Growing in God
Matthew 4 30-32 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
First of all, I want to thank those who are hosting us this evening and those who have prepared the Order of Service. I realise that a great deal of hard work and preparation goes into staging an occasion such as this and I am very appreciative of all that has been done to make this evening’s proceedings run smoothly. Secondly, may I also thank all of you for taking time out of very busy lives and schedules to be here. If I have any specific aspirations for this evening they would be that you as church wardens and supporters might leave here after this service feeling affirmed in what you do in the name of the church; that you fully understand and appreciate just how valuable you are to the life of the church and the wider mission of the kingdom of God; and that that you would leave feeling renewed for the tasks that lie ahead. So I begin by thanking you all most sincerely for all that you do.
May I also take this opportunity to warmly commend to you the annual Archdeacons’ Visitation News? As always we are very grateful to EIG for funding its production and I think you will agree that it is a very high quality product brilliantly compiled and edited by me. It is full of informative and helpful articles offering advice on how to deal with many of the difficult issues you face in your parishes. It also has very helpful articles on both the Living Faith in Suffolk and the Growing in God initiatives.
The theme set for this year’s series of Archdeaconry Visitations right across the diocese is Growing in God and Archdeacon Ian and I have chosen as the reading the short but powerful parable of the Mustard Seed from St Matthew’s gospel to provide a theological and spiritual context in which we might consider the work and responsibility that comes with being a churchwarden and how that calling might impact upon our lives. I will return to this passage later in my Charge.
I use the word ‘calling’ or ‘vocation’ deliberately and it might seem an odd choice of words given how much of your time as churchwardens is spent! Very often the things that fill our days can seem somewhat prosaic if not actually mundane. You would be disappointed if, at my annual Visitation I failed to mention toilets, and so each year I record the fact that I have had more conversations about toilets and the various methods of sewage disposal than I ever thought possible or indeed healthy. Yet it is absolutely crucial to appreciate that the preservation of the fabric of our buildings is a weighty responsibility and I am immensely grateful to all of you. One of the great joys of being an archdeacon is the opportunity to get out into the parishes and meet those who are working very hard to maintain and nurture their beautiful and much-loved church.
This also gives me the opportunity to thank publicly James Halsall, Charlotte Hodgson, and the staff at the Diocesan Offices who work so hard to keep our churches and our parsonages in the best condition possible. I would add that the alternative to DAC regulation, namely local planning control, doesn’t bear thinking about. On that note I do think that the extension of the de minimis list has been widely welcomed and is helpful. I would remind you that you do still have to fill in a form (which can be downloaded off the website); you can’t just email or ring the archdeacon for the nod but in many cases it is much quicker and cost effective. I should also make clear that the new de minimis regulations are not a means of avoiding a faculty. Some parishes have sought to break down applications into de minimis sized bites. Be warned we are on to you! A further exciting development is the imminent introduction of the on-line Faculty application system which is a national initiative which this diocese is in the process of adopting. This will allow parishes to apply on-line and to track the progress of their Faculty application as it goes through the system. This should, IT allowing, make the whole process more accessible and transparent although with present Suffolk broadband speeds I say that with some caution!
That said; today we do of course face many new challenges that our forebears would not have had to address; not least the growing burden of building and church legislation and all that comes with it. I am also conscious that at times we can feel bombarded with new initiatives and reviews of this and that, and I certainly, as someone caught in the eye of the storm, worry that we are occasionally trying to do too much. However there is a real and urgent need to get the diocesan finances under control and so a lot of work is being done to both curb expenditure and to secure income. We have made, and continue to make, significant cuts to diocesan expenditure. This is regrettably leading to a significant reduction in parochial clergy numbers. We are on target to have reduced stipendiary posts to 118 fte by 2016. Sadly the achieving of this target will give me no joy at all. Further, compared with the national picture, our relatively poor parish share income levels continue to cause real concern. The most recent statistics tell us that we are the 15th most prosperous county in England but only 40th in the diocesan per capita giving stakes. However, I continue to hope that the new Centenary share system will result in an increase in the percentage of parish share income received and there are some early signs of growth! Please be clear; I am clear that many parishes and many individuals do give most generously but, in a diocese which still flounders very near the bottom of the diocesan league table for per capita giving, I would say that we do still need to reflect seriously upon our Christian giving and until we make giving a spiritual priority right across the diocese no amount of cost-cutting will solve our dilemma.
That brings me back to our theme this year; Growing in God. I have no intention of rehearsing once again what Dave Gardner has just shared with us. However, it is all too easy is it not, in the midst of the daily business of being church, to forget why we really do it. I am sure that at times you must wonder what you have let yourselves in for! Many of you have served the church in various ways over many years. Some of you have been churchwardens nearly as long, or indeed longer, than I have been alive! And yet you come back, year after year, and give of your energy, your talent, and your precious time in the service of your community, your church, and your God. For that faith and commitment I am immensely grateful.
The short reading from Matthew which we heard this evening sits within a wider discourse about spiritual growth which begins with the very well-known story of the Parable of the Sower. Here we have described the potential for exponential spiritual growth way beyond our wildest dreams. Usually this parable is interpreted as a story about us as Christians and our varying reactions and responses to the good news of Jesus Christ. The different types of soil and the consequent varying degrees of success of the sown seed are seen as metaphors for the way in which the gospel message meets with differing degrees of success when it is broadcast to us. I am sure that this primarily what Jesus intended when he first told the story but like all parables the Parable of the Sower is patient of more than one interpretation.
So I want to suggest this evening that there is perhaps another way of interpreting this parable which is equally challenging and worthwhile. What if we were to see the parable as reflecting our individual complexity as Christians rather than depicting different personality types. The American satirist Ambrose Bierce wrote ‘In each human heart are a tiger, a pig, an ass and a nightingale. Diversity of character is due to their unequal activity’. If we are being honest with ourselves very few of us are consistent in our lives as Christians. Some days are better than others but how often have we felt shame when we have acted as if our faith was born of shallow soil indeed and breathed a sigh of relief that at least others have not witnessed it so that we can go on pretending at least outwardly that we are what we want others to believe us to be? Equally how often have we come to church and had a wonderful worship experience and gone out uplifted and consoled only a few hours later to default back to the person we do not want to be; that person of faith sown in rocky ground. And yet of course for many of us our faith is life-changing. At its very best it should dictate how we lead our everyday lives and can indeed effect real change for the good in even the most unpromising of material; the person of faith born of the good soil. So I don’t think the passage is describing different sorts of people I think rather it is describing the spiritual journey of us all just at different times and moments. We are all capable of being both good and bad soil depending on a whole range of factors.
The office of Churchwarden is a demanding and challenging one. It brings with it responsibilities and duties that do not always make us popular and we will undoubtedly have good and bad soil days! We can surely only carry out these tasks if we have faith. Faith that we are called to be Churchwardens and faith that God walks with us in our journey. Now I am very conscious that churchwardens, just like archdeacons, come in all sorts of spiritual shapes and sizes. Some of us are deeply committed Christians for whom faith in a living God is the lynch-pin of our daily existence; the thing that gives our life meaning. For others perhaps faith is worn a little more lightly or at least expressed differently. For some our work for the church may have initially come about not through a moment of conversion but because we cared for the wonderful church building at the heart of our village or because we wanted to do something for the community. Sometimes we find ourselves drawn to the work of God for reasons we can neither fathom nor express, or indeed even despite ourselves. Yet our calling as churchwardens can indeed shape our lives just as the potter shapes his or her clay. Our daily lives become shaped by the rhythms and routine of church life. Some of us, many of us, find increased faith through our work for the church and certainly others will find faith through their interaction with us.
It is clear that that the lot of a churchwarden is a challenging one but fortunately most of the list takes care of itself most of the time. But when those moments come, and they will surely come, when dissent is in the air, when tension arises within the worshipping community, or folk are despairing and losing hope and even faith it is to you that the bishop looks for wisdom and discernment in dealing with these moments of crisis. It is to you also that the church looks to support and care for your priest. To be that critical friend ready to challenge but also to affirm and stand alongside. As I prompt you each year please do take the opportunity from time to time to thank your priest for their ministry; and clergy, you too in turn should do likewise. We all need to be valued and affirmed.
I am equally clear that without your commitment and hard work the church could not properly function or fulfil its potential as God intends. We are the Body of Christ. Look at your neighbour and you see Christ looking back (that may be slightly challenging for some). We are the church. As Paul reminds us we each play an indispensable part in making up the whole. Those who encounter us in our roles as priests and churchwardens and members of the church will judge the integrity of the church by our integrity. They will judge the integrity of the gospel by our integrity. If they are warmly welcomed and made to feel valued by you they will feel welcomed and valued by the church and by God. You and I; all of us, do indeed have a Gospel to proclaim and as that great hymn reminds us it is a message for all God’s children and not just those who come to church.
In a moment you are going to stand together as a body and make your declaration. As you do so please be assured of the prayers and gratitude of us all as you commit or perhaps re-commit yourselves afresh to the task that lies before all of us; the growing and nurturing of God’s kingdom here on earth. As churchwardens you are called not just to care for the bricks and mortar; not simply to ensure that ‘order and decency’ are maintained; not just to provide adequate seating for all who wish to attend divine worship; not just to deal with ‘riotous, violent or indecent behaviour in church’; not just to do those jobs that no one else will do. Canon E1 charges you ‘by example and precept to encourage the parishioners in the practice of true religion and to promote unity and peace among them’. You are to be an example to your peers and to be peacemakers when unity is threatened. You are to be an encouragement to your fellow-Christians even, or perhaps especially, when the going gets tough. If you are always seeing the glass half-empty who is left to proclaim the good news that the glass is still half-full. If your litany is one of despondency and cynicism who is left to pray with joy and thanksgiving?
We are all called to proclaim the joy of the Gospel through our lifestyle; through our words and our actions; to be like a mustard seed that blossoms and encourages so that growth happens in those around us. My honest belief is that there is a direct correlation between, on the one hand, spiritual conviction and growth and, on the other, giving and service. once real spiritual growth happens and the roots go deep into that good soil which is in all of us then we will no longer have to worry about parish share levels or finding parish officers to stand to fill numerous vacancies.