Sunday, 22 January 2012

The end of the C of E as we know it...

'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?



rapidthomas said...

By accident I found myself watching Songs of Praise this afternoon without knowing it was coming from Colchester,nor that my village was featured as well. Way more impressive than any comments from your blog were the words of Hazel from The Company Shed about being busy and asking that people sit with strangers and watching them share their bread and wine 'like communion'. Ten seconds of telly with the homespun truth of at least a thousand so-called clever sermons.

Peter Banks said...

Totally with you there, Pete!

I, too, stumbled across S of P and was knocked out with what Richard and Heather (btw!) said. To have had that clip at the Transforming Presence event would have been the perfect example of how to be distinctly Christian in the real world... and so succinctly articulated.


nevell said...

Hi, Peter,
"Danny Boy" is a wretched tune indeed, when my wife tries to play it on the flute, and gets to the high note. However, my first exposure to the tune was in the song "I cannot tell" which I find works very powerfully, and which has some glad associations. Was it this, or another hymn/song that was powered by your less than favorite melody?

Peter Banks said...

The Hymn was 'Lord of the church, we pray for our renewing', words by Timothy Dudley-Smith.

I feel a whole blog post coming on about why some music can actually alter the meaning of a lyric...!

Best, PB

James and Maggie said...

The C of E seems to a do fairly good job of the big stuff, weddings funerals etc. but people in wider society are sadly (for the c of e) exercising their God given free will. The human spirit (well, mine at any rate) doesn't like the confines of creeds & doctrines and dare I say dogmas. And perhaps the giant inroads into basic freedoms & equalities that secular society is making through legislature is to a lot of people making the church seem at best backward thinking and at worst irrelevent. And let us not forget many of these issues were tenets of Jesus teachings in the first place. Of course Gay marriage is the current hot potato in this regard. I can't help myself asking the old cliché what would he do?Perhaps one day chapels & churches will be more like this one I sincerely hope so. Jimbo

Peter Banks said...

Thanks Jim, had a look at the link... noticed Óscar Romero is mentioned in the text, one amazing priest.

The video is now up of Bishop Stephen's closing talk at the conference, whilst attempting to be gentle with some of the more attendees less keen on any sort of change is still hard hitting.


Steve Hearn said...

It is encouraging to see +stephen run such an event. But, I fear that the members of the churches in the diocese who were not present and the bush said himself, that the 1000 present were a small number of the sum total, members will not buy in to the vision and mission statement that no doubt will later this year. It is a constant cry from the church that they must empower the laity to do the work and Laurie used to hark on about that a lot in the past. So what's new? Is it a hidden agenda that +stephen has in regards to a private briefing from the arch bush to shake things up in Chelmsford? Maybe I'm cynical but as the church is no longer in my life I guess being a cynic is what I have become. My prediction or prophetic word is this: we need to go back to the monastic to be real once more with God. Simples!

Peter Banks said...

Welcome back here, Steve!

And many thanks for the comment which share the same concerns I have. For me the difference to what has gone before is that there is a new generation of 'hip' Bishops that are leading the way with this type of initiative whereas in the past the Bishops tended to ignore / block any sort of change.

It was clear, at the event, that +Stephen was being gentle with his language. Many actually there on the day struggled with the vision and despite his measured and simple vocabulary they appeared not to have a clue where this potentially leads.

So whether it is taken up is a moot point, something has to change otherwise we will be joining you sooner rather than later ;-)

Best, PB

Steve Hearn said...

Peter, thank you for the phone call and it was refreshing to speak with you. May God direct us in the steps we shall take in all our tomorrow's.