The Bishop gave a sermon at this year’s Chrism Mass at St Paul’s Cathedral.
“Let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and dung it. If it bears fruit next year well and good but if not you can cut it down”
I was recently in one of the parish churches of the Two Cities Area which has endured some turbulent times. It was a happy occasion because the partnership between the new parish priest and a small remnant of the congregation had, like the tree in the gospel, revived and borne fruit. Connections with many non-church organizations within the parish had been re-established and the congregation had grown to embrace people whom the world at large did not esteem at their true worth. The woodman’s axe was no longer necessary and it was time to signal that the parish was on a different and upward trajectory by instituting the priest in charge.
Like so many clergy in this Diocese he is a talented and unusual person, having begun his career with a stint impersonating one of the Queen’s corgis.
One of the most nourishing experiences is the delighted awareness of communion with partners in the gospel in all our diversity but united by “the Spirit of the Lord” and a common dedication to proclaiming “the day of the Lord’s favour”. Thank you for many such experiences in the past year and thank you for coming together today.
Our assembly is tinged with a joyful sadness as we salute those who are moving from London to begin new chapters of service.
Bishop Peter Wheatley whose graciousness and pastoral care has made a huge contribution to our common life over the past decades has commenced his retirement although I am glad to say that he has been persuaded him to continue to serve as an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese.
Bishop Paul is preparing for his translation to Southwell and Nottingham after five action packed and fruitful years in Kensington and, most recently, as Richard of Gloucester has been re-interred, Rachel of Gloucester has been revealed. All her ministry to date has been in the Diocese of London and like Paul she goes with our love and our prayers.
But whatever our role, ordained or lay, the heart of our work lies in parish communities.
I was struck by a recent comment made by Rick Warren, Chief Pastor of Saddleback Church one of the mega churches in the U.S. He said “I have spent too much time on para-church and not enough on parish church”.
The parish church like the one with which I began should both reflect the diversity of a given locality and act as a hub serving the full range of community needs and organizations. Many numerical growth strategies are based on the undoubted truth that “like attracts like” but parish churches deliberately seek to bring together people of unlike life history and experience simply on the basis of their place of residence. As a result in many parishes there is mix of ages, classes and ethnic groups and this creates circumstances in which spiritual growth can occur through the exchange of strengths and gifts. In a lively parish, generosity in sharing gifts between very diverse people can generate new possibilities and new energies for transformation both in individuals and in society.
This is the ideal but experience suggests that there are ways in which the development of a genuine parish experience can be frustrated. Jesus said, “there was a fig tree in a vineyard and the owner came looking or fruit and found none”.
This can happen in various ways. There are Meldrew clubs formed by people who do not like the way in which contemporary England is changing. Heaven was about twenty years ago and the church constitutes a haven in a mad world. They are not too concerned about progeny or fruit, as Jesus put it, although sometimes they say that they want the Vicar to “bring in the youth” but they are most unwilling to make it possible by changes which might be disturbing but make them joinable.
There are other places where things are even more serious. Resources, buildings and finance which are meant to serve the local community as a whole have been appropriated by small groups quite unrepresentative of the parish at large. The structure of the parochial system is such that the law gives too much power to such groups who by capturing the PCC can resist the attempts of the most determined parish priest to chart a fresh course.
It is vital to distinguish between the potential fruitfulness of the parish church and genuinely whole parish ministry as against the capacity of the parochial system, elaborated in a different age and bristling with “keep off” notices to constitute a formidable obstacle to growth and fruitfulness.
We are as a Diocese utterly committed to see the parish churches flourish – complemented by other expressions of Christian community serving particular social groupings and networks. I had the privilege recently of visiting one such community – one of the 100 we are pledged to establish in Capital Vision 2020. The venue was the brutalist bunker under the Institute of Education. The congregation was largely made up of students, many of them from UCL, founded as you will remember to exclude the Christian faith from higher education. A substantial proportion of those present were from an Asian heritage. The atmosphere was charged with spiritual energy. Students spoke of core Christian convictions with passion and reason and the youthful pastors were full of godly ambition. In this context it was evident that there was little denominational consciousness and this gives the Church of England a huge opportunity. The old opposition between Establishment and Dissent has faded. Given generosity and humility the connectivity possible when we reach beyond ourselves is limitless.
We are serving the greatest city in the world. What we do here for Jesus Christ reverberates for good or ill throughout the globe. If we pray and work together we can touch and help transform every aspect of London life. And with painful slowness the fig tree is coming back to life. A Jewish property developer who has made a minute study of Tottenham said to me “with small resources your people on the ground have made a huge impact on Tottenham”. The tree has been fertilized by being earthed in the joys and sorrows of the wider community.
We could of course waste these opportunities and poison our life together by cynicism and turning in upon ourselves. One of the most shocking reports I have heard in the past year is from a parish that had successfully transformed its financial situation but as riches increased the spirit of generosity shrivelled.
It is vital if our church is to be fruitful that our vision is simple and clear. There has been a debate about appropriate training for pastoral leaders at all levels. Most of us are involved in managing complex organisations and should not be too proud to learn from the experience of others. But an MBA in Ecclesiastical Administration is of no value unless our vision of the task to which we are called is simple and clear. As pastoral leaders lay and ordained we are called to make it our chief aim to love God and promote the spiritual well-being of others. St Augustine said in a sermon he delivered at a consecration:
“The one who presides over the people ought to understand before he begins that he is the servant of many. And let him not disdain this role because the Lord of Lords did not disdain to serve … And the advice and warning I am giving, I am also afraid of myself”.
There must be a profound lack of interest in our own glory and at the same time recognition there is no such thing as a ministry of maintenance. We and those whom we serve are either growing into God or growing apart from God. Our special concern is with Christ’s own body, the church “to train it” as St John Chrysostom says, “to perfect health and incredible beauty”. We are “to give the soul wings by the distribution of the Word”. [Gregory Nazianzen]
My prayer for us all this day as we re-commit ourselves as pastoral leaders is, in the words of the letter to the Christians of Ephesus [III: 17]:
“That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God”.
With a vision of redeemed humanity in Christ, everything else loses its allure and seems small. With such a vision Christ gives us, in all our diversity and debates about this issue and that, a delighted awareness that we are brothers and sisters, servants united in a common cause and in self-giving love. Love Christ; keep humble; be generous and make friends – even the gates of hell will not prevail against a church energized by such a contagious Spirit.