Friday, October 31, 2008

Does acceptance of lay preaching imply acceptance of lay presidency?

A commenter on my previous post on lay presidency/diaconal presidency/Sydney draws attention to these issues, which also feature in discussion elsewhere re Sydney/presidency re lay presidency:

"In truth, I can't get too exercised about 'lay celebration' in a church that allows, nay encourages, 'lay preaching'. I have a hunch which of these - preaching or communion - impacts more on the life of a church. Does an Anglican priest exercise sole 'eldership' over a congregation, as you seem to imply, Peter? If he or she can share the preaching and leading of worship, why not 'presiding' at communion as well?"

Lay preaching and lay presidency: there is an attractive logic to the argument, if the parish priest can delegate the preaching duties to lay preachers, why not also the presiding duties ... especially if our underlying 'value' system refuses to prioritise 'word' over 'sacrament' and vice versa. I suggest, however, that this argument involves a confusion between 'gift' and 'office'. Lay preachers are appointed because in the distribution of gifts of ministry in the body of Christ they have been discerned as having appropriate gifts ("prophecy", "speaking") which enable them to serve the body of Christ in this way. (Incidentally in my view of things, lay preachers should preach ordinarily, and not just when the vicar is on holiday or cannot be in two places at once). The presiding at eucharist is not about who is gifted to do so, but about the character of the event which is the church gathering in communion for a symbolic meal. In Anglican understanding (IMHO) of the church gathering in fellowship for this meal it gathers around its local bishop as president, except when the bishop is not present it gathers around one of those with whom the bishop shares his or her presidency, namely one of the bishop's presbyters/priests. Thus the office of president of the eucharist is filled by the bishop, or a licensed presbyter/priest. This is our 'order' and this order should not lead to a deacon or lay person presiding, should there be a shortage of presbyter/priests, but could lead to new priests/presbyters being ordained.

Thus in terms of the comment above it is not a question of whether a priest exercises sole 'eldership' over a congregation but whether we share an ecclesiology in which the bishop and his/her college of presbyters/priests share eldership over a diocese. On this understanding it is entirely appropriate for a priest/presbyter from elsewhere in the Diocese to travel to another church to preside at the eucharist.

Nevertheless my thinking here can be objected to in this manner: the essential issue is 'order', order flows from the leadership of the bishop, and this order could extend from the bishop to include licensed lay presidents. Given that already in many parts of the world lay people are authorised to distribute communion (e.g. into the homes of the sick and infirm) and (perhaps less widely, but certainly in Aotearoa NZ) to preside over a communion service with appropriate words authorised from a prayer book and with elements previously consecrated, why could authorisation not extend to full presidency? Is the hesitancy to do this just an anglo-catholic hesitancy rather than a hesitancy shared more widely by Anglicans of other hues and stripes?

Again, I find this a reasonably attractive argument, and (to be honest) a compelling one re 'emergency' situations: if "even a lay person" can baptise an unbaptised person in an emergency, why could a lay person not preside at communion when all reasonable alternatives to securing the services of a licensed priest have been pursued?

Setting emergencies aside, I find I am not persuaded (or, not yet persuaded!!) by such an argument. If lay presidents are regularly used at the eucharist, and lay persons regularly preach, what use do we then have for priests/presbyters? If we say, 'well, none really, if we pursue the logic rigorously', then (effectively) we create a new version of priesthood in which the "new style priests" are licensed to minister but not ordained. If we say, 'well, we ordain priests/presbyters to the ministry of leadership', it does seem strange to me that such leadership is not primarily focused on leading communities of faith in the central act of worship, communion together in obedience to Christ's command.

Indeed I often observe a paradox in Anglican talk about lay presidency: since it is never talk of a Plymouth Brethren kind (i.e. any adult lay member of the congregation may, as the Spirit leads, step forward to preside over Communion) but always about an episcopally authorised lay person presiding, which, inherently, is about a lay person with the confidence of both parishioners and of bishop, the qualifications for lay presidents pretty quickly look very like the qualifications for being a priest/presbyter! If more presidents are needed for our eucharistic life, why not ordain more?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Down Under Muddle?

At its recent Synod the Diocese of Sydney agreed that deacons could preside over the eucharist (they also agreed that laypersons can do so, but I am not going to discuss that, save for one observation below, because for the time being the Archbishop of Sydney is not going to authorise laypersons to actually do so, whereas deacons are up and running already as licensed ministers). Bishop Alan Wilson (CofE) offers some interesting critique, and throws in a bonus, quite superb image of the true character of Anglicanism as evangelical software running on catholic hardware, while reminding us that Hooker and co consciously chose not to shape the C of E as a Zwinglian sect!*

Personally I discern at least two things going on in the (collective) mind of Sydney. First is a clever way through some issues not going away about women in ministry: "Sydney does not ordain women" is not true - in fact, women are ordained as deacons, but not as priests or bishops. Diaconal presiding enlarges the scope of women's ordained ministry while preserving what has become fundamental to Sydney's 'identity', that is, no woman has authority over a man (since only priests become rectors (equivalent to vicars), leaders of the leadership in parishes). The cynic might see this as a bone thrown to women to keep them happy; the via media Anglican might see this as an honourable and astute compromise.

The second thing going on is a way of thinking about being Anglican which pays little or no attention to the unfolding character of Anglicanism as a matter of historical reality while asserting the right to define Anglicanism in terms of a brief point in Anglican history, around about 1549-1552, when one form of biblical understanding drove the reform of the Church of England. In Alan Wilson's terms, this way of thinking thinks that the C of E should have become a Zwinglian sect, and regrets that it did not. Since the Bible says very little about the precise nature of church order, it is possible, by ignoring the history of the Church of England, to decide that deacons may preside at the eucharist.

But it is precisely at this point of clear thinking about the Bible and what it does or does not prescribe about ministry that we have the possibility of a Down Under muddle! As long as Sydney is in communion with Anglicans outside of itself, as it most certainly is post-GAFCON, it is part of a wider grouping of Anglicans embroiled in a debate about what may or may not be 'revised' within Anglican theology, ethics, and practice. Given that one of the catch cries of the conservative groups within this debate is 'revisionism' when it responds to the ordination of a gay man as bishop or to the blessing of a gay couple, it is mighty strange that Sydney would choose this time to 'revise' its understanding of who may preside at the eucharist.

And it is a revision they are making: the presiding over the eucharist is the role of one ordered to undertake this solemn and sacred action, which role has always been that of the priest or bishop in Anglican understanding and practice, and most definitely not that of the deacon. Moreover, this is a revision which is being undertaken unilaterally which, again, is a striking feature, since part of the charge against 'revisionists' is that they have acted without consulting the wider Anglican Communion, let alone sought the agreement of the wider Communion.

I happen to think that only priests should preside at the 'ordinary' eucharist (with appropriately authorised deacons and lay ministers able to extend the properly ordered eucharist into other parts of a parish or into the homes of the sick and the elderly) because the priest is one of the community set aside for 'eldership', a particular role of leadership of the community of faith delegated by the 'overseer' or bishop, and thus expresses that leadership through presidency of the special eucharistic gathering of the community. But the point here is much less who may do what in the church, and much more whether our thinking is coherent in respect of a set of issues which engage us at this time. As a Down Under Anglican I am struggling to see the coherency in the thinking at this time of my brothers and sisters in the Diocese of Sydney!

*Ruth Gledhill also posts about the decision, but in one respect I think her instincts lead her to a wrong conclusion. She writes,
"Just as making women deacons was a first step to the priesthood, everywhere except Sydney that is, surely making deacons celebrants can only be a step to lay presidency in full, especially in Sydney." This misunderstands that Sydney has been one step - the signature of the Archbishop - from lay presidency for ages, and the recent motion changes nothing in that respect. If anything diaconal presidency steers the Diocese further away from lay presidency because it relieves certain pressures to embrace it, such as a shortage of priests, and, perhaps with unintended irony, reinforces the principle that ordination is necessary for presidency.


Our NZ General Election is looming - so is the US election (or should that be THE US election?). Here is a column published in our latest Diocesan Witness:

How should Christians vote in the forthcoming General Election? If we take the whole of the Bible into account then I suggest that the strongest influence on our party vote should be our understanding of how each party would work for justice after the election. When speaking about justice, the Bible is not limited to considerations of criminal law and the consequences of breaking it. Its concern is for just relationships between people, including social and economic dimensions to relationships, as well as for just relationships between people and God. The least important matter for us should be how much money a prospective winner will put in our back pockets; the most important should be how the poorest and weakest members of our society will be brought into just relationships with the richest and strongest.

The economics of just relationships in society are complicated. It’s a dangerous over-simplification to assume that all is made well by larger benefit payouts or by insisting on a higher minimum wage. Wealth has to be created for it to be distributed; and employment is only sustainable where the cost of labour is reasonable relative to the affordability of the resulting product. The sociology of just relationships is also complicated. It’s good to welcome refugees to our land of opportunity, for instance, but how many can we welcome without creating some new injustice in respect of access to education and health services? Broadly speaking parties on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ offer a political programme with justice in the broadest sense as the long-term goal of the programme. Thus our challenge as Christian voters is to find time and energy to engage with the details of what each party is proposing. The much debated question of tax cuts, for example, involves important questions of economic stimulus, availability of government services, long-term impact on national debt servicing and the like.

There are other aspects of justice to consider when weighing up who to vote for. Truth-telling is an important part of justice, as is respect for human dignity. The way some of our politicians treat other politicians should give us pause for thought as to why they should be entrusted with political responsibility. Sometimes ‘single’ issues such as abortion or military adventurism dominate our decision-making, but there is always a danger that deciding how to vote on the basis of a single issue will distort the process of achieving justice for all. Finally there is the matter of who to vote for as our local member of parliament. I do not know about you, but I find it a strange and troubling quirk of MMP that my two votes can be split between two parties!

Friday, October 24, 2008

The art of narrative theology in the Book of Job

Preparing for a class on Job last evening at Bishopdale Theological College (motto: the smallest college with the biggest vision in the Anglican Communion), I saw something I had not seen before. The writer of Job tackling the problem of suffering recognises a prior issue in the doctrine of God: is God one supreme power or a significant rival power to at least one other power, the source of evil? With an Isaianic grasp of the oneness of the one God of the universe the writer nails down the issue: Satan the source of evil acts dependently with God's permission; he is not a rival power, nor an independent one.

Thus in Scripture an awe-ful paradox is named: God is, ultimately, the author of good and evil, even though God is wholly good, and purposes to destroy Satan and all his works.

Resolving this paradox is one of the great issues of the Bible, and involves God in Christ suffering the sufferings of Job the innocent one. In this resolution the God who is good is revealed as the God who is love.

But right now I am in awe of the narrative art of the writer of Job: naming an immense theological issue with the simplicity of a story the youngest reader can understand!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A few more reflections on church statistics

A few weeks ago I posted some thinking on our Diocesan attendance statistics - currently in a period of decline. I have been thinking some more!

- to take a high point of a decade or so ago and make a comparison can be important to highlight change across a significant period of time; but that was then and now is now: for example, in our Diocese I realise that the high point of a decade or so ago might be due to a combination of factors largely unrepeatable, such as a particular combination of ministerial 'stars'; further, some services being held then (particularly in the evening) are not being held now - which, OK, is a sign of decline; but is also a sign of different forms of commitment; and then, as many point out these days, once a fortnight attendance is the new 'weekly' attendance ...

- which leads to the point that we need to also measure the 'health' of parishes, not only their attendance figures: here I see financial viability as an important indicator (we are doing quite well on that one), plus 'visible' evidence of a range of generations being present - the mix of children, youth, parents is pretty important to subjective factors such as 'energy' in a congregation, as well as being significant 'attraction' factors (again, I think we are probably doing as well now as a decade ago). In another words attendance statistics measure something, but the true measure of a parish's strength lies in gaining other information, some financial, some anecdotal.

- then there is also an intriguing factor re age of congregations: statistics tell us that Anglican churches tend to have older congregations compared to other churches. But that means we should expect more to die sooner. In turn, however, that means that if we are holding our numbers (as some of our parishes are doing) then there is a form of growth through 'replacement'.

But I still worry about the core of the Christian faith, the gospel, our message of life in Jesus, and whether we understand it for our day, and even if we do, whether we are communicating it effectively.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Communion or Church?

Mark Harris of Preludium, critiquing Bishop Bob Duncan ('the Moderator') says this:

"The Moderator wants "to be part of a global church." As far as he is concerned the current Anglican Communion structures and systems are unequal to the task. In that he is right. That is because the Anglican Communion is not a global church. It is a fellowship of churches.

If the ACC authorizes three provinces in North America - the existing two on the one hand and the Common Cause Partnership Province on the other - with it being clear that the CCP exists because of the "the American situation and the American outrage" and that it is not in communion with the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada - the ACC will contribute to the end of the Anglican Communion as we know it."

If the Anglican Communion is a fellowship of churches and not a global church then it can be a fellowship of churches with as many as it wishes to fellowship with, including two churches existing in the same geographical location. If it makes a rule as a 'Communion' re the basis for fellowship, then it seems to be acting like a church (because a gathering needs to take place for the rule to be made)!

If it is a global church it could make a rule: only one diocese or province counted 'in' per geographic region. It could make a rule with exceptions: only one diocese or province per location except for the two dioceses in Europe, and the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia (which has two (jurisdictionally distinct) bishops per location in most of its territory and three in metropolitan Auckland). It could extend its exceptions to include a new province (a.k.a the Common Cause Partnership) for North America.

Either way it is reasonable for Bishop Bob Duncan to explore possibilities of a new dimension to the Anglican Communion. Note that, whether the ACC or any other body or whatever decided to include a new dimension such as a new Anglican province for North America, the Anglican Communion has ended as we have known it, for it is now a Communion with a new dimension of dispute in its midst (cf. the new and old Dioceses of Pittsburgh; and various ways in which (effectively) different parts of the Communion are not in fellowship with other parts)!

In fact the Anglican Communion is at a turning point. If it is a 'fellowship of churches' then this is no longer its reality, for various Anglican churches are out of fellowship with each other. The Communion is a conglomerate of churches with some affinity for each other which is in a state of exploration of its true character. It could be that from this exploration the reality of an Anglican global church emerges. It may be that this global church as an Anglican church sits alongside, but not in fellowship with other Anglican churches such as TEC or the Episcopal Church of Scotland, or sits alongside, but out of fellowship with an entity called 'the Anglican Communion' which is vastly smaller than its current listed membership.

Mark Harris worries, "More importantly it will make of Anglicanism an ideology, pure and simple, but one with a flawed center."

But do we not already have that at work in his analysis of the state of the Communion? Driving his critique of Bishop Bob Duncan is an ideology in which the Communion is this not that, the Common Cause Partnership should do this but not that, and the decisions of TEC's General Convention are sole arbiter of 'true' Anglicanism within TEC's territories.

There is a flawed centre here! I happen to think it is the inability of TEC's General Convention to recognise any constraint in its determination of what constitutes Anglicanism.

But somewhere in here is another flaw: TEC may decide what it likes as a self-contained, self-regulating assembly of believers. What it may not decide are the terms by which the Anglican Communion accepts churches into its fellowship or organises itself as a global church. That level of decision-making is through the means of the governance of the Communion. Currently we have no means of governance recognised by all the governed (the ABC is not a pope; Lambeth Conference resolutions we are told, ad nauseam, are non-binding; the ACC is for consultation; the Primates shouldn't really have the role they have claimed for themselves). The mess, the muddiness for both Mark Harris and Bishop Bob Duncan is that neither of their visions for the Anglican Communion can be readily fulfilled under current conditions.

Hence the importance of the Covenant Design Group and our submissions to it: an outstanding opportunity for an evolutionary step to take place on the way to the Anglican Communion becoming a body capable of discerning the true character of its constituent parts and of making decisions about membership, especially when one member is in dispute with another or with a prospective member.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Yesterday, during a wonderful training session in Maoritanga, a claim was made that Maori believe in the God of Jesus Christ and the gods of the sea and the forest (as 'departmental gods'). Some discussion - inevitably - resulted. We did not conclude the discussion but promised ourselves that it would continue at a future date.

For readers new to these things, the subject of God, gods, and the understanding them framed within a Maori understanding (rather than a 'Western theological understanding') is 'Atuatanga'.

Here I make no attempt to resolve such discussion but to share some observations which came to my mind during the discussion we held yesterday.

(1) We cannot properly engage in such discussion if we approach solely from a Western perspective (which is entirely against concepts of 'gods' existing as realities alongside 'God'). We need first to get inside the mind of Maoritanga, not least to understand the 'theology' of Maori religion which first received the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(2) We should be scrupulously fair: if we are minded to critique ideas about 'departmental gods', are we self-critical of our Western world-view? We do not think, for example, in terms of 'the god of the sea' but we have ways of talking about 'the sea' or 'nature' (or, indeed, 'Nature') which imply at least a personification of aspects of nature or nature itself (e.g. 'the sea can be cruel' or 'nature has a way of asserting itself when abused by humanity').

(3) Why do we still call the days of the week after Norse gods?!

(4) To what extent are '-isms' such as 'nationalism', 'capitalism', and 'consumerism' our gods? Similarly 'success', 'luck' and forms of 'fate' ('it was just meant to be')? To be sure, when challenged about such idolatry we seek to reform ourselves, but sometimes we run out of steam ... and go out to buy a new TV!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sydney's plan for the rising of the church

The Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen has given a challenging and provocative presidential address to the Sydney Diocesan Synod. Its worth looking at for his comments on GAFCON, but a significant part of the address is devoted to a campaign of the Diocese called Connect 09:

"Connect 09 is a co-ordinated campaign by all Sydney Anglicans to pray for and personally contact every resident in our Diocese with the word of God, in such a way that that person may connect with us and with the Lord Jesus.

Please notice the following features:
It is a revolutionary campaign, not a program;
a spiritual movement rather than a planned event.
It relies on local people wanting to serve Jesus. It is a prayer campaign first and foremost, prayer for the world we live in, prayer for our community.
It calls on us to pray street by street, suburb by suburb, people group by people group. It is a campaign to make personal contact. Friendship evangelism and multiplying churches remain integral to our mission. But Connect 09 calls on us to drastically expand the circle of our friends and neighbours.

Connect 09 is about the word of God.
We are expecting to make personal contact, to increase the number of our friends.
But in the end we hope to share the word of God in an appropriate way with everyone.
It is by the word blessed by his Spirit that God creates faith, hope and love.
We are trusting that the Lord will already be preparing the hearts of people for an encounter, not just with us but with his Son.

Please notice that we intend to connect with people.
Think about this locally. Every contact should lead to sharing the word of God, and every form of the word should open up a further connection.
Always include an invitation, so that the person can follow up if they wish to do so.
We will be providing a special web-site, where people can find out more about Jesus and have questions answered.

We are seeking to reconnect our churches with their community - to rekindle the sense that we have a spiritual responsibility for our neighbourhoods.
We know that people are looking for community, for belonging.
Connect 09 presents a formidable but energising challenge to our churches:
how can we tap in to this longing for community?
How can we be community?
We are hoping that Connect 09 will transform our churches permanently, because the world we live in, is on our hearts."

There is more, including helpful detail, and attention to needs for training etc.

This is a good plan, which at its heart is simple in the action required, and large in the vision supporting it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Strategy for rising again

A sober point to begin with is a conversation I had yesterday with a friend who shares my concern about our Dio attendance stats: he made the observation that all organisations are struggling these days for commitment from their members. On the one hand this should encourage us: attendance may be declining in the church, but perhaps its doing better than other organisations in maintaining decent levels of commitment. On the other hand this alerts us to an aspect of the spirit of our times: thrashing around looking for ways and means to reverse decline may be relatively pointless. In the age of the individual, the internet, and the immense range of choice available as to how one spends a Sunday morning, the church needs as much to think about what it offers on a Sunday morning in church buildings as it needs to think about what it offers via the internet, in people's homes, and elsewhere (e.g. more picnics at the beach on sunny Sundays etc).

Nevertheless many people like to be with people when they engage with God, so strategic thinking about winning people into the fellowship of the church is worth doing. My simple contribution at this point arises from reading through the Acts of the Apostles. In an age of many religions, with Christianity barely known beyond a few thousand followers, how did the apostles go about winning the world to Christ? Their primary strategy was to work from the known to the unknown, from common ground to uncommon ground. Again and again Peter, Paul and co speak first to the Jews or to Jews and God-fearers. Their message begins with the known, common ground of the Jewish scriptures, leading from that to their exposition of Christ, his saving work, and his call to believe in him. In Acts 13, for example, after the great commissioning at Antioch, Paul and his companions head to synagogues in Salamis and Antioch in Pisidia. In a synagogue in the latter Paul begins his message, "Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen" (v. 16).

In one place where Luke tells us about a significant mission foray into non-Jewish, non-"God-fearer" territory, the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17), Paul noticeably has difficulty making much headway. Incidentally, even in Athens Paul went to the synagogues first (17:17), and when he speaks in the Areopagus, he does his best to work on common ground with Greek philosophy (17:28).

In Aotearoa NZ we have opportunities to re-evangelise through 'common ground' starting points. Despite decline in 'census Anglicans', for example, there remain many of them who do not attend church. Can we re-find them and reach out to them? Are we missing something by doing church in such a way that we attract a lot of Christians transferring out of other denominations but fail to draw in many Anglicans?

Yet, I recognise nothing is straightforward here. Recently I had a conversation with an inactive Anglican. She asked me whether we had 'modernised' our services. A further remark from her suggested that she was looking for Anglican services that were not mere repetition of words in prayer books. Another remark clarified that she was not looking for a charismatic approach with people's bodies swaying and hands lifted in the air. Since she also regularly sells things at a Sunday market I presume it would also help to have a modern-but-not-charismatic service at a time other than on a Sunday morning!!

Nevertheless the lesson from Acts remains in my mind: is a strategy of reaching out to inactive Anglicans a key to Anglican churches rising again in numbers?

Monday, October 13, 2008

How the church can rise again

The last post was gloomy-ish, but hopefully realistic. I believe our church can rise again, so our question must be: How can the Anglican church rise again?

In attempting to answer this question I am trying to hold a vision for our whole Diocese, and all of ACANZP, rather than focusing on how one or two parishes can have a surge in growth. Put in another way, the challenge I see is this: individual parishes have had and continue to have remarkable sustained growth where certain factors collude together: e.g. urban location, outstanding ministry leader, at least one element of excellence (great music, outstanding preaching etc), superb support through staff and lay leadership teams, and (I notice this these days) a "banker", an individual or three prepared to open their cheque books in significant ways.

But, just taking the regional element of our church I am most familiar with, the Diocese of Nelson, we have twenty-six parishes, with only five being wholly urban in demographic character, and several of our parishes are in places which people love to visit as tourists but are not so keen to commit to making a home there! Our chance of getting 26 ministry "stars" simultaneously into roles of vicar or priest-in-charge are slim.* We need a strategy which incorporates such 'stars' but also builds on other factors of a more ordinary kind.

The following comment to the previous post offers some helpful clues:

"I wonder if there are other factors from the wider antipathetic culture that are hindering evangelicalism from being as effective as it could. A couple of random thoughts:
- Have personal devotional lives become too thin and lax, and maybe too individualistic, for many church members? Do we need to rediscover the discipline of praying and reading the Bible together? A passion for winning others for Christ can only be born in prayer and the sad belief that others are lost without him. It needs to be daily discipline of each Christian to ask the Lord to give him or her at least one conversation with another person about faith in the course of the week.
- What would Nelson be like if it had its own diocesan high school, a place where Christian faith was openly taught and practiced among the young?"

In other words for the church to rise again, there is something every member of the church can do through a renewed personal devotional life, leading to a renewed passion for evangelism; and there is a diocesan initiative, establishing a diocesan high school (we have no Anglican schools in our Diocese), which could bear fruit over the long-term. Personally I think this idea is worth exploring, and we have done a little bit of thinking in the Diocese about an educational initiative. Through our eldest daughter being a student at a recently established Catholic high school, Garin College, I have seen first-hand how such a school builds and strengthens church life across a region. Incidentally, Garin College, which includes boarding houses, draws pupils from a catchment area almost exactly the same as our diocesan area.

There is something else to say which I shall post soon, and it builds out from a correspondent's comment re preaching and good men; and some reading I have been doing in the Acts of the Apostles.

*To be clear: I do not see myself as a 'star' with respect to leadership of a growing church. I had a good stint as a vicar 1995-2001 and am looking forward to returning to parish ministry in 2010. Some recent work on Diocesan statistics during 1995-1997 has confirmed that we had some 'stars' in those years, with some noticeable spikes in attendance statistics, though not in the parish of which I was vicar! Each of these stars had what I call an 'impactive personality' and contributed to one or more excellent elements in ministry. The same work on Diocesan statistics, incidentally, demonstrates that some parishes have had some remarkably stable attendance figures through periods with difficult ministry leadership: it would be as interesting to work out what has contributed to resiliance as it is to work out what contributes to outstanding growth.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

This is not the best of times for the church

I don't like being despondent about the church and its future - it is God's church, after all. But I have done a lot of reflecting on our 'Diocesan attendance statistics' since 2007's figures were published at our recent Synod. Statistically we are a Diocese in decline, especially measured against a great high point in accelerating growth in the mid 1990s. And, of course, our Diocese is part of an Anglican church in statistical decline in these islands, and our 'western' Anglican church is part of a declining Anglican Communion in its 'western' regions.

I recognise - thankfully - that there are many wonderful exceptions to the decline in the Western Anglican church (and, indeed, to a general decline in all Western Christianity). These exceptions are attributable to some reproducible factors (well-trained clergy, relevant and engaging preaching, etc), though I wonder if some of these factors work better in larger cities than in smaller towns and country areas.

What's going on in the non-exceptional parts of our diocese and wider church? Partly I think we are neglecting some basics in the provision of ministry (e.g. pastoral visiting); partly we are confused in what we are offering (e.g. a quasi-pentecostal format) when our long-term strength and experience lies in offering a 'reformed catholic' form of church; partly we are weak in our national leadership (e.g. here in ACANZP our General Synod has proposed a series of 'dumbing down' and 'watering down' eucharistic prayers) but mostly we are not responding smartly enough to the continuing social changes in the Western world which, whenever they were conceived, came to life with vigour in the 1960s.

Yesterday I went to a huge funeral for a member of my extended family - a real good bloke who died way too young. The funeral was well taken by a local Nelson minister who specialises as a 'funeral celebrant' in taking funerals for a wide range of people in our community. Looking around the vast crowd I knew few people, and most there would have been (guessing reasonably) more familiar with the portals of pubs, rugby clubs, and sports bars than the doors of churches. Here I take another guess: most there could engage with the way the funeral touched on the possibility of God's presence, but few could engage with evangelicalism's tendency to engage through extensive reading and rational argument, or charismaticism/Pentecostalism's tendency to celebrate the weird and wacky as signs of God's reality. I wonder - but am not sure - whether Catholicism's tendency to elevate symbolism might connect better: there were some interesting and moving symbolic elements in the service yesterday. OK, so much is speculative in my thinking here, but I am suggesting that some elements which we have prized greatly in our Diocese in recent years may be good and worthwhile; but not enough to reach a large and increasing majority of our society which is either unchurched or rapidly losing touch with church. Put another way: in the 1990s I think we got a number of things right about how to be excellent churches, and we drew in a goodly number of people either already Christian/churched or open to becoming and growing as a Christian. But what we got wrong in our busyness being excellent was a failure to engage with accelerating secularization in our society. A decade or so later, during which people have moved, died, or whatever, we have a decline in numbers, and few new people coming into our fellowship.

Or perhaps there is another explanation!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Blog holiday for a few days

Have just returned from an excellent Diocesan Youth Camp at Lake Rotoiti - good Bible studies, excellent day out at Rainbow ski-field, and good food, fellowship, and Four Square (ball) competitions! Now away for a baptism and a tramp then a funeral and perhaps then a blog on reflections over the past week ... elections, missions, Scriptures, and liturgies.

Talk later soon!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A vision inspiring excellence

Sometimes Down Under I find we fall a sandwich short of the perfect worship picnic and/or we lose sight of the reason why we have traditional elements in worship. Here is a great vision for worship by a man worth noting - Chris Cocksworth, new Bishop of Coventry! Hat-tip to Fulcrum.

Worshipping the God of the Gospel
a dream for evangelical worship

by Chris Cocksworth

An address given at the Evangelical Worship Consultation, Ridley Hall, Cambridge organised by the Liturgical Commission, 15th September 2008

I would like to begin my dreaming further back – with the actual identity Anglican Evangelicalism, not simply its worship.
My dream is that Anglican evangelicalism will:

· realize its potential
· fulfill its calling
· inhabit its character
· (to put it more theologically) that it will receive all that God has for it in Christ through the Spirit.
I happen to believe that this shape of Christian faith that has been given to Anglican evangelicalism is a deeply true, authentic and satisfying way of living the faith. Moreover, I am convinced that it is deeply attractive and could, if configured properly, capture the imagination of the people of our age, and win their hearts.

I have tried to write up that dream in a book, Holding Together: Gospel, Church and Spirit (London, Canterbury Press, 2008). Its title is my longing for Anglican evangelicalism: that here, in this form of Christian Faith, Gospel, Church and Spirit will be held together.
Or, to put it another way, my conviction about Anglican evangelicalism is that it is ideally, perhaps uniquely, poised to be a meeting point for the creative connection between the deep themes of Christian faith, the fundamental gifts of God to his people, each of which has been emphasized by one of the classic traditions of the Church.

· One: Gospel – by definition the great virtue of evangelicalism: the defining feature of evangelicalism: the euangelion, the gospel of God’s abundant grace in Jesus Christ and, consequentially, the dynamic spiritual authority of scripture as the testimony of the gospel, the word through which Jesus, the word of God’s grace, is made known.

· Two: Church – by definition the great virtue of the catholic tradition because catholic - kata holos- means according to the whole, an existence lived with and accountable to others. Fellowship is of the gospel. It is the work of God in creation and in redemption: it is not good to be alone, God formed a people, Jesus gathered disciples, Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi, my relationship with Jesus brings me into relationship with you.

· Three: Spirit – by definition the great virtue of the charismatic tradition. The Spirit is the gift – the charismaton – giver. The Spirit is the one in whom and by whom the word of the gospel comes to us: God breathes his Word and creation comes into being, God overshadows Mary and Jesus is made flesh, by the Spirit we come to know Jesus as Lord, through the Spirit gifts of ministry and worship and mission equip the church.
Anglican evangelicalism is a tradition that traces itself back to the gospel reform of the church according to scripture that took place in the C16 within the English Church. The tool for the reform of the Church’s life was the liturgy of the Church, its life of worship.

Anglican evangelicalism, therefore, is not a new form of the church. It is a reform of the church that can be traced back to the first flowering of the gospel in these lands. The tradition of worship that Anglican evangelicalism inherits is an ancient tradition, that has been passed on, sometimes faithfully and sometimes less faithfully, sometimes losing its shape and needing to be reformed, but still an ancient, historically rooted tradition that is held in common with Christians today and yesterday (and, hopefully, tomorrow). It is common prayer.

Anglican evangelicalism is placed by God in a living tradition of the Holy Spirit, an ongoing work of the Spirit, that can be tangibly traced to the origins of the Spirit’s work in England and is continually and creatively responding to the changing features of English life with the abiding realities of God’s good news in Jesus Christ.

In summary, I am saying that Anglican evangelicalism is wonderfully placed – perhaps, as I have said, uniquely placed - to not only know Jesus as the truth (the gospel of God, according to the scriptures) but also to live in his way through living and moving and our having our being in his body the Church; and in so doing to be enlivened, inspired, enthused by his life through the breath of his Spirit in his body.

And no where more so than its worship.

Well what does this mean in terms of practice?

It means attending to three dimensions.

A. Evangelical worship is called to make the gospel known

It is to be a demonstration and celebration of the gospel; an enactment and experience of the gospel.

It is to tell the gospel so that the gospel can be heard and believed.

It is to show the gospel so that it can be seen and felt.

And this hearing and believing, this seeing and feeling of the gospel through worship is to lead to following and living – to the faithful life of the missionary disciple, the member of the messianic community of Jesus.

Clearly the telling of the gospel involves good preaching and effective public reading of scripture. Both of those are indisputable in scripture and non-negotiable in Anglican worship. We should be able to take it for granted that they will be at their most excellent in evangelical worship. Unfortunately that is not always the case in my experience at least. Particularly when it comes to the reading of scripture in worship I am regularly shamed by the attention it is given in other traditions compared with evangelicalism. And although evangelicals do generally have a commendably high regard for preaching, the predilection for attractive themes and relevant topics, can reduce evangelical preaching to a talk on a subject supported by scriptural texts, rather than the exposition of scripture itself.

Much more could be said but I want to take a lead from Colossians 3.16-17 and widen out the reference to telling the gospel. The Colossians are exhorted to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly, by teaching each other in all wisdom, and with gratitude in their hearts, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.

The implication here is that the word of Christ takes deep and rich hold of us as we gather together and do what Christians do together. That includes singing, of course. One of the purposes of sung worship is so that the word of Christ, the word of grace, the word of the gospel can dwell in us richly. (More of that later.) But there are other ways as well. Some are verbal and some are non-verbal.

· We pray scriptures through psalms and other liturgical texts.
· We proclaim the scriptural faith through the church’s creeds.
· We use scriptural texts given for worship – eg the grace and blessings.
· We share the scriptural experience through testimony.
· We spread out the scriptural story through the church’s calendar and we focus on particular stages of the story in particular seasons.
· We enact the salvation of which scripture speaks through the actions and sacraments that Jesus gave to us.
· We see the scriptural faith in the scripturally given symbols of the faith.
This is my dream for evangelical worship: that we will take all these gifts that God has given us to tell the scriptural story so that people will begin to live in that story (inhabit it), and tell that story to others.

B. Evangelical worship is called to tell and show the gospel in and through the life of the church.

This gospel is the ‘faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3). I’d like to make three points in this connection.

(1) Continuity

For few years now I have had a flirtation with the Syrian Orthodox Church. This began when I visited Damascus and joined with the Syrian Church on Palm Sunday. It was a powerful experience being where Ananias and Paul worshipped and hearing the Lord’s Prayer sung in Syrian, a dialect of Aramaic, Jesus’ own tongue.

Christians now worship all over the world, of course, and in many languages, but this faith once entrusted to the saints is passed on in part by texts that were once for all entrusted to the saints: the Lord’s Prayer, the Grace, Songs in Revelation; and it goes back further, into the faith inherited by the apostles – the psalms, the Holy, Holy, Holy, the Aaronic blessing and so on.

My dream for evangelical worship is that our wonderfully gifted song writers will provide contemporary expressions and settings of these Spirit-given texts in charismatic voice.

(2) Commonality

One of the most moving experiences of the Lambeth Conference for me was attending a Eucharist each day prepared by a different Province. There were common shapes to the liturgy, and common meaning to the words, even if in many cases the actual language – Korean, Swahili, Portuguese etc - was beyond me, and there were common actions. It was wide and deep experience of catholicity – of being with other members of the one body of Christ.

My dream for evangelical worship is that our song writers will write more songs that can be used in the common shapes of worship, and that planners of worship will use songs of worship in the ebb and flow of a service rather than just as a block.

(3) Celebration of the actions of the gospel in the life of the church

I could talk till Christmas on this theme. I simply want to say at this point that if we neglect the actions of Christ in baptism and the Lord’s Supper we are disobedient to Jesus and unfaithful to the bible, and we betray the gospel.

Baptism is the Spirit-given sign of coming to faith in Christ and the means of entering fully into the life of his people. The Lord’s Supper is the Spirit-given sign and means of growing into the full stature of Christ.

My dream for evangelical worship is that we will use them and love them because Jesus uses them and loves us through them. And my dream is for song writers to write songs that relate to the sacraments and can be used when they are celebrated.

C. Evangelical worship is called to tell and show the gospel in the life of the church through the powerful working of the Spirit.

Beyond underlining the need for our worship to be enlivened and inspired by the Spirit – a calling that requires a continual invocation and expectation of the Spirit, I want to make three points briefly.

1 Worship is to be responsive and open to the movement of the Spirit.

A positive approach to the use of liturgy does not mean being bound by the book, it does not mean being straitjacketed by liturgy. The deep evangelical instinct for room to manoeuvre in worship is a godly thing. Since C17 evangelicalism has brought varying degrees of pressure on the Church of England to loosen up its worship. In the latter part of C20 this joined forces with shifts in liturgical scholarship and major cultural changes. The result is an official approach to liturgy – embodied in Common Worship – that is a wonderful gift to evangelicals, especially to evangelical charismatics.

My dream for evangelical worship is that it will grasp this opportunity – that it will take hold of this freedom in the liturgical freedom or, better, that it will take hold of this liturgical tradition as a framework for freedom.

2 Worship that will embrace the use of spiritual gifts

Properly used, there is nothing un-Anglican about the use of spiritual gifts in worship. They are part of the ancient apostolic liturgical tradition which has been passed on to us.

My dream for evangelical worship is that we will see these gifts being used in the normal course of worship in a culturally appropriate form.

3 Worship – this sort of worship – will require Spirit-inspired leaders of worship
My dream for evangelical worship is that this ministry will not just be devolved to the leader of musical worship, but that there will be inspired presiders of worship who can work creatively with musicians and every other ministry to respond to the movement of the Spirit in the planning and leading of worship.