Sunday 22 April 2018

Church 'outside-in': what if...

I want to try out a little 'thought experiment' on you, dear reader(s)...

It begins with a suggestion or two about how the Church (with a big 'C', but with an acknowledgment that I write from within the Church of England, and so that is the 'Church' I mean primarily) imagines itself, and therefore functions practically. And then it wonders, what if it imagined itself differently.

Specifically, I want to wonder, what if the Church imagined the flow (I'll flesh out that term a bit more shortly) as moving from the 'outside', in - rather than from the 'inside', out...

Let me explain.

'Inside-out' Church

It's often clearest when we're thinking about money (which is where a previous blog post on this topic started). For many of us involved in the Church (with a big 'C'), most of the money that's visible seems to come 'from the centre' ('the Diocese', and even more centrally 'the Church Commissioners') and then trickle (or maybe pour - depending partly on where you're located) outwards, towards 'the parishes' - usually in the form of paid ministers. A lot of our collective frustrations (arguments, if we're daring enough to vocalise them) focus on how fairly, or otherwise, that investment (in paid ministry) is distributed. Those frustrations, or arguments, are often complicated by a bit of a 'feedback loop': some parishes are able to pay back into the 'pot' rather more money than others - and some argue that these parishes should have more central investment in them as a result. Some churches argue that they are getting more people through their doors than others - one way of measuring 'success' - and therefore they need, or deserve (financial judgments are not far from moral judgments in this way of imagining things), more investment than others.

But it's not just about money. On a more local level, we often imagine that what we do when we gather as 'church' (on a Sunday morning, typically) is about 'filling us up' for the week ahead, as we go about our lives in the world: feeding us, to feed others; preaching to us, to preach to others; enlightening us, to enlighten others. One of our (CofE) post-communion prayers makes this very explicit: "may we who drink his cup, bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world". In our gathered worship (in our local 'centres') we are filled to overflowing with something that then pours (or trickles - depending partly on where you're located) out into the world around us. Again, this dynamic is complicated by actual or desired 'feedback loops': when we 'give out' what we've received 'in church', what do we expect to 'get back'? Do we perceive our neighbours as 'potential Christians', who at some point will, God-willing, come and join us on a Sunday morning? Do we see our neighbours as 'empty vessels', waiting or needing to be filled with what we bring them (whether it's love, or hope, or food, or 'the gospel')?

Couple those two levels together - 'the diocese' and the local - and there's a powerful imagination, profoundly coloured by the role of money, that shapes the way we think about, and perform, the practices and relationships we call 'Church'. It's the kind of imagination that construes 'the centre' (including bishops, diocesan officers, cathedrals and the like) as 'powerful' (or 'helpful') and 'the edges' (including many 'estate parishes' like my own) as relatively 'powerless' (or 'helpless') - that can label some local churches as 'failing' (if they're decreasing numerically and/or unable to 'pay their share') or 'needy' (if they're lacking paid clergy, or a certain kind of 'enlightenment'), and other churches (often positioned more 'centrally' in the imagined economy) as 'resource churches' (with a designated role to channel a certain kind of 'resource' from the 'centre' towards particular kinds of 'edges').

The trouble is, just as the way we perceive our neighbours actually shapes the way we treat them (and how they perceive themselves as being treated by us), so the way our churches are labelled shapes the way we perceive ourselves. It's a reality that we've experienced on our estate over the years: if powerful people tell stories about estates like ours, loudly enough and repeatedly, then those of us who live on such estates begin to believe those stories about ourselves - and that shapes how we feel, how we relate to each other, how we live.

'Outside-in' Church

But what if we imagined it differently? What if we were able to interrupt, disrupt, the dominant sense of 'flow' with some alternatives? What if, for example (and it's certainly not the only option, but it's the starkest to illustrate the question I'm pushing at), we were to reverse the flow - to move from the 'outside', in?

This is, on one level, just a 'thought experiment' - a 'what if...?' What follows is a series of pointers to possibilities, fragmentary glimpses of what could be. This is not entirely hypothetical, though. I've seen some of this in the flesh, and I've heard others tell stories of it happening, here and there, from time to time. This too is part of our 'reality'. But what if these fragmentary glimpses became a story we told more often, more confidently? What if they began to shape our imaginations more significantly?


First, then, we would begin with our neighbours. Rather than 'potential Christians' (let alone 'potential financial givers') or 'empty vessels' waiting to be filled, what if we were to see our neighbours as abundantly gifted (gifted by God, of course): with wonderful, surprising, awkward, unsettling, transformative gifts, waiting for us to receive them, be challenged by them, be changed by them? Those gifts might include hospitality and kindness, stories and wisdom, challenges and questions, prayerfulness and playfulness - among many others. How richly blessed would we find ourselves to be, when we began to receive the gifts of our neighbours (and often from those neighbours who, seen through a financial lens, have little that can be counted)?

The 'laos' - the whole people of God

The 'outside-in' flow makes its way, then, from our neighbours to the 'laos' - the whole people of God, as we Christians sometimes dare to call ourselves (although in a multi-faith area like my own neighbourhood, such a label sounds desperately arrogant). The Church of England is beginning to talk about 'setting God's people free' - by which it means to say that it recognises that the primary way that Christians participate in the mission of God is by living their daily lives, in the company of their neighbours, in the world of God's making. I want to push this a step further, though. 'Setting God's People Free' has a concern for how 'God's people' can be formed ('in church') for their lives in the world. Reversing the flow, I wonder how much we may know ourselves formed by God's Spirit precisely in and through our daily lives among our neighbours. If we understand 'mission' as first of all a receptive endeavour, then it happens precisely in those places where we encounter, and open ourselves to, the giftedness and challenges of our neighbours.


Working our way 'inwards', we rediscover one of the under-valued treasures of our inheritance. The role of the deacon - one which is much more significant than one simply of 'service'. In my friend and colleague Jess Foster, a distinctive deacon in the diocese of Birmingham, I most clearly see this vocation lived out and expressed theologically, and I'm immensely grateful to Jess for that. "My calling became clear to me when I was asked where I saw myself standing in church. I said I don't see myself standing at the altar but at the door. I see my calling as enabling people to come into church, but also enabling people to go out into the community to build relationships that are mutually transformative." In Jess, who has developed a rich ministry particularly through her friendships with people of many different faiths, I see the role of deacon as both symbolising and enabling the 'feeding back into church' of those 'mutually transformative' encounters that have happened between the people of God and their neighbours in the world.

...and Children

I have a hunch there's something significant here about children too. We are learning, in our church, to receive our children's 'wonderings' (questions but also insights, however tentatively expressed) as potential bearers of God's deep wisdom, and God's unsettling Spirit. Far from being 'empty vessels' to be filled and formed, the children in our midst, as a congregation (and beyond the church), have a vast and mysterious capacity to interrupt and disrupt, deepen and enrich, our reflecting and our worshipping in ways that speak of God. Is it to say too much (or too little?) to suggest that they too, in some sense, inhabit a diaconal role?

Priests - and the importance of 'gathering'

Over the last couple of decades (perhaps even since the infamous 'Decade of Evangelism'), we've become accustomed to attending to the importance, within worship of the 'sending out'. Worship is about 'equipping' us (the laos, the whole people of God) for mission in the world. We are fed around the table, to go out and feed others. We receive the word of God, to go out and speak that word to others.

But what if we were to turn this around? If we are, in fact, profoundly formed (and transformed) by our encounters with our neighbours in the world, then how do we 'bring these into church' with us? How do we bring our thankfulness for the gifts we have received in the world? How do we bring our penitence and longing-to-be-different that has been dislodged in us by the challenges we have received in the world? We need, I suggest, to attend much more profoundly to our gathering. How do we begin our 'gathered' acts of worship? In Hodge Hill, we make a habit of inviting people to talk to their neighbours, and then to share more widely, what we bring with us from the world, into church, that we want to thank God for - and what we bring that weighs heavy on us, that we need to bring to God in prayers of concern or penitence. Most weeks the conversations in 2s and 3s flow easily. Sometimes, when I offer the microphone for people to share within the wider congregation, the response comes as a trickle - at other times, it is more like a flood. At its best, this act of 'gathering' shapes and re-shapes the rest of our worship together.

And in this, I suggest, is a vital part of the priestly role. As parish priest in Hodge Hill, I see myself as symbolising and facilitating this 'gathering'. It is part of my role to open the space, to hold it so that it is safe, inviting and even a little unsettling, to 'hear to speech' those testimonies of moments of transformation in the world. It is part of my role to receive them, to be changed by them myself, and to help us as a gathered body to receive their challenge and their gifting in ways that changes us corporately.

Which also means, that when I stand behind the altar, or behind the lectern, I see my role not just as being a channel through which God feeds and teaches - but also as a means by which God deepens in us all a hunger and a thirst, which we take out into the world with us, ready to be fed around 'other tables', not of our hosting, not in our control. Not just to light our candles to take the light out into the world - but to open our eyes and ears to look and listen for God in the faces and voices of our neighbours.

And lastly (I am a priest - forgive me for spending the most time on this section, but it's the bit that perhaps I feel I most know what I'm talking about!), I wonder if there is something vital to the priestly role, within the 'economy' of the wider diocese and wider Church, to both symbolise and facilitate the 'speaking towards the centre' of what we have seen, and heard, and touched, and experienced, 'on the edges' - to be not the spokespeople for our congregation members, but to find ways of enabling them to speak with their own voices to the wider Church - to share their gifts with the wider Church - to present their challenges to the wider Church - borne of their lives in the world, and their encounters with their neighbours.


Which brings me to the role of bishops. Something I know little about, other than glimpses I have caught from a distance. Here, perhaps, my 'what if's' are at their most speculative. They focus around a possible alternative focus to what is often called 'the teaching office of the bishop'. What if, instead, we attended to 'the listening office of the bishop'? What if bishops saw their role, first and foremost, as that of paying the most profound attention to what the parish churches within their dioceses are witnessing, and wanting to say to, and share with, the wider Church? What if, alongside their role in distributing the central resources throughout their diocese, they committed to gathering up the abundant gifts and challenges that come from the people of God dispersed across that diocesan area, and reflecting, embodying, how those gifts and challenges transform the body corporate? What if they, themselves, rather than 'speaking for' their dioceses in the corridors of power, were to find ways, again (for a bishop is also a priest and a deacon, we remember), of both symbolising and facilitating those voices from 'the edges' to find a hearing in such 'central' places?

Such suggestions might be unremarkable. But I do wonder if they might still have some way to go before being fully enfleshed in our midst. They might, perhaps, have implications for how we select, train, and support deacons, priests and bishops in the Church (see this post for a very specific reflection on the appointment of bishops). They might have implications for who we select and appoint to such roles.

What if we were to nurture an 'outside-in' Church...?

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