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Listening to Jethro

A Presentation to the College of Bishops

13th September, 2016.

The College of Bishops is the gathering of all the bishops of the Church of England.  We met last week for two days with the Scottish, Welsh and Irish bishops.  Each church presented something of their common life.  I was asked to speak about Renewal and Reform from the perspective of the Church of England.  My reflection is based on the story of Moses and Jethro told in Exodus 18. 

In the story of the Exodus, after the crossing of the Red Sea, Moses leads the people of Israel through the desert to Sinai.  His father in law Jethro comes to meet him.  Jethro watches Moses at work as he struggles with the never-ending demands of leadership.  The people stand around him from morning until evening bringing their disputes.

The Israelites have come out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea.  Moses is forming them into the people of God.  But Moses is overwhelmed daily by the complexity and difficulty of his calling.

Jethro watches carefully and asks a very reasonable question: “What is this that you are doing for the people?” What exactly are you trying to achieve? Moses explains as best he can.

Jethro replies: “What you are doing is not good.  You will surely wear yourself out both you and this people with you.  For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone”.

It’s good to have the opportunity to reflect together on Renewal and Reform as part of the Church of England’s contribution to this College of Bishops.

Renewal and Reform is a body of work which builds on 3 goals articulated by General Synod in 2010.  To contribute as the national church to the common good, to facilitate the growth of the church in numbers and depth of discipleship and reimagine the church’s ministry.  These goals emerged from a great deal of reflection on the mission of God over many years.

Renewal and Reform is grounded in hope in God’s purposes for the Church and the Kingdom.  Our shared vision is

Helping enable the church to move to a place where:

  • Followers of Jesus are faithful witnesses to the transforming love of God
  • Churches are equipped to make and sustain disciples across all generations
  • All forms of church are able to have the ministry and leadership they need
  • Senior leadership is more representative and better equipped
  • The whole church can confidently communicate our faith in a digital age
  • The whole church is focussing greater energy on God’s mission

To help us get from here to there the Church has birthed around 7 different and related streams of work.

  • Resourcing the Future
  • Renewing Discipleship and Ministry
  • Lay Leadership
  • Evangelism
  • Discerning and Nurturing Future Leaders
  • Simplification
  • How the NCIs Work

Each of them has several streams within it.  Scores of people are involved in each. Any one of them could occupy us for the whole time.  I’m not proposing to explore them one by one this afternoon though feel free to raise questions about any of them.

Instead I want to take Jethro’s visit to Moses as a starting point and framework for what is happening now.   In particular, I want to begin with the strains and demands and complexity of episcopal leadership.  I identify very much with Moses’ dilemma in this passage.  I am often overwhelmed by the complexity and difficulty of my calling.  I sense that’s true of other bishops I meet across the United Kingdom though we don’t always find it easy to say that to each other.  We are called to leadership in a moment of great cultural change.

We need wisdom from one another, from Scripture and from the world around us.  The Fathers of the Church make a great deal of Jethro.  Moses is receiving advice here from someone outside the people of God, from a priest of Midian.  Truth is found and recognized outside as well as within the life of the Church.

Here the truth is that things are not working as they should.  “What you are doing is not good”.

Renewal and Reform has been from the beginning a listening process.  Those involved have tried to gather the perspectives of every diocese, to commission research, to gather data, to learn lessons from those outside the Church, to listen to different voices.  We have especially tried to listen the voices of our senior lay leaders nationally and in dioceses.

Whilst there is a huge amount of good in the life of the Church and whilst we are deeply hopeful about the future, we also need to acknowledge:

  • significant and continuing decline and ageing in church attendance
  • significant decline in the number of available clergy
  • unsustainability of certain patterns of ministry
  • lack of strategic capacity in some dioceses
  • lack of leadership capacity to respond effectively to challenges
  • legal and cultural constraints and institutional inertias

The different elements in Renewal and Reform have been shaped to address exactly these concerns and build the foundations for a growing church in every region of England and for every generation.

Jethro watches and listens and offers Moses some advice.  It would of course be simplistic to read across from Exodus 18 to our own situation.  But there is an immense amount of wisdom to be drawn from this very short text.  Jethro’s priorities are somewhere near the heart of what we are seeking to do, by the grace of God, in Renewal and Reform.

“Now listen to me.  I will give you counsel and God be with you.  You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their case before God” (19).

Jethro’s starting point is senior leadership.  What are we trying to do? How are we trained, equipped and supported in our roles?  What is our distinctive and necessary contribution? How can we better learn from one another and from others within our dioceses?  How can we best be agents of grace and change and renewal?  How do we invest in our senior leadership in the present and develop new leaders for the future.

To meet this need the Church of England has developed a new Senior Leadership programme for bishops and deans.  We have developed a new way of identifying and preparing senior leaders for the future through a new learning community.  We have run one inter diocesan learning community for senior teams in dioceses to reflect together and will run more over the coming years.  We are developing a peer review process to build greater strategic capacity in dioceses and to support mutual learning.  We have recognized the need to have a more diverse senior leadership in terms of ethnicity and we are taking steps to address this.

I’ve been part of a large cohort of 28 diocesan bishops on the senior leadership programme this year.  It’s been a very positive learning experience.  We have been exposed to the best of current thinking on leadership from the Jethro’s of their day.  We have begun a conversation about how to apply all of this to the role of a bishop and we are resolved to continue that conversation.

Jethro’s second point is the critical role played by the communication of faith and teaching in the formation of the people of God.

“….teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do”.

Forming and sustaining disciples is key to the growth and life and health of the Church and the contribution we are able to make to society and to God’s world.  As bishops and senior leaders we have an absolutely critical role to play as evangelists and teachers of the faith.  The Bishops of the Northern Province are with us this week after sharing faith together over four days in the Diocese of Blackburn as part of the second Crossroads Mission there.

A major strand of Renewal and Reform is focussed on evangelism through the evangelism task group, through a new focus on digital evangelism and a new intiative on students and evangelism.

It is very clear that we need further research and reflection and action to encourage the renewal of discipleship: that we need to become more of a teaching and learning church in parishes and dioceses and nationally.

One strand of that work continues to be focussed on Pilgrim, the new resource for catechesis launched three years ago at this College.

There is some information about Pilgrim on the handout you were given as you came into the room.  Over 130,000 copies of Pilgrim have now been sold. We know that at least one third of all Church of England clergy have used or are planning to use Pilgrim.  Over 95% of users who responded to a recent survey a year go said they would run a second course and recommend it to others.

An American version of Pilgrim was published in April.  We are now developing Youth Pilgrim.

We are also about to launch the new Pilgrim Catechism: a user friendly resource to help churches form disciples, developed by the four core authors of Pilgrim.  We are aiming to produce this in digital and print form by Easter 2017 with all new interactive and video elements available free on line and in app form.  This is a priority project for our new digital evangelism team.

We are hoping to bring together the best thinking and reflection about catechesis with the best digital communications thinking and invest to the right scale to make a lasting impact in our nation.

Jethro has a third strand to his Renewal and Reform initiative.  He focuses first on senior leadership and then on the ministry of teaching and formation.  His third strand is the renewal of discipleship and ministry.  He says, remember, “You cannot do it alone”.

Jesus says “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the Harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field”.

“You should also look for able men among the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens”.

In the present day, of course, we include women as well as men among those offering leadership.  Jethro advocates a massive renewal and expansion of ministry within the people of God to enable their formation and equip them to live the life God intends, to be a blessing to God’s world.

Renewing Discipleship and Ministry is a major strand of renewal and reform.  The emphasis is on lay leadership and ministry as well as the ministry of the ordained.  There are task groups focusing on lay leadership and lay ecclesial ministries which are due to report in the next six months.

We know we need a different mix of gifts in our ordained ministry over the coming decades.  Dioceses have told us they need clergy who will be missional, collaborative and adaptable.

We have begun a significant review of our selection criteria which is now in progress, engaging with all bishops through correspondence and regional meetings.  You have on your chairs two handouts which are the latest step in that process.  We asked bishops to tell us about priests who inspired them – there are six vignettes on the first handout.  We asked bishops about what criteria they want to highlight for us.  The second handout offers an initial summary.  We are hoping the new criteria can be agreed in May of next year.

Every diocese is seeking to be a growing church with a growing ministry.  Because of projected clergy retirements, that will not be possible on current trends.

We are therefore embarking on a major vocations initiative, seeking to raise the number of vocations to ordained ministry by 50% throughout the 2020’s.  We want to see far greater numbers of candidates from minority ethnic backgrounds and far greater numbers of younger candidates, especially younger women.

We have carried out extensive research into effective practice in vocations and we are now beginning to make that known.  Dioceses are increasing their investment in vocations teams.  The initial signs are encouraging.

Following Jethro’s lead, I’ve focussed on resourcing senior leadership, on evangelism and discipleship and on renewing discipleship and ministry.  Those are three strands only of Renewal and Reform.

Time would fail me to tell of work done to redistribute resources to areas of poverty and to mission development; of the excellent work being done to simplify our structures; of reshaping the funding of ministerial education; of the review of our national church institutions and so much more.   By all means ask or comment on any of that.

We don’t believe we have everything sorted.  There is an ongoing debate around most of these areas.  We do understand that the outcome of it all is in God’s hands.  We do understand that we are privileged to be living in a moment of change and opportunity for God’s mission.

Many others in the room are involved in these various strands of work and I hope that they will feel able to respond to questions and comments.  We in the Church of England would greatly value the wisdom of colleagues elsewhere and your prayers as we seek to enable the Church to be a blessing to the nation and the world in the coming years.

Reform and Renewal: the Noddy and Big Ears Guide

The new General Synod meets for the first time next week.   A central part of our agenda over the next five years will be the ongoing Reform and Renewal process.

Here is an unofficial Noddy and Big Ears Guide to Reform and Renewal.  It’s a Noddy guide because I’ve tried to make it simple.  It’s a Big Ears guide because the whole Reform and Renewal process is about listening to what’s happening across the country and developing a response.

This is also something of a personal perspective.  I’ve been closely involved in the story so far.  To use a Star Trek analogy, let me take you on a guided tour: first to the Captain’s Log to explore the deeper story; then to the Engine Room to understand what’s being proposed; and finally to the Bridge to look ahead into the future.

Captain’s Log: looking back…..

The roots of Reform and Renewal lie in the immense change taking place in the society we serve.  The Church of England has lived through a century of change.

We lived for fifty years, from 1915 to 1965, through the end of Christendom: the idea that society is uniform and that people are Christian unless they opt out, that church going is the norm.  We have had to adjust our ways of being the Church to that new reality.  We have needed to recover, especially, the central idea that God calls us to be a church in mission to our own society, the call to make disciples and the call to set God’s mission at the heart of our common life.

We then lived for fifty years and more with a mistaken understanding of secularisation.  Secularisation began in the 18th century.  It’s the process by which science, democracy, technology and economics became separate from any particular religion (and in that sense it’s closely related to the end of Christendom).  This process has brought immense benefits.

But from the 1960’s until very recently, secularisation has been linked with another powerful idea.  The notion that the more advanced a society, the less place it has for religion of any kinds.  In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, many people predicted and believed that the role of faith in society would shrink away to nothing as our society “advanced”.

We have adjusted our ways of being the Church to this reality as well.  For many years, many in the Church have accepted our decline as inevitable.  Many have even planned for that decline to continue as if this was God’s purpose for the Church.  The loss of confidence has been profound.  We have needed to recover the central Christian virtue of hope: the sure hope that God has a purpose for his church and for this Church of England for many generations still to come.

The sociologists now tell us what we have known for some time.  The role of faith in the modern world is not shrinking but growing and also changing.  Britain is not becoming more secular.  Religion and religious affiliation are changing all the time, but the role of faith in public life and private life is not less but more significant.

The former chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has recently published a powerful study of violence and religion, Not in God’s Name.  Lord Sacks begins with a study of secularization and the gaping hole it leaves in human understanding.

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.  They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I?  Why am I here?  How then should I live?”.

Rabbi Sacks puts forward the view that the coming century will be more not less religious, less not more secular.  How should we respond?

A hundred years of change.  The end of Christendom.  The beginning and end of secularization.  How are we as the Church of England to respond to God’s call in our day?  How are we to join in God’s mission and to make that response in faith and hope and love?

Reform and Renewal is part of an answer to these vital questions.

The Engine Room: what are the proposals?

Five years ago, the General Synod of our Church agreed three core priorities.

The three goals are these: to serve the common good of our society, to grow the life of the church in the numbers and the quality of our discipleship; and to re-imagine the ministry we offer to the nation.  The first two are inextricably linked.  We see growth and life in many places but in too many the combined effects of declining and ageing congregations mean that in ten years time, we may no longer be a church in every place.  To serve the common good and the whole people of England we must pay close attention to growth in the life of the Church.

Those goals are widely and deeply owned across the Church of England.  You will find something like them in the vision statements of many dioceses and parish churches.  They have been at the heart of the work of our national Church for the last five years.

But it takes time in a Church of the size and complexity of the Church of England to listen, to reflect, to begin to shape answers to those key questions.  How should be respond to God’s mission in hope?  How do we better serve the common good, grow the life of the church and re-imagine the ministry we offer.  What can we do nationally to support dioceses and parishes?

Little by little, through a process of listening, conversation and research some answers and some initiatives began to emerge.  There are six or seven different streams of work.  They began at slightly different times and different places.  They are also in different stages of discussion or implementation.

One is looking at how we use our historic assets to support growth rather than reward decline; another is exploring ministerial education, another at simplification, another senior leadership and still another what we need to do nationally and so on.  They are all linked together in some way.  For that reason, it’s helpful to see them as one process under the single heading of Reform and Renewal: helping us to be a Church of hope, a Church engaging in God’s mission, a Church of compassion and a Church preparing for a harvest.

If you really want to spend more time with Scottie in the engine room trying to get us to warp speed, then read this summary paper for Synod.

The Bridge: scanning the horizon

That’s the big picture.  I want to zoom in now, if I may, and ask the question what difference the Reform and Renewal programme might make to the life of the Church of England over the next fifteen years, if it bears the fruit we hope it will, by the grace and power of God.  It’s not a programme designed to tackle everything.  The core ministry of the local church remains at the heart of the Church of England: worship, witness, service to the local community.

But here are some of the things which I hope will change over the next fifteen years as Reform and Renewal bears fruit in the life of the local parish church.

A culture of discipleship

First I hope and pray that every church will become better at making and sustaining and equipping disciples: that Christians will understand their faith better, share it more confidently, live it out more fully.  We need to grow again a culture of discipleship across the Church of England.

The Christian faith is not a hobby or a leisure activity.  The Christian faith is a response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ with the whole of our lives, for the whole of our lives, offering lives which have been made whole.

Every local church, every diocese needs a plan for taking forward that culture of discipleship, for growing new Christians, for sustaining established Christians.

Reform and Renewal is helping to make resources available for that task.  There are key proposals to change and increase the Church Commissioners distribution of funds to support poorer parishes and to support growth in numbers and in the depth of discipleship.  There is a major emphasis on how we teach the faith, how we encourage discipleship in every place.

Energy for mission

Second, I hope and pray that every church will focus greater energy and resources on God’s mission and worship, service and witness.  That means less time on bureaucracy, form filling, administration and the like.

A major strand in Reform and Renewal is about simplification: on how we make the task of vicars, of churchwardens, of PCC treasurers and others simpler and easier in the future.

Ministry and leadership

Third, I hope and pray that every local church will have the ministry and leadership it needs to support God’s mission.  Lay leadership and ministry is key and the next two years will see significant developments here.  The voices of lay people need to be heard more clearly in the life of our Church.  We need to invest more in training, equipping and sustaining lay ministers.

We need urgently to see more vocations to ordained ministry.  40% of our current clergy are approaching retirement.  On present projections half of our clergy who retire cannot be replaced.  We need as clergy to be better equipped as leaders in God’s mission.  We need our clergy to be more diverse as a group.  We need more younger clergy who are able to offer a lifetime to ordained ministry.  We need to ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers.

There will be a major national initiative to raise the number of vocations, significantly, by as much as 50% by 2020. That will involve every parish in prayer, in communication, in encouragement, in support.  We are looking carefully at the ways in which we train clergy before and after ordination and how we fund that training.  Dioceses are clear what is needed:  the Church needs ordained and lay ministers who are flexible, collaborative leaders in God’s mission.

Senior leaders

Fourth I hope and pray the senior leadership of the Church of England in 10 years time will be better equipped for their task and more representative of the church we are called to lead: male and female, black and white, from a wider range of backgrounds, well prepared and committed to ongoing learning.  Again we are investing intentionally in that process.

Communication in a digital age

Finally, I hope and pray we will be much more effective at communicating our faith in a digital age.  This is the most important investment the Church of England needs to make nationally.

We are living through the greatest time of change in the way we communicate since the invention of the printing press.  Parishes and Dioceses are moving far too slowly to keep up with those changes in the way we communicate.  We need to invest much more in our digital communications in order to keep pace and contribute to Christian engagement with the contemporary world.

So what is Reform and Renewal about?

  1. Resources for discipleship and growth
  2. Focusing energy on our core tasks
  3. Every local church having the ministry it needs
  4. Equipping senior leaders
  5. Better digital communication

These are not the whole agenda by any means.  There are other issues the Church needs to address.  The world keeps changing around us.

God has called us in our generation to be salt and light, to love our neighbours as ourselves, to have compassion on a lost and bewildered generation.  This is a time of turmoil.  But it is also a time of hope.

Pray for our Church as we move forward and most of all, as Christ commands us, pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send labourers to his harvest field.

And finally….

This post is based on a sermon preached on 15th November in St Mary’s and All Saints, Chesterfield.  I’m grateful to Father Patrick Coleman for the invitation and for the very helpful “Conversation under the Spire”.

I’m grateful to Premier Digital for an award for this blog in the category “Most Inspiring Leadership Blog”.  Like everything else I do it’s a team effort.  Warm thanks to Jane Perry and LJ Buxton for their research and ideas and to Kate Hill and Jason Smedley for managing posts and comments.

+Steven Sheffield