Hello everyone and a very happy New Year. We pray that this year might be one in which we finally emerge from COVID into something like normality, whatever that is, and however we remember it. Having not experienced it myself in this part of the world, I can’t wait!
We took a few days break in my parents flat in Plymouth after Christmas. It’s a fascinating maritime city, home to a university and some rather unpleasant 60’s architecture that replaced much that was destroyed in the WW2 bombing. At the top of the hill overlooking the harbour is Plymouth Hoe, where Francis Drake allegedly finished his game of bowls rather than be distracted by the threatening Spanish Armada. In modern parlance, he was a leader showing a non-anxious presence!
As we begin any year it is easier to be overwhelmed by challenges rather than look forward with hope. This year, besides COVID, we have the economic challenge of growing inflation, and from a church perspective issues with which we’ll be familiar. At the end of last year, I conducted 10 listening events around the diocese. The quartet raised at all the meetings won’t surprise you – numbers, money, buildings and age profile. We are confronted with these every time we go to church, so it's no surprise they tend to dominate our thinking.
This is the backdrop for our conversations this year about our diocesan strategy. Another common response I got at the meetings, when I asked people about our current strategy, was, “What’s that?” Given the huge amount of work colleagues put into producing it and the amount of communication and consultation involved in drawing it up, that’s disappointing.
But a diocese is a complex organisation. Inevitably, people’s energy and focus starts locally and declines the further out you go. So, unless strategic stuff connects with local issues its likely to be seen as irrelevant and thus ignored. I’m convinced that whatever emerges must at least be seen to address the issues pre-occupying people in the parishes as well as encourage us in renewed missional energy.
I wonder whether part of our problem is that within living memory we were used to being at the top table culturally, politically and in our local communities. We are all too aware of our weaknesses and therefore anything that sounds like demands to do more is most unwelcome. It's all we can do to keep the current show on the road, and even more depressing when we know that our very best efforts aren’t keeping it on the road in any case.
But what if that’s the place that mission is meant to start from? What if the times we look back on nostalgically when we had the people, the money, the social standing and the resources were actually a liability rather than an asset. You may be horrified by this, but I’d invite you to look at the experience of mission in the Gospels. When Jesus sent out the 12 and the 72 he gave them specific instructions not to take all that they needed. Luke 10: 5 says, “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse, or bag or sandals, and do not greet anyone on the road.” More than that, he said you should be dependent on the very people to whom you offer ministry. When Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection they were afraid initially, overjoyed at his presence and then sent out to get on with it.
What if we started discussions about strategy recognising that in human terms many of our problems are intractable and we simply don’t have the resources to address them? What if that didn’t lead us to despair, but to a hopeful desperation that drove us to prayer. What if our hope was based not on our strategic ingenuity but on the grace and power of the Holy Spirit? What if we saw weakness not as something to conceal or be afraid of, but as an opportunity to demonstrate Spirit-led creativity, to increase our dependence on the Lord and to grant us a fresh focus and clarity? What if our honesty and vulnerability made the Gospel we proclaim and live by more credible not less?
I start 2022 hopeful because there is a throne room in heaven and there is someone sitting on it. But that person isn’t a demanding tyrant or an awesome angel, but (as Revelation 5: 6 says) a lamb, looking as if it had been slain. The resurrected Jesus said to his disciples in the upper room, after he showed them the scars of the crucifixion, “as the Father has sent me, I am sending you. When we feel weak and powerless, we merely go as he did, but empowered by something far beyond ourselves. It's that which makes 2022, as every year, a year of hope.