When meetings do not address the problem of alienation there is something wrong with the organisation they exist to serve. I attended one such meeting last week. It was a deanery conference.
Its purpose, it seems, was to ‘up sell’ the idea of ministry areas but like all strategic decisions reached in the wrong way, those selling it failed to enthuse their audience. In fact many of those present went away feeling angry, betrayed and disillusioned. Most of them were over 50 and at a rough estimate, probably around 65% of them were women. The meeting was orchestrated and driven by four men, all of whom needed basic coaching in communication skills and, for one or two of them, time spent in the managerial equivalent of charm school.
The meeting was helpful only insofar as the tenor of the debate and some of the issues touched upon by an articulate audience showed us not only what is wrong with the Church in Wales, but what needs to happen to change it for the better. Changing the Church in Wales for the better, which must surely be the underlying purpose of ministry areas, is a matter of something happening to its people, rather than devising strategies which it is hoped will keep the organisation going.
Good strategy and planning exist to promote the life and happiness of an organisation, thereby making its work effective. But it is the Church’s life in God, and its happiness in being God’s people, which make it attractive in the way Jesus was attractive. The Church will not be effective if it does not first attract people to Jesus. Jesus was attractive because he gave people something which no organisation could take away from them, the knowledge that they mattered to God and permission to be happy in that knowledge. So life, which is knowing that we matter to God, and happiness, preclude strategy. In terms of the life of the Church in Wales, life and happiness issue forth in what Jesus describes as the bearing of fruit.
This deanery meeting was life suppressing. It also, in the way it was devised and driven, suppressed happiness. It was a dictatorial and thinly veiled underpinning of the same old order presented in the form of something new. But people are not so easily fooled. The new system, as one person commented from the floor, would in fact ensure the continuing subsidisation of middle management and top ranking clergy, even though much lip service was paid to those training for lay ministry. There was little acknowledgment of the faithfulness of unpaid priests whose services, I couldn’t help feeling, are deemed by some to be less desirable than those of a stipendiary. Some people felt that too much was spent on buildings and that part of these expenses should be borne by other bodies. Many of these concerns were glossed over in a patronising way which only made for more anger.
People felt both bullied and undervalued. There was much talk of being the body of Christ, but a singular lack of love and trust between those in the audience and those driving the proceedings. The tenor of the debate revealed how little we honour one another as Christians and as members of a single family. It also revealed how little we value those who faithfully support their church Sunday by Sunday. This is especially true with regard to older people who are possibly the Church’s most important potential mission workers. Their life experience, wisdom, professional acumen and natural intelligence is seldom used to attract younger people. The church is full of under used ‘godparents’, ‘grandparents’ and life mentors. Younger people, and people of all ages, need to know where they can find wisdom and non-judgmental compassion when they need it. They should be looking to the Church and especially to its older members.
What then, is the hope for the Church in Wales of the future? Tinkering with the existing structure is not the answer. This is not to deny the need for structure itself. Structures are necessary as movements grow in size and influence, so structures need to be both strong and malleable, allowing for movement, change and growth. They are the context in which gift and talent are nurtured so that the organisation, or the Church, can bear fruit.
In the case of the Church in Wales, the structure needs to be leaner in a number of respects. There needs to be less in the way of petty legalism, individual professional advancement and cronyism. There needs to be a complete and unequivocal end to discrimination against women. In this and other contexts there also needs to be a genuine change of heart when it comes to empowering those who call for reconciliation, or who speak the truth about the Church’s life and who, in doing so, threaten the privileged power holding enclave. There needs to be more in the way of repentance for the waste of gift and talent sent to the Church by God in all those he calls to minister to his people. The Church needs to start looking around for imaginative, creative, risky people.
All of this suggests that the Church in Wales needs to re-think its priorities when it comes to how it roots its life in God, because its life in God is the only life which brings happiness and which will enable it to bear fruit. It is this life which also attracts those who tentatively come through its doors seeking to know Jesus Christ. Closing buildings which we cannot afford to maintain may or may not be part of this re-thinking process. We are neurotic about buildings, but whatever we feel about them, perhaps we all need to remember that it is not the buildings which put people off the Church. It is the remoteness of a clerical and increasingly management-driven ruling class who are stifling the joy promised to it in its Lord.