If it weren't so sad, it would be quite funny how long it can take me to get the message...This morning I can hear God's laughter quite clearly, as one penny at least has finally dropped - til the next time!
Let me tell you about it.
The summer after I arrived here, my parishes became part of a new Deanery, created by merging two existing one, under the leadership of gifted and enthusiastic Area Dean. Chapter suddenly became substantially larger, task groups were created ideas began to buzz, and before long we were piloting all sorts of diocesan courses and initiatives, - and then somebody said brightly
"Let's have a mission!"
Cue ambivalent feelings. Of course as a Christian and as a priest I believe passionately in mission.
It's what I'm for, whether defined as "finding out what Jesus is doing and then joining in" (ABC in "Mission Shaped Church" or (the statement adopted by one parish that I know and love)
"Cherishing and working with this community in God's name".
Those are very much about incarnation...about God's love made flesh and "moving into the neighbourhood".
But this Deanery is quite an evangelical place - so I knew that their ideas of A Mission might be rather more geared to proclamation...
As always, being me, I had to work through a good deal of the ludicrous internal conversation that goes something like
"Well, they're the real Christians...Their idea of mission must be right...We ought to do it their way....Help! Who do I know who'll be happy to give a challenging 10 minute talk that brings people to the point of committment...? What NOBODY??? Call yourself a vicar......."
It happens every time.
I tie myself in knots over the fear that those churches where evangelical certainty is the order of the day are somehow more authentic, that I'm letting God and my congregations down by my inability to do things that way...and then give myself a good shake and carry on.
Actually, as the plans unfolded, I began to feel increasingly comfortable with them. Under the badge "Think Twice", each parish in our deanery was asked to stage some sort of event to which non-church-going friends might be invited, and at which they might be inspired to "think twice" about Christianity - though not, praise the Lord, via an altar call. With plenty of time to plan, some wonderful ideas have come into being..
Debates "Think Twice about Money" "about the Environment" "about Assisted Suicide"....
exhibitions "Harvest of Talents", antiques evenings "Think Twice about what you throw away"...And many churches have used the three week mission period to hold an extra special Harvest Festival.
Church on the Hill, a community that includes many of retirement age, and a good few with a military background, chose to explore "Faith under Fire", and invited a former curate from the benefice, now Priest in Charge of Wootton Basset, and a serving army Chaplain to reflect on the impact of war on faith, and of faith on way. They spoke movingly, though they chose to take a different direction from the one I'd originally envisaged...The church was full (though very few were not at least occasional worshippers) and the curry supper provided was delicious. But (you can guess where this is going, can't you?) I went home saying to myself
"That was a really good evening...but it surely wasn't mission!"
Church in the valley was predictably less well organised (mostly because the organisation was down to me)...We made a fair stab at going OUT, as we worked with some members of the local youth and community centre to hold a "Community Harvest" there. We ate fish and chips, a few people talked about the harvest of their year (my chickens featured heavily) and we auctioned gifts to raise money to be split between the Pakistan appeal and the renovation project of the community centre. Attendance wasn't great, given the constituency - about 30 in all - but there WAS a blend of church attenders and others, and some happy conversation all evening. God barely got a mention (apart from a wonderful reading about apples, where God crept in almost unnoticed) but this felt a bit better...We were at least going where we were sent!
Finally came our attempt to "Think Twice about how you Pray"
As I sat in the candle-lit church, soaking up the peace and the plainsong, this seemed altogether good and necessary, for me at least...and those who walked the labyrinth that evening seemed to appreciate it. But there were just 2 who weren't part of the Sunday congregation, and though I've no way of knowing who, or how many might have walked the labyrinth while the church is open every day, and when I'd got home and the enfolding peace began to diminish I felt a little indignant.
Perhaps we'd opted for the wrong events (though we'd done our best to involve and consult with others, the reality was that beyond clergy and Reader there hadn't been many who'd wanted to contribute even ideas to the venture)...Perhaps everyone had good reasons for staying at home...Perhaps (mounting panic here) they didn't think that anything we offered would be worth inviting a friend to...Perhaps (internal scream) they just don't care about mission at all, have decided that "church is fine for us,- we like that sort of thing - but there is no need to worry about those who don't"
It's complicated, isn't it? Because actually, I believe that this is true. I don't, when the chips are down, believe that the ultimate destiny of anyone will be hugely affected by their appearance or not at a certain time on a Sunday morning. I am passionate about my calling to help the people of these communities to encounter God - but I'm not particular about the location of that encounter. Of course I'd like to be "leading a growing church" - partly for the feel-good factor for all of us, but also because a growing church is an exciting and energising place to be, and presents more opportunities for service than a church that is weary and disspirited....But I don't believe that on the Day of Judgement my usual Sunday attendance figures will be a compelling part of the evidence offered for or against me (actually, I'm not sure that I have that sort of picture of the Day of Judgement anyway "For lo, between my sins and their reward, I set the Passion of your Son, our Lord"). Full churches are good - but not a make or break issue.
BUT (that's a huge "but", in case you'd failed to notice) I DO think it matters if my congregations don't care that their friends may not be meeting with God. If they (the congregation) don't feel that our churches are the best place to do this, then perhaps we could talk about how we might do things differently...but if the congregations honestly don't wonder or worry, don't long for their communities to be transformed into signs of the Kingdom, then things are more than a little off course.
That's where I'd got to by the time the BCP Mass had ended yesterday morning. I'd moved from anger to sorrow (so some improvement there) and I then returned to the vicarage to "get on with things". A detailed list of tasks was, in the event, left almost untouched as a result of assorted phonecalls.Too many lives are currently unravelling in the valley community and though there are limits to how welcome "the church" might be in some of these situations, there are enough real people who like to talk to me to mean that this particular bit of the church is quite involved really.
And this morning, the penny dropped. Here and now, what I'm sent to do is to be with those who are hurting and try to show that they are loved by God...That's mission, for my context today.I'm glad that God made me think twice...