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C of E webinar hears of barriers to missionary discipleship

28 May 2021

Theological training doesn’t prepare you, says participant

Church of England

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, takes part in a webinar in April

The Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, takes part in a webinar in April

BUILDINGS, fear, “dabbling” in different spiritualities, and the scandal of inappropriate training are among the barriers to creating a Church of missionary disciples, participants in a Church House webinar heard this week.

One of the three “strategic priorities” for the Church of England in the 2020s — first set out for the General Synod last November (News, 4 December 2020) — a Church of missionary disciples is one that reflects the fact that “we are sent out by Jesus to be his witnesses and ambassadors in the world”, an accompanying theological reflection says.

In the webinar, filmed on Tuesday, a panel of three discussed their experiences of seeking to help build such a Church. The Revd Hannah Patton, Priest-in-Charge of Goole, in Sheffield diocese, described arriving two years ago and working with a group of “very committed Sunday attenders” on “reimagining what it means to be a Christian . . . not only in our own lives, but for the life of the town”.

There were “spiritual barriers” to personal discipleship which needed to be laid aside, she said: “We have a lot of people who are quite happy to dabble in various different types of spirituality, and, actually, for us, it is naming those and saying, ‘If we are really going to say Jesus is Lord, all those other things can’t be Lord.’ Sometimes, I think we are not bold enough to name what needs to be named in order for Jesus to be made Lord in our churches and in our worshipping communities and therefore in our towns.”

A “huge amount of work” was needed to support clergy in the work being discussed, she said: “Any amount of training at theological college doesn’t prepare you for the amount of hard work that it is to raise up disciples. . .

“It’s so easy to dream as a vicar that one day those doors will open and a group of people will come in who are mature leaders, who will just come in and suddenly be able to lead your new family service. . . And it just doesn’t work like that. You’ve got what you’ve got; so you have to invest in who you’ve got, love them, and raise them up — and a lot of us just don’t know how to do it.”

Asked about barriers to coming to church, participants on Alpha courses spoke about buildings (“as much as we love them”) and “the feeling of not belonging in something that has these unspoken rules”.

Buildings were also discussed by the discipleship team leader in the diocese of Bath & Wells, Julia Hill. Particularly in multi-parish benefices, buildings could become a burden that fell on a few people, who then feel unable to explore other gifts, she said.

Work was needed on exploring the “very onerous” job of churchwarden, she suggested. In additional to practical questions, fear was a barrier to the vision of missionary disciples. In rural areas, in particular, there was “a deep-seated culture of not speaking about God with your neighbours in case you label yourself”.

She was conscious of people with “wonderful gifts” who had been unable to take up positions, or receive recognition for the jobs they were already carrying out, because the forms of training were “deeply inappropriate”. The Church offered “quite an academic body of training”, and it was “scandalous, in some cases,” how it had excluded gifted people.

Samuel Williams, who leads a business network for Christian Aid, described hearing “the same thing over and over again: ‘I feel called to do what I do, and my church minister doesn’t understand.’” He called for more theological exploration of work. At a national level, the Church could be “so much more radical” in its investment and use of its money, “using what God has given us to transform whole communities and still pay your pensions”.

The vision of “missionary disciples” follows an earlier report by the Archbishops’ Task Group on Evangelism, which set out a vision of transforming the one million who regularly attended C of E services into “agents of mission” (News, 8 February 2019), and the Setting God’s People Free programme, which seeks to “enable the whole people of God to live out the Good News of Jesus confidently in all of life” (Features, 8 March 2019).

Further webinars are scheduled. The first two involved the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell. The second, devoted to the vision of “a Church where mixed ecology is the norm” (“adding new churches and new forms of church to our parishes, schools and chaplaincies”), attracted 500 people last month. In it, the Archbishop strongly denied that this entailed dismantling the parish system: “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

A mixed ecology was “nothing new”, and could be read about in the New Testament, he said. “The story of the Christian Church has been the story of translating, adapting, and incarnating Church into different contexts and cultures. . .

”The surprising thing isn’t that we say that mixed ecology is the norm. The surprising thing is that we forgot that that was the norm in some points of our history. We are saying one size doesn’t fit all: there are many different ways of expressing the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ, and, in the smorgasboard of different cultures that we serve in Britain today, we need different ways of being church.”

Those offering an eight-o’clock as well as a teno’clock Sunday-morning service had “already crossed the theological rubicon”, he said. “You are saying there is more than one way of expressing our shared life together, and we are saying: in a culture like ours, we need many, many more different ways, and there’s lots to learn and lots of exciting challenge ahead with that.”

The Church needed to repent of its attachment to “the solo heroic leader-minister”, he said. “This is a way of expanding the life of the Church which doesn’t need a lot of centralised resource. It needs the imagination and the flexibility and the gospel-centred faithfulness of two or three Christian people gathered together, saying, ‘How could we find another way of living out and communicating our faith in the communities where we serve?’”

He acknowledged, however, that a work of pruning was under way, and that this would mean “we will have to cut back some living branches, and that’s really painful. We as a Church . . . will have to make some hard choices. If it’s true, for instance, that chaplaincy in, say, further-education colleges is a very, very effective way of bringing the gospel to young people’s lives and establishing new Christian communities, what will we have to do? What painful decisions will we have to make to enable resources to go to that kind of ministry?”

Changes would be needed to leadership and oversight, he said. Many of those entering stipendiary ministry could be asked to have an oversight position, while bishops would also need to change. “We need more priests, but I think priests will start expressing their life in different ways,” he said. “We certainly need more pioneer ministries, which will be lay and ordained. . . We have to ask ourselves ‘Do we believe this is of God? Is it God that is calling us?’ And I believe it is.”

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