Thursday, 21 September 2017

Where is the CofE going? Economies, Mission, Presence

The Church of England, nationally and more locally, is asking big questions about its future shape. Does the parish have a future? What might the church's calling to place look like in the next generation? How might the church of the future (or, indeed, the near present) be resourced, if its income is drastically diminished?

Some of these questions come out of a place of deep institutional anxiety. Others emerge from a more joyful enthusiasm for re-imagining the old in a radically new context. But there are often deeper questions behind the 'surface' questions, and it's these deeper, more theological questions that interest me most. I want to explore three of them here: questions of theological economics, questions of missiology, and questions of presence.

Framing the conversation: overlapping economies

From my own sustained reflection on my practice and experience in Hodge Hill, I want to offer brief descriptions of three different economies which I have discovered often seem to ‘frame’ how I think, feel, talk and pray about the kind of questions we’re considering here. We might understand an economy as a system in which things are used, move around and are exchanged (given and received) in ways which create and develop a sense that certain things are valued.

1.       A financial-numerical economy

This economy is perhaps the most familiar to all of us. It places a high value on counting (people, money) and keeping accounts. It sees ‘resources expended’ primarily in terms of how much money they have cost, and will tend to look for ‘value for money’ in how it evaluates its spending, understanding that primarily as ‘bringing back in’ a financial return, helping it ‘balance the books’. It cannot help looking at ‘church growth’ at least in part as a means of increasing its financial income: more people in church means more money in the plate. (Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone in the CofE or beyond thinks exclusively like this, but simply acknowledging that this is, at least, one of the economies that is operative in the thinking of many of us.) The two most regular instruments of reporting from parish to diocese – the annual statistical and financial returns – are firmly embedded within this economy, even if they occasionally make space for comments gesturing in a different direction.

2.       A kenotic-Kingdom economy

Within this second economy, the calculation is different. The growth of the Kingdom of God is what is valued above all else, whether understood as flourishing communities, new and deepening journeys of discipleship, healing in lives and relationships, friendships across differences, etc. This economy is ‘kenotic’ because the primary dynamic is one of kenosis: giving of what we have for the benefit of others. This kenotic dynamic is captured perfectly in these words from Bishop Duleep de Chickera:

“here is the crux of Anglican identity and Anglican spirituality: we do not live for ourselves, and all our energy, all our gifts, are directed to abundant life for the other”

‘Serving others’, ‘preaching the gospel’ – these are done by the church because they are what God calls and commands us to do, for the sake of the Kingdom. Resources are expended in the process – primarily in the form of time and energy, but often also money (given away, or paid to those who give of their time, energy and expertise). Change may well happen as a result of our actions, our resources expended – but that will not necessarily result in a financial or numerical ‘return’. The Jesus of Matthew 25 (‘I was hungry and you fed me, a stranger and you welcomed me’), Teresa of Avila’s ‘Christ has no body but ours...’, or the mantra ‘What Would Jesus Do?’, perhaps often offer some kind of guiding principle here.

This second kind of economy adds a significant complexity to our financial-numerical thinking. In a time of ongoing austerity and deepening financial inequality, many people in our neighbourhoods are struggling more and more with the most basic needs in life – a home, food, clothes, etc – at the same time as much of the vital support to negotiate the systems is being stripped away. The church, in many financially poor neighbourhoods, is often the only organisation left for people to turn to. And even when ‘church growth’ comes out of such interactions, those who are joining church congregations are often financially poor, physically and/or emotionally fragile, and immensely vulnerable. Welcoming them and embracing them as ‘members of the body of Christ’ can often be a hugely costly act in itself.

3.       A radically receptive Kingdom economy

A third kind of economy is a bit like the second, in that what is valued above all else is the growth of the Kingdom of God. But it is unlike the second because the primary ‘flow’ is anything but one-way. In this, it has something in common with the financial-numerical economy (which looks for a ‘return’ on ‘expenditure’), but in other ways it is radically different. In this radically receptive Kingdom economy (one that we have been discovering in profound ways in Hodge Hill over the last 7 years), church members often go into the world with empty hands and open eyes, looking for treasure,[1] ready to receive, thirsting for relationship with their neighbours. In this economy, the church often resists ‘taking the initiative’ or starting ‘projects’. That doesn’t mean there are no resources spent, but they are often in the form of time and energy given to just ‘being around’, listening and learning from our neighbours. What we receive in the process might often first and foremost be a new friendship, but will often also be a wealth of stories, a passion or skill (cooking, gardening, reaching out to others, plumbing, you name it!), a question or challenge to the status quo (“why is the world like this, and what are we going to do about it?!”), and often deep, hard-won, earthed, spiritual and theological wisdom. As church in Hodge Hill, we have been enriched by all of these, and more, beyond our most daring imaginings. The relationships of mutuality within our local community have grown a hundred-fold (even if, numerically at least, our church congregation hasn’t), and we Christians have learnt and received so much.

What does mission look like in these ‘economies’?

The Anglican Communion's ‘Five Marks of Mission’ are perhaps the definitive Anglican touchstone for understanding the breadth of the church's participating in the missio Dei (the mission of God). How might these five marks relate to the economies outlined above?

Of the five marks, only one seems to have any kind of obvious connection to the ‘financial-numerical’ economy: ‘to teach, baptise and nurture new believers’ (#2, ‘TEACH’). Even there, if ‘baptism’ is the point of ‘counting’ (and it is quite obviously so much more than that), ‘teaching’ and ‘nurturing’ point to a kind of growth (in depth of discipleship, we might say), that sits on a different axis to the numerical.

The ‘kenotic-Kingdom’ economy is much more visible in four of the Five Marks:
·         ‘to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom’ (#1, ‘TELL’)
·         ‘to respond to human need by loving service (#3, ‘TEND’)
·         ‘to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation’ (#4, ‘TRANSFORM’)
·         ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’ (#5, ‘TREASURE’)[2]

In each of these, there is no direct ‘return’ for the church; rather, there is a clear sense of a ‘movement outwards’, expending time, energy and more for the sake of the mission of the world and the Kingdom of God.

So how does my third economy, the ‘radically receptive Kingdom economy’, relate to mission? In part, it affirms the insight of missio dei theology that the church is but a participant in ‘God’s mission here on earth’, and that God’s mission is wider than the church’s activity. But where the church’s part in the missio dei has often been characterised as ‘finding out what God is doing, and joining in’, in the third economy the church is also called to focus particularly on the first part of that phrase: to discover what God is doing – by receiving it, from our neighbours, as both gift and challenge. Perhaps the key biblical words here are seeking ‘shalom’, recognising that our own ‘shalom’ is linked to the ‘shalom’ of the place where we live:

‘But seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare [shalom] you will find your welfare [shalom].’ (Jeremiah 29:7)

In the language of the New Testament, we see something very similar in Matthew 6:33: ‘But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [i.e. food, drink, clothes] will be given to you as well’. So when we seek justice, pursue peace and reconciliation (#4), and strive for the earth’s renewal (#5), we are not just ‘giving out’, but also opening ourselves to discover and receive the abundance of God’s shalom, God’s Kingdom, coming to us in and with our neighbours. This in turn enables us to understand ‘proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom’ (#1) not simply as ‘going out with a message’, but as naming the Kingdom where we see it in the world: where justice, peace and reconciliation are happening, where the life of the earth is being renewed, and where others (not just us Christian do-gooders) are ‘responding to human need in loving service’ (#2). The Kingdom of God we see in the parables of Jesus is, as Paula Gooder has recently put it, ‘subversive, tenacious and rampant’: it comes to us and transforms us, as much if not more than any contribution we make to growing it.

Remaining present in the urban margins

From first-hand experience and my doctoral research, I feel better placed to offer reflections on the church’s calling to place in ‘the urban margins’[4] (and in Hodge Hill most particularly) than in other contexts in which the church finds itself. Thinking of the wider church as an economy, however, means that questions of presence in some contexts cannot be disconnected from questions of presence elsewhere. If we’re in an economy, then we’re all in it together. What kind of economic thinking we deploy in one place is connected to the kind of economy we imagine, and live out, in another. If we consider ‘re-thinking’ necessary in one place, then the same re-thinking cannot be avoided elsewhere. Starting from the urban margins, then, I want to briefly consider five different reasons for remaining present, and the kind of presence they imply.

1.       Equity of presence

The simplest reason for remaining in the urban margins is one of fairness, or equity. This might, for example, look to establish roughly equal ratios between stipendiary clergy and the population of their parishes. While ‘equity’ is almost by definition devoid of content, the kind of presence implied has something to do with a direct relationship between the stipendiary clergyperson and their parishioners: closest, perhaps, to the model set out in George Herbert’s (16th-17th Century) The Country Parson, visiting parishioners from week to week, ‘present for every activity in a community, whether “church” or “civic”’.[6]

2.       Local need

A second reason for remaining in the urban margins might be linked to the levels of ‘deprivation’ and/or ‘social need’ in an area. The ‘kenotic-Kingdom economy’ in action, expressed here the church is ‘respond[ing] to human need by loving service’ (#2), through foodbanks, job clubs and other community projects. Such presence often demands funding for places where such activities can happen, and staff to deliver, or at the very least, coordinate the volunteers who deliver them. The local church congregation might supply some of those volunteers, but often challenges of capacity and fragility mean that much of the burden falls on a stipendiary clergy person – liberated from raising money for their own livelihood, so that they can give much time and effort to sustaining those of others. We might also here investigate need in terms of social isolation (more difficult to quantify), and see church as a primary means for addressing that need. Framed in these terms, the accessibility of the church’s places (church building? community centre? Community house?) and its services (in the broadest sense), including the distance parishioners might need to travel, becomes significant.[8]

3.       Divine presence / preferential option

A third reason is less pragmatic and more theological: we need to remain present in the urban margins because that is where God is. Call it command or vocation, we need to remain in the company of “the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased” because this is the company Christ keeps.[9] ‘Being there’, and ‘being with’ those who live there, is not an ‘option’ that we, the church, can choose to take or leave – this is God’s preferential option for ‘the poor’, a fundamental and unavoidable aspect of discipleship for all Christians. This does not necessarily require stipendiary clergy, but ‘being with’ does demand the capacity for long-term presence and patient relationship-building. Small congregations can do this, with the right support. Houses might often be as valuable resources as church buildings. Small missional communities, so long as they are prepared for the ‘long haul’, could be faithful responses to this divine summons.

4.       The church’s need

Linked to the third reason, and the flip-side of the second, a fourth reason for remaining in the urban margins is that the church needs the marginalized. St Laurence, famously, when instructed to bring out the church’s treasures by the Prefect of Rome, gathered together the poor of the city and presented them to the Prefect: “here are the church’s treasures”. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community, has spent a lifetime showing us why those who appear to be ‘the strong’ need those who the world considers ‘weak’.[10] Far from platitudes, the church needs ‘the poor’ because the church itself is entangled in the sin of the world: the ‘unjust structures of society’ (#4) which include systemic racism, and the dynamics of capitalism which ‘expels’ those it deems ‘useless’ from the economy and from mainstream society.[11] The church needs to remain in areas with significant Muslim populations, if it is to challenge wider society’s Islamophobia and witness to the possibility of encounters with Muslims marked by hospitality and friendship.[12] The church needs to remain in areas with significant populations of people of colour (both within and beyond the church) if it is to have any chance of facing up to its own ongoing institutional racism.[13] And the church needs to remain in areas with significant levels of deprivation if it is to tackle its own complicity in structures and systems (both within and beyond the church) which benefit the middle-classes at the expense of the poor.[14] The church needs the marginalized precisely because they hold the keys to the church’s own reform and renewal. As Bishop Philip North has recently reminded us, ‘[e]very effective renewal movement in the whole history of the Church has begun not with the richest and most influential, but with the poor and marginalised’.[15] Here the role of clergy is significant: as those who can listen deeply in the local, and speak prophetically to the structures of the church, they occupy a crucial ‘middle ground’, without which the wider church is unlikely to hear the challenges that the urban margins present.

5.       The abundance of the kingdom

A fifth reason for the church to remain in the urban margins is, like the first, quite simple – but unlike the rather sterile equity argument, this last reason is rooted in a radically receptive economy: the church should remain in the urban margins because there it will discover the abundance of the Kingdom of God, abundant gifts not, perhaps, of money, but of friendships and stories, passions and skills, struggles and wisdom. Church buildings may be the least important asset for this kind of approach. A radically receptive Kingdom economy is adept at finding alternative spaces for gathering – indeed, is dependent on finding the spaces where people bump into each other already, rather than expecting them to come into ‘our’ spaces. As in the third approach above, small missional communities, committed to long-term presence, might well prove a worthwhile investment. A radically receptive Kingdom economy is, almost by definition, more focused on lay people in their daily lives than on clergy who at most times have at least one foot inside the church door.[16] In terms of paid personnel, however, I have already suggested that deacons, as ordained leaders in and co-ordinators of the work of ‘treasure-seeking’, may offer something distinctive and crucial to this kind of presence. But again, the priestly ministry of ‘gathering in’ also remains significant: investing in clergy with a radically receptive disposition, to put down roots in the urban margins, may enable the church to unleash the abundant gifts to be found in the margins, for the enrichment of both the wider church and the wider world.

6.       Growing the church?

In the financial-numerical economy, growing the number of people who participate in the life of the church – or at the very least sustaining it – is the over-riding priority. In neither the ‘kenotic Kingdom economy’ nor the ‘radically receptive Kingdom economy’ does this feature as a direct focus, but may arise indirectly. ‘How can we serve the needs of a neighbourhood if we don’t have any Christians left there to do so?’, we might well ask. Or alternatively, ‘surely we can be more attentive to, and receptive of, the abundant gifts of a neighbourhood if there’s more of us there with eyes and ears and hearts open to our neighbours?’ Pragmatically, these suggestions are surely both true. If we consider how our imaginations are shaped, however, both anxieties about survival and ambitions for expansion are likely to risk distracting us significantly from the missio dei, the Kingdom of God, bubbling up beyond the church’s own activities. There might, however, be a way of thinking about church growth that is more in line with the radically receptive Kingdom economy as outlined here. 

What if we thought of the church’s welcome less in terms of inclusion (making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to the church’s life to ensure all who come are able to participate), and more in terms of transfusion: we need our neighbours to become part of our bloodstream as a church for us to truly live. The metaphor quickly falls down, because a blood transfusion requires blood of the same type for it to be successful. Here I want to suggest, beyond human biology, that it precisely different blood types that the church needs within its bloodstream, so that, for example, a predominantly middle-class church is not just learning to receive the gifts and challenges of its working-class neighbours at the edges of church, but is changing fundamentally because ‘they’ are now a growing part of ‘us’. This is the most radical challenge recently issued by Pope Francis: not simply to be ‘church for the poor’ or ‘church with the poor’, but ‘church of the poor’. Something similar could be said of a predominantly white church engaging with neighbours of colour: how much more transformed would that church be if it had people of colour in its bloodstream, in its worship, in its decision-making bodies, in its leadership? In this final dimension of the church’s presence in the urban margins, the local church community needs ministers (lay and ordained) not just gifted at ‘sharing the gospel’ and ‘inviting people in’, but ministers who are alert to hear the gospel afresh from those neighbours with whom they engage, and who can enable the established congregation to be open to be changed radically by those who join them. Those ministers will also (as with both the fourth and fifth approach above) need to have the boldness to challenge the wider church to change too: to receive a ‘return on its investment’ that may be anything but financial, to receive new and often challenging blood into its ancient bloodstream.

[1] In Revd Dr Kate Bruce’s sermon at the Ordination of Deacons in Birmingham Cathedral this year, ‘treasure-seeker’ was one of the four images she offered as summing up the role of the ordained deacon. That is, I would suggest, a vital ‘diaconal’ role also to be shared by the whole people of God.
[4] See Al Barrett, Interrupting the Church’s flow: Engaging Graham Ward and Romand Coles in a radically receptive political theology in the urban margins (Amsterdam: VU University of Amsterdam, 2017).
[8] This would make a particular case for ongoing presence in rural parishes, in terms of some form of building, but not necessarily in terms of a paid clergyperson.
[9] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples, p.11.
[11] See e.g. Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014).
[12] As Richard Sudworth has recently put it: ‘[t]he financial vista of the Church of England suggests that many inner-city parishes for which that formative encounter with Islam is a daily reality are under threat. Many of these parish churches have small, dwindling congregations and are in some of the most deprived communities in the country. There are very real possibilities that the unique ways that religion in the public square is negotiated in the Christian-Muslim encounter will be lost to the Church within a generation. This would be a travesty for any remaining integrity that the Church of England retains for speaking into the national consciousness, and demands creativity, imagination and strategic sacrifice in the training and deployment of ministers in the future. The question is perhaps not whether the Church of England can afford to be present in such areas, rather whether it can afford not to be present to the Christian-Muslim encounter in our inner cities and towns’ (Sudworth 2017:187).
[13] White Anglican theologian Jenny Daggers invites other white Anglicans to acknowledge with contrition ‘our still-colonized minds’ – ‘our unacknowledged racism and our reinscription of colonial patterns’ – and to place a (‘decolonized’) commitment to evangelism ‘within [rather than alongside] the church’s wider mission to work for the common good of contemporary English society’. White British Anglicans need to receive postcolonial diversity as a gift, she argues: we need to learn ‘to be transformed, rather than to transform’ (Jenny Daggers, ‘Postcolonializing “Mission-Shaped Church”: The Church of England and Postcolonial Diversity’ in Kwok Pui-Lan & Stephen Burns (eds.), Postcolonial Practice of Ministry: Leadership, Liturgy and Interfaith Engagement (2016) pp.191-3).
[14] Anglican theologian Andrew Davey has recently noted the tendency for middle-class, suburban models and agendas for mission to become ‘normative’ within the Church of England (Andrew Davey, ‘Introduction: Deep Theology for a Spacious City?’, in Andrew Davey (ed.), Crossover City: Resources for Urban Mission and Transformation (2010), p.x).
[15] ‘Hope for the Poor’, talk to New Wine ‘United’ Conference 2017, p.3
[16] While the focus of my PhD thesis is primarily on why and how we might practice a ‘radically receptive ecclesiology in the urban margins’, I do at a number of points return to the question of who.