to help you discover the God you already know

Words for the turning of the year [4]

The Church of England is facing, and has been for some considerable time now, what it sees as a crisis. The numbers of people attending church on a Sunday has been in decline for many years, and the money is running out to the point where some Dioceses are talking about facing bankruptcy. There is a certain irony here, because society at large is more interested in things spiritual than it has been for some time. But there is little point in society looking to the institutional churches for help with that because they are primarily concerned with saving themselves, with managing their way through this perceived crisis.


Its much easier to lose clerical posts than it is to close churches, so the number of church buildings remains fairly constant, while the number of full-time employees [mainly clergy] is dropping fast. Result?  Most clerical time is spent trying to keep the organisation on the road, with surviving: once they’ve taken all the services in their churches on a Sunday, with the preparation time that requires; taken the baptisms, weddings and funerals that come their way; and attended all the meetings that each of their churches have; there’s not much time left for anything else. And they’re run off their feet. Most parochial clergy, in my experience, find it hard to find time for their own spiritual needs, let alone find time for the needs of others.


The institution’s response to this perceived crisis appears to be two-fold. On the one hand top down initiatives from the Bishops and the Dioceses, which the already over worked clergy and regular churchgoers don’t have either the time or the energy for. And secondly, an emphasis on training clergy to be managers.


I’m sure that the church, like any other organisation, needs people to manage it. But, in my experience, very few parochial clergy felt that getting ordained was about ‘managing’ the church: they don’t see themselves as having been called by God to ‘manage’ it, nor do they think that God has equipped them for such a role. So what’s the answer? Well if you have a house full of dogs and a problem with mice, you could try training your dogs to be mousers, but you’d be better off getting some cats, and letting the dogs be dogs. So why doesn’t the church employ people skilled and gifted at management, to do the managing, and let the clergy and the laity get on with using whatever their gifts might be?  Simple!!


And what of this perceived crisis facing the church? Let me offer some good news, some Gospel news. First, this is an issue not only for the Church of England, but for all the institutional churches in the UK. And its not even peculiar to the UK. Across western Europe churches are facing the same issue: the problem is Europe-wide. So its not your fault. None of us is personally responsible for it. Its not a sign of our, my, your failure. So there is no need to feel guilty, indeed, feeling guilty wont help.


Second. My stock in trade question as a spiritual director is “Where is God in all this?”  This is the question that the church should be asking now. Instead its facing the wrong way and asking the wrong questions.  It sees this as a crisis that it has to resolve, a failure that it has to correct. Better, it seems to me, more faithful it seems to me, to assume that God is at work in this perceived crisis, and to ask “What might God be up to here?” The last thing the church should be concerned with is saving itself. The core Gospel message is one of death and resurrection. Death is not something to be sought, but neither is it something to be avoided. And we can rely on God to do the saving, indeed, its not something we can do for ourselves.


So what does this mean in practical terms? As I see it, it mean five things.


[1] Keep asking the question “Where is God in all this?”, and keep trusting that if you do so, then the answer in terms of what small step you need to take in response to that question, will be given you.  Don’t place your trust in any person or institution that claims to be able to tell you the answer to your question. Trust your own wisdom: learn to trust the voice of God within you.


[2] Trust that you have been created in God’s own image: that your task is to grow into the person whom God has made you/called you to become; that deep down you know what that means; and that if you trust that knowing then whatever is required of you will flow naturally from you.  In other words focus on whatever you know feeds your soul.  I take it that this is the message of Mary Oliver’s poem.


[3] Take time and space to step back and become aware of signs of God at work in the world, mostly in unexpected places. Look out for your equivalent of Jenny’s ‘Wildflowers’, and honour them, whatever that means.


[4] Notice what is already feeding your soul. Trust me that there’ll be more of that than you think. And pay attention to, and honour, what is feeding the souls of others, especially those outside the church. Maybe there are opportunities for corporate feeding?


[5] Be comfortable with the idea that sometimes, often maybe, you could be called to do nothing, other than to wait and be attentive.  Hold on a minute didn’t Jesus often invite his listeners to do just that? ‘Stay alert… watchful……and look out for the signs of God’s Kingdom breaking in’. There are plenty of them: God is busy.


  1. Mike Catling

    Thank you for your ‘five things’ – an alternative, perhaps, to the five marks of mission – when, as a parish priest, I am struggling to ‘be filled with energy divine’. The demands of parish ministry seem to be more pressing on dark January mornings, especially dark January Sunday mornings, when I know those attending services in the parish will be in single figures and in buildings where the temperature is colder inside rather than outside the building.
    On such days I am tired of religion in all its forms and wish to simply sit in silence and solitude reflecting on some words of Jim Cotter from his ‘Prayer at Day’s Dawning’: You look upon me . . . that is all . . . that is enough . . . you know . . . you understand . . . you love me with an enormous love . . . you simply desire to look upon me with your love.
    It is hard not to be drawn into a sense of failing; why are the congregations in my parish not growing spiritually (although I am not sure how this can be ‘measured’) and numerically? What should I be doing differently or should somebody else other than me be doing it?
    In this diocese we are being offered any number of initiatives, but somehow they make me feel more depressed rather than encouraged and I am not totally sure why that is. It is something to do with the Church trying to save itself, feeling it has to do something itself to change the ebb into flow. If there is a ‘critical mass’ needed for an institution or group to exist then a number of my nine churches have passed that in both numbers and the age of those who make up the ‘mass’. Of course, in religious language ‘mass’ means being dismissed, dispersed, sent out in the name of Christ. And I find this Christ out in the communities that make up my parish and I give thanks for those encounters and experiences. But these encounters and experiences don’t pay the bills.
    Thomas Merton wrote that there is a sense that we have made ourselves – both as individuals and institutions – the beginning and end of our own universe. We have become increasingly disconnected from each other and even from ourselves. My fear is, and I may well be wrong about this or over-judgemental, is that the Church is creating something of this disconnection between it and people and their communities, rather than offering healing and reconciliation where such disconnection exists.
    Yet even in all that I am feeling at present, there remains a relationship with the God-presence even if it exists in shadows and the darker places of my soul.

  2. Keith Griffin

    Thank you Henry, and thank you Mike, for your words.
    I’m fortunate to work in a team of seven churches in a semi-rural corner of the north of England and identify with a lot of what you say. However, working across a number of churches of varying sizes – though none really small or especially large – I see growth as well as decline. To a certain degree, I think this is reflected across the country and even within parishes – signs of new life rubbing up against ageing congregations and maybe a lack of youngsters, and so on. Issues of management, especially with creaking buildings are all too real. But again, in our team, where colleagues can work together and support one another, there is also evidence of innovation and attempts to follow the fresh lead of the Spirit. Henry, I interpret your five recommendations as addressed mainly to the individual – mainly, not solely – but it’s worthwhile applying them to a church community too. I may take them to my PCC this evening.
    Mike, I was moved by your words, and without knowing you or your situation, I am reluctant to offer comment, but I can’t help but note how you acknowledge your need for God – ‘the energy divine’ – and also that you are not uncomfortable with the concept of darkness. Many would agree that it’s no bad thing to be sometimes tired of ‘religion’ and it’s clear you know that silence and solitude are of critical importance (Amen to that). You are not afraid to address failure, when it’s a bad and unwanted word for others, and you acknowledge Christ present in our communities, when as clergy it’s so hard not to be obssessed about everything to do with our churches and what happens inside them. Finally, you clearly have your guides – Jim Cotter, Thomas Merton, Henry? – and no doubt hold fast to their wisdom. So, I hope you don’t mind me highlighting these points. It’s quite possible that some of the answers are closer than we may think.

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