I don’t often post notes of churchy stuff I have been doing. But this last week has been full of it: three-day Southwark Bishop’s Staff Residential followed by a horrendous journey up north to address the National Deaneries Conference at Swanwick last night. I managed to fit in the Chris Evans Show (with the very nice Richard Madeley) in the morning before heading out of the Smoke.

The address last night was aimed at helping those involved in the ‘local’ structures of the Church to keep their focus on (a) who and what the Church is there for, (b) whom the ‘structures’ are supposed to serve, and (c) where the heart of the Kingdom (presence) of God is to be found. Basically, it looked something like this:

  • Structures of themselves achieve and change nothing. It is the people who work them who make a difference… or hide behind the structures as a form of self-justifying ‘distraction therapy’.
  • There are two approaches to ‘law’ in the life of the Church: (a) ask what the law allows us to do, or (b) ask what we want to achieve and then work out how to make the law allow us to get there. One approach is creative; the other is defensive.
  • Fiddling with church structures (size of deaneries, for example) can be like painting the pipes on the Pompidou Centre without asking if the air is actually flowing through them…
  • So, why do we have deaneries? What are they for? Who are they for? We have to go back to the fundamental vocation of the Church – which I simplify as: ‘to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God’. This picks up on Moltmann’s intriguing:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

The bible is full of humour and seriousness in its warnings to us about losing track of our fundamental vocation and purpose:

  • Israel (the people of God), called to show the world who and how God is, mistakes responsibility (to give up its life) for privilege (look at us, we are special). The prophets call them back to their vocation (see the Servant Songs of Isaiah). Jesus fulfils what was always the calling of Israel – then charges his people to ‘be him’ in their world.
  • Jonah is classic: shown the generosity of God (grace), he does not want to extend this to people he doesn’t like (Ninevites). It’s all about grace and generosity and God’s faithfulness even where we are miserable.
  • James & John constantly misunderstand the nature of Jesus’s Kingdom, but he doesn’t despair of them. (I made a case for their father, Zebedee, being a better model of discipleship than the two brothers.)
  • The guys on the Emmaus Road are met by a risen Jesus who walks alongside them, starts with questions (not statements), meets them where they are, then re-tells their story in a new way – one which makes their hearts burn within them. Their worldview had no place for a dead messiah; Jesus re-shaped it and they saw the difference.
  • Jesus was essentially Anglican. Clergy and parishes are thrown together by geographical proximity (deaneries) and their witness is how they get on together despite their differences of culture, style, language or theology. This reflects the disciples in the Gospels: Jesus does the calling, they do the following… together. They don’t get a veto on who else Jesus calls.

This all leads to a question of how we identify the purpose of deaneries and structures as servants of the Gospel and not masters of the message/life. Mark 1:14-15 sums up the ‘good news of God’ as: (a) God is present even while the Romans (i.e. all the messiness, oppression, unresolved stuff of life and the world) remain. God is not simply to be found where everything is resolved and made nice. Read the Gospels! (b) Dare we look at God (and his presence/activity) differently in order to see (God, the world and us) differently in order to think differently in order to live differently?

These questions will help us better focus on how we run our deaneries and to what end. They will also raise questions about whether we have the right people leading our deaneries.

I should have finished with encouragement from the slow-witted friends of Jesus when (in Mark 10) they were instructed to bring the blind man Bartimaeus to Jesus (rather than see their mission being to protect Jesus…):

Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.