Shaun Richards looks up, looks out and looks forward
At the centre of the vocation of every priest has to be the desire to see the church of God grow. This need manifests itself in the practical application of providing the right environment, where those who come to church can encounter God. It’s not rocket science that’s needed, but a belief born out of a priestly vocation to make a difference by passing on the good news.
Catholic Anglicans might wish to consider embracing blue sky thinking in what they do, what they offer people, and how it can be improved upon. Blue sky thinking is about thinking ‘outside the box’, creating possibilities for churches and congregations to grow, producing good down to earth results which yield a hundredfold and more.
People come to church for all manner of reasons. Hidden amongst that plethora of reasons is often a desire to seek an encounter with the Lord. They come in the hope that they can experience a God-instance in their lives. With blue sky thinking we should ask ourselves regularly: are we making every possible effort for that encounter with the power of God to happen?
Before we even look at our buildings and liturgy we have to start with ourselves and how others perceive us as holy men of God – we need to hold up a mirror to ourselves.
For the sake of argument, it’s taken as a given that we are clergy striving for holiness, saying our prayers regularly. But what about our pastoral heart? How bothered are we about encouraging and inviting regulars, new comers and visitors to Mass. Do we embrace people with engaging warmth, or are we lacking in effort, energy, the merest of good manners and an easy smile. I am not suggesting we rush to enrol at charm school, but that we remind ourselves of the privilege of our priestly vocation and the foundation of that call. It’s about getting back to being passionate for and about Christ, and loving our people. Being passionate in what we do is incredibly infectious and very attractive.
Clergy are familiar with their church, but the easiest thing for us to forget is how difficult it is when an inquisitive inquirer walks through our doors for the first time. It might as well be the planet Mars to those who know little about church. The welcome they receive will very much determine whether they stay or leave – if they stay, have we something to offer?
Blue sky thinking is about looking at our churches with new eyes, trying to visualise what it’s like to be new or vaguely interested. We have a luxurious wealth of liturgy – but sometimes the way we ‘do it’ is plain, laboured and drab and not worthy of the attention of parishioners, let alone God. Good pace never killed a spiritual moment – but actually gives the Holy Spirit a fighting chance of being heard and felt. Blue sky thinking means we leave people wanting more at the end of the celebration of Mass – not looking at their watches wondering if it will ever end! Quality does not always equate with quantity.
Growing the Church involves every member ministry, all playing their part together in building up the body of Christ. A lively pro-active Parochial Church Council, (clearly the elders of the church) are crucial to the business of building. They are as much about doing as saying. I try to save as much business stuff for the Standing Committee enabling the PCC to be a little more creative in dreaming dreams – and then making them happen. After all, our role has to be about enabling and empowering people on their Christian journey, whilst playing to their individual gifts and strengths.
I don’t encourage anyone to stand for election who isn’t prepared to work hard over the coming year. The essential thing about church councils (and clergy) is that they must follow through on plans and ideas to completion. One project brought to fruition is better than juggling three unfinished projects in the air.
The Lord sent his disciples out in twos – clearly this is a great way in which to instil confidence in the faithful. Church duties organised in this same way, wherever possible builds up confidence and community and gets rid of the “that’s my job – I’ve always done it” syndrome.
Lent is the season for confessions, so here is mine. I am often a little envious of other parishes who have a wealth of buildings – they can be a millstone around the neck, but they are a real missionary opportunity. S. Silas, Pentonville is one building cut in half with the community hall at the west end – however this hasn’t stopped our outreach. The creation of a ‘stop and play’ group has made an enormous difference to church growth and in breaking down barriers between church and community. Coupled with a Junior Church, both have made a real impact on the parish. If we can get rid of the concern many parents feel about mixing church and lively children then blue skies are the only limit. Creating a pit-stop space for restless toddlers and parents gives them a breathing space to settle down before rejoining the main body of the church.
Coming to church for some is a release from the daily monotony of life. It’s an opportunity to talk with God and recharge batteries. What we have to offer in the Anglo Catholic tradition, is a richness, which, if it could be bottled would be priceless. We sometimes forget that. The experience people have of our churches should be one which lifts every day life. People have busy lives, and we need to acknowledge many of our parishioners are time – limited people. Gone are the days when we could expect them to sign up for a 3-6 month confirmation course – how many clergy could spare that time? Acknowledging the preciousness of time has led to S. Silas church creating a ‘fast tract’ approach which still upholds faith and tradition – it works. The last confirmation course attracted 27 confirmands (54 over the past 3 years).
Blue sky thinking, making plans and dreaming dreams outside the box is not fool proof, some things work better than others, and all parishes are different. This is an opportunity to get back to the roots of our call to serve God and to see his church grow. We sometimes forget to rejoice in the positives, dwelling on the more negative aspects, and we are not terribly good at sharing our good news with each other. Perhaps more than anything else, we need to remind ourselves that blue sky thinking is an opportunity to recharge and excel in the task which God has handed to each of us.
Father Shaun Richards ssc, Vicar & Parish Priest – Saint Silas, Pentonville