“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament…The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”
after the pandemic
This week, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Philip North, wrote a wonderful article on lessons from the pandemic in the Church Times. Obviously writing from an Anglican perspective he nevertheless makes some amazing statements which all churches/ denominations/ networks, can take seriously. Bishop Philip says this at the beginning of his article.
“I believe that we are seeing the unpicking of the lie that people today are not interested in the gospel. We have, instead, a nation relearning how to pray, looking to us for answers to the big questions, and accessing church life through online means in a way that we could not have imagined possible six months ago. Some studies reckon that one in three of the population have attended online worship since lockdown began. One Sunday, the Christians crashed Zoom.”
He goes on to make the point that after the crisis is over, we will not go back to how things were. He can see already that some churches will not re-open but that others will emerge stronger than before the crisis. What will make the difference? He makes three points.
The first relates to the emergence of “lay” people taking the initiative. He notes this: “Across the country, new lay leaders are emerging in a way that no number of diocesan initiatives or officers could have imagined possible. What is more, in most cases, these new leaders are much younger and from different demographics than the stereotypical Anglican volunteer.”
Second, he suggests that it will be the local church relating to its neighbourhood (parish), that will be the basic unit of mission. He writes: “Second, we have seen the centrality of the parish as the core unit of mission…But, in this crisis, the parish system has demonstrated why it has lasted for so many centuries. In Blackburn diocese, our parishes and their clergy and lay leaders have risen to the task with a speed and energy that are breath-taking. They have fed the hungry, made contact with the lonely, built partnerships, streamed, Zoomed, adapted, led their people, and done so with a rich gospel vision.”
And thirdly, Bishop Philip suggests this: “We need priests — and bishops — who see themselves not as functionaries of an organisation, but as free-roaming evangelists in the style of Aidan or Cuthbert. We need priests with an entrepreneurial heart, whose passion is for the conversion of souls, who will take risks for the gospel, who are deployable, and who will take responsibility for their own ministries.”
This would be a very different kind of church and it calls for a different kind of understanding of ministry and new styles of preparation for ministry. Bishop Philip sums up his article by calling for 3 new priorities:
- We need to foster and encourage the new generation of lay leaders which crisis is forming.
- We need to trust the parish as the core unit of mission and develop a generation of priests who are both agile in their practice and confident in their sacramental identity.
- We need to adopt leadership patterns in parishes and dioceses based on release, not control, shrink the centre, and return power and the responsibility that comes with it to the local church.
In last week’s FCC Connection we spoke about the importance of welcome. We include here a story about reaching out to a community of people who are rarely welcomed by others. In other words, welcoming people can sound great, but it is often an uncomfortable thing to do. Jesus often experienced criticism for his welcome of those who were social outcasts. The story is called “Illegal grazing”.
The culture of contract isn’t working
Helping out in a local dispute over horse grazing revealed the weaknesses of contract culture and the strengths of covenantal relationships, as Revd Jonathan Herbert writes below.
I got a tip off from the police in Poole. A Gypsy horse had been impounded.
Knowing the family in question, the neighbourhood police officer was uncomfortable that the full force of the law had been punitively invoked and asked if I could get involved in my role as Chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers.
I visited the family in their council house and took tea in their living room full of mirrors, glassware and pictures of family and horses. I learnt that a generation ago the family had been evicted from their camp on the heathland and forced to settle in a house. Keeping ‘Jigsaw’ a painted Gypsy Cob pony was how they maintained their connection with the land and with their nomadic past.
The father took me to the place where the horse had been grazing on wasteland under a pylon. Here the team of private bailiffs hired by the council had issued a notice to move the horse within 4 days, but because no one in the family could read, Jigsaw had been taken away. The fee to have him released was £1,600 and the money had already been paid with cash borrowed from relatives. I was surprised as the horse couldn’t have been worth much more, but to the family it was of infinite value as Jigsaw had a particular bond with their autistic grandson.
I told the story to other Romany Gypsies in the area and they all told me that Lady Wimborne had given the Travellers the right to graze their animals on her land and the council were going against this. Lady Wimborne socialite, local philanthropist, friend to painter Augustus John and the Gypsies had died in 1927 and much of her land had been sold off to the council. But to local Gypsies with a much less linear sense of time, she was very much still present, as was their agreement with her.
After 3 months lobbying, I finally got to talk to a senior council officer who explained the years of conflict with Travellers and horse grazing. We negotiated that next time a horse was grazing illegally the council should contact me or a local Traveller representative and we would encourage that the horse be moved. Sure enough 6 months later I got an ‘anonymous’ call from the same senior officer to tip me off and I made one phone call and the horse was moved.
The conflict between the Gypsies and Poole Council is where an oral tradition meets a legalistic tradition, where a land-based culture meets a metropolitan culture. It was a clash of covenantal relationship and contractual relationship. Increasingly our society seems to be moving away from ‘my word is my bond’, from relational ways of being with each other based on trust, and instead favouring the apparently safer, transactional, separated and professionalised relationships.
It’s a growing tendency in the Church too. I do some spiritual accompaniment and was fortunate to be trained and mentored by some holy and intuitive guides, but I fear that the art of accompaniment is being taken over by an undue emphasis on receiving the rightly accredited training and adhering to strict guidelines. I can now hardly bear to fill in the online forms coming from the Diocesan Spirituality Team that seem to get more complex each year.
The social distancing era is only reinforcing ways of relating that are already here after decades of individualism. Growing fragmentation, loneliness, broken relationships and the marginalisation of many groups are signs that the culture of contract isn’t working.
It’s urgent not only to reconnect with others but also in sustainable ways with the land. Exploitation, racism and ecocide seem to share a common refusal to relate and to realise we belong to each other and the Earth. The growing propensity to commodify people and all forms of life might best be challenged by developing long term relational commitment.
I’m fortunate to live in community at Hillfield Friary, sharing 40 acres of land with four Franciscan Friars, three married couples, four children, five international volunteers, several cows, sheep, chickens and a large vegetable garden, embedded in the Dorset countryside.
The place is sustained by a four-fold rhythm of prayer and the inspiration of St Francis, whose spirituality springs from the love of God, in communion with Christ poor and crucified and with all people and creation. We value the mundane, ordinary things of life. We cherish our neighbours, the land, and the economy of gift. We balance manual work, shared meals, rest and recreation.
It’s not always easy living together but sharing a common vision and a covenantal commitment to belong together is what binds and sustains us. When we have conflict, rather than put more systems in place to avoid it, we talk it through. We know that a contractual approach limits reciprocity and erodes our ability to discern the movements of the Spirit. Only by living more relationally will our community survive and blossom and our model for this is always the Trinity.
In many ways the Gypsy families have mentored me. Building relationships of trust is an act of resistance against the transactional culture that is unravelling our common life. As people of covenant we are called to live in a way that endures long after the council is forgotten. Perhaps the Church would benefit from a little more illegal horse grazing.
© Jonathan Herbert
Jonathan Herbert, former leader of Pilsdon Community, lives as a member of Hilfield Friary Community in Dorset. From here he works as C of E Chaplain to Gypsies and Travellers in Dorset and Wiltshire. His recently published book is entitled Accompaniment Community and Nature (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2020)
Church leaders Malcolm Stevens and Tom Barlow.
During the Covid-19 lockdown and the ongoing protocols for social distancing, both Grace Church Shirley and Frankley Grace Community Church have used Zoom as a way to stay in touch, encourage each person in the church family, and work together to understand and do more than just survive these circumstances – which are new to all of us.
Fortunately, several in each church already had quite a bit of experience in using Zoom and all of its features – including Breakout Rooms, polling, screen sharing, and optimising for sharing videos – to make our Zoom worship gatherings as interactive and meaningful as possible. We are also took time to help those with no experience to get online and acquainted with the various features.
The one thing we miss most – besides actual physical contact with one another – is music. Both of our church families have a strong musical component in our identity and in our worship. So, we miss not being able to sing and accompany with musical instruments – as much as we are used to doing that.
Before Covid-19, both church families met in schools – Light Hall for Shirley and Holly Hill for Frankley, but we recently found out neither school is prepared to hire out their buildings for the foreseeable future. So, we need to go back to the proverbial “drawing board” to discern what “meeting together” will look like going forward. Pray with us, as we discuss and decide the way forward!
Introducing Jeff Lothamer
Continuing our series on introducing members of the National Council, this week we feature Jeff Lothamer.
Jeff and Christie Lothamer have come to the UK to serve as missionaries which might traditionally have meant planting a church. That was certainly something that was familiar to Jeff and Christie in their context in the United States. Coming as missionaries, they realised that what worked in the United States was not necessarily going to be productive in the UK. Despite the perception that North America is travelling in the same direction as the declining church in the UK, it still is possible to plant and grow congregations, relatively quickly, in many parts of the USA.
That is not always the case in the UK. After much reflections, Jeff and Christie have formed a team that work to create what they call “gospel communities”. What does that look like? In the interview Jeff describes two communities, essentially home groups meeting in different but related parts of Bicester in Oxfordshire. These two communities meet separately for discipleship or spiritual formation and then come together twice a month for something that looks a bit more like traditional worship.
Those who lead Journey Communities in Bicester, focus a good deal of time on the FLTR café. That is where they meet and serve those in a community which is to a large extent a dormitory community shaped to some extent by its proximity to the motorway.
Till next week, Martin Robinson…