in the public mind the action of terrorists in Africa with the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the West.

Such careless disregard for gay lives has the stench of Good Friday all over it.

Love wins in the end. And love will win an end to discrimination in the church just as we’ve been winning it in the life of the state.

And this week, the Prime Minister has been courting Christian opinion by speaking about his own faith.

I’m pleased that Mr Cameron can speak of his own connections with church life.

But, Mr Cameron – if you want to court Christian opinion and make Christian people think better of you then help this country build a society far, far away, a resurrection world away, from the food-bank Britain we currently seem to find ourselves living in.

I believe in love. I believe in compassion. I believe in resurrection. And I believe we can build a better world than this.

Jesus won’t stay in the grave. Beauty won’t stay locked away in a sacristy for long.

Jesus won’t stay buried in the tomb. Justice won’t be subdued by violence but will leap up and dance and cry to the heavens for change.

Jesus won’t stay buried in the tomb.

For love wins. New life wins. Joy wins out.

And Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

For if Christ were not risen, we would not be gathered here.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The post Easter Sermon 2014 appeared first on What is in Kelvin’s Head?.

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Yet another post from the web-site of Fr. Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow. We, at St. Michael and All Angels, Christchurch, New Zealand, resonate with the great mixture of Sorrow and Joy accompanying the practise of the liturgical rituals of Holy Week and Easter in the Anglican Catholic Tradition.

We did not have to endure the ‘Double-Stripping’ of the sanctuary that Fr. Kelvin experienced in his former parish, but we did have all the gravity and excitement of walking with Jesus on his pilgrim way from Palm Sunday jubilation to his vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, after the Last Supper Mass and Foot-washing – at which our dear Diocesan Bishop Victoria Matthews was present incognito.

On Good Friday, after the altar party had prostrated themselves on the floor of the empty sanctuary, we heard the Sung Passion Gospel of St. John, followed by the wonderful chanting of the Vittoria Responses during the Solemn Veneration of The Cross, and the silent Reception of Holy Communion brought from the Altar of Repose. It was lovely to see our beloved Bishop also with us in the congregation – we were one of the very few N.Z. Anglican Churches to follow the Great Triduum liturgical ceremonial.

On Holy Saturday morning, after Morning Prayer with the Franciscan Brothers who had shared Holy Week with us this year, preaching at the daily Eucharist and at the Solemn Liturgies; many helpers came to polish brass, iron linen, sweep and clean the church, and generally make the building ready for the Easter Vigil, which began outside in the church-yard at 7-30pm with the lighting of the First Fire, the Blessing of the Paschal Candle – representing the Risen Light of Christ, which was then processed through a darkened church, gradually lit by the candles of the congregation as we re-assembled indoors.

I was given the privilege of chanting the ‘Exsultet’ – the Song of Praise to the Light of Christ represented by the Paschal Candle – interspersed with choir and congregation singing “Glory to God for ever”. We then settled down to hear the reading of the Prophecies of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, leading up to the announcement of the Resurrection by Fr. Andrew, the principal Celebrant of the Mass, before the singing of the Gloria, preceded by the ringing of the tower bells, together with bells brought by choir and congregation to celebrate the beginning of the Festal, concelebrated High Mass. But first, came a procession to the Font, where the Blessing of Water took place, before the affirmation of our Baptismal Promises, and the sprinkling of the whole congregation with Holy Water – symbolising our cleansing from sins committed.

Renewed, forgiven and sanctified, we settled into the beauty of the Solemn Mass, interspersed with shouts of “Christ is Risen” by the chief celebrant, and the congregational response: “He is Risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia!” The sense of joy was palpable as we dispersed after having met with the Risen Christ in Holy Communion together, thanking God for another Holy week and Easter pilgrim journey with our Blessed Saviour and Redeemer.

This time, our Bishop had to be elsewhere in the diocese, conducting other Celebrations before presiding in her Transitional Cathedral in Latimer Square on Easter Day.

So, I can heartily agree with the sentiments expressed in Fr. Kelvin Holdsworth’s Easter Sermon quoted above, as he relates his desire for the Church to become a gathering place for everyone – especially the unloved and the marginalised of our world.

Christ is Risen, Alleluia!  He is Risen indeed, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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ABC Comments on Same-Sex Marriage in the U.K.

Archbishop of Canterbury claims he’s powerless to bless gay marriages because it would create split in global Anglican Church

  • Most Rev Justin Welby said it was ‘impossible’ for some worshippers in Africa to support homosexuality
  • He said the Church, which has 77 million followers globally, must not take a step that would cut these groups off
  • ‘I do believe passionately that unity is something we have to maintain’, he says

By DAILY MAIL REPORTER

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (pictured in Kent on Friday) has suggested he cannot allow the blessing of gay marriages because it would split the global Anglican Church

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (pictured in Kent on Friday) has suggested he cannot allow the blessing of gay marriages because it would split the global Anglican Church

The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that he cannot allow the blessing of gay marriages because it would split the global Anglican Church.

Although sympathetic to calls for the Church to honour same-sex relationships in public, the Most Rev Justin Welby said it was ‘impossible’ for some worshippers in Africa to support homosexuality.

Speaking after the introduction last month of gay marriage in England and Wales by the Government, the Archbishop said that the Church, which has 77 million followers globally, must not take a step that would cut these groups off.

‘I do believe passionately that unity is something we have to maintain,’ he told The Daily Telegraph as the Church embarks on a consultation into the introduction of informal blessing-like services.

‘I may be wrong, but I also believe that to take a step that means that people who desperately need our help – and who we can help – can’t take it, feel in their own culture that it is impossible to be helped by us, is something that we can’t easily do.’

He said the Church must listen to the world’s ‘victims of oppression and poverty’ who ‘find that issue an almost impossible one to deal with’.

He added: ‘How do you hold those two things [in balance] and do what is right and just by all?’

The Archbishop said he visited the scene of a massacre of Christians in South Sudan and had been told by religious leaders that they would not accept the Anglican Church’s help in future if blessings of gay marriage were allowed.

The Archbishop insisted he was not giving into ‘moral blackmail’ but could not easily take a decision that would cause further deep rifts within the Church. But the Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, said it was ‘wrong’ to relate gay marriage in the West to ‘warlords and people who practise genocide in central Africa’.

Although sympathetic to calls for the Church to honour same-sex relationships in public, the Most Rev Justin Welby said it was 'impossible' for some worshippers in Africa to support homosexuality

Although sympathetic to calls for the Church to honour same-sex relationships in public, the Most Rev Justin Welby said it was ‘impossible’ for some worshippers in Africa to support homosexuality

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Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, leads the Easter Service in Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, on 20 April 2014

Picture: The Archbishop of Canterbury giving a Solemn Blessing at Canterbury Cathedral In this article from the Daily Mail in the U.K., we are treated to another re-run of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s equivalence of any Church Blessing of Gay Marriage in England with the murder of Christians in Africa. Despite criticism from many quarters in the U.K. about this assertion that; for the Church of England to add any form of blessing to legal Same-Sex Marriages would cause grave danger to members of the Anglican Church in, for instance, the Sudan; the ABC still insists on making this consequentialism, which seems to lack credibility. Same-Sex Marriage is already happening in the U.K. and there have been no reports of mass murder in Africa as a direct result of that legislation. Homosexuals , including Christians, are being killed in Africa already because of stringent local laws against them in countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Sudan; so what worse plight could face Christians in those countries where homophobia is rife? Instead of tackling the problem of homophobia in former colonial Anglican Churches on the African Continent, it seems that the Church of England is more intent on making an excuse for the sad continuance of homophobia at home. Here, also, is a quote from a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, linked in the same article from the mail, comparing his own marriage with with that of the later Sir Winston Churchill, as paradigms of Christian virtue: “My wife and I are fast catching up Winston and Clementine, with nearly 54 years on the clock. We, too, need no convincing that marriage is the absolute heart of human love and the building block of society. In saying this, I am not condemning other forms of family life, but I am firmly convinced that marriage is the best and most stable of all.” Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2608159/The-fact-marriage-treated-shabbily-todays-politicians-says-LORD-CAREY.html#ixzz2zQ85xTxm   On this premise alone, surely Lord Carey might concede that for Same-Sex Couples to enter into a monogamous, faithful, and life-long commitment to one another in Marriage – similar to that of heterosexual couples – rather than evade commitment to the bond of marriage, would be preferable, especially when the concept of marriage seems not to be considered as necessary nowadays for a stable relationship in today’s world by every co-habiting heterosexual couple. Same-Sex Marriage in such circumstances might rather be an encouragement, rather than a discouragement, for similar heterosexual commitment to marriage. Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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Fr. Jim Cotter, R.I.P.

The post RIP Jim Cotter appeared first on What is in Kelvin’s Head?.

Posted: 17 Apr 2014 07:24 AM PDT

In the middle of the busy days of Holy Week comes the news that Jim Cotter has died.

Jim was a poet-priest – someone for whom words were as important as breathing. He wrote prayers in which unicorns danced.

He was also I think the first out gay priest I ever met, coming to preach in St Andrews about 25 years ago. I met him too in his house in Sheffield. I know also that he spoke here in St Mary’s many years ago and must have been part of the story that has led us to be the congregation that we are.

Jim was talking about gay clergy being out and living in the open years before anyone else did. Indeed, some of the things I talk about which people still think are rather radical, Jim was talking about a generation or more before. He was a visionary and a prophet and suffered a lot in life because of it.

Many, many people will have copies of his night prayers sitting beside the bed. I used them last night and thought about how many people have so much to be grateful for because of Jim Cotter.

God be in my gut and in my feeling
God be in my bowels and in my forgiving
God be in my loins and in my swiving
God be in my lungs and in my breathing
God be in my heart and in my loving

God be in my skin and in my touching
God be in my flesh and in my yearning
God be in my blood and in my living
God be in my bones and in my dying
God be at my end and at my reviving

May he rest in peace now at last.

 


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I well remember Father Jim Cotter, priest, poet and teacher,a gentle, loving and gracious, openly-gay advocate of openness and acceptance of the LGBT community in the Church and in the world beyond the Church. Thanks to Father Kelvin Holdsworth (SEC) for this notification of his translation.

My parishioners of Hibiscus Coast were grateful recipients of a Visit by Fr. Jim at the time of the burgeoning legislation for the decriminalisation of the practise of homosexuality in New Zealand in the 1980s., when he addressed the parish, and others from the Auckland Diocese, on the need for the Church to support the new legislation. The Bill was passed!

I remember being bombarded at that time by some of the more evangelical pastors on the Coast, trying to get me to sponsor a parish-based petition against the legislation. Needless to say – encouraged by Fr. Jim’s eirenic theological presentation for radical inclusion in the Church – we in our parish resisted this call, believing it to be the right time for decriminalisation of Gays, who have no other way of being who they are, intrinsically, and who have been unjustly treated by both Church and Society in the past.

I thank God for the life, witness and ministry of Father Jim Cotter, and am happy to commend him to the loving care and mercy of the God he believed in. Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord. May light perpetual shine upon him, may he rest in peace, and rise one day with Christ in glory. Amen!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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St. Matthew’s, Westminster – Good Friday Reflection

 

Newsletter :

St. Matthew’s, Westminster

Good Friday

18th April 2014

Good Friday
12.00pm ~ Crucifixion on Victoria Street
2.00pm ~ Solemn Liturgy of Our Lord on the Cross
Holy Saturday
10.ooam ~ Morning PrayerEaster Day
6.00am ~ Dawn Mass and Easter Ceremonies
8.00am ~  Mass (BCP)
11.ooam ~ Solemn Mass of the Resurrection 
P S A L M   2 2
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver – let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near and there is no-one to help.

R E F L E C T I O N
This vision from Julian of Norwich roots the awe-inspiring and bloody vision of Christ’s crucifixion in the everyday, or at least the everyday that Mother Julian knew in fourteenth century Norwich.For her, the drops of Christ’s blood look like pellets, herring scales and raindrops falling from a gutter-less thatched roof. She describes Jesus as ‘courteous’ (a word that evokes medieval sensibilities) and as our ‘brother’ as well as being our ‘saviour’. In her vision we are invited to relate to Christ in our everyday lives and in doing so we understand that Christ’s suffering is not a remote, historical event intended for other people. Rather, it is for us, now, today and for all times.The great drops fell down from under the crown of thorns like pellets, as though they had come out of the veins; and as they came out they were dark red, for the blood was very thick; and as it spread it was bright red; and when it reached the brows it vanished, and yet the bleeding continued until many things were seen and understood. The beauty and vividness of the blood are like nothing but itself. It is as plentiful as the drops of water which fall from the eaves after a heavy shower of rain, drops which fall so thickly that no human mind can number them. As for the roundness of the drops, they were like herring scales as they spread on the forehead…This vision was alive and vivid, horrifying and awe-inspiring, sweet and lovely. And what comforted me most in the vision was that our God and Lord, who is so holy and awe-inspiring, is also so familiar and courteous. And this was what gave me most happiness and the strongest sense of spiritual safety…

[I]t seems to me that it is the greatest possible joy that he who is highest and mightiest, noblest and worthiest, is also the lowest and humblest, the most kind and friendly. And truly and certainly this marvellous joy will be made known to all of us when we see him. And this is what our Lord wants us to long for and believe, to rejoice and take pleasure in, to receive comfort and support from, as much as we can, until the time when we can see it for ourselves; for it seems to me that the greatest fullness of joy that we shall have is the marvellous courtesy and intimacy of the Father who made us, through our Lord Jesus Christ who is our brother and saviour.

 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love,
The Long Text, ch.7 

P S A L M   1 3 0
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.

It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

P R A Y E R   F O R   G O O D   F R I D A Y
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

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St. Matthew’s, Westminster, an Anglo-Catholic citadel in London –  between Westminster Abbey & Westminster Cathedral (R.C.) – is one of the most impressive of London’s Churches. As an Inclusive Anglican Church community. St. Matthews welcomes all and sundry to its colourful liturgical worship – complete with both male and female clergy – in an incomparable setting.

The posting of the record of one of the Visions of the English Mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, gives evidence of her deep understanding of the ministry of Christ to all people – regardless of their situation in life. Her experience of Jesus as both brother and Saviour, helps us to understand the profound humanity at God’s disposal – in the Person and life of Jesus Christ, God’s Divine Son.

This makes the death and resurrection of Jesus so much more meaningful – especially to those who look to Jesus as available to us in the sacramental life of the Church. The gender of St. Julian was no barrier to her closeness to Christ. May our gender never be a source of separation from one another in Christ.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

 

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