John Gladwin was Bishop of Guildford (1994-2004) and Bishop of Chelmsford (2004-2009). Previously he had been Provost of Sheffield Cathedral and Secretary of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility.
The courageous decision of the Diocese of Chelmsford to bring forward its planned reduction by 60 in the number of stipendiary clergy is indicative that the Church of England is prepared to make the changes needed to meet the challenge of the ministry of the Gospel in our rapidly changing culture. Far from being a retreat this is about change. The virus may have clarified some of the issues but they go back well before all this began in 2020.
We are all coming to terms with the reality of a world in which the experience of Christian community and ‘going to church’ are not the same. It is clear from the response of churches within their local communities at a time when our buildings have been shut and congregations unable to meet as in the past has demonstrated a diverse and widespread need for support and ministry in a whole variety of creative ways. The church is a community responding to the Good News of Christ and much more than a congregation in church on a Sunday morning.
This challenging experience invites us to move away from the nostalgia for a recovery of the past. Remember Lot’s wife! We must not look back. The temptation of such backward facing ministry is that we get locked into the depressing cycle of endless calls for more clergy and the financial resources to meet the ever growing demand of such models of church life. Keeping the show going becomes an increasing burden on a narrow understanding of our community. Might we begin to lift some of this weight off of the shoulders of clergy, PCC’s and Synods and open up a forward looking agenda for the extraordinary human and material resources entrusted to us.
By openly sharing our experience of these extraordinary times and reflecting on them we discover doors opening in front of us for the future ministry of the church.There will be no going back on the digital revolution in our ministry. This is a crucial bridge joining the Gospel and our contemporary community. Similarly, there can be no retreat from the doors that have started to open for support and community for the isolated, struggling households of all generations and people of all ages and cultures. We share the Good News where the people are, not where we think they ought to be.
The deep spiritual and personal concerns and experience of the people we are called to serve requires us to think afresh about the faith and what it means for human living and our world today – the theological task. The uncertainties, anxieties, fears and hopes in this moment of change calls all of us to reflect on the form and nature of the church – the ecclesiological task. Such sharing of experience and prayerful reflection leads us to new strategies and policies. That is a task for all who are willing to participate in the conversation.
If we ask our congregations and the wider community in which they are set what are the matters at the top of their agenda it is just possible that these will not tally with the issues dominating the governance of the church! Equality and diversity, sustaining life enhancing relationships, supporting one another through difficult moments of change, caring for our planet and the ecology and our world, justice for the poor and excluded and liberty for all living with oppression. Everyone has the potential to contribute to this conversation. The deep waters of worship and prayer will surely feed us on this journey of faith. Might we enter it with hope and the Gospel conviction that the past opens the way in the present to all that lies ahead – life always has the final word.
The changes demanded of the church – as with most corporate institutions at this time – can be seen as decline especially if we hold on to past models of how we can be church for today. They can, however, be seen as a call to think towards the emerging world with all its challenges and difficulties. What does God require of us so that the life giving Gospel speaks to us and our neighbours now? This will not be the first time people who follow Jesus are called to make a journey in faith learning and growing as we travel.