THE laity are now more confident in expressing their faith, and there is “strong evidence” of a change in culture, according to a progress report on the implementation of recommendations made five years ago.
In a debate in the General Synod on Wednesday afternoon, members told stories of encouraging initiatives from around the country before voting overwhelmingly to take note of the report.
Introducing the progress report, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, said that the implementation of the Setting God’s People Free initiative, commissioned by the Archbishops’ Council and presented to the Synod in February 2017 (News, 27 January 2017), had helped the whole Church to focus on its identity. Every baptised Christian was a unique follower of Christ, irrespective of their background, ability, or age, she said: “It is about who we are.” Nor was it simply about greater social action. “That’s really important, but only part of it.”
After a short film telling stories of what faith meant to a handful of Christians in different contexts around the country, Dr Nick Shepherd, the project director spoke. The aim of Setting God’s People Free was better enabling the whole people of God to live out their faith, he said; and this was becoming “a firmer reality”.
Equipping the laity remained a continuing priority for a Church of missionary disciples, he said. He referred to three outcomes of the project which would continue . “Everyday Faith” was an accessible digital portal to equip and encourage Christians; the “Discipleship Enablers Network” was about co-ordinated action and learning between dioceses and Christian networks, and sharing good practice; and “Everyday Church” was a resource of tools and tips, demonstrating “small shifts that make a big difference”.
He emphasised that, while the first phase of the project was complete (News, 12 July 2019), the work would carry on as part of Vision and Strategy for the 2020s.
Clive Mear/Church TimesDr Jamie Harrison opens the debate
Opening the debate, Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) said that the original report had set out a bold vision. “The question remains how we make the most of all the opportunities we have, how ordained and lay together enable each other to live out the good news of Jesus Christ in the whole of life,” he said. It was about the laity and clergy “valuing and celebrating” each other’s callings.
He quoted Pope Francis, who in 2013 had called for a deeper discipleship in every sphere of life, and coined the term “missionary disciples”. The Church of England wasn’t afraid of borrowing that phrase from the Pope, he said. The progress report should remind the Church of its shared responsibility to own the vision, to encourage others, and to continue the embedding of culture change.
“I want to say a big yes to this report. More please,” Zoe Ham (Carlisle) said in a maiden speech. She wanted to thank those behind the project for their work. She told the Synod of her experience in her own church in Barrow-in-Furness. When a teenage boy had been stabbed, the school librarian, a member of her congregation, had been able to share her faith with colleagues and students. “Fiona is so encouraged to see how God could use her in that place as she faithfully lives for Jesus,” she said. “We need mature Christians in these places.” She appealed to the Synod to “take hold” of the report and build its vision into future strategy.
Clive Mear/Church TimesZoe Ham (Carlisle) gives a maiden speech
Canon Toby Wright (Oxford), also in a maiden speech, referred to the work in the diocese of Oxford on personal discipleship plans, cited in the report as an example of good practice. Five hundred “encouragers” had been trained, Canon Wright said; they all agreed afterwards that they had been equipped to develop their gifts. In his own church, the number of people who felt equipped to live out their faith Monday to Saturday had moved from 35 per cent to 86 per cent three months after using the personal-discipleship plans.
“I want to encourage members of Synod: this works,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything. Anyone can use it. And it is as encouraging to the encouragers as for those coming for the process. The important dynamic of being called and sent is central to the model.” He appealed for a balance between the strategic and the personal, one-to-one approach.
In another maiden speech, Sue Cavill (Derby) sounded a note of caution that equipping the laity should not be a means of deploying volunteers as free replacements for the clergy, or diverting funding from the parishes. “But I’m also excited about the proposals for Setting God’s People Free, enabling and equipping those of us who are the laity to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life,” she said.
The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, was encouraged by the reference to the “Lights for Christ” resource from his diocese. He wanted to make explicit the connection to baptism. The resource made it possible to challenge all those who had been baptised to enter into “the full dignity” of their baptism, he said.
“I fear we’ve too often allowed the baptised to suppose that if they only attend church on a Sunday and live a basically respectable life in the week they are satisfying the demands of their baptism. If we are to evangelise our nation again and if we are to be effective heralds of God’s coming Kingdom, we really do need to enable all the baptised by the power of the Holy Spirit to shine as lights for Christ in the world to the glory of God the Father.”
The Revd Claire Lording (Worcester), in a maiden speech, expressed her enthusiasm for the project. She told the Synod about the Faith at Work in Worcestershire initiative, an ecumenical group of workplace chaplains whose job it was to share the love of God in their communities. It was encouraging to see the seeds of faith grow and spread as a result of conversations. “It is vital that we continue to be a Church that is committed to resourcing and encouraging these everyday ministries,” she said.
Clive Mear/Church TimesThe Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Pete Wilcox
Gill Frigerio (Coventry), a member of the Setting God’s People Free advisory group, emphasised that the laity were not “unpaid labour” or “rota fodder”. “We are in fields and factories, shops and offices, clinics and classrooms.” These were not easy places to be, she said. “I’m asking how we can really ensure that we value and sustain all our social vocations and keep this perspective in our sights so that all Christians can lead richer lives in Christ.”
Simon Friend (Exeter) said that as a property developer he spent a lot of time on building sites, and it was a “huge privilege” to talk to workers there. He found it hard, however, to imagine bringing any of these workers to church. The church would have to change, he said, “so my blokes can come in and not feel utterly weird”.
Karen Czapiewski (Gloucester) wanted to make a plea for continued joined-up thinking. A vast array of initiatives all had a common aim. “We seek to share the good news of God’s love with all and if we do it well . . . it works.” She told a story about parents from a school in the area coming to church with their children. The parents had expected to hear from the clergy or teachers. “But the children had been set free to have the confidence and ability to be the teachers, explaining what Christianity means.” It was “amazing and powerful”, she said, and had led to the parents’ talking to their own parents and friends about faith.
“So many people and places that have done stuff. There are new ideas, new energy… People have found new-found confidence in expressing and living out their faith in the world and their context.”