Sunday, 25 September 2016

Warming to my theme


When it comes to preaching, is it sermons from The Lectionary or discreet Themes that get your vote?

For many years a typical Sunday at church for me would involve listening to someone preach through either a theme or else a large chunk of a whole book of the bible. In the kinds of churches I attended, you'd be likely to receive a list of themes in advance, in the form of an attractive coloured leaflet, so keen people (yes, I confess I was one) could look up the preacher's theme that week. When it came to whole books (six week on Ephesians - hooray!) I don't know how the vicar decided which to choose, but, being a gently charismatic sort of Christian, I simply assumed they listened to the Holy Spirit on that one. Such innocent days...

Knowing in advance what was being covered gave you a sense of something systematic and was very stimulating. Need five weeks on being a Christian at work? No problem. Not read Habakkuk for while? Never fear, the preacher had it covered. Exodus would take longer, granted, but you get my drift.

I thought this was what happened in all churches till I started going to village church. At village church, I experienced a sense of fogginess and losing the thread, as week by week it wasn't immediately obvious why we were having, say, something from Matthew one month followed by something from somewhere else the next, with no discernible pattern. I was no doubt unobservant, unlucky or just very dense, but it didn't occur to me till I was training for going into the church myself, that there was a thing called a Lectionary and people simply followed the set reading each week and after three years, they would theoretically have heard the preacher steam through the whole bible. What a great plan! 

And there was more. I remember the first time someone turned to me in the theological college chapel to ask, nonchalantly, 'Which year are we on?' I looked completely baffled, thinking what planet is she on, clearly we're still in 2007. She eventually explained that the Lectionary readings rotate every three years: Years A, B and C. I was grateful for the enlightenment. There was clearly more to the C of E than first met the eye.

For the record, I will also always be extremely grateful to the person who patiently explained to me what a Canticle was for, and why it was that in The Daily Office, different bits of the bible were called, confusingly, different names, viz. Psalms, Readings, Canticles and The Gospel, though to me, they were all just 'a bible reading'. 

The first time I had to prepare worship for other ordinands, just following the Lectionary, and not around a theme, I confess I was completely at sea. It seemed so prosaic, so unimaginative, so non-creative. 

I got used to it.

So is it Themes or the Lectionary? Which is best? There's a possible tension between different churchmanship here. Are you more evangelical (themes) than Anglican (set readings)? Or are you the other way round? Honestly, I cannot rightly say any more. 

Since I've now preached twice through the entirety of Years A, B and C, I'm quite at ease with the Lectionary. In fact I have umpteen sets of sermons filed on my laptop under A, B and C. And they can even, in some circumstances (say it in hushed tones) be re-used. The Lectionary also has the wonderful advantage of relieving the pressure to invent the wheel every Sunday, which thinking up themes threatens. Even the most creative amongst us get tired. And preaching from set readings is a good discipline.

Another upside of the 'Common Lectionary' is the sense of solidarity with other preachers all over the country, even world, being formed around the same reading week by week, especially if you're in the Early Morning Sermon Club on Twitter, which is an attractive, yet for me, very scary prospect. Not being a morning person, this isn't really an option, but I like the idea of those clerics that are on Twitter at 6.30am on a Sunday, hurriedly writing their last minute sermons 'together'. It must be nice and communal. 

I suppose the downside of the Lectionary is that unless your parishioners go out and buy one themselves, or go online and work it out, people may well be sitting there on a Sunday morning quite oblivious to where we're at each week, preaching-wise. And as a feature of multi-parish rural ministry is multiple services in different buildings, your continuity can get upset anyway, which makes remembering where we are in the preaching pattern tricky. In point of fact, sometimes we can't even remember which building we're in, let alone which book of the bible we're in.

Tension between the Lectionary and discreet themes was highlighted in this week's Church Times column. The writer complained about the profusion of themed Sundays the church seems to be bombarded with - Sea Sunday, Education Sunday, Racial Justice Sunday, Homeless Sunday - to name a few. Glossy leaflets come through clerics' doors, or we get emails urging us to engage with whatever Sunday is coming up, and I have some sympathy with her frustration, up to a point. 

She lamented the 'agendas of a themed Sunday': 'they are a chance to put ourselves on the side of the nice and the good, to think well of ourselves by what has become known as virtue signalling'. A bit harsh? For although it might take more effort to depart from your usual reading, what themed Sundays say to me is, the Church has something to say on important topics that people on the fringe of the church also value. Themes like race, education and homelessness are bridges across which the less churched and the unchurched might walk. In all the writer's critique, there was no mention of the missiological possibilities of a themed Sunday. Instead the implication was that they were gimmicks. 

Mothering Sunday and Remembrance are themed Sundays and, though amongst the hardest in the Church Year to pull off well, are often those which are the most 'permeable', attendance-wise. You can invite someone to Mothering Sunday and it might just connect with them. You see people at Remembrance who might not otherwise come, because it's a theme we all understand. So from the point of view of mission, aren't themes advantageous?

The writer reserved special ire for 'new seasons'. Apparently there's such a thing as Creation Season now, something to do with the present Pope. Seeing as the threat of ecological armageddon is real these days, it would seem a good idea...

But there was a small concession in the aforementioned 'liturgical rant' (her words): Kingdom Season was at least welcomed as an 'opportunity to wear the under-used red vestments'. 

I admit, I felt mildly depressed. I had to ask myself, generally speaking, is my priestly heart beating that little bit faster at the thought of connecting, through a shared theme, with people outside the church

Yes. 

I had to ask myself, generally speaking, is my heart beating that little bit faster at the thought of wearing liturgical red? 

No. 

It's probably just me, but that's the truth. Maybe I'm not so Anglican after all...



Sunday, 11 September 2016

Dreaming of evangelism

Despite having been embedded in the rural church for 6 years I still dream about successful evangelistic programmes.

I realise this sentence needs a lot of what is trendily called unpacking.

First of all what is 'the rural church'? Rural is a bit of a 'catch all' phrase and much of what passes for rural is not very. Rural might not necessarily mean one working farm and a church in a tiny hamlet (that really would be the rural church) but 'rural' does imply a lot of pretty countryside. And when you have a lot of pretty countryside, you have expensive housing, for which a healthy salary may well be required. So the rural church might just as soon be a 'mixed commuter village' and it might therefore be near a station and a hub of shops and services, like the one I live in. So the answer to the question 'what kind of evangelism do rural churches do?' must have something to do with the context, as it always does. 

Because wisdom has it that the church 'does evangelism' differently in the rural set up. So I probably need to give up my dream of big evangelistic programmes, which may be a false one anyway. And yet...

There seem to be a number of reasons for thinking differently about evangelism in the (small) rural church. Firstly the style in rural/central ministry is to remain fairly close to the seasonal/liturgical year - it's the effect of all that countryside and our big gardens I think. 

So when we're looking for opportunities for sharing the Good News do we really need a 'programme', or are we more likely to look to Harvest, Remembrance, Christmas, and other seasonal times in which to share the message? Because we're supposed to be more tied to the seasons in the countryside. Though if you're upwardly mobile and can travel, you might be a village dweller who's nonetheless oblivious to harvest and who's no more likely to feel the need for church at harvest festival time, than someone living in the large town down the road. Mixed villages contain those who may not have grown up in the countryside as well as those who have, but even those who've lived in the countryside many years may have drifted away from the need to include God in the marking of time. So where does that leave rural evangelism?

Secondly, another factor in middle of the road/rural churchmanship is that the need for outreach/evangelism/sharing faith needs to be gently negotiated, and not assumed. The very fact that people are more likely to know each other in a smaller dwelling place means that calling out distinctions between those in the church and those outside is not seen as strictly necessary. After all, we're all in the same community together; some go to church a lot, some a bit and some not all. What's the problem? Is there any need to think about who might or might not be a believer? And yet, if we're all in the same boat, where does that leave evangelism, the fundamental challenge of Christ, to make disciples of all people groups?

Things are complex in the happily mixed middle. One meets plenty of people who are in fact quite 'connected' to their local church in their own minds ("the church is important in the community", "it's our church", "you're our vicar") whereas many who are actually physically there most Sundays may talk about a much closer link between belonging, belief and collective worship. What in fact is the connection? That you can be 'Christian' without ever connecting the word knowingly to the word 'Christ', is a strongly held position for a number of non church-goers, and so there's a need to clarify terms. But who owns the term 'Christian'?

Finally, evangelistic approaches may have something to do with numbers. There are fewer volunteers in very small congregations, so the 'manpower' needed to host, say, a 10 week course, with meal, IT projection, training beforehand, follow up afterwards, can seem overwhelming. In a previous large-ish church I attended, in a town, the expectation for evangelistic programmes was such that the Curate not only led every session of The Alpha Course, but also wrote all his own talks, even though he could have used the filmed material on offer. The meal was cooked by an army of older ladies, the hall set up every single week with chairs and tables, there were multiple group leaders, and even paid-for babysitting, so young parents could attend. The vicar didn't even need to turn up. This is the content of my dream in fact...

I hope my dream of evangelism doesn't entirely fade, though it may have to be re-imagined. Because if you aim for nothing, you generally hit it. I think what it boils down to is equipping the people of God for the mission of God. However, as the saying goes - not a particularly well chosen one, for my profession, perhaps - the devil is in the detail.