Religion Magazine

A Bigger Message

By Nicholas Baines

The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behavior is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realize that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realize that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.


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