Three links about mission

Back to business. I’ve been having a quiet few days on the blog what with Holy Week and the joy of the resurrection to cope with.

Over that time, I’ve noticed a few articles appearing online which are well worth taking note of.

Firstly, the report which was headlined in the Sunday Times which was a survey of where the churches are. It is something of a tradition of the Sunday Times to carry surveys saying that the church is in trouble over the Easter weekend.

There’s a report about this one over on the Reuters site and it is worth looking at, together with some more analysis linked to over at Thinking Anglicans. Perhaps the least newsworthy item is that 76 % of Scots think the Church of England is out of touch. Well, you don’t say.

However, there’s things that are worth thinking about. The Sunday Times interpreted it all as meaning that there is a lack of moral leadership coming from the churches and that people are trusting clergy less. (Whether clergy are trusting the laity more or less is perhaps a much more interesting question).

Then over in the Spectator there is a rather depressing account of what it was like for Ysenda Maxtone Graham to go to a rural church for an Easter Day. It is worth a read even though you won’t like it. No, it is worth a read because you won’t like it. Before you click on the link, recite a bit of Burns a few times over. “O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Then, rather more positively but just a troubling is Andrew Brown’s very thoughtful piece on the Guardian website: How do churches get new bums on seats? Get rid of the boring old ones.

Really interesting analysis of why church-planting has worked for some people – because it produces the commitment in younger people that is needed to make the church swing which they are unlikely to throw at churches that are struggling which are full of older people wanting things not to change.

Now, the string that ties these three pieces of work together is a hunch that the two things which affect whether or not someone new will come back to a church and give it a go are firstly what happens there on a Sunday and secondly how they feel about those who are there on a Sunday. (And it is worth pondering for a moment which might be easier to change).

Now, is there any way we can talk about that? Does it fit neatly with the mission discourse of the Scottish Episcopal Church at the moment? I’m not so sure, but I rather think it matters that we find some way of having that conversation.

What do you think?


  1. I originally came to St Mary’s for the music, however, I wouldn’t have stayed if I’d been made to feel that there wasn’t some place for me there. The music has actually become less important to me as the past six years have gone by, and I’d have to say that now the draw to the Cathedral is the moral leadership, said to be lacking in other places. I have noticed an increasing number of younger people drawn to St Mary’s by this leadership. As a Cathedral, you’d hope that this would be provided by the Bishop, but at the moment this is sadly not the case. However, this leadership does come from the Clergy team in spades, and this leadership reaches out far beyond the walls of the place to a city beset with social deprivation and inequality, some of it promulgated by other places of worship which should know better. That your sermons are widely anticipated and reported is proof of this. I think that this is a mission discourse, for a new age.

    I don’t contribute much in the way of active involvement, I’m afraid. I could and should do more (particularly with a 21st century mission discourse agenda into which my skills-set dovetails quite well) rather than just be a passive creature who doesn’t say much, however, I do get a moral leadership and spiritual comfort which is much needed in my rather chaotic disorganised and disjointed life at the moment. Is the fact that I get this evidence of the success of the mission and pastoral work of the community at St Mary’s.

    Could we talk about the way folks feel about each other, and the way this presents to ‘incomers’ ? Yes we could. We could start with a series of open conversations. Maybe sermons could be opened up, say, once a month or every six weeks, to members of the congregation perhaps? There does tend to be an ‘echo chamber’ effect present in that its usually the same folks who stay for coffee after Sunday mass, and who sit on committees or working groups and so in effect, its a case almost of ‘preaching to the converted’. When I give talks at conferences, I usually have to ‘shock’ delegates out of such similar comfort zones by challenging their opinions and beliefs head on. Its only after such deconstruction that its possible to encourage a growth mindset.

    Cormac Russell talks about an ABCD approach to capacity building. He calls it Asset Based Community Development. Start with what you do well, and draw in your community to develop it further. Like dropping a stone into a pond and watching the ripples spread I suppose. We might consider starting with a food bank, for example. That would extend our presence in the community, and by extension, our mission.

    What do we do well at St Mary’s, and how do we get our community to develop the growth mindset necessary to develop this in a wider community context? – new bums on seats, to use Andrew Brown’s words. Why not have a series of conversations about what we do well and take it from there?

    Apologies for the ramble…I do feel quite strongly about mission work though, particularly in such hardened times.

  2. Elizabeth says

    The church seems to be waking up to the fact that people rarely just walk through its doors. But it also needs to recognize that it is there for everyone and not just its ‘members’. Churches that have recognized this and understand their local context have the ability to thrive. Our Anglican church is a parish based church, even where large mission communities are formed, i’d really like to see much more on being outward looking rather than inward looking.

    I shared the account of rural ministry in the article in the spectator on facebook as I recognized much that was mentioned. Somebody commented that bullies like this author will go away if ignored. I’m more concerned that our church will vanish if we continue to not face up to what is so often happening. I’m looking forward to a continued ministry in rural Devon and the challenges you have blogged about.

  3. Robert Beard says

    The only mission the Church should be involved in is the mission of Jesus, who said absolutely nothing about Church attendance but said and did a great deal about feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for the poor and giving away money.

    • Jesus did attend both Temple and Synagogue though, which I think does rather puncture the idea that he was not that interested in organized religion.

  4. Organised religion was somewhat different in the first century. A lot of what we consider to be Christianity is merely the product of hundreds of years of church culture and liturgy, and bears little resemblance to religious practices of Jesus’ time. Its character and very nature on so many levels is incomparable.

  5. > Organised religion was somewhat different in the first century.

    Well, yes, obviously in some ways. I bet in some ways it felt very much the same though. I bet there were people who worried about the roof and people who worried about the preaching and people who worried about the people who worried. It some ways comparing then and now is like comparing organized religion in differnent faiths – there are obvious differences, but some obvious common experiences if you bother to encounter one another.

  6. My church experience is more or less all rural/small town, and over the years in the same parish it has varied. A few years ago we were threatened with closure because of building problems and falling numbers; today we’re about to vacate the premises for several months to allow radical building repairs to take place. The congregation has more than doubled in weekly size, and the children we used to fret about not having are a lively bunch at the back of the church. They won’t stay for ever, because this is a town young people leave to further their education, but their parents are the vital growth area along with the lively retired who move here. I was once a young parent, and now I’m one of the retired cohort – but the laity are involved at every level, from administering the Reserved Sacrament to preaching to leading Intercessions to … to … We are fortunate in having an energetic priest who provides confident leadership, and an ethos that allows for a real depth of spiritual growth as well as a great deal of fun. I have visited churches which resembled the one so brutally described in the Spectator, and suspect we may sometimes have seemed like that ourselves – but there has always been a flicker of something else, an unpredictability, a sense of walking on the edge that has kept me at least going .

    Does that lead anywhere? Does it help to say that the congregation pulled itself together *before* the present incumbent was appointed, realised what had to be done and got on with doing it, with prayer and argument and tension and love? There were times when those of us in leadership positions felt like giving up. But I’m glad we didn’t.

  7. justliz says

    Ysenda should have come to Dunoon ….

  8. Rosemary Hannah says

    Jesus said sufficiently little about feeding the hungry that I feel slightly guilty focusing on it – though based on the totality of the Biblical faith I feel entitled to make it a serious concern.

    What makes a church live? I think the laity are very important – I too was part of a team which turned round another rural church and interestingly again in a vacancy – though somewhat earlier than Christine’s expereince. There was an element of luck. Some people blocking good things happened to leave (which would tie into Brown), and others wanting good things happened to move into the area. In each case, a key was being open to what was possible to improve worship in that place at that time. Not every church will be able to start with every thing.

    St Mary’s also benefits form happenstance, and I think we need to acknowledge that many failing churches suffer from the negative side of that. However, I failed to join two churches, although I was looking for a church to join. One appeared to be in the midst of desperate internal strife, and nobody cared enough about if I was there or not to have got my address and make freindly enquiries when I failed to turn up after a number of weeks. The other failed to keep me for any number of reasons, which I have already got into enough trouble for detailing in public, but which certainly included being at the time a depressing place to worship, where nobody sang.

    We can tackle non-singing. We can tackle dire sermons – we do not. Why?

    And forgive me – but I think some terribly well-intentioned people mistake their vocations and end up in positions in both laity and clergy for which they are not well suited, and I think that few get enough help of the right kind in discernment – a more helpful way of tackling this than ‘selection’.

  9. Rosemary Hannah says

    p.s. Bishops never run cathedrals – that is not their job. The people who do this are deans (in England) and provosts in Scotland. The

    • I was talking about a public stance from the diocese, like +Tartaglia gives for example. Whilst I take issue with many of his public utterances, he is a figure of authority when he speaks. Without wanting to bash our Bishop, I’d like to see him being more vocal on certain issues regarding social justice. I know he doesn’t run the Cathedral, but it is his seat, so to speak.

  10. I’m definitely inclined to agree with Hannah’s comments as to the importance of the laity and their training. I was Priest-in-Charge of a group of CofE churches that had obviously had problems attracting worshipers according to the registers. It didn’t take me long to discover that a huge percentage of the PCC had a ‘them and us’ attitude. Gossip had it that they were known as the ‘Mafia’ by former priests! After only two months in post I realised that mission was not on the agenda at all and preserving the ‘status quo’ definitely was. Deadly dull was fine. It didn’t seem important to make immediate changes to the liturgy because I wouldn’t at that stage have had a clue who I was making changes for. Over a few months I was able to speak to key local groups such as schools, healthcare workers, youth workers, probation officers, care homes, parish council etc and they were very vocal about what they thought the churches should offer. It was what they told me we did badly that I understood – providing a holy, relaxed and welcoming environment for starters.

    The sadness is I had to work quite subversively in those days as did many. I had a bit of luck in that the then PCC was not particularly interested in ministry to young people and a regular Friday Parents and Toddlers service was largely ignored as was an older group of children meeting at the Vicarage for Burgers n’ Bibles. The mothers – occasional fathers -who attended the short Friday service and bun fight afterwards set the agenda with their children as the weeks passed. There also seemed to be a notion that only PCC members were enablers and others should stay out of serving the liturgical roles. I always remember one particularly gifted mother telling me that she took her toddlers to several groups but she never felt as supported in them as she did in ours – she understood the spiritual dimension that was grace at work. This group grew very quickly once I wrote to all those parents who had children baptised in the previous three years. The sticky bit was when the Sunday worshippers suddenly found themselves invaded by unusual people! Tatoos and Doc Martins and No 1 haircuts were a bit of a culture shock. The parents then began inviting their single friends and one of the churches could have been described as inclusive. Slowly and surely ‘The Mafia’ became outnumbered and this released several PCC members who offered significant help. My gift was in recalling just how uncomfortable I had felt as a mother with children who should be seen and not heard and also someone who was unhappy inviting friends into a hostile atmosphere. I was often stuck with a ‘red face’ and one vocal son regularly and loudly proclaiming ‘When we going Mummy’! I wanted to go too. What was lovely was observing the natural liturgical gifts flowing into the community with a little training for the newcomers. They needed a lot less direction than the die hards. Visiting certain PCC members homes was an eye opener too. Plenty of ‘who dunnit’s and travel guides and homes and gardens books on their shelves but a pretty obvious gap as far as theology goes.

    After a few months it was possible to make changes to the Sunday liturgy and to even make space for precious moments of silence. It was not the 1wk old to 40’s that could be heard in these moments!

    Another priest who was having problems attracting younger – 20’s to 40’s – members was advised to turn up for one of our Friday services. She was shocked that we got away with the liturgy. It was not a way out liturgy at all – just very pared down. Her first comment was that she would be unable able to get it past her PCC. I am afraid I suggested that it might be better not to try. I would have been unable to get it past MU members at that time. One of the first things I did was stop Baptism’s taking place outside the Sunday Eucharists, except in very exceptional circumstances. They had previously taken place without the worshipping community! – with a hideous ‘add on’ mentality and a ‘get rid of these 50-100 strangers quick’ attitude. All very odd considering the churches had been used for training placements for ordinands. I hate to tell you that this sort of culture is still quite prevalent in many a CofE parish today as priests may be too worn down (or lazy) to attend courses, take risks, organise groups and discern gifts. It is only when the outsiders become insiders that we are able to foster a wide variety of vocations. During my time at theological college there was perhaps too much kudos attached to priests who nurtured priests. There have been many changes regarding training opportunities since but I still hear of churches who put up as much opposition as possible until a Bishop, Archdeacon or lay training officer reads them their fortune.

    None of these scenarios are aided by the present exclusive attitude of many of our leaders right now.

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