New Year, new developments for our churches

A photo of the central aisle at St Mary's, lined by candles for a New Year's eve weddingWith the start of the New Year, there is plenty of chance to begin something new. New Year resolutions are being made (and probably broken) and while we all get one year older, perhaps we have a fresh chance to get one year wiser and live in a better, more fulfilling way.

At both St Mary’s and St Michael’s, the respective Church Councils have been pondering ‘new things’ for around six months and thinking about how we might move forward as churches. We’ve talked about what we want to make priorities to further our worship and ministry as well as our love and service to those beyond the church.

St Michael’s Offham have a meeting in January to decide on their list of priorities, but St Mary’s met last month and have decided to focus on a few things in the near future that may make a big difference to the life of the church. I would like to tell you about them.

Some matters are fairly small, some are much more substantial.

In the early New Year, we expect to provide some ‘Welcome cards’. For guests, visitors and people exploring faith for the first time, it’s important to help people make contact if they want to ask for some help or explore their questions.

In terms of bigger things, we are hoping to revamp our children’s area to make it a more comfortable and welcoming environment for the youngest and littlest members of our community. Some money has already been raised for this task and we hope to begin spending it in the early New Year.

Meanwhile, some big things feel very, very big. Scary big.

St Mary’s PCC has also resolved to explore our options for installing a toilet and kitchen facilities in the church building at West Malling. There are various potential options and we may draw up plans with several phases, depending on what we can achieve and what funds we can raise. One of the most obvious routes is to make use of our lovely Church Tower (which is in need of a bit of fresh care anyway), create a mezzanine level for the bell-ringers to use which would then free up the ground-level space for both a lavatory and refreshment facilities. It’s not the only option though and we’ll look at all the alternatives.

The first step is a feasibility study and we’ll be hoping to set that in motion in the coming few months. Beyond that, we’ll need to consult widely, draw up careful plans and lots of different permissions sought. There will be plenty of time for both the church and the wider community to feed their thoughts into the process. We will also be looking to raise funds to make these things happen and, given that many different groups use the church, we hope that the wider community will be moved to contribute and be generous. We’ve already received our first £200 for ‘the loo fund’ and we’re grateful to those who have already been willing to back this project.

Ultimately, when you have very elderly people and very young children and mums using the church at different times, when we are hosting an increasing number of music concerts and other community events, let alone hosting many families for baptisms, weddings and funerals, the lack of a loo is a real problem. We hope that, if we achieve this together, it will make our church building a more helpful and friendly place to be. We hope you will support this idea and perhaps donate a few quid in order to spend a penny!

Always Christmas, never Narnia

My daughter, just coming up on eight years old, is forever pestering me at bedtime to read The Chronicles of Narnia. In part, it’s a delaying tactic – knowing that if she can convince her Dad to sit and read, she won’t have to go to bed quite yet.

She also knows I love the Narnia stories of Aslan, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy and she stands a better chance than most of convincing me to say ‘yes’ if she opts for those stories over say, Ballerina Tales.

In part, however, she asks because they are such wonderful stories. She enjoys them. There is often a numinous quality to the writing that speaks of something Other; the deep magic of a hidden Creator and Saviour lurking not so far from our sight. From my perspective, they are never far from that Christian thread where Aslan represents the Jesus figure of the stories. Another good reason why her Dad is usually malleable at bedtime.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four children encounter a Narnia encased in snow and ice. ‘Always winter but never Christmas’ is the cry to describe a world at a distance from its Creator, dominated by a White Witch who is both a vain and cruel mistress to the world and the people she pretends to serve. One of the key moments in the book is when the snow starts to melt and Father Christmas makes a somewhat unexpected appearance… Aslan must be on his way if Christmas is finally near.

I was struck by a recent newspaper article about a family who grow Christmas trees for a living. The husband, Geoff, said, “You do get a bit sick of Christmas. My wife has a saying: ‘Always Christmas, never Narnia’. You lose some of the magic.”

We live in an impatient world where, pretty much as soon as the firework sales were over for November 5th, shops were gearing up for Christmas. But the danger of rushing ahead, of not allowing ourselves that crucial Christian season of Advent in which we watch and wait and prepare ourselves for the coming King, is that we end up with always Christmas, never Narnia.

The shops only reflect what we want. If our patterns change, so will they.

Don’t rush ahead this year. Let Advent be a real time of preparation so that the deep magic has its chance and Christmas is all it should be.

Dear Kings Hill, Offham and West Malling, I am so sorry…

Dear Kings Hill, Offham and West Malling,

I am so very, very sorry. I’m not going to pretend that this is the first time that the Church of England has let anybody down; I’m sure we’ve done it before and I am sure we’ll do it again. Ultimately, like anyone else, we are fragile, flawed human beings – that’s basically what the Christian faith is all about: the rescue of fragile, flawed human beings.

But on this one, it feels like we’ve particularly failed very badly.
On Tuesday evening, our General Synod failed to muster enough support to finally authorise the legislation that would have paved the way for women to become Bishops.

I appreciate that the theological niceties of their debates are lost on most people. Some of them are lost on me. Our wider society has long recognised the equality of men and women and, indeed, many people in the Church see things the same way.
The vast majority of us actually think and believe that Jesus was a radically inclusive teacher and leader for his time. He welcomed women into his following, they were the first witnesses at the resurrection, and some of them are named in the New Testament as deacons and apostles. Jesus enabled them to lead in a way which was unheard of at the time. In that sense, this legislation was trying to put things back the way they were when the Church first began.

Given that the legislation failed, you might assume that the Church is basically anti-women. The press certainly think so – all the headlines were about the Church ‘rejecting women bishops’ but that’s not really what happened.

74% of the people in General Synod voted in favour of women bishops. 95% of the geographical Dioceses voted in favour, including the Diocese we are in – the Diocese of Rochester. Please don’t let the media’s spin make those statistics disappear. If they had applied that level of interest and majority vote to the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections, we’d have a landslide!

But then that makes me doubly sorry and you must be doubly confused.

I’m sorry that we didn’t get the legislation to enable women to become Bishops, but I’m also sorry that our system is such that even with such a high proportion of the vote in favour, we still couldn’t get it done.

The reason we couldn’t get it done was because our Bishops, our Clergy and our Congregations all had to vote in favour by at least two thirds. The Bishops and the Clergy did so in overwhelming numbers. Our Laity, the representatives of ordinary congregations, voted in favour too but their vote was 64% and we needed 66%. We needed two percent more… or just six people to vote differently. And so the legislation failed.

In one sense, there’s a positive side to the fact we set such a high bar to our voting. You ought to be able to hold your Church to a higher standard. We tend to hold ourselves to a higher standard and so it’s a good thing that such a high majority have to approve any major changes that we make.

The irony of this situation is that one ‘higher standard’ has actually meant we’ve failed to reach the more important ‘higher standard’ – that of seeing women and men able to serve equally with no barriers to senior leadership for either gender.

I want to reassure you that this isn’t the end of the matter. Synod actually said, some years ago, that there was no theological objection to women becoming Bishops and that statement still stands. It means that we just need to find a form of legislation that (at least) 66% of General Synod can agree with (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity) and that work has already started.

The main reason that the legislation failed is that there is another perspective within the Church that women ought not to be Bishops. You may well agree with that view and some do still struggle with the idea. I understand that.

Like the view that women ought to be Bishops, the view that they should not be Bishops can be reasoned from Scripture and is a position that is held not because such people are misogynists or bigoted, as our press and politicians like to suggest, but because they sincerely believe that is what God’s Word teaches.

I love the fact that the Church of England is a broad church. We have everyone from very high Anglo-Catholics through to very low Evangelicals. Because we are a national Church that tries to minister to the whole of England, we try to keep everyone on board. But that means that this legislation needed to find a way for those conscientious objectors to be able to find their place.

Again, in one sense, there’s a positive side to that. I would hope that you would want a Church that spoke out for minority voices and didn’t cast people out simply because they didn’t agree with the majority line. We’ve all seen what happens in history when societies, cultures, political systems and even religions start to get exclusive and intolerant of those who disagree.

So, we have a lot of work to do. We need to find that form of legislation that is going to enable women to be Bishops and for those who conscientiously object to continue to have their place and practice their particular spirituality within the Church of England and the Christian faith.

We also need to think about our system. While a higher standard is an excellent thing to be held to, it does all seem a bit daft that with 74% of the vote, the legislation still didn’t pass.

In this diocese, Rochester passed the legislation overwhelmingly at diocesan level. But then three out of our five lay representatives on General Synod voted against. To my mind, there’s something deeply wrong there. It also means that, amongst the Church, I will be saying that we must take Synod elections very seriously and elect people who we believe will represent our best interests. I’m not sure we’ve always given it our enthusiasm and priority in the past… to our great shame now.

I’m honestly not quite sure how we’re going to get to where we need to go and the vote on Monday has made it a lot more complicated because Parliament has now become deeply involved in this debate.  For the first time in history on Thursday the Speaker allowed an emergency question to the Second Estates Commissioner.  24 MP’s spoke.  Not one had a good word to say about the decision taken by the General Synod.  We need to remember that as the Established Church, any legal provisions in the Measure will have to pass through Parliament and so what they think does matter.

To quote Bishop Steven Croft, the Bishop of Sheffield, I believe that this next period will continue to be an extremely difficult one for those opposed to women as priests and bishops. The alliance between conservative evangelicals opposed to women’s headship and anglo-catholics opposed to the ordination of women from a sacramental perspective will be subject to significant scrutiny.  I expect these two very different theological positions will attract increased attention and criticism.  Before Tuesday’s vote, these two positions had not been much examined and tested in public debate.  They were simply respected as minority views held in good conscience.  However they now, sadly, have much greater importance and will be subject to much closer scrutiny from our wider society.

However sincere the convictions of those who voted against the Measure, it is my honest view that the standing of the Church of England in our nation has been damaged by all this. On the Alan Carr TV show on Friday night, he mentioned the vote and the Church of England was roundly booed by the audience. That grieved me deeply that our nation would think of us so.

I hope and pray it is temporary. This decision has already made it more difficult for me to proclaim the gospel with joy and confidence in our communities, and yet that is my calling and responsibility before God, as indeed it is yours also. All we can do is love people, I think, and show by our actions that we are not what they think we are.

We have been in difficult places before.  We are a Church who believes in hope and resurrection and that God is at work in every situation.  However, on any understanding, these are serious matters.

Please also be reassured in the knowledge that a vast number of Bishops and Clergy, including myself, who are deeply disappointed by the fact that the legislation did not pass into law. I’ve met a number of Clergy in the last week at a Diocesan function at which the Bishop of Rochester spoke and it’s clear we’re all hurting too, many of us very deeply – many women Priests (for very obvious reasons) but many of the men also. I’ve cried often this week.

Please be gentle with us if you decide to accost us in the street and give us a piece of your mind about the whole thing – the chances are that we agree with you. I certainly do.

The Bishop of Rochester has publicly said he has no desire to stay in a House of Bishops until his retirement if it remains all men. If I’m honest, I won’t be part of the Church of England in the long-term either if our power structures can’t find a way to make this important step a reality.

But I’m not quitting yet. The everyday business of being a Vicar continues. It remains a privilege to stand with you in worship, enable you to mark significant moments in life with special occasions and services, work hard at making the church a place of welcome, play an active role in our local communities and seek all that’s good in life with you and for you.

I also believe that the Church of England will get there. I appreciate it may be frustrating and hard for you to see. We live in a fairly fast-moving and instant world and often the Church isn’t much like that. Please bear with us. We’re two thousand years old and we tend to think in a different timeframe.

I continue to believe that we can be renewed and transformed and able to speak to our society, and I continue to believe that the good Lord has me here to be a small part of that process. So I’m here and moving forward and conscious that more than ever, a good dose of humility and a loving attitude towards those I serve may go a long way to getting us further down that road.

This Sunday we reach the end of the Christian year with readings that remind us that Christ is the King. His kingdom is not of this world but he sits at the right hand of God the Father and one day, he will return for his church. On a day like today and in a week like this one, that knowledge gives me great comfort and confidence. Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father. One day his bride, the Church, will be purified and made right and we pray and long and hope and yearn for that day to come.

But until then, I’ll be here working and praying and seeking the Kingdom of God alongside you all. I hope you can forgive us and bear with us while, together, we all try to put this right and make Jesus’ Bride, God’s church, a little more of what she ought to be.

With my love and best wishes

Your Priest-in-Charge, David.

From the Vicar: Roots and wings

You wouldn’t think that a Best Man speech and counselling those in need would have very much in common.

The other day I had the enormous privilege of both officiating at my best friend’s wedding but also being his Best Man (and no I didn’t try to stand in two places at once during the ceremony). All went very well and we had a fabulous time celebrating my mate and his new bride as they embarked on this holy mystery that God has given us in marriage.

Something stuck with me though. In his speech, the Father of the Bride quoted this proverb (sometimes attributed to Jonas Salk):

“Good parents give their children roots and wings: roots to know where home is, and wings to fly off and practice what has been taught them.”

It’s a quote that I really liked immediately and has given me much to think about since. What a lovely image of my duties as a dad… giving my kids enough security and protection and ability to make roots that they know instantly where they can call home and feel they are home, but also encouraging them to use their wings in time and embrace all that life will bring them.

And yet, I’ve also found that proverb having fresh resonance as I’ve spent time with a small handful of people in this last month who have needed some help of various kinds. In more than one case, and while it is hard to attribute these things directly, I couldn’t help but wonder about the influence of their parents in years gone by. Even now, as grown adults, sometimes very senior in years, it is tricky things, tricky relationships with fathers or mothers that cause them to stumble even years later.

What a huge responsibility we have as parents and it’s probably easier than we realise to make mistakes and do damage. I’m sure I probably ought not to quote Philip Larkin’s poem but those that know what I’m referencing will immediately hear the resonance.

Proverbs 13:1 says “A wise child loves discipline, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” (NRSV). There’s a paraphrased version of the Bible called The Message that puts that verse thus: “Intelligent children listen to their parents; foolish children do their own thing.” But that rather assumes that the parents are giving good advice and raising their kids well.

I think Ephesians provides a wise counterbalance. Again, children are exhorted to respect and obey their father and mother but then the writer continues: “Parents, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph 6:1ff)

My children are an incredible gift to me. I am sure that if you read this and have children yourself, you will feel similar or exactly the same about your offspring. But it’s good not to take gifts for granted and, occasionally, it is good to remember the magnitude of the responsibility entrusted to all those of us who have children – whether they are still young, teenagers, mature adults or even with kids of their own. We are to give them roots and wings, and hopefully avoid giving too much material for Larkin to make use of.

David Green