The Sweetness Of Grace

St Stephens has gone recently from being two clergy and a church administrator to myself, as the one person left on the dance floor. People come and people go and the changed circumstances are an opportunity for me to learn not to take myself too seriously. I am not going to manage to get everything done however hard I try. I am never going to be the church leader that everyone wants me to be. I am not the Message but simply a postman who brings good news – this analogy is from Leslie Newbiggin.

A reduced staff team offers me a chance to recognise some of my limitations that may have previously been covered by others. The comment “I am good at relationships but not at administration” is not one that can be made in a parish where the vicar is the only staff member left standing. It is, anyhow, a modern day version of theological dualism to set time spent in prayer, preaching and relationships and time spent in administration and answering emails in opposition to each other.  

We talk about ‘maintenance’ [of a church] rather than ‘mission’ as if one were possible without the other whereas in reality the two are interdependent. The purpose of maintaining a church is mission to the community. God’s path of ‘mission’ is through a ‘maintained’ Christ centred outward looking church.

A parish church is rooted in the history of the local community as well as its current social political reality. The Church of England occupies a quasi-judicial role and people might need documentation to help them to do things in other parts of the world. If James Peter Sullivan wants a copy of his Baptism Certificate from 1985 so that he can get married in Italy then he shall have it!

God uses everyday, mundane things to communicate the very life of God, making Christianity, as Archbishop William Temple used to say “the most materialistic of all the great religions”. My contribution to God’s kingdom in this instance was the time spent ferreting about in the filing cabinet to find the details of his baptism in order to provide him with a new certificate.

One reason that many church leaders struggle with the need to give time in the week to administration is that many of us are really closet dualists caught by the desire to draw a distinction between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and physical. We want our church life pure, spiritual and uncomplicated. We talk about being spiritual but not religious in the hope that we can have the first without the second.

In church life congregation members act out their own version of dualism by putting their minister onto a pedestal and expecting more of the person than he or she can give. The trap for a church leader is to try to live up to an idealised version of themselves. I have found myself doing just this and wanting to maintain the level of service delivery that the parish has enjoyed previously. I have been working 60-hour weeks but I am coming to realise that it is not just hard work that is needed. Jesus tells his disciples that there will always be more to be done than there are people available: ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few’ (Matt 9:37). I must follow the example of my father who used to say to me “don’t raise your voice; improve your argument”.

I will do as I have always done. I am a long distance runner and I will take my ever hopeful, physical, spiritual self and runI have signed up for the beautiful Sussex Coastal marathon next month on March 17th. ‘Heaven and earth and all that is in them on every side bid me love you Lord’, wrote St Augustine, and they will do me as I run. It is a Saturday and so I won’t even miss a Sunday. I will be back in church the following day.

The Holy Spirit will do as she has always done and, as again wrote St Augustine, ‘the sweetness of grace by which whatever is weak is made strong.... will [continue to] draw together fellow pilgrims and companions of the way’. Life in the church will continue differently but the same as before. We will get on with the job of worshipping God, as we always have done. In the meantime if there is anyone from St Stephens in the 1980's that wants duplicate baptism forms, then I am your man!