The Annunciation Trust

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Has the English Church a future? 2

What is God up to?

My ministry means that I listen to people trying to hear and respond to what God is calling them to. Not altogether surprisingly there is a deal of common ground: God does not appear to be calling people in completely random directions. There are certain themes that emerge, and I begin to wonder if it is part of my responsibility to articulate them back to the church? I don’t claim that this is a comprehensive list, others would name other themes, but these will give you a flavour of what I sense that God is up to! And again, I doubt if much of this will read like news to you, but put all together it sounds exciting to me!

  1. The main institutional churches are dying. This seems a common pattern across much of Europe. Clergy are put under great pressure to maintain them, often very much against the odds. They feel that their primary task is to keep the numbers up and the finances healthy: ‘to keep the show on the road’. They mostly know that they are failing in this impossible task. They feel largely unsupported. They have little time for nurturing their own faith, let alone the faith of others. This ironically at a time when society’s interest in things spiritual is high!
  2. All alike, laity and clergy, are mostly feeling a great spiritual poverty. Many seek spiritual nourishment outside the local church. Hence the numbers of people seeking spiritual direction. Hence the number of extra parochial Christian communities: some of whom share a corporate life, others share a common rule of life. But all of whom seek to offer something people are no longer finding in their local church.
  3. While the number of mainline Retreat Houses is declining, there is a growing interest in domestic spirituality. People open their homes or gardens as quiet places for others to use [I’m sitting writing this in one such place in Lincolnshire]; others have ‘holy places’ in their homes in a way that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago.
  4. Alongside this, there is a growing interest in contemplative prayer, and a burgeoning of people feeling a call to some degree of ‘solitary life’.
  5. There is a hunger for the ether of Christianity rather than its dogma. So people go on pilgrimage to holy places like Iona, Lindisfarne, and Glastonbury in this country and Santiago de Compostella in Spain ; they visit cathedrals; and attend festivals like Greenbelt.
  6. God is being encountered, and sometimes named, in the natural world. The old adage about ‘God feeling more real in nature than in church’ is very apt. Hence the interest in gardening, in wild life and wild places, in walking, in ecology, in the preservation of birds and animals etc.
  7. There has been a massive shift in our attitude to our bodies: God is encountered through yoga, dance, massage therapies, fitness regimes. Hand in hand with this goes a positive affirmation of our sexuality, with greater equality for women and growing equality for gay men and women, and indeed for those of all sexual orientations.
  8. Years ago the churches spent a lot of energy on ecumenical relations with very limited success. Nowadays at a grassroots level people move much more freely between churches. And the current issue is inter-faith dialogue.
  9. There is much involvement in social justice issues: The Church of England set up the Church Urban Fund to show solidarity with the poor in our own country, and local Food Banks do the same thing today; the fair trade campaign and the drop the debt campaign had massive Christian support; as has the plight of the Palestinians.
  10. There is huge interest in the arts [partly I suspect in reaction to much literalism in the churches]. So people find spiritual nourishment in art, film, poetry, photography. Novel reading groups are the new Bible study. And Christophers and the Sixteen go on annual pilgrimages around the country taking sacred music to packed cathedrals.

[Read part 3.]

1 Comment

  1. As a parish priest I can confirm the sense of pressure ‘to keep things on the road.’ In my Ministerial Development Review last year I wrote, ‘In terms of national and diocesan church thinking, I am beginning to feel that, although my ministry in the parish is generally well received and affirmed, the Church is setting a different agenda for full time stipendiary ministry that is in danger of uprooting the heritage of traditional pastoral care and spiritual engagement with local Christians and the wider community.’ What I have to offer in ministry and what the Church requires seem increasingly to be at odds with each other. The theology of death and resurrection that lays at the heart of the gospel is being replaced by attempts to manage a way out of decline. If the Church cannot learn to die trusting in the resurrection then what does it have to say to the world?
    Experience does suggest a growing interest in contemplative spirituality and in the value of stillness and silence as a way of encountering the God presence. I facilitate a small group of about 12 people who meet twice a month to explore and experience such contemplation. It is a mixed group of traditional churchgoers, those who have left mainstream churches, and those who belong to faith traditions outside of Christianity. Differences are honored, but together we seek to be in each others’ presence and held in The Presence.

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