Last week (24th - 27th November) the clergy and a number of licenced lay ministers from the Diocese of Peterborough decamped from the midlands and borderland-east to take up residence in Swanwick, Derbyshire for a three-yearly residential conference. The title was "I will build my church", taken from Matthew 16:18. The focus was therefore on mission and growing the church. For the conference I wrote the following prayer, which was used throughout.
Pour our your Holy Spirit, Lord,
upon your church
that it may grow in faith, hope and love.
Inspire it in service,
ignite it to action,
instil it with holiness
that all people may be drawn into your embrace
and rejoice as citizens of your Kingdom;
through Jesus Christ,
the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.
It proved to capture the theme better than I could have realised when I wrote it back in January.
What follows are my highlights and reflections on what we were given by the main speakers.
Confidence and Trust in the builder
Bishop Donald's opening address reflected on the title phrase. When we look at that phrase about the church being built upon the rock of Peter, the emphasis tends to be placed on Peter, not least when set to music. But he preferred to look at who is building, on the 'I' of 'I will build'. It is Christ and therefore he called for a renewed confidence that the church has a divine commission. He asserted that it is impossible for the church to die because it is Jesus who brings it into being and sustains it. Its existence is the fulfilment of his purpose and that will not be thwarted. Clearly specific forms of it can die and do over the centuries, but the existence of a church is the clear intension of God in Christ. It is through it that Jesus intends to bless the world, the gospel be preached, even in the darkest places which will not prevail against it.
Growth always involves change and so growing more like Jesus will require the church in its current form to change, as it has in each generation. It changes as it reconnects with the 'I' of 'I will build my church'.
On 'the gates of hell', referred to in the key passage, he described these as being wherever people are trapped in fear, abuse, addition, poverty, treatable ill-health; wherever the love of Jesus is not known. There is nowhere out of reach and which cannot be transformed. They therefore will not prevail against the church that is built by him. Ones not built by him deserve to crumble.
Deep roots and irrigation systems
On the second day the key address was given by Robert Atwell, the new Bishop of Exeter. He drew his title from Thomas Traherne, 'Oak trees flourishing in winter'. In his garden he has a Lucombe oak tree which is semi-evergreen. It sustains this by a vast root system which penetrate very deeply into the ground. This enables nutrients to be drawn even when the surface may be dry or inhospitable for a season. His encouragement was to be deeply rooted in prayer. This is the distinctive contribution which the church offers. If we do not talk about God, we have no purpose beyond any other group.
He described prayer as being like digging channels in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water so that when the water comes we are ready for that grace to irrigate the heart. This goes against the instant, consumer culture because it has to be worked at over time. But that's what disciples, followers of Jesus, do. And there is no other point to the church.
In a workshop before hand he spoke about the need for contemplative leaders, drawing on the Rule of St Benedict. Bishop Robert is a former Benedictine monk. One of the other pitfalls for modern life is its frenetic nature, over activism. Burnt out, exhausted Christians are not a good advert for the Kingdom of God. Contemplation is the wellspring of Christian mission.
Get real and face the challenge
The third main talk was from the National Adviser for Mission and Evangelism for the Church of England, Rachel Jordan. Seatbelts were needed because her high octane presentation was a whirlwind of passion to get real about the challenge we face. The statistics have been presented by many others of declining numbers, and particularly among young people who are by and large just not attracted to what they find, if they look. Church leaders need a clear vision of where they are (the reality of the situation) and of where they are trying to get to. She based her presentation around the story in the Old Testament of Gideon. She declared that we have forgotten who God is and need to encounter God afresh. She quoted Pope Francis' recent encyclical on evangelisation, "A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love will convince nobody". In contrast passion convinces and draws.
Gideon had to deal with idols and one of those she identified was the church having become a bit of a club. Changing the culture of a church often causes a rumpus and we can expect conflict. Continuing with her biblical model, people wanted to kill Gideon. Mission demands conflict. She also retold the parable of 'the lost sheep' as 'the lost flock'. The 99 have wandered off and we are left with the 1, not the other way round. Where her talk was less convincing for me was that it was low on solutions having spent a lot of time identifying the statistical decline. Solutions of course come from analysing a particular setting and knowing where that place needs to travel to. It was a talk that begged an awful lot more questions.
For me the key messages I will take away are in the subheadings above: a renewed confidence in the one who builds the church and who calls it into being (the 'I' of "I will build"), the call to develop deep roots through prayer and remember that we have a gospel to proclaim, to be contemplative, and the challenge to get real and face the challenge - when it brings conflict not to be surprised (though like Gideon part of me would like to hide in a hole in the ground). To aid those we were given three outstanding Bible Studies on the Gospel of Mark by Paul Foster from Edinburgh University. Passion rekindled and confidence renewed.