Sunday, 22 January 2012
'I don't care about the Church of England' is an obvious soundbite that journalists will inevitably latch onto that Bishop Stephen Cottrell proclaimed during the Chelmsford Diocesan Transforming Presence event this Saturday 21st Jan. I first encountered Bishop Stephen's inspirational style at another conference, Transforming Worship, at Chelmsford cathedral when he was still serving as the Bishop of Reading. Then he encouraged us to think much more creatively and holistically about the experience of what it's like to attend a church, explaining that planning services must go way beyond simply preparing for a liturgical, lectionary based hymn, prayer and reading sandwich.
The Transforming Presence event was convened to draw together around 1,000 people from all over the Diocese, which covers all of Essex and East London, to discuss the pressing issues facing the C of E in terms of attendance, finance and clergy. The process was one of structured discussion and feedback gathered from delegates grouped in tens around circular tables. We were guided through a creative SWOT analysis exercise, each topic culminating in filling out conclusions onto friendly and varied 'homely' forms which were collected and then displayed around the venue.
However, the overall experience was very much like church, a see-saw of good versus the uncomfortable. On arrival at the Brentwood Centre it was a joy to see the Bishops modelling high-vis fashion (see photo above) and directing the not inconsiderable traffic. Regardless of whether some thought that was, maybe, a tad contrived, it positively demonstrated the 'renewal of the mind' from the day's familiar reading, Romans 12, as a way to think in reverse of the expected.
Next one of the truly saddening moments! Depsite the church banging on about the 5th Mark of Mission drinks were served in polystyrene cups with plastic teaspoons... To some that may seem insignificant, but surely a powerful 'evangelistic' message was missed because of that lack of joining obvious dots?
Moving along the next uplifting moment was hearing Bishop Stephen's opening remarks as he unpacked the vision for the day. Sadly this was then swiftly followed swiftly by another downer as the first hymn we sang, despite having great words, was set to the wretched tune of Danny Boy. I must stress this was an exception in the day's liturgy as a whole. However, to me it was such an irony that, as the Brentwood Centre stages professional boxing tournaments, I kept imagining everyone else at the Centre, those making use of the usual sporting facilities etc., must have been left wondering why such a strait laced bunch was so robustly endorsing Fighting some sort of (good?) Fight? OK, I'll fess up, I only see and hear Barry McGuigan's dad singing whenever I hear that tune!
The main part of the day then ensued, with the aforementioned discussions. My table had a good mix, clergy were in a minority (3), our geographical locations and church types were varied. Despite having to bite my lip (a lot!) it was a good process and although, overall, I felt we were somewhat parochial, there were some surprising contributions along with some changes of heart as the day progressed. To generalise, I don't think we were realistic. For example, am I cynical to not expect an imminent revival?
This process was interspersed with other elements, including sharing lunch on the table and simply wandering around to meet acquaintances. A Twitter hastag was running, #timetotalk, which both started to produce some good comments and enabled a Tweetup moment for those of us who partake to meet in real life (ie non-virtually) ;-)
After the lunch break we were called back by singing 'Spirit of the Living God', played most sensitively by Elwin Cockett, now an archdeacon, no less! Next came a really weird moment... We were shown a new video of some relative youngsters, I assume teenagers, talking about church and what it meant to them. Frankly it was dreadful, and that is a gross understatement. It was typical of something a church / Diocesan committee would produce. Great content, awful production. In the car one of my buddies proposed that the way the contributors had delivered their pieces to camera was the result of some rendition process deep within the Guy Harlings complex! In line with the rhythm of the day, and another irony, next up was an interview by BBC Essex broadcaster Ian Wyatt who demonstrated how much better professionals handle things. Ian's programme covering the conference is on iPlayer for a few more days.
So, back to our table and the mission thereon. We resumed by filling out a mythical edition of Diocese's publication 'The Month', predicting the content for the year 2020, fleshing out a Headline we had invented in the last pre-lunch session. My question here is why were we even talking about the print edition without at least acknowledging on-line or mobile / tablet apps and media that we would most likely consume in 8 years time? With converging of Internet and TV technology it is likely everyone will have access to some sort of online media, even without broadband. Of course, it is not the point that was being sought, the possible stories were, but it does show a lack of vision for it not to be even mentioned. Equally not actually having the #timetotalk hashtag displayed anywhere seemed a bit of an omission as people were trying to figure it out.
And so on to the closing remarks that Bishop Stephen gave. He started by giving his imagined headline for 'The Month': 'The Church of England ceases to exist' explaining whilst we have too many churches his solution is to actually have more. He qualified the daring opening statement in the first sentence of this post, 'I don't care about the Church of England', as he concluded, 'but what I do care about is the Gospel of Jesus Christ'. There ensued a passionate rallying call about how inevitable a terminal decline of the C of E will happen, in the short term, unless we engineer radical changes, starting now, which he summarised as 'I do not want to manage the graceful decline of the Church of England'. He added an even more daring thought when he said 'the C of E may still decline, but that's up to God'. His call is for all of us to be transformed, to let go of our preferences and desires, for the church to break from the cultural constraints that may have worked well in the past but do no longer, and to develop such that we, as both disciples and as the church corporate, are distinctively Christian.
It was a priviledge to be at the starting point of this vital and prohetic initiative. Of course, I will not be the only one to have found some niggles but if this collaborative approach is an inkling of real transformation in the way things move forward from now on, that is refreshingly good. Yes, I was pleased to feel part of the day and whilst still harbouring concerns about how big an ask this may prove to be it is one giant leap in a brave direction.
And one more thing... I had one of those weird 'moments'! Whilst visiting the rest of the Brentwood Centre complex to avail myself of the facilities I felt assailed by the loud 'piped' music. It was a strange contrast to be part of what I can only describe as a quite a noisy 'holy hubbub' yet to still find that bit of the outside world so strident when, normally, you wouldn't even notice?