A Presidential Address to the Oxford Diocesan Synod on Saturday 14 March by the Rt Revd Colin Fletcher, Acting Bishop of Oxford.
One of the great things about being a bishop is that you can re-use material time and again.
I don’t tend to in sermons as I set myself the challenge to write something fresh for every Sunday, and for every licensing, but schools are a different matter. I only have one assembly and I repeat it time and again. What makes it different each time are the wonderful, and not-so-wonderful questions that children ask.
What are the names of your fish?
Which is your favourite football team?
What colours do you wear in church?
How old are you?
How much do you earn?
What’s the best thing about being a bishop? – Answer: People. Endlessly fascinating and glorious
What’s the worst thing? – Answer: People. People falling out with each other. People damaging themselves and, I might add, the Gospel.
But even if the latter threatens to overwhelm at times, it’s the former that pre-dominates.
For this Diocese is a great place to serve in. It’s lively, creative, argumentative, passionate – falling sometimes into the trap of thinking it is more important than it really is, but very rarely dull.
I still pinch myself at times that just over 20 years ago I was invited to come here. Up until that point my parochial experience had almost exclusively been in large evangelical suburban churches with congregations of 400-500 on a Sunday and here I was being invited to become the Area Bishop of the most rural county of the South-East of England. The selection process was equally quirky, consisting as it did of an invitation from Richard Harries to have a glass of wine with him sitting in a deck chair at Linton Road. And if you detect an element of a golden haze hanging over past days you would be right to do so, even if there is so much now in our changed procedures that I warmly applaud. I was one of the lucky ones and there were many that suffered under the former systems.
But I have come to love rural and market town ministry across Oxfordshire with the 326 churches of the Dorchester Area, and the people and priests who serve in and through them.
Over the past 20 years I have, I think, closed, or nearly closed, three church buildings – in Besselsleigh, Daylesford and Highmoor – but we have developed more congregations than that, particularly in our areas of new housing. The buildings themselves, thanks to the outstanding work of churchwardens, treasurers, and others, are in better condition than they have been for decades, if not centuries. What’s more, they are warmer, better used – and many of them have serveries, kitchens and loos.
It is still true that the voluntary sector in the County, and indeed in the Diocese as a whole, would be immensely impoverished if the churches – both our own and those of our ecumenical colleagues, together with the mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues were absent from the Thames Valley. Indeed it has, I believe, been rightly said that one of the most effective ways of increasing our levels of volunteering and partnership working would come through a religious revival.
Just thinking of our own contribution to this rich tapestry I have become more and more convinced down the years of the significance of our commitment to serve the whole community. Legally that is expressed in such things as baptisms, weddings and funerals, and it grieves me when they are dismissed by some as being of little importance. The fact remains that where parishes take those seriously – and by parishes I mean not just the clergy and licensed lay ministers but the whole people of God – then the church grows, sometimes numerically, but always relationally.
For we are a relational organisation and that is both a strength and a weakness. You may, in that context, be aware of what is known as Dunbar’s number – the numbers discerned by Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist working at Oxford University ‘as the cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person’ (at any one time) ‘can maintain stable relationships’.
At the upper limit, you and I can probably put a name to a face of 1500 people and have, maybe 500 acquaintances. On the other hand, you may have a close support group of five (who may change even from week to week) or the fifteen you can turn to for sympathy and understanding, or the fifty you might call your close friends.
But in between are the 150 to 200 casual friends – the people you might invite to a large party.
And that number is immensely significant for a relationally-based church. If you have ever wondered why churches in the Church of England grow to that sort of size and then stop there, one answer lies in Dunbar’s number. It does not matter whether the parish is 4,000, or 14,000 or 40,000 it won’t grow to have a bigger congregation than about 150 if people want to relate to each other and to the vicar.
So what can shift that?
Well, we could become non-relational.
But that will not work for Generation Z or many others.
Looking ahead, the diminishing number of clergy means that a reliance on them to turn things around numerically is fool’s gold. If we are to reach out to the many hundreds and thousands moving into this Diocese then we need to pay heed to Dunbar’s number and to work with the grain of it.
And that will mean releasing the whole people of God to celebrate their relationships. It will mean creating structures that are much more fluid and flexible. Messy Churches did not exist when I became a bishop. Today there are just under 4,000 of them in 30 countries across the world. They are largely lay-led and very few of them meet on a Sunday morning.
A few weeks ago I was driving past the former Diocesan Church House on a typical Sunday morning. If you want to know where many of our children and young people are they are out playing rugger in their dozens and hundreds. Churches and congregations are going to have to get a lot more flexible on their timings if we are to reach that generation. We may not like it but Sundays have changed. Other patterns for congregations need developing whether like Trinity at Four in Henley meeting at 4 o’clock on a Sunday or the cross-generational school and church congregation on a Wednesday morning at St Edburg’s Bicester. And what about the fastest growing people group in this country – the over 80s – many of whom will be living in some form of residential or nursing home. How can they be living congregations – some of our 750 new ones – and not just be people having a weekly or monthly service provided for them.
All these are fascinating questions and the log-jam we still need to break as we seek to be more contemplative, more compassionate, and more courageous is to remember Dunbar’s number and numbers – to release the potential of the whole people of God through such things as Cursillo and Personal Discipleship Plans – and never to forget our great strength – and weakness – is in being a church founded on relationships.
There is, of course, nothing new in that, and I close with a quotation from Michael Ramsey’s ‘The Christian Priest Today’ remembering that all of us gathered here are Christ’s Royal Priesthood.
‘Amidst the vast scene of the world’s problems and tragedies you may feel that your own ministry seems so small, so insignificant, so concerned with the trivial. What a tiny difference it can make to the world that you should run a youth club, or preach to a few people in a church, or visit families with seemingly small result. But consider: the glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Let that be your inspiration. Consider our Lord himself. In a country where there were movements and causes which excited the allegiance of many – the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, and others – our Lord gives many hours to one woman of Samaria, one Nicodemus, one Martha, one Mary, one Lazarus, one Simon Peter, for the infinite worth of the one is the key to the Christian understanding of the many.
It is to a ministry like that of our Lord himself that you are called. The Gospel you preach affects the salvation of the world, and you may help your people to influence the world’s problems. But you will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child. His authority will be given to you as you do this, and his joy will be yours as well.’
14 March 2020
Bishop Steven is currently on sabbatical.