Permanent change to parish church and ministry?
From the Revd Andrew Lightbown
Sir, — I read “Lockdown could change the Church permanently” (Comment, 29 May) with considerable interest. Its authors are, of course, correct to suggest that the Church may look very different post Covid-19. They are also right to suggest that parish priests should constantly reflect on their practice; for we are mandated to “preach the gospel afresh in every generation”. I would, however, like to challenge three of their basic assumptions.
The first of these is that what they refer to as taking services is somehow distinct from formation, prayer, pastoral care, and mission. Surely, they are all interwoven and bound together in and through our common language, a language taught in context by the parish priest: liturgy. Taking services is an important part of the life and work of the priest. It isn’t a chore, but an honour and a privilege — a privilege that culminates in the instruction to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Second, although many of our buildings are expensive to maintain, I don’t think that it is fair to describe them as “the prison”. Indeed, for many, the church building is a place of liberation and freedom, where people learn to be truly themselves. The church can be thought of as a workshop where musicians and artists find release for their talents to the glory of God; a safe haven, a foretaste of heaven, for those seeking peace, quietness, and refuge; and a school for the Lord’s service. The church, as a physical place, has always been a place of both divine and human encounter. Yes, our buildings can be very expensive to maintain, but the cost may be worth it. What price a human soul and a life transformed?
Lastly, it is, of course, right that we always reflect on that which constitutes good preaching, but, again, do we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Many people over the years have been deeply moved and challenged by prayerfully crafted homilies. Is there any real evidence that this form of teaching should be jettisoned? Is there any real evidence that dialogical sermons are more effective?
Our buildings are important not in their own right, but as workshops, schools, and places of encounter and liberation. We need to be very careful in how we approach a “radical rethink of the work of the parish priest”.
The Vicarage, Vicarage Road
Buckinghamshire MK18 3BJ
From Canon Rob Kelsey
Sir, — The “radical rethink of the work of a parish priest” is not all that radical.
I wish we could escape the tired old trope of the church building as a burden, or a “prison”. In my experience of the rural Church, the ministry of the parish priest has never been “simply to ‘take services’”, and the idea that the priest should “pastor, train, and mobilise the community of faith” is fine in itself, but too narrow. The parish priest is more than a chaplain to the congregation.
In my experience of the rural Church, much of the creative, imaginative stuff that the authors describe is already happening. But I would hope that the lockdown provides us with time to think more theologically, and stop thinking that being the Church primarily involves doing stuff.
The incarnation teaches us that matter matters to God. And, in rural areas at least, church buildings matter to people, and not just those who might think of themselves as “God’s people”. Being locked out of our church buildings might help us move away from the idea that the church is a kind of ark for the chosen few. We are all, as it were, in the same boat.
If we want to be radical, let’s get back to the roots of the Church of England’s self-understanding. Church buildings belong to the whole community, and are an asset, not a burden. The parish priest serves the whole parish, not just the congregation. Our task is to help the church — both building and congregation — to be an integral part of the wider community.
I applaud the authors’ description of mission as service to the local community, but service with and alongside the local community might be even better. So much of what passes for mission seems designed to emphasise the difference between Christians and other people. I would rather emphasise what we have in common.
The Vicarage, Church Lane
Berwick upon Tweed TD15 2LF
‘Only a suffering God’: response to Canon Tilby
From Dr Robert Twycross
Sir, — For me, Canon Angela Tilby’s reflection (Comment, 22 May) illustrates two things.
First, the danger of overlooking the fact that an infinite God is, by definition, ineffable and inscrutable, and thus paradox will almost certainly be inevitable when we use words to portray him or her. Second, the mistake of doing theology from the top down rather than in an integrated bottom up–top down way: emphasising traditional church orthodoxy and seemingly ignoring the insights of those working and living at the coalface of human suffering is unlikely to lead to a balanced real-life outcome. Further, when unbalanced top-down theology holds sway, the outcome is likely to be — in the short or longer term — a rejection of the false presentation of God.
As someone who spent most of his medical career as a hospice/palliative-care physician, I found Canon Tilby’s reflection deeply disturbing. Her rejection of a God who suffers in favour of (quoting from a Puritan prayer) a God of infinite serenity and for ever at perfect peace is not a God who could sustain me during 30 years working “in the valley of the shadow of death”, nor today in retirement, as I witness the ravages of the present pandemic.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not alone when he stated that “only a suffering God can help”: many others whose lives have been scarred by suffering, either first- or second-hand, have said the same. The First World War chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy wrote, “My only real God is the suffering Father revealed in the sorrow of Christ.” Indeed, it was these words that sustained me during my clinical years, and have done so since. In contrast, Canon Tilby’s God is a complete turn-off. I doubt if I am alone: I imagine that, among many others, all those working in health care would feel the same.
Tewsfield, Netherwoods Road
Oxford OX3 8HF
West Bank plan in legal and historical context
From Dr Jonathan Chaplin
Sir, — Gerald Butt (Comment, 29 May) is undoubtedly correct that the Israeli government’s plan unilaterally to annex up to 30 per cent of the West Bank — legitimated in its own eyes by Trump’s mendacious “peace” plan — will destroy not only hopes of a two-state solution, but all prospects of peace between Israel and Palestine in any foreseeable future. Mr Butt’s article adopts the style of descriptive journalism rather than moral censure. But a crucial fact missing from his account is that such an annexation would be blatantly illegal.
Acknowledging this fact then reminds us that numerous actions of the Israeli State towards Palestine since its foundation in 1948 have violated international law. This is an indispensable part of the history that Mr Butt tries to relate, but he is silent on it. The very foundation of the Israeli State involved a pre-emptive military seizure of 78 per cent of Palestinian land without international authorisation (the UN’s own Partition Plan of 1947 had offered it 55 per cent, including many of the most fertile areas, even though Jews amounted to only one third of the population and owned only one tenth of the land).
That seizure caused the forcible expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their own land: an egregious injustice that has never been fully acknowledged by the international community, but that will never be forgotten in Palestine.
Given the enormity of the Holocaust, there was undoubtedly a compelling case for a “Jewish homeland” after the Second World War. But those voices calling for what was probably the only available just solution at the time — a single Palestinian federal state with autonomous areas for both Jews and Palestinians — were drowned out by a cacophony of local, regional, and imperial interests, pre-eminently those of Britain, which shamefully abandoned the Palestinian people to the Zionist conquest that inevitably followed the failure of the UN plan.
With the effective demise of a two-state solution, even some Israeli observers are now reviving the idea of a one-state solution based on equal standing for Palestinians and Jews. Building momentum behind such an idea might take a generation, but UK government support for it would be one small way to atone for its own appalling historical betrayal of the Palestinian people — a moral fact that it still refuses to acknowledge.
19 Coles Lane
Cambridge CB24 3AF
Courts and excuses
From Mr Simon Lloyd
Sir, — I have been marking the 20th anniversary of my qualification as a solicitor. I have practised throughout in the field of criminal law, mainly in magistrates’ courts throughout Lancashire. I leave the profession shortly to be ordained.
Where was Rhys Burriss (Letters, 29 May) during my time in practice? The court clerks and magistrates in Lancashire have always been very quick to see through the many half-baked excuses offered up by my clients to explain their behaviour. I could have done with Mr Burriss on the bench instead. He would appear able to believe any old rubbish offered up as a “reasonable excuse” — such as “I drove to test my eyesight”!
The Old Post Office
From the Revd Dr Harri Williams
Sir, — As a fluent Welsh-speaking Welshman, now residing in England’s Nazareth, I retain a tremendous affection for Yr Hen Fam (The Mother Church). While I do not agree with all of Bishop David Wilbourne’s article (Features,15 May) I must come to his defence regarding offerings (Letters, 29 May).
During my curacy in St Davids diocese (served 2010-13), I certainly received an annual Whitsun Offering, and my incumbent (now an archdeacon in that diocese) received an annual Easter Offering. This practice was certainly commonplace in many other parishes in our deanery and archdeaconry at that time. To deny that such practices were still taking place even within the past decade is simply a denial of the truth.
The Vicarage, Church Street
Norfolk NR22 6BL
Last week, David Richards stated that the Church in Wales lacked a bishop “who could even remotely be described as a competent Welsh-speaker”. Despite the ambiguity of the word “competent” and the element of hyperbole, we are assured that this is incorrect. We apologise for the error. Editor