Wednesday 2 June 2010

Visitation: Where’s the Fire?

Visitation is an annual archdeacons’ outing. 400 years ago it was the “bawdy court” — churchwardens “presented” people for a variety of colourful transgressions including marital affairs and drunkenness. These days such matters are dealt with differently, if at all. All that remains of the court is the swearing in of Churchwardens to what is the most ancient elective community office in England (older than parliament). Every three years, by convention, bishops get to give the keynote.

I was really impressed by our 800+ clergy and churchwardens en masse, with a different kind of feel for what’s going on all over Bucks. Having completed all five events for this year, people have been asking me what I said! So here goes:

We have a problem — people admire Jesus, but not the Church or Christians. We need to take this very seriously. pPeople are supposed to see in Church the life of Christ, corporately lived out among them in acts of loving service, creativity and imaginative renewal. The breakdown of this linkage says something uncomfortable about us. So how, honestly, do we reconnect?

We need to touch the real world — Almost all churches have global links, ways to open hearts and minds to bigger reality. Karen and I recommend a growing trend among clergy, which we follow, to give a week’s ministry every year to somewhere completely different overseas — goes to South Africa and I go to India. As well as the diocese, Missionary societies and other organisations like SOMA are bursting with good ideas. Churches are also doing local events to build understanding of real world issues, and raising awareness of ecological challenges, like Think Local Food Fairs and Ecological events in the Chilterns.

The big resource to bridge the gap is vibrant community. Consider the questions that are asked at Church Council meetings:
  • What have we always done?
    — good question for an organisation that lives faith in momentum, often in fabulous historic buildings

  • What have we got to do?
    — get this one wrong and there’s nothing to pass on

  • What do we want to do?
    — the Church has transformed from an arm of state into a voluntary organisation in the past fifty years. It matters very much to take account of the value we add to people’s lives

  • What ought we to do?
    — we need to ask this because we aren’t here entirely to please ourselves, but to proclaim and enact a different way of life according to Jesus’ values

  • What can we do?
    — a good question, because trying to do everything is a sure recipe for ending up doing nothing.
None of these questions, good as they are, will unlock the energy in Church or community. With all of them we need, seriously, to ask:

  • Where’s the fire?
    — In the communities we serve, in our churches, in us?
Where we answer this question things grow fast — like the Wycombe Winter Night Shelter which has grown into one of the largest voluntary organisations in the town in only 3 years, after a year 1 curate got a bug to do something about a problem everybody cared about, but couldn’t somehow engage with. Ordinary Churches also grow — like in Slough where there’s been a remarkable and steady growth in attendance across most parishes these past five years.

In the Oxford Diocese we have been trying to picture what needs to be on church agendas.
Sustaining the Sacred Centre
— right at the middle of what we do
Making disciples
— a way of life, not an hour Sunday morning
Changing the World
— not chasing our tails
Building Vibrant Community
— radically inclusive, earthed and responsive
Shaping confident collaborative leadership
— so Goodbye to the Vicar as Fat Controller of Everything

These could be seen as additional chores — extra carrots on the pile. They don’t have to be that. Rather they are ways of understanding what we’re already doing, and focusing it. Thus Six Days in Lent — not extra stuff to do, but an opportunity to carve out extra free time to feed your soul. Many people had used this really fruitfully and joyfully, including churchwardens.

Putting the act together,
I picked a story, which various people at the Visitations gave me parallels to from elsewhere in Bucks, from Turweston. It’s a small village (200 people) with a large medieval Church and, 3 years ago, a struggling small congregation. They have developed what they call “Village Worship” — a monthly meeting point with a decent breakfast, an opportunity to pray together, and simple worship. This brings between 30 and 60 people in, and has brought new heart to the village. Margaret, Andy and Harriet take up the story:

The budget, incidentally, was, er, Zero. Extraordinary things await those who ask “Where’s the Fire?

He is the Way...
Follow Him through the land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life!
Love Him in the World of the Flesh
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

W. H. Auden:

So what are you waiting for?


adrian c said...

This is my favourite blog of the year so far! Thank you Bishop Alan. What you say seems so obviously true and there are, of course, others saying it too. It seems to me that the church in the UK needs above all to find ways to introduce these sorts of conversations to every parish and not only to the churchwardens and others who may be the movers and shakers in their partiucular communities - so that they may catch some of the fire. I recognise there is a view that says that it is impossible to have such conversations with those whose sole orientations is to preserve the comfortable situations they may see themselves in. The alternative is more difficult but surely essential and the idea of seeing it not as an additional chore but, as you suggest, as a way of understanding what we are already doing and focussing it, is surely key. What I suspect we all need is a real shared understanding of what life at the parish coalface is really like - and deanery/diocesan resources directed towards supporting conversations which inspire at local level.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Adrian. I find,a s you do, all sorts of people "get it" — and all sorts, perhaps don't! I was vastly encouraged to see Lesley's blog this morning ( with exactly the kind of thinking that opens doors and moves us out of the rut. I suspect that such conversations do go on all over hte place, but are often unheard because whining about shortages seems like "real work" and promoting wholeness and joy a fringe activity. The truth is the exact opposite — resources are produced by energy and faith, not spent by them, and what I once heard a well known Scottish theologian describe as the theologically "masturbatory activity" of hot button pressure groups is actually the fringe activity.

Archbeship Anthony said...

Hi Alan,

I read your article about the Archdeacon’s Visitation and then followed it up by reading your article titled ‘Women's Ministry & Servant Leadership — NOT Oxymoron's’ about the lady who could not be elected mayor. The saying “What goes around come around” sprung to mind, she surely seems to have received the revenge she wanted from the system. The person who commented on the article, it looks like he or she had a bit of a dialog, it would have been nice to have seen a name – that is one of the reasons why I always sign in before I post a comment, and some peoples’ blogs that I have visited don’t allow Anonymous comments.
If I ever got the chance I would like to ask +Andrew “Why did Jesus appear to a woman first when he had risen from the dead?” Matthew 28 v 8&9 as well as the other three gospels, Mark 16 v9, Luke 24 v9 and John 20 v13 as this to me is proof of why Women should be allowed into Priesthood and even the episcopate. Most importantly I would want to be fair.
I had a comment on my first blog article once they made it Anonymous, even though I had a rough idea of who I thought it might be, I answered them in a very long winded way but I did not know how to be fair to them with out being Long Winded. I never heard from them again. Everyone who I told about my blog, I warned them the article published on September 2009 was a Radical pushing (hopefully not too much) on the Extreme side. I would have liked some help in responding nicely but also fairly briefly to this person, which I never received so my response was rather long winded as a consequence.
Including +Andrew and assuming they replace +Stephen I count five bishops that work in the diocese of Oxford. Including all non Ordained members who have Management Responsibilities, that still makes (to my calculations) the total number of management around 12 which still makes the structure rather flat.
Referring back to the Original Article, I think I know where my ‘Fire’ is:
• Person Centered Training and Talks (Condition Led) – Autism then start spreading into Other Conditions like ADHD, Dyspraxia, and may be even Epilepsy unless that is already covered by Epileptics.
• Getting Relatives who live with people with these conditions to give talks about what it is like to live with someone who has the named condition
• Getting More People into Signing – particularly Teenagers who seem to turn their nose up at the thought simply saying “I’m not Deaf” – what about those who are not deaf, but are unable to use words, BSL is Global as I found out in Spain to get one of my needs met.

I enjoyed reading both Articles.

I am working on ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’ on my Inclusive Communications Blog page and hope to have it finished before the Confirmation Service on the 17th of this month. I have my ‘Living faith talk on Autism’ Article on ‘Anthony's Dashing Views’ awaiting Comments.
Many Thanks,

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