Last night I was helping with Communion for 7,000 people in the Big Top at Spring Harvest in Minehead. Having driven back to Croydon into the early hours, I spent this morning at Southwark Cathedral reaffirming ordination vows with hundreds of diocesan clergy. Last night the music was led by a superb band (led by Ben Cantelon – never heard of him before, but he was a wonderful worship leader); this morning the music was led by the Cathedral choir and organ.
I think it is an enormous privilege to be in contexts where the cultures of worship can be so diverse. I have had a lot of prejudices about some expressions of contemporary worship and previous experience of Spring Harvest worship has not helped these. But Ben was sensitive to what else was going on and – most importantly – simply got on with the songs without having to talk all the time. It was a model of unobtrusive worship leadership that fitted into a bigger picture and wasn’t driven by a massive ego. My prejudices were seriously challenged (though my questions about worship music generally remain active!).
This morning’s service saw the four bishops in the Diocese of Southwark facing the packed cathedral – which enabled me to look out at the assembled clergy. Here we had several hundred men and women who, because of their commitment to the mission of Jesus Christ and often at great personal cost, work away in all sorts of parishes in very diverse and demanding contexts. They have some fantastic stories to tell about faithful service of a community and sometimes extraordinary exercise of leadership in challenging places.
One of the points I made during addresses in Minehead was that most churches are not ‘large’ or ‘successful’ in terms of numbers or the making of dramatic headlines. Taking what John Bell called ‘the greatness of the small’ (based on a good understanding of the thrust of the parables of Jesus in the gospels), these clergy lead Christian communities not for the sake of the church itself, but for the sake of the parish or institution (hospitals, schools, colleges, etc.) in which the churhc is located. This is a unique gift and challenge for the Church of England which organises itself territorially: we do not just put our churches where we can maximise consumer growth, but we are everywhere, committed to serving and loving those who live in our parishes, whether they ‘belong’ or not. This goes for inner urban, suburban, outer urban, rural, market town, large estate and anywhere else you can think of.
We aren’t always good at telling our stories. One reason for this is that our clergy are busy getting on with the substance of the job rather than talking about it in PR terms. We are still to be found in places from which every other church has departed. But the point is that the Kingdom of God comes in the places where people plug away, day in day out, not doing anything ‘big’ or dramatic, but just living out the love of God where they are.
I know from experience that many of our clergy get ground down by the negativity about the Church which is to be encountered in the media and – sadly – in other churches. Some of our larger churches seem to think that their large numbers prove that God is on their side and endorsing them. That may sometimes be true, but there is something wrong if it leads to arrogance or muscle-flexing in the context of power-struggles about ‘issues’ in the Church. And this apparent ‘success’ should not hide the fact that most of the seed sown by our churches happens in ordinary places through ordinary people doing ordinary and ‘small’ things.
I thank God that I have large churches in my Episcopal Area where this is well understood and there is a real concern to support service and mission beyond the remit of the large-church parish. The Church of England is remarkable and has a unique gift and responsibility in creating the space for so many different cultures in worship and service, not competing but recognising the Spirit of God at work in all sorts of odd places and people.
So, here’s to Anglican clergy who lead these communities and often have to put up with a negative press. They are wonderful and deserve encouragement as they quietly get on with the job – often against the odds.