This is the second in a series on Revitalizing Ministry in Wales.
By Mark Clavier
We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand.
– An old harvest hymn
“True faith doth give life to the works, and out of such faith come good works, that be very good works indeed”
— Thomas Cranmer
Not long after I first entered parish ministry in the UK, I spent a morning rummaging through the vestry in one of my churches. It was like being let loose in an old attic. I discovered a wardrobe stuffed with cassocks, cottas, and albs that smelled faintly of damp and mold. Elsewhere, I came across a stack of beautifully bound parish devotionals that contained prayers, brief meditations, and encouragements to good works. Some had notes scribbled in their margins and checks by favorite prayers. There was even a stack of typewritten handbooks mimeographed for a parish guild dedicated to serving the needs of their church.
I never discovered why no one had cleared them out of that overstuffed vestry. None had been used for at least twenty years. They’re probably still there: the ecclesiastical pressed leaves of a vanishing ecology that had sustained that church for centuries.
Undoubtedly, fewer people had used the devotionals than the person who’d purchased them had hoped. Probably fewer had joined the guild than the eager typist would have liked. All the same, the books and the robes evoked a world in which they were wanted, needed, and perhaps even appreciated.
I arrived three or four vicars on from those days. During the intervening decades, one of the great messages of the church was (and continues to be) the empowering of the laity. Yet, the church I came to know couldn’t muster anything like the involvement of bygone days. While a half-dozen participated fully, the rest attended sporadically, dropping a few coins in the collection as a gesture of half-hearted commitment.
I soon learned that other aspects of that old ecology had also withered. Weekly Sunday school had ceased in the 90s and no children joined in regular worship. A predecessor of mine had valiantly tried to train laity in new collaborative ways of pastoral care but had mostly failed. His successor had been given additional churches, so now even the memory of dependable pastoral care had faded. No one could remember there ever being study groups for adults (except during Lent) and only the eldest parishioners had been catechized. Indeed, hardly anyone in the congregation under 50 was confirmed.
If my older parishioners barely recalled a time when their church had enjoyed some life, younger ones knew nothing of it and felt hardly any connection whatsoever. And why should they? The church they knew hadn’t taught them the faith and had given them little that was meaningful to hold onto other than unengaging worship and an endless parade of activities like toddler groups, teas, and pub quizzes, most of which were aimed at meeting the parish share. The days when the church demanded anything from them had long since vanished. Consequently, they viewed their church in the way a child might a doddering aunt who occasionally hands out sweets: fondly but not seriously. It certainly didn’t inspire them.
Compared to what I’d known back in the States and the world evoked by the relics in the vestry, the church I entered barely produced a pulse. Indeed, the most obvious shared conviction was that the church would continue to decline: many of my parishioners hoped only that the doors would remain open long enough to receive their coffin. Sadly, my church was in no way unusual; in fact, it was considered by the diocese to be heathy because it reliably paid its parish share.
What had produced this state of affairs? Most people would probably blame an increasingly secular society in which churches now have to compete with other forms of leisure activity. There’s no longer an obligation to attend church and so few do. This is undoubtedly true. But I think blaming secularization is too easy. I think there’s a deeper issue, one that must be addressed if we’re to reverse decline:
We’ve lost our way.
A few years ago, I found myself sitting in one of those interminable church conferences that consisted largely of small group discussions and unintentionally patronizing activities involving colored markers and oversized sheets of paper. The topic of the day was the “Kingdom of God,” and its purpose was to share ideas about ministry. Later, when I reflected on the conference, two things struck me. First, we had spent the day discussing how to proclaim and participate in the kingdom of God without ever once explaining what it is or why it’s important. Second, not once had anyone mentioned redemption or salvation.
Whatever its purpose, most agreed that the essential thing about the kingdom is social action — what in bygone days would have been called good works. We never discussed worship, except how to make it more accessible, or the formation of people into the faith. The mission was often mentioned but rarely included evangelism. Throughout, there was an implicit image of the church as a service provider, a kind of spiritual National Health Service with less funding and fewer employees. Many seemed to assume that local churches have readily available manpower for the proposed activities and that wider society longed for the Church’s involvement in the issues of the day. In any case, it was all aspirational as most were serving in churches struggling just to survive.
As I drove home afterwards, I reflected on the conference and my earlier experience of parish ministry. The juxtaposition of the two struck me powerfully. In the one, I’d found nostalgia for an old parish ecology combined with apathy towards the faith that had once made it fertile. In the latter, I was presented with creatives ideas for offering the malnourished fruits of a faded faith to the world without any recognition that few wanted them in their present condition. The first longed for fertile fields without the fertilizer of faith; the latter expected delicious produce without having to commit themselves to the fertility of the soil.
Neither seemed particularly enthusiastic about the faith itself.
As I wrote in the first essay of this series, the crisis of Christianity in the UK is a crisis of faith and commitment. It would be hard to exaggerate this point. We seem to assume that we can be successful in our various ministries apart from the faith that not only inspires those works but is also their raison d’être. Consequently, we’ve largely retreated from teaching that faith and so are left with only a vague notion of what that faith is. Scripture is rarely taught and the process of salvation and how that ought to define our ordinary lives is at best only implied. And even when we do promote discipleship, we do so in terms that suggests it involves little cost. We too often exemplify Bonhoeffer’s condemnation of the Church of his own day:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Combined with only a vague impression of the nature of God’s kingdom, we’re left with a church that demands little meaningful commitment to the faith while expecting a diminishing number to achieve the high aims of our calling. It also offers the world little by way of Christian hope or redemption while involving itself in all the great matters of the day. Not knowing who we are or where we’re going, the faithful are left exhausted and demoralized, like farmhands given too many jobs to focus on cultivating the fields properly.
What then is to be done?
I believe our church can be more than a gradually vanishing aspect of traditional British culture kept on life-support through organizational restructuring and financial management. But to achieve this will involve two difficult but fundamental decisions.
First, we must recognize that only a lively faith can produce the good works. We can do this by committing ourselves and our resources to a deep and sustained renewal of that faith. The Church is not primarily an organization nor even an institution. It’s the body of Christ, the household of God’s faithful people, a fellowship intended to enjoy a seamless communion with God and his creation. Our aim isn’t the perfecting of the world or even ourselves (indeed, to believe this is even possible is idolatry) but rather responding faithfully and thankfully to Christ’s redemption of the world. We must reclaim a confidence in the gospel that’s based on the conviction that salvation does matter, that nothing is more important than the fact that Christ died for our sins and rose again for our salvation. To do that, we must know that faith and the Scriptures that underpin it.
Second, we must uproot the weeds of ineffective work. Our churches often conduct a wide-array of activities and responsibilities that are now often undertaken by an ever-diminishing number of elderly people. We need a healthy dose of realism that recognizes what’s both achievable and fruitful. There’s no point wasting energy and resources on things that can’t be done well in a sustainable fashion, and it’s just cruel to expect people to undertake what’s currently impossible. In all things we should ask ourselves “How does this make Christ real among those involved?” or “How does this encourage faith to grow in the body of Christ?” If neither aim is being met in an obvious way, then we should kill off the activity immediately. We don’t have the resources for extravagance.
To achieve these aims we should commit serious energy and diocesan resources to restoring the underlying ecology of the church. This is not unlike regenerating impoverished soil. Well-conducted worship, regular study and prayer groups, hearty singing, frequent fellowship, thoughtful and inspirational preaching, the involvement of children in non-patronizing ways, and a shared commitment to service and the cure of souls are the basic requirements for a fertile church ecology. And all of these must be undertaken with energy, enthusiasm, and infectious dedication. Only where this is possible and sustainable can we hope to achieve the kind of fertility that produces bountiful harvests. Enabling and supporting such fertility should be primary focus of our dioceses, provincial training, and ministerial development.
The renewal of faith and of our ecology depends more on the clergy than many probably care to admit. Clergy have been given responsibility for their field; the Ordinal’s “take authority” is their commission to be dedicated stewards. For too long, we have been idle in that commission, too relaxed about the depleting soil or too involved elsewhere to notice. As a result, people have lost faith in us. Unless we commit ourselves to leading by example, to getting stuck into the fieldwork, we will enjoy neither the know-how to work well nor the respect of our fellow laborers. We’ll also continue in our cycle of death, for a mark of poor fertility is our ecology’s failure to produce vocations. To be faithful stewards in a changing church, we must be truly faithful — both committed to the calling we’ve received and filled with an obvious and confident faith.
In the first essay in this series, I argued that a renewal of our faith is the greatest need in the Church in Wales (and elsewhere). Without a flourishing ecology of faith, not all the restructuring or clever financial management will avoid our eventual collapse. You can run and manage a farm any way you like, but if its ecology is dead, it won’t produce a harvest.
But here’s the hard thing: we’re now about fifty years too late in renewing that ecology without losing some fields. There are now too many that have too few workers and little life in the soil to succeed. In order to cultivate the land with the people and resources we have, difficult decisions must be made. In my final essay, I’ll tackle the hard issue of how to restructure ourselves to ensure we have enough laborers in the vineyards.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.