A prison contacted me recently about a prisoner whom I know. He is in utter despair and they fear he will take his life. Could I please visit, I was asked.
In the grounds of church two homeless people have been living for many weeks now.
A young adult recently came to see me for advice. He had received homophobic abuse from a member of clergy in another town. He was distressed particulalrly as he had been told to ‘keep quiet’ about the abuse, to protect the clergy person.
These are not unusual events in a parish priest’s ministry. They are examples of the pain and suffering which people suffer. Intense pastoral ministry can take up a great deal of time and energy. It is what I feel called to do.
What I do not feel called to do is attend long and tedious church meetings on internal church issues which appear to bear very little fruit. Recently I have been under pressure to attend an evening meeting of local church clergy and lay members because one of the members is ‘hurting’ about a decision a large majority of the committee made. The issue is around a word in a ‘mission statement.’ Why on earth do so many people need to give up an evening to address this small issue, I ask. Similarly meetings of clergy and lay people have recently been called to inform of proposed church boundary changes. One colleague commented ‘It will be a tediously long meeting to tell everyone what the done deal is. Couldn’t this be done on a sheet of paper at far less expense and involving far less time?’
Of course the church is in difficult days. Nothing new there. Recent surveys show that numbers attending church are rapidly declining, and the pattern of church going is changing too. The church appears to many increasingly irrelevant and out of date. This is a significant challenge to the church.
So what does the Church do about this? Bishop David Jenkins once remarked that when a colony of gorillas is under threat it turns its back on the world and the gorillas start to pick nits from one another. He suggested that today, under threat, the church is doing the same. Under threat it turns inward, reorganises, holds more meetings, appoints more special officers, and in doing so gives clergy more work to doand pulls them away from day to day pastoral ministry and encounter with the world beyond the church.
Some bishops, (retired ones!), have shared similar concerns. For example, Bishop John Austin Baker, in retirement, said he felt the ecumenical movement was an enormous distraction. A while ago a retired bishop told me he doubted whether synodical government was worth the meetings, the time and expense it involved.
Standing on my #soapbox I ask those who plan church meetings and agendas to pause, to have the courage to reduce meetings and initiatives by at least 50%, to reduce the number of ‘managers’, and look carefully at agendas and church life to give priority to the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned of our society, and also to silence, prayer and to encouraging the good work of so many local churches.
In this #soapbox series on our church blog several of our church members have drawn our attention to matters that concern them deeply – political freedom, education for children, homophobia, addiction, human trafficking … Their passion and concern inspires me. These are the issues for the praying, sacramental church of today, and these and other concerns like them must take priority over internal church organisation, gatherings and meetings.
I am personally grateful for the everyday people who make up the local church – in St Chrysostom’s Church and in the other places I have ministered. They are the Christian lay people who commit themselves to justice, prayer and worship, as their Christian priorities. They are the body of Christ, they are the ones to listen to and be inspired by.