Archbishop John has toured the diocese’s deaneries for this year’s visitations to thank those who contribute to the life of the Church, and to call on parishes to reflect on the ways that we present the gospel in a lively, welcoming and accessible way.
In his visitation address, Archbishop John called on parishes to think creatively to “encourage others who are not part of our Christian family to step in our direction”.
“The visitation is an opportunity to do a couple of important things,” he said. “First of all, to thank the clergy and the lay people – lay people who are largely volunteers – for all they do to maintain the life of the Church in their parishes.
“The second is to say something about the vision that I have – and that I hope others will share – for the renewal of our life. We’ve talked about the renewal of our life for many, many years and we’re at the point now where we no longer have the luxury of being able to put that renewal off.
“One of the things I wanted to say to those who were there was to value every contribution that everybody makes to the life of the Church. No contribution is too small, when put together with all the others it makes a difference. It helps maintain our life.
“I also wanted them to look more creatively at opportunities which they might want to make, might be tempted to make, and now really have to make, to encourage others who are not part of our Christian family to step in our direction.”
For that to happen, he said, we have to “provide things which will attract them, which will nourish them, and which will make them feel welcome in our parishes. That’s a real challenge because we are very familiar with what we do, week in and week out, year in and year out, but we have to face it that that doesn’t always impact greatly on the lives of the communities in which we are set.
“We have lots of people through our doors at Christmas, Remembrance, Harvest time, but week in and week out, they don’t come on a regular basis.
“We have to reflect on the ways that we present the gospel in a lively, welcoming and accessible way. That was what lay at the heart of this year’s visitation and I hope that people will have taken it to their hearts and that they’ll be having conversations about how they can put some of those things into practice.”
VISITATION ADDRESS 2018
“This is my story; this is my song” – From ‘Blessed Assurance’.
We are all aware, perhaps painfully so, of the decline in church membership. So I want the end-product of this address to be positive. That demands something of you – being attentive, with realism of heart, mind and spirit. Without that, it will be merely more words, more of the same old thing. So I beg your attentiveness in the hope that it will, not may, but will be part of a genuine and new or renewed commitment to evangelism – evangelism properly understood, that is.
The Governing Body of the Church in Wales, as you should be aware, has (not surprisingly) affirmed that Evangelism is and must remain our story and our song, our core business. It has to be, literally has to be, the first item on our PCC agendas. The GB also affirmed that part of that story and our song is making the church’s presence felt and its voice heard in the face of social injustice as it affects our communities. Depravation of opportunity, lack of local resources, disintegration of family life, loneliness, poverty, (a reality in the urban and rural communities of the Diocese) homelessness, the threat and degradation of unemployment, and financial insecurity are all felt by different people in different places all around us. Injustice is a prophetic and Gospel issue, and if we are to be true to our calling, those who face it must both know and feel that we reach out to them and welcome them in their times of need. As I’ve said. Doing so is part of our story, our song, our core business.
But who tells the story; who sings the song; who carries out the core business, and how?
When I was elected as Archbishop, I was asked inevitable questions about my vision for the Church. To paraphrase, what would I want its story and its song to be?
A number of times, in response, I indicated that I felt a need for the Church in Wales to rehabilitate itself which would mean a number of things:
It would mean dispelling a caricature about us, that we are primarily interested in self-preservation and resisting change. (Sadly, as with all caricatures, there is, sometimes and in some places, more than a grain of truth in this particular one.)
It would mean accepting that we don’t always get everything right and sometimes get things wrong; but it’s better to try rather than remain static;
More positively, it would mean confidently renewing a sense of our calling, rather than being on the back-foot; making known more clearly and more fully the countless good things which Christians do, living out the Gospel, in communities up and down the Diocese, for the benefit and better well-being of many underprivileged and undervalued people around us;
And it would mean becoming clearer and more courageous in articulating, in the public square, both the loving demands of the Gospel echoing the prophets’ call of for social, political and economic justice.
Our Diocese has about 190 shop-windows, local church buildings in regular use, not to mention any number of other available buildings. We don’t exist just to keep these open for an hour or so a week. Just as on the high streets, some have closed; and others, for a variety of sensible and sound reasons, will need to. But those places we sensibly keep and maintain must be open, welcoming and accessible places where the people of our communities feel valued and loved. A question for PCC’s to ask when considering evangelism is ‘Are we a welcoming church?’ If we answer ‘Yes’, then we must ask ‘To whom?’ Too often the answer to that is ‘To the people we expect to see, week in and week out; the usual ones.
But we are not a private membership club, existing only to provide the usual things to the usual people. Inspiring, nourishing and accessible worship and teaching, of a variety of styles and forms, traditional and innovative, ought to be on offer and accessible to all who come. This does not mean that we throw out the familiar, all that we treasure, but it does mean recognising that so much of what we do, familiar and comforting though it is for the usual people, is frequently completely weird and alien to the unusual ones. When we wonder why more people don’t come through our doors – they might actually help us pay the Ministry Share if they did – we might usefully ask ourselves, if they were to come, what is on offer. Is it, too often, what we are used to, what we like, but sometimes what we can’t even explain, even to ourselves? Jesus reminds us that scribes trained for the Kingdom of God bring from their resources that which is old and that which is new; tradition and innovation are two sides of the same coin, the coin of evangelism.
The truth must be that we are not called and sent to be a club, focussed on keeping its own show on the road, but that we are called and sent to be evangelists, bearers of good news, The Good News, becoming better-equipped in ourselves, stronger in ourselves for the task of bringing the love of Christ into the wider life of our communities.
Our Diocesan Prayer says: Bless us as we gather in your name; guide us as we grow into the likeness of your Son; lead us by your Spirit to go out and make disciples of others.
It does so because Jesus, in the words of the Gospel according to St Matthew, sent his friends down from the mountain of the Ascension to gather, grow and go with the express aim of making disciples. Turn to the Gospel according to St John, and the task given by Jesus is to feed and tend – feed the lambs, tend the sheep. The command was not to keep the same old show on the same old road, but to answer spiritual and material needs.
In my address at this year’s Chrism Eucharist – an address which I asked should be circulated in the Diocese – if you haven’t had a copy, e-mail or call my office and you will be sent one – I made it very clear that, like the people of Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan, we cannot simply gaze longingly to the opposite bank, the promised land, but must take positive and courageous steps in its direction, even if the waters are a bit threatening and choppy. Those steps are ones which Jesus challenges us to take both corporately and individually because if we don’t, we will simply remain enslaved to nostalgia and imprisoned by inertia.
It is, of course, one thing to talk both here and in other gatherings about doing what I have already suggested. Actually doing it, achieving it, or at least trying it, can be different matters altogether, requiring individual commitments, large or small, and personal courage. Bishops, Diocesan Boards and Committees and others may articulate particular visions and seek with others to develop policies and strategies, but these will remain mere plans and heady aspirations, unless individual potential and calling to contribute to the overall story and song are encouraged, recognised, affirmed and supported.
I’ve recently been looking at some examples of visions, policies and strategies:
- Those contained in the booklet produced in 1973 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the formation of the Diocese;
- The 2000 Report of the Bishop Anthony’s Commission to Review the life of the diocese;
- The Harries Report of 2012;
- The document ‘Forming Ministry Areas’ produced in 2014;
- The Ministry Area Resources folder produced in 2016 to help towards an understanding of how a Ministry Area might function and how a Ministry Team might work;
- The Documents produced in 2017 to support the province’s 2020 Vision;
- Ten forewords to ten Reports to the Diocesan Conferences since 2008;
I’ve even re-read the ten Chrism Eucharist addresses delivered since I became your Bishop in 2008, my addresses to the Visitations in 2010, 2013, and the document analysing the outcome of the discussions at the 2013 Visitation. Copies of some of these were copied for circulation earlier in the year; and, if you haven’t had the opportunity to ask for them or see them, again you can e-mail or call my office and copies can be provided. (I’ve spared myself the analysis of the last visitations carried out for me by the Archdeacons!)
All of these documents contain statements and hopes that are pregnant with positivity and recognise potential. However, the evidence of attentiveness, that they have been widely heard, let alone widely acted upon, with the realism about which I’ve just spoken is, sometimes, scarce to see.
Common to a number of them is the challenge to change, by reaching out, welcoming, being less inward-looking and self-contained; the challenge to be the church of God not a closed club. But that dreaded ‘C’ word, Change, sometimes simply paralyses us, terrifies us, leaving us convinced that, if there is to be change, the next generation can see to it. Until recent times, we had the luxury of not actually having to change. But that, itself, has changed. The fact is, and I think that most of us actually know this in our hearts, that unless we embrace change, there will be no next generation to do anything.
Psalm 23, so loved by many, is not, as might be thought, a psalm of cosy contentment and security. It’s a psalm about risking change, moving on, not staying put in the same old familiar territory, because staying put eventually leaves the pasture bare, the water-pool dry and the flock, if not dead, exhausted and on the point of giving up. No – the shepherd leads the flock, even through the darkest of valleys, to fresh pasture and fresh waters, so that souls are refreshed and strengthened for his service.
Let me be very clear, and let me put down, loudly and definitely, what some have unhelpfully rumoured, that our talk of change, focussing upon Ministry Areas, lay ministry, Services of the Word, auditing resources, buildings and so on, is a stealthy and cunning means of cutting back on ministry, and abandoning well-established patterns of and church life. If you believe, that as your Bishop, and after almost eleven years in that role, I operate in that way, by stealth, by scheming or by destructive impulse, we’re in dangerous territory, which suggests that you don’t know me, don’t trust me and don’t understand how desperately I want our church to flourish and grow.
Getting to that point of flourishing and growing means, not abandoning our beloved traditional patterns of worship, but adding to them times and opportunities for worship, teaching, and creating a menu of events that cater for and have the potential to feed those who we long to draw into the family of faith. Many of them have filled or will fill churches for Harvest Festivals, Remembrance Servcies, Christingle Services, Carol Services and so on, but not week-by-week. This has to tell us that we still have something to offer, a part to play in their life stories; but it also has to tell us that they don’t grasp, get anything from or see the point of what we do week-by-week
And, if you want to put it bluntly, and just bring it down to money, if you can’t pay the Ministry Share, but still want ministry, you need more people to help you pay – it’s not rocket science.
Now, I said that I wanted this address to be positive, and you may well be feeling by now that it’s anything but that, so let me be somewhat more encouraging.
Apart from fear of change or, sadly, a resolute refusal to even contemplate it, there is in some particular lives and some particular places a reluctance to take any steps, a reluctance that can be rooted in underestimating just how effective and essential each and every small or large individual contribution can be on its own, or when combined with the contributions of others. It is too easy to think of ourselves as unable to change anything or contribute effectively, because we think we are only minor players on the stage, minor characters in the story with little to contribute to the overall enterprise, little that can effect change.
In saying this my mind is drawn to a story which I heard some time ago about a cleric addressing a gathering of school children about being a good neighbour. Inevitably the cleric chose to tell the children the parable of the Good Samaritan. He told them to listen carefully, and to think hard about who they thought the most impressive character in the story was, and what particular lesson might be learned from that character. Unsurprisingly, the cleric fully expected to be told that the Samaritan was the most impressive character, and that the lesson to be learned from him was that anyone in need was to be seen as our neighbour.
So, the story told, he asked his questions. Lots of hands went up. From among the sea of eager hands he asked a little girl who she thought was the most impressive character in that story and why. ‘The Innkeeper!’ announced the little girl with conviction. The cleric didn’t make the fatal mistake of telling the girl she was wrong but, perplexed and slightly wrong footed, asked why she had chosen the innkeeper.
‘Well’, she said, ‘look at what he did. A perfect stranger, who you said was a foreigner, turns up at your door with a beaten-up man on the back of his donkey, gives you a couple of pennies and says look after him for me and I’ll pay you anything I owe you when I’m round next. That’s pretty impressive!’ The point I want to make is that sometimes it can be the less obvious characters whose contributions and roles are just as vital to the completeness of whole story as those of the main one.
Maybe a bit more relevant to understanding this and our own context is the the equally familiar account of the feeding of the thousands – a story which appears in all four of the Gospels. The crowd was of a great size, thus indicating the sheer impossibility of providing every one of them with something to eat. In the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus instructs the disciples to provide the food and, in each case, the inadequacy of five loaves and two fish, all that they can come up with, is made clear to him. In John’s version of the story we are told that Jesus already knew what he was going to do and, in another detail absent from the other three versions, John records the presence of a mere lad, a nobody, who has the five loaves of bread and two fish. In all four accounts, meagre offerings are quickly taken by Jesus, transformed and generously used.
In Luke’s account Jesus tells the disciples to make the people sit down; in Matthew and Mark it’s Jesus who instructs them to sit down; John’s version, already more detailed with the appearance of the young lad, is again more detailed in that he has specific conversations with Philip and Andrew, inviting each one of them to play some specific part, albeit small and undemanding, in the unfolding events.
In our churches and communities there are people who feel like bit-part players, who feel they can’t contribute much, if anything at all, to our story and our song or to the good of the wider community. They may feel that they lack talent, gifts or resources; they may feel too old, too inexperienced, too anything! But around us in the Diocese there are some wonderful stories of people who may have felt just like that, but who, with some encouragement, the right question being asked, have engaged with some local activity that has seen a project grow and flourish.
The challenges facing our church and the people to whom Christ sends us are significant, even daunting. The resources may appear to be meagre, completely inadequate in fact; but placed in the hands of Jesus by willing participants, situations are turned around and such challenges overcome.
And our Diocesan family isn’t possessed of meagre resources. We have significant ones – human, material and financial. We also have that resource, envied by some, of a presence in every community. These resources are our five loaves and two small fish, and our calling is not to keep them for ourselves, but to offer them, to use them in telling the story and singing the song, and in doing so, to feed the spiritually hungry, and help in the task of caring for the people with beaten-up and broken lives.
All of this demands attentiveness, not now the attentiveness for which I asked when I began, but attentiveness to the instructions of Jesus as to how our resources should and must be used – this really matters. It demands trusting that he can use what we have, however meagre we might think it to be; and it demands trusting each other as the innkeeper trusted the Samaritan, and as the disciples on the hillside trusted Jesus.
And just as we should trust him, so to we should be attentive to his warning that planning to keep all our resources to ourselves or to use them in our own way, without generosity and without reference to his better purposes is both foolish and unfaithful. It has the seeds of failure already sown.
So, for the ongoing exploration of our task of evangelism properly understood, being good news, and for the ongoing rehabilitation of our witness and our mission, let me encourage you and, through your commitment, encourage your churches and communities to exploring the part each can play, remembering that every single word is part of the story, every single note is part of the song, and without them neither can be complete.
Finally, let me ask you to be excited by the knowledge that miracles will happen, as some places have already demonstrated, when in trust, and in faith our church is truly ready to tell the story and to sing the song. Both I and the Diocese will support, guide and encourage you, as long as you are willing to try. So pray and think, talk and ask, but please do try.