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Robert Mackley

27 March 2015


Strategic thinking

OUR diocese has a strategy. These days, of course, everyone has strategies, mission plans, targets, and so forth. I was amused to read the other day that, in fact, the largest decline in congregations in the Scottish Episcopal Church has happened in dioceses especially committed to strategies, plans, and schemes for growth.

I'm not sure what to make of that, but trust that Ely is coming late to this game, and so someone else will have done the declining for us by now. It is certainly one thing I am very happy to see devolved to Scotland.

As you will know, you cannot have a strategy without graphs, and we have a lovely one that charts financial strength on one axis, and missional strength on another axis. I imagine that whichever diocese you are in has something similar. Financial strength is fairly obvious, but you may wonder what is meant by missional strength. As I type this, my computer - even more of a traditionalist than me - underlines "missional" with a squiggly red line, expressing the doubts I imagine the word raises in more than a few minds.

Missional strength is measured by several things, including how many Fresh Expressions you have; the size of your electoral roll; community activities; and how few elderly people you have. Apparently, in some versions of this (not, I'm sure, in Ely), you get points taken off for having people over 70 years old. Who needs Dignitas in Switzerland, it turns out, when you can aim for missional strength in England? 

Originating in Scotland

I CONSIDERED celebrating St Patrick wearing a green chasuble, and we have sparkling rosé wine after mass on the fourth Sunday of Lent, but that's as far as Fresh Expressions go at our gaff. The parish yoof organised a Burns Night supper at the end of January, which was certainly communal, and involved a sung grace - thus including a sight more religion than a lot of things now registered under the F.E. label.

I even managed to address the haggis in a Scottish accent, which surely wins Brownie points in enculturation and transnational harmony stakes? It's practically interfaith work.

Actually, to be accurate, it started in a Scottish accent, but seemed to lurch into Irish, and then possibly even Welsh by the time I got to the last verse. I should probably have tried the whisky afterwards rather than before. 

Blue blood required

IT IS all very well looking at the size of the electoral roll, but it has always seemed to me that quality rather than quantity ought to be the primary factor when thinking about missional strength.

While on holiday in north Norfolk recently, I visited a number of churches, and was filled with envy. My jealousy came not from the beautiful buildings or delightful surroundings, but from the tone of their electoral rolls. They didn't just have the usual Mr and Mrs, and Dr, but Baronets and Viscounts. In fact, I didn't visit a single church that lacked someone with a fancy title. Each may have been a tenth or a fifth the size of our electoral roll, but they had what one could only call "bottom".

It seems to me that if the diocese of Norwich has a strategy (and if not, why not, we must ask), it needs to start awarding missional-strength points to parishes on this basis. They may not be maintaining numbers, but they can certainly maintain standards. Now, it may be that Lord So-and-so is over 70, but his title will at least offset the loss of points from him being as good as dead.

To befair to the Norfolk churches, they did have other things that impressed. They were open, for a start. This, alas, is not a measure of missional strength in any strategy I have encountered so far (presumably on the grounds that only Evangelical churches are mission-ally strong, and they are always locked). Also, they had better contents.

I have got a memorial to George Washington's great-uncle in my church; but I have nothing to compare with the parish of Brancaster, in which I found on display a Book of Common Prayer from Queen Anne's day, open at the page for the Touching for the King's Evil. I mean, who needs Charismatic renewal and the Toronto Blessing when you can have a liturgy for scrofula? Churches that can get rid of types of tuberculosis strike me as having whopping missional strength - although of course you would lose points if the sufferer was over 70. 

Queen trumps all

I HAVE already indicated our fervour for recruiting new souls by telling you of the sparkling pink wine on Mothering Sunday. What I have not told you about is the quality of our youth catechesis. This, alas, is also not a measure of missional strength. I feel it should be, however.

Seasoned churchgoers will know the perils of Mothering Sunday. All too often, it descends into an unchristian sentimental mush of family worship (by which I fear I mean worship of the family). Plenty of people have terrible relationships with their mothers; others have lost their mums; and there are mums who've lost their children, and couples who can't have children. One must tread carefully, therefore, not least given our Lord's somewhat ambivalent attitude to the whole business of biological relations.

Anyway, while we harangued the adults in the nave, the children were enjoying some apposite teaching in the parish hall. Recognising the varied and complex business of the modern family, the teacher decided that perhaps now was a judicious moment for inculcating a little more of the Catholic faith.

"Even if some of us don't have a mum around, does anyone know who it is that all Christians have in common as their mother?" our Pastoral Assistant asked, rhetorically, not entirely expecting an answer. To which they all responded, as if with one voice, "Mary!"

It's moments like this that make one realise that the parish has potential. After all, who needs a Viscount on the electoral roll when the kids know about the Queen of Heaven? 

The Rev'd Robert Mackley is Vicar of Little St Mary's, Cambridge.

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