AS JONI MITCHELL sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” This sentiment was echoed by clergy across the country last week when Canon Sandra Millar, head of the Life Events team since 2013, announced its closure, as part of a restructuring programme at the national church institutions (NCIs) (News, 18 March).
Parish priests in the Anglican Twittersphere were highly critical of the decision, calling it “mind-boggling”, “appalling”, and “shooting ourselves in the foot”. The Revd Sarah Edmonds, an area dean in Warwickshire, said that the team’s work had “transformed thinking and ministry in our parish”. The training that the team offered, online and in person, will clearly be much missed: it isn’t every day that initial ministerial education is praised so highly.
Life Events is the term now used for those services referred to, often humorously, as “hatching, matching, and dispatching”. Between them, they bring the Church of England into close contact with about half a million people every year, providing myriad opportunities to build relationships.
A crucial part of the Church’s vocation, as the preface to the Declaration of Assent says, is to proclaim the gospel afresh in each generation; and the occasional offices are examples of when non-churchgoers will seek out their parish church. As Canon Angela Tilby commented on Twitter, “Most effective mission is linked to genuine pastoral care at crucial points in people’s lives.”
Indeed, nine out of ten people say that, after one of these services, they would like to hear from the church again, research by the Life Events team suggests.
PART of the Church of England’s Vision and Strategy is the vision of “a bolder Church, energised and enthused by the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ, sharing that with everyone”. This mission is rarely the work of moments, but of many months or more.
Research by the Life Events team with wedding couples showed that it could take three or four years before people became part of a worshipping community — and, even then, they might join one in a different location. Life Events are not the “quick win” of an Alpha course, bringing immediate converts to a committed faith, but this ministry is about unchurched people who have reached out to the Church at an important moment in their lives. This is not grabbing the low-hanging fruit, but sowing seeds for God to harvest in his own time.
Every week, the Church of England is involved with approximately 3000 funerals, 2000 baptisms of children under the age of 12, and 1000 weddings. What an opportunity for everyone who engages with the Church in this way to encounter the transformation that a life centred on Jesus Christ can bring! These moments provide their own special kind of gentle evangelism.
Life Events research showed the three simple things at the heart of this: confidence, relationship, and courage. Canon Millar and her team have helped to provide resources for every step, from first contact to “administration, creative ideas and practical resources”, supporting lay workers and Readers as well as clergy. While the resources remain online, the training will now end, and the fresh perspective that has been encouraged when looking at Life Events seems likely to be lost. The team’s professional research and evidence-based work will not now be updated. In our ever-changing world and Church, that will be much to our detriment.
I wonder how this decision fits with the Archbishop of York’s address to the General Synod in November, during which he declared passionately “the importance of the local. . . Our resources must be focused on this, the local church of missionary disciples” (News, 19 November 2021). The Revd Marcus Walker, not always one to praise the NCIs, commented that the Life Events team had provided “an example of a national Church endeavour that really worked with and for the parishes”.
WHEN the specific work in this area began, in 2008, it was part of “projects and developments”. It became known as the “Life Events team” in 2017, reflecting the fact that the work concerning funerals, baptisms, and weddings is ongoing for the Church. The most recent Archbishops’ Council report set out that, in 2021, one of the evangelism priorities was “resources for Life Events and bereavement issues”, especially in response to Covid-19. This provided no hint of the restructuring about to take place.
The Life Events team shared with the wider Church a special blend of theological insights, marketing expertise, and social-media skill. It has been been a wonderful and rare example of intentional two-way communication at the heart of the national Church, its work underpinned by research that “listens to the voices of those who actually come to the Church, trying to hear what it is that people really experience, really think, and really feel at these special times”.
What an irony that, despite the Life Events team’s showing us the importance of listening to others, it is only now that their dedicated expertise is being lost that we hear how vital they have been to so many! Uniting our Church and our clergy to speak up unanimously is not a common event. But, with this sad and short-sighted decision, somehow the national Church may have managed it, albeit in condemnation rather than commendation.
Rebecca Chapman is a General Synod member for Southwark diocese.