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The Future of the Parish System

Future of the Parish System

My stocking from Father Christmas this year positively bulged with new reading material. From time to time over the next few weeks, I hope to read some of them and do my little reviews!

The first one was actually a pre-Christmas buy for myself and is the recent The Future of the Parish System published by Church House Publishing.

I was at a conference recently in which I heard the account of an amazing success story from a particular church which was on its knees before being turned around and is now a big church of approximately 500. I am not going to say who the vicar is, what the church is or which diocese it’s in for reasons I will come to shortly.

I think the growth of that church is fantastic and the way in which the vicar has gone about his work has been admirable and it has challenged me deeply since I heard him speak. However, I do wonder about what the churches around about make of his efforts. I would hope that they are all pleased for him but from what he said about his relationships, I think partly because of the way in which he has gone about his task, he has made a few enemies of fellow deanery members and most notably his bishop. It’s particularly a shame, I think, because it needn’t have been that way. The vicar concerned has acted swiftly in many areas (which wouldn’t sit well with many CofE structures) and has also been no respecter of parish boundaries (again which doesn’t sit well) so I am sure he probably felt he had no other option. Nevertheless, as I will come to, other options are beginning to present themselves.

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Covenant continued

Covenant cartoon

So Christmas is over, New Year is over, I’ve finished my essays (*grin*) and in the rest of the Church of England, the discussion of “That Covenant” is back on the agenda after a brief football in no-man’s land-like break in hostilities over the Christmas period. Except, it’s not been all that quiet.

Giles Fraser wrote in the Church Times about how he felt about it (unsurprisingly against) while the Bishop of Willesden Pete Broadbent, and apparently one of those in the House of Bishops who had been consulted on the document, called it an own goal.

From the pro-covenant camp, Chris Sugden took things to a new low by not answering any of Tom Wright’s very valid questions but instead decided to pick holes in the Bishop’s arguments. Yes indeed, on the covenant side, we have entered tit for tat-ville and obscuring the presenting issues by calling each other names… “prefects… at an English public school”? purleease.

However, I don’t want to focus there. I just want to follow-up my previous post by looking further at the situation as it affects New Wine, with whom I now have something of a vested interest.

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You do not represent me

Covenant cartoon

For the last few years, my wife and I have attended the New Wine summer conferences. Ostensibly, at first, because our church decamped to Somerset for two weeks every Summer, we have become regulars in the team that corrals 500 ten and eleven year olds per week.

I’ve been impressed with New Wine generally speaking. I like their emphasis on the Spirit of God as well as the word of God and when I first attended they were a great example of people trying to be both Anglican and charismatic and evangelical (I appreciate not everyone there was Anglican but that is certainly its base).

I was at one of those Summer conferences when I first felt God might be calling me to the ministry and, indeed, I came to Ridley Hall in part because of Chris Cocksworth, our principal, who I’d known from the Liturgical Commission but also from seeing him at New Wine and looking after one of his sons for a week.

New Wine have an ordinands network and fairly recently I signed up. It maybe because of my familiarity with them, but of all the different groups in the CofE, they are a network with whom I feel a lot of affinity.

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Wine and wineskins

Wooden laptop

When I was still working for the National Church Institutions, I decided one day to get myself in with the digital Jones’ and set up a blog. As I’ve mentioned before, I was a few posts in when the kindly Dave Walker dropped me an email and suggested I might like to check out whether I was okay to be blogging and whether the NCI’s had any rules about staff blogging about church related matters.

The staff handbook was silent on the matter. So I cc’d an email to certain overseers who I thought might be best to ask. They responded by asking me ‘what’s a blog?’. So I explained blogging to them and then it all went silent for a week or two until an announcement was made via the internal weekly ‘All Staff’ web page. The announcement made it clear that any member of staff who blogged about their work or the Church would be considered to be in breach of contract in just the same way as if they had spoken without authorization to a member of the press. The announcement went on to say that there were some staff members who blogged as part of their job (like national youth officers and the like) which was fine, but if that wasn’t you… keep your grubby little fingers off your keyboards (I’m paraphrasing at this point of course).

I can understand why they came down as heavy as they did, but as term ends here at Ridley and the numbers of ordinands blogging here at Ridley and around the country in other colleges creeps up and up and up, I have been led to think about how institutions sometimes react to new things and how they might react to the rising numbers of bloggers in college life.

I guess there is always the danger that the powers-that-be decide to nip things in the bud and come down heavy on us bloggers. We do have a tendency to sound off a little (some of us more than others) and criticism can creep into our posts from time to time. Let’s face it – we have a fair list of ‘powers-that-be’ to choose from; any of whom could decide to make life difficult. Between the Ministry Division, our respective diocesan bishops and our colleges, we are not short of authority figures to rail against or under whom we might find ourselves being sat on.

For example, I can understand why a theological college that is under pressure each year to attract students from a limited intake of ordinands might want to put its best public foot forward and might not look kindly on any blog that is less than complimentary when potential students might be reading. However, I would suggest that sitting on such comment actually makes that institution look worse than it might look if it let it slide and allowed the student’s critique. I personally think that any organisation that cannot handle a bit of criticism looks very insecure. Surely, a mature organisation confident in its mission is not going to be waylaid by a few negative words?

As the philosopher Epictetus is rumoured to have said (and yes, I can’t believe that I just typed that phrase on my blog either):

“If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it.”

Instead of worrying about potential negatives, I’d encourage the powers-that-be to recognise the positives. As one of my fellow bloggers and I discussed the other day; if nothing else, keeping such a journal helps us to sharpen up our reflective skills – something we are always being encouraged to do at college. It also encourages dialogue and conversation and from a potentially much wider audience with a far broader churchmanship than we might find in any non-digital environment. What great educational opportunities!

At the same time, I would say that all of us ordinand types who blog have a duty to be careful in what we say. If we are to critique, we had better make damn sure we have good reason and at the very least be tempering any negative comment by looking for the positive as well. Once it’s out here on the web, it’s beyond our control. Even if you delete it, it gets caught in Google caches and sites like and that, if nothing else, should give us pause.

What follows are a few golden rules that I humbly offer to both ordinand types and institutions feeling threatened for the good of all as we continue in this brave new world. If commenters want to add their own suggestions, please feel free – I’d love to hear them and will be glad to update this article as we go with your suggestions.

Golden rules for the ordinand

  1. If you say it’s a fact, make flippin’ sure that it is a fact.
  2. If you get it wrong, be big enough to correct your mistakes and acknowledge those mistakes publicly.
  3. But don’t delete a post; preserve the original and use notations to show where changes were made.
  4. If you are referencing something or someone else and the material exists online, link to it so that people can go read and make up their own mind.
  5. Be honest about your own biases and interests. If you have a vested interest, say so.
  6. Don’t disclose confidential information… ever. (It should go without saying for people training to be Ministers that we can keep a confidence).
  7. Don’t blog about issues and topics that, even if not confidential, could jeopardize personal and work relationships.
  8. ** update ** Might be wisest to keep family as a no-go area. It’s not fair on the family to hear stuff back about themselves from other people who’ve read the blog. (Same sort of issue as whether it’s okay to preach about family). ** end update **
  9. Keep a fair balance of positive and negative if you do find yourselves critiquing… try the situation in their shoes and see how it looks.
  10. If you really go for it and sound off in a big way, or if you are not in the best frame of mind that day, just save it as draft and sleep on it before you go ahead and publish.

Golden rules for the powers-that-be

  1. Encourage blogging and best practice in blogging amongst your students. It could really help them to reflect and discuss what they are learning in powerful new ways. In essence, blogging is an open dialogue and an exchange of ideas – what is more educational than that?
  2. Take time to understand the technology and the culture that goes with it. Engage! Consider harnessing such technology yourself to run official blogs that might even feed into and from the unofficial blogs of students.
  3. Take time to think about how priestly ministry could be enhanced by keeping a blog and encourage your ordinands to think on the same lines for the benefit of their future ministry.
  4. Participate! Get yourself an RSS reader and both read your ordinands’ blogs and, every now and then, comment and be part of the discussion.
  5. If you get a bit of criticism, maybe you’d look better to outsiders looking in and more mature by allowing the criticism rather than trying to eradicate it.
  6. If you get a bit of criticism, why not honestly consider whether it’s deserved and what you could do about it.
  7. Feel free to exercise discipline when it is needed… whether it be in regard to confidentiality, proprietary or third party information. You are still the powers-that-be!

*** update ***

Golden rules for blog readers

  1. Don’t believe all you read in the newspapers or in a blog. Reader beware.
  2. Read with a hermeneutic of suspicion! In other words, ask ‘Why has this blogger written this? Who benefits?’
  3. Receive the blog in the spirit that it is offered; an urge to amuse, a rant of frustration, a dollop of self-indulgence, and a touch of therapy.
  4. A blog is not meant to be evenhanded and impartial. It is someone’s opinion, like an editorial.
  5. A blog is deliberately published, the author wants you to see it. If it was a secret diary you wouldn’t know that it existed (duh).
  6. If you want to understand blogs, have a go yourself. And improve your reflective skills at least.

*** end update ***

p.s. this post was slept on (and considerably edited) before it was published

p.p.s The image is of a laptop which had its casing removed and replaced with solid wood recovered from old wine cases. I kid you not!

Williams and women

Rowan Williams

Following up the controversy the other week about Rowan Williams’ comments on women, he was interviewed on Sunday for the BBC’s Sunday Programme. It’s worth listening to in order to hear his own views on what he said (or didn’t say) and for the fact that he apologises to female clergy for any offence he caused. Gracious, brave and unequivocal. If only our politicians could learn from that kind of approach.

You will need RealPlayer on your computer to listen to the interview.

In other news, there has been some academic research into the impact of women clergy that has been published and is attracting media attention. I am sure it’s very interesting but, once again, I must make slight narky criticism of our press. They’ve reported it as if women are given the crappy jobs in the church because they are women. I can’t say whether the academic research ignores the contributing factors (and it’s just the press’ reporting at fault) but it’s not as simple as that.

The women currently in ministry include a fair proportion who are unpaid (which they describe as ‘the dregs’) because of their situations in life. They went into ministry in order to become non-stipendiary. While it’s not unknown for people to switch, you have to declare during the selection process what you are offering for – full-time stipendiary or otherwise. It’s not that you come out of theological college and get told – “oh, by the way, here’s your parish and there’s no money to pay you”.

They also note that women tend to get the parishes that need the most attention (again something they interpret as ‘the dregs’… the ones needing the most care, the most ‘nursing’ as the media put it). Perhaps that’s a natural outworking of where their interests and gifts lie? Again, to consider some facts related to which parish you go into – we all as ordinands get a choice. You don’t get assigned somewhere and told to lump it, it’s a joint decision between you, the Bishop, the diocese and ultimately you can say no. To give the impression that women just get told to go and do the crappy jobs for no pay is a gross exaggeration.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am sure that the Church of England still has a long way to go. I am sure there are far better qualified people to comment on women’s ministry than me. I am sure that there are some women priests who are at a disadvantage which is grossly unfair and ultimately illegal… but to portray it as some kind of institutional endemic culture is very unfair.

Reading between the headlines

Rowan Williams

This time last week, I was in my usual spot sitting at the feet of Professor David Ford and Professor Jeremy Begbie in my Christology lectures. I cannot tell you how good it is… those in the know may have heard their names but plenty of people in Christian circles haven’t. They should have. The lectures are thought provoking, challenging, deeply spiritual and layered on so many levels that it just feels good to be there learning from them. I digress however…

Last Thursday, Jeremy conducted a lecture on the Christology of Rowan Williams. Fascinating it was too. Of course, like always with people who are still alive, I wonder what Rowan himself would have made of it had he been present. Nevertheless, Jeremy sifted some common threads in our Archbishop’s life and work and helped us build a more rounded picture of the man.

Yet again, the papers are full of rabid headlines (example from the Times which admittedly is one of the better articles published) today apparently concerning the Archbishop’s comments and doubts about the ordination of women. Given my lectures last week, I am quite happy to read those reports and dismissively say “Pfft”.

As Jeremy was explaining to us last week, Rowan’s theology is marked by some very interesting strands. Firstly (says Jeremy), Rowan is suspicious of comprehensive, systematic theologies. He feels we cannot contain God, we cannot prevent God from being free. He is concerned that we never become so concerned with our own dogma, that we end up worshipping it rather than the person to whom it should point.

This also applies for Williams to the concept of ‘God in time’. He has a suspicion of closure, he is concerned that theology tries to ‘freeze’ God. He likes to keep questions alive. It’s not that he doesn’t want answers, but he is very wary of answers that kill off the question in every age. He knows that the church must form doctrine and theology but does not believe it should do so in such a way that it does not “keep alive the impulse that animates such formulae – the need to keep the church attentive to the judgement it faces and the mission committed to it” to quote Williams himself.

Secondly, Jeremy said, Rowan always wants to question the idea that the theologian can stand apart from the world; to see how things really are and then to describe reality. Theology is done by people with particular concerns and particular perspectives and that has to be always borne in mind. Jeremy noted in Williams’ work a twitchiness about powerploys and tends to reminds his readers of those in history who have used God to oppress and subjugate. It links up again with the freedom of God and not trying to contain Him. Orthodoxy, he believes, should be disturbing… a challenge, it should make us feel uneasy, not safe. Williams is concerned that the more God becomes functional to the legitimising of ecclesiastical order, it will stifle God’s ability to challenge and disturb us.

It means that in much of Williams’ books, media interviews, sermons and more… there is always a tendency to doubt, to qualify, to present every side of the argument. You might even describe it as a fear of closure. Some commentators see in Williams’ work a hesitancy, because of the dangers of needing to qualify the whole time.

With that in mind, read The Times article again and perhaps even look at the Lambeth Palace press release issued today that criticises the way in which his comments have been reported.

Apart from the fact that he has been misquoted by some in the last day or so, there is a tendency in Williams’ own method that doesn’t seem to sit well with many both inside and outside the church… those that feel to express doubt, to express openness to other avenues is in some way a major problem.

Williams is not in favour of a return to an all-male presbyterate. He makes that much clear in his press release and, to be honest, if you read the interview with Jeremy Begbie’s thoughts in mind… it’s pretty clear in the interview as well. Personally, I like our Archbishop’s openness in his theology. I like the fact he doesn’t want to try and put God in a box. I like his humility in admitting that we have to do our theology (and by that I am referring to all theology, not women in ministry in particular) in the knowledge that maybe, just maybe we might get it wrong sometimes and therefore should be humble enough to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ and allow God to correct us where such correction is necessary.

Show me the money

Jerry Maguire

I do wonder sometimes about the wisdom of the Church of England in its various guises. Before we got here to college, we had a meeting with the person in charge of finances at the diocese. We were encouraged to apply for grants from a number of bodies to supplement the money that we would be given by both the diocese (the lion’s share) and the central church bodies (a little bit extra).

I dutifully did so and applied to several different bodies. I even found a few that were not recommended on the official “list” of possible grant-making bodies. I spent a fair amount of time in the summer filling in forms, organizing references and completing the various bodies’ requirements.

This weekend just gone I heard back from two of those bodies. They had both decided to give us a grant… not huge, but not insignificant either. As I had been instructed in the summer, I told the diocese of the results. It turns out that because the grants were not ‘specified’ for particular things, the diocese reduces what they give us by the same amount that we received from these other bodies. In other words, we are no better off. All my efforts have achieved is to save the diocese a few quid.

When I told the diocese, the person responsible there was really pleased. She commented ‘Congratulations – I can’t remember the last time I had an ordinand receive grants!’ To be perfectly honest, I am not surprised if whenever someone gets a grant, the diocese takes it straight back off them again!

Now I know I do okay in what I get as an ordinand. It’s not a kings ransom – in fact it’s a bit basic and with my wife a full-time mum and not earning, it can get tight at times. However, it also is reasonable and they don’t leave us bereft on the streets or starving or something. Those grants could have made such a difference and it’s gutting (to be honest) to have my efforts actually get us no better off.

Talking to others around college, some try to get each grant “specified” for something like books to try and prevent the diocese nabbing it. Some simply don’t tell their diocese if they do get a grant from elsewhere. I can understand why they might do that (much easier) but, at the same time, I don’t particularly want to do anything that might put financial integrity into question.

Looking at the bigger picture, there are some plusses. I appreciate that my training isn’t cheap and the Church of England is investing a serious amount of money in me. Being able to put something back is a good thing… but surely they’d find ordinands far more ready to look for other sources of funding if there was something… some kind of small incentive to actually make it worth our while? Even getting 10% of the total would have been a blessing.

Now…  I need to get in touch with those other bodies I applied to and see if they can “specify” any grants they might be thinking of sending me before the diocese snaffle those as well.

For an audience of One

Screengrab from Evening Prayer, 08 November

So having spent about four or five hours on Monday evening and a further hour or two yesterday planning, trying to be creative, failing, and then settling on a fairly bog standard Common Worship structure, hunting for images and then putting together a Powerpoint file, I led Evening Prayer for the first time in Chapel this evening. As well as my good self and my laptop, I was joined by one of my fellow ordinands who has some responsibility for the evening services and (after a swift text on her mobile) her husband! Together, the three of us said Evening Prayer together.

Of course, you all know that today in the lectionary, we celebrate the Saints and Martyrs of England. I did a straightforward kind of CW: Evening Prayer service but with a focus on the English nation and praying for our nation and praying for the spread of the gospel in England. I did wonder if I had marketed it well. On the noticeboard, I put the usual notice and added ‘Saints and Martyrs of England’. I guess evangelicals don’t tend to “do” saints and martyrs so maybe I’d have been better to say something else.

In one sense, it was a little frustrating to put in that much time for three people (including me) but on the other hand, I didn’t mind it at all. It was actually quite a relief not to have my efforts on display to a crowd and it was a good chance to ‘practice’ in a safe environment with friendly supportive faces. Before we began, I closed my eyes for a moment and had a wry smile between myself and my God.

It went well, I think, although it’s a weird thing for me at the moment whereby it’s still hard to connect with God yourself when you are so focussed on doing a good job of leading others. Maybe that won’t change… I hope it will.

Finding God in our society

Ali Gomaa, Cambridge University

Today has been a very interesting day. I’ve not had the chance to blog much this week between preparing a Communion service with my fellow students for next Thursday and preparing a sermon for this Sunday (whilst also trying to keep up with studies)… but I couldn’t let today pass by without comment!

Today, Cambridge University and Ridley Hall respectively were hosts to lectures by Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. Dr Gomaa is, by all accounts, one of the foremost Islamic scholars in the world and a man of great influence and power across the Middle East.

He gave a lecture at the university at lunchtime today and then participated in a further lecture here at Ridley Hall later on. At the University lecture, he repudiated Islamic extremism and terrorism as not being the true way of Islam. He spoke so strongly as to say such extremists are not Muslims at all. I am hoping and hunting around for the text of his lecture online so that I don’t do him a dis-service in how I report what he said but thus far I’ve not found it.

One thing that really struck me in his address was his call for the current tensions and debate to include a theological element. I hope I am not misrepresenting him but I understood him to have said that governments, economists, commentators, the media have no hope of truly understanding what is going on unless they are prepared to take on board the fact that many of the protagonists look at the world through theological eyes. If God is not part of the discussion, they have no hope of understanding. Already, their search for peace is disadvantaged.

For me, it resonated strongly with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words last week. Returning from China and arriving into the storm of the Jack Straw-veil debate, the Archbishop warned that when people try to talk about whether the UK should become a truly ‘secular society’ where religion and talk of God is totally excised from the structures of power and public debate, they may not know what they are truly asking. He writes:

‘This [i.e. the UK] is a “secular” system in the sense that it does not impose legal and civil disabilities on any one religious body; but it is not secular in the sense of giving some kind of privilege to a non-religious or anti-religious set of commitments or policies. Moving towards the latter would change our political culture more radically than we imagine.’

I hope that their words reach those who truly need to listen. For those in politics and other spheres of influence where they would much rather religion was part of the discussion at all, tough luck – God is not someone of whom you can be so easily rid.

SPCK takeover creates more questions than it answers

Cartoon courtesy of

SPCK have announced that their entire bookshop chain is being sold to St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), continuing to operate as SPCK Bookshops (under licence) by SSG, with a commitment to maintenance of their breadth in stock-holding.

2006 has pretty much been an annus horribilis for the SPCK bookshop chain. The year started with the announcement that SPCK had entered into talks with Send The Light (STL) regarding a merger.

That potential marriage ended in disaster when the talks were called off in April and the resulting hasty announcement from the SPCK management that all the bookshops were to close. I commented via this blog on the situation at the time.

The manager concerned who made the announcement of closure was promptly cut adrift by his board and is no longer with SPCK. Apparently, they have been busying themselves finding an alternative buyer and now SSG have emerged from what I doubt was much of a pack.

I am sure that SPCK staff everywhere have welcomed the news of a buyer but perhaps with some nervousness for what the future holds. Personally, I share that nervousness much as I welcome a potential light at the end of their tunnel. As I commented before, SPCK are often the only Christian presence in our town shopping areas and the Christian ‘scene’ in this country would be significantly different if they were to disappear.

Ultimately, this takeover announcement raises more questions for me than it answers:

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