In this piece, I reflect on my experience and wonder about the motivators which are inhibiting the church from making bold decisions, looking at ministry initiatives and social policy as examples
In the story of Chicken Licken our hero mistakes an acorn falling on his head for something a good deal more apocalyptic: the sky is falling. Along the way to tell the King he encounters Ducky Lucky, Henny Penny, Goosy Loosy, Turkey Lurky, Drakey Lakey, Cocky Lockey and finally Foxy Loxy. The story’s truly dramatic ending is not the point of this illustration. In fact, their near escape from certain death ends with no-one remembering why they were on their way. The sky, of course, has not fallen down.
In this paper I wish to unpack some of the fear drivers which threaten to stop the church making bold decisions. I wish to look at some ministry matters and some issues around human sexuality. In each case I am working from my own context – that of a Diocesan Bishop in a large diocese in North Wales where the challenges we face invite courageous change rather than addiction to a status quo which can have only one outcome. The Christian narrative of adventurous love offers a radically different imperative the implications of which are of course relevant more widely.
The German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber first used the phrase ‘the authority of the eternal yesterday’. Weber’s analysis was directed to the diverse sources of political authority but for our purposes the words are deeply suggestive of something else. We have acquired and inherited a way of operating as a church which is not sustainable in its current form. The wisdom of the Ministry Area, embraced by all the dioceses in the Church in Wales, was to realize the potential for working better, to do together what could not be done alone. This was undertaken not to diminish the importance of what is treasured in local churches but to lift some of the key strategic decisions onto a higher plain. Ministry Areas which might not be able to sustain a flourishing youth work on their own, for example, could partner with others and with the diocese to enable sustainable funding for this kind of commitment. Sharing financial responsibility for the whole of church life within a Ministry Area has given MAC’s (Ministry Area Councils) the authority to plan across a wider area and to invest in areas with greatest potential. With a united set of accounts, a clear commitment to planning around property and mission, it has enabled a greater focus and clearer purpose to direct our planning.
However ,the task of embedding good practice in Ministry Areas has revealed ongoing inertia and an attachment to former ways which are little different from Weber’s words. There are fear drivers which are real and compelling and which impede the church’s ministry. The uniformity of service provision from liturgy to language, culture and structure provides a basic church life framework. The few exceptions to this settled reality barely change what is a uniform pattern. The pandemic we are experiencing has further accelerated the questions surrounding diminishing congregations with fewer financial resources and buildings that are often a drain rather than asset.
The potential for many of our buildings is well understood: places of community use, pilgrim churches, betysau (houses of prayer) or centres for youth and families. However there are financial reasons why this kind of innovation moves decisions in the opposite direction: we worry when buildings cease to operate as places of worship and the loss of congregational giving makes a Ministry Area less viable. We worry that the scale of work often required to make these changes is significant and often costly. We worry because we sometimes face angry and vocal opposition which is occasionally personal and sustained. These fear drivers are real and ought not to be ignored because they create deep hesitancy at a local level.
The challenge for the church is to face these dynamics together with resolute purpose, unity and focus. This sounds an easy gain, but it requires a shift of significant proportions in terms of working relationships, support and training. Ministry training seldom provides the skills which are required at a local level in managing closures or re-purposing of buildings. A diocesan wide approach which invests significant time and energy to this end has begun in Bangor diocese under our Ezra scheme and property plans but it is costly in terms of time and finance and deeply frustrating for colleagues wishing to respond with innovation and faith.
Alongside the need for additional formational training there has also been a failure of imagination and modelling at a senior level. As Church we too often look down the hierarchy to see innovation and change. Perhaps we have been guilty of failing to model and lead the changes we hope to see. It is too easy to expect ministerial training to resolve our failings. Sometimes we need to have the foresight to understand how vocation depends upon people catching a glimpse of what is possible. Senior leaders in the church need to be courageous and ambitious in leading change, and also to have the humility and wisdom to risk doing new things and to learn even when this is complex and costly for us.
We will need to be clear in our essential task which is to share the gospel with as many as possible. But a plethora of diverse church communities will be needed in order to provide credibility in a society which is itself becoming ever more diverse. The potential for church planting, pioneering communities and even the recently launched ‘All Wales’ evangelism initiatives which seek to evangelize in different and novel ways will need to succeed and reshape the landscape of the whole church if we are to make progress. In addition to church plants and pioneer initiatives there is also a need to build resilience and a greater depth of faith exploration and learning amongst all our church communities. The recent pandemic has taught us much about our surprising ability to adapt and to be more agile, and it has also shown us where we have more work to do to fulfil our core task of being faithful witnesses to Christ and bearers of good news for others.
What will make or break this vision is not whether society has forever rejected the Christian faith and not even the financial constraints which are real, it will be because we have not been courageous enough and seized the moment to mould church life to meet the challenge.
Few subjects continue to invite comment with greater passion than the issue of equal marriage and the church. When I wrote my pastoral letter in 2017, my mailbox was approximately 50 (fifty) times larger than when I wrote on a similarly vital subject, evangelism, some 12 months later. We might ponder why it is that this issue seems to vex like few others. For some it marks a shift which in the nature of things just seems wrong. For others there is insufficient in the tradition of the church to support the extension of established polity. For others it is the witness of the Scriptures which are boundried tightly. Breaking faith with Bible is breaking faith with God and insupportable.
It was interesting to note the intensity of rebuttal particularly from those for whom Scripture spoken on this matter with clarity. The language, even when couched in the traditional language of academia was, without exception, infused with fury and at times, disdain. When this intensity has forced its way into measured dialogue, we might wonder what is truly driving the theological gravy train.
One of the areas least explored was that as theological consequence. Behind a good deal of the rhetoric there is often a lurking fear that something will happen if we allow a particular development to occur especially a radical shift. In effect it is Chicken Licken played out on the pitch of moral discourse and decision making. Those who argue passionately for a retention of the status quo fear the sky falling down.
Is this fear legitimate? When we step back into the pages of the Old Testament we might think so. The constant charge God lays at the door of apostate Israel is that they have departed from the ways of the Lord. The model of cause and effect is striking in much of the prophetic witnesses: choose x and live or y and die. Actions have consequences.
This form of thinking is particularly interesting in the way the Anglican communion is attempting to navigate the issue of human sexuality and inter communion discipline: churches which authorize liturgy for the solemnizing of same sex relationships experience the inevitable consequences of their actions: they sit on the outside of some of the decision-making bodies in the Anglican family.
In the New Testament the theme of judgment is real and compelling. Paul addresses this in Romans 1. The wrath of God is revealed in the breakdown of normal relationships and codes of conduct. This anarchy leads to further alienation from God, further debauchery and the appropriate penalty for such departure. The causality and consequence model is strong and clear.
It is perfectly legitimate to therefore ask what the consequences of those who have contracted same sex marriages and civil partnerships has been. On the Romans model (and a legitimate test therefore of the authenticity of the relationship) we might expect to see a similar breakdown and similar moral chaos. In fact, what we see is an increase of grace and stability.
Engaging with this whole area of discourse is vital and it requires enormous care. We have much to learn as well as to contribute to so many of the current explorations of what it means and how it feels to talk about gender, identity, human sexuality, marriage and partnership. In addition to being subjects of fascination for many there are also important power dynamics involved that require sensitivity, deep listening and a willingness to journey with those who feel misunderstood, not heard or unknown by others.
Alongside these matters, or perhaps under-pinning our approach to them is our concept of the authority of scripture and the ways in which we understand and interpret God’s word. We have so much work to do to continually equip ourselves for our Christian journey. Unless we take time to read, learn and to engage with those we encounter along the way, we risk rushing forward in ignorance and perhaps deserve the fate of Chicken Licken et al with Foxy Loxy.
In this short paper I have attempted to identify motivators which are inhibiting the church from making bold decisions. One is in the arena of ministry initiatives and the other in social policy. They seem quite distinct but what unites them is a fear that change will be disastrous. What is becoming increasingly clear however is that the opposite is true, if costly. If we remain on the trajectories of life inherited and only these, it is then we will go quietly into the dark. Courage demands we do differently, for the sake of Christ. We do well to remember Chicken Licken.