Text: Mark 9.30-37
I realise that the debates of the Church of England, and the speeches of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are not at the top of most people’s breakfast-table reading-list. I also realise that the problems of our Diocese, including its large deficit, feel like they have little to do with us in Havant & Langstone.
But, away from these four walls, momentous decision are being made, about the future of the Church of England. These decisions which may, indeed, affect even us before too long, even in little old Havant & Langstone. Our Diocese, and the Church in general, has come under huge strain, financially – not least because worshippers at home do not, in the main, donate to the work of the church. And there was a lot of worshipping from home being done during the last year!
The pandemic, however, has only accelerated what was already happening, year by year, in the life of the church. Nationally, half of our churches now have congregations of less than 30 people. We’ve lost something like 30% of all worshippers since the 1990s. And the downward trend has been continuing, despite the best efforts of the National church to promote fresh expressions of worship, and to plant new, modern forms of worship with coffee bars, guitars and sofas for worshippers!
But this should not surprise us. The church is up against a massive alternative, in the form of popular culture. It is challenging to encourage people to worship an unseen God, when all around them their neighbours are worshipping celebrities, politicians and pop stars. It is challenging to call people to live lightly upon the earth, when the marketing machines of billion-dollar companies are calling us to consume, consume, consume!
Jesus warned his followers that his was the narrow Way. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”, he said. And we, here in the West, are rich indeed. As the old saying goes:
“If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep you are richer than 75% of the world. If you have money in the bank, money in your wallet, and some spare change you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.”
It is a great struggle for any church to make itself heard in the ears of those who are generally satisfied with their lives – despite the life-giving, life-transforming message we have to convey.
There has been a lot of debate in the church press, in recent months, about the financial crisis of the church. But among the pearls of wisdom which have dropped from Archi-Episcopal lips in the past two years, perhaps the most profound has been a soundbite. In November of last year, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced that they had concluded that the way forward for the church is to become ‘simpler, humbler, bolder’.
Those three words, ‘simpler, humbler, bolder’, have been a clarion call to those who concern themselves with the future of the church. And I think they have great resonance with the Gospel reading for today…
After Jesus’ disciples have been bickering about which of them was the ‘greatest’, Jesus replies that ‘whoever wants to be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven must first learn to be the servant of all’. Greatness, for Jesus, was found in service. “It is in giving of ourselves that we receive”, as the old song goes.
Then Jesus took a child in his arms. A child. What greater example can there be of someone who is ‘simpler, humbler and bolder’ than a little child? ‘Simpler’ because a child does not pile up resources around them, like grown-ups do. ‘Humbler’ because a child lacks the intellectual tools to dominate the grown-ups around them. ‘Bolder’ because a child is willing to try new things, to experiment boldly with all the possibilities of life.
A useful model for the future of the church, then, is set before us. We too, must become like children. Simpler, humbler, bolder. ‘Simpler’, first, because we shall need to strip-away the dead-wood of resources we no longer need. Diocesan posts which are ‘nice to have’ will have to be cut – as indeed our Diocese has done. Perhaps some church buildings are just too expensive to keep going – causing us to waste so much human capital on fundraising just to keep the rain off our heads when we worship. (I must clarify, though, that I am not referring to buildings like St Faith’s. I’m referring to the kind of church buildings which are kept at huge expense, for the benefit of 30 people or less to gather once a week, for an hour. I’m not talking about buildings which are hubs for their community, and flagships of community life.). We’ll be ‘simpler’ when each of us learns the power of giving away the wealth that we hoard, for the benefit of the Kingdom, and in service of others.
What might it mean for us to be ‘Humbler’? I think we’ll be humbler when we learn how to listen to different voices than our own, whether it be in matters of faith or whether it be willingness to challenge our preconceptions about life in general. We’ll be humbler when we no longer try to cling on to what we have received, as if it is the only way of comprehending the mystery of an infinite God. We’ll be humbler when we realise that Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Pagans may have caught glimpses of God which we have not yet seen. We’ll be humbler when we each realise that we can never stop learning about the mystery of God. And we’ll be humbler when we become hungry enough to want to know more!
We’ll be ‘bolder’, when we learn to experiment, to try new things, to grab every experience of life which God offers, and then shake it to learn more about the God who sent it, or inspired it. We’ll be bolder when we are able to say ‘Let’s try it!’ instead of ‘I won’t like it!’. We’ll be bolder when we try new kinds of worship –even if it is different from what we’ve always done. We’ll be bolder when we embrace new opportunities for growth from wherever such opportunities come.
Simpler, humbler, bolder. Like a child. For perhaps it is only by entering the Kingdom of God like a child, that we can ever see it fully established in our lives, in our parish and in our world. Amen.
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