Christopher Smith visits the Christian Resources Exhibition, and finds himself puzzled as to what Christian resources might actually be
As they say in the diary columns: To Docklands, for the Christian Resources Exhibition. I’d never been, and a colleague had organized some tickets. The Bishop of London opened it, leaving the Bishop of Chelmsford, in whose diocese it actually was, to wander around trying to look cheerful. Apparently, they put the event on several times a year, at venues in various parts of the country, and have been doing so for thirty years. I have always looked at the flyer when it has come round, been moderately interested but not interested enough, and filed it under WPB.
But this year I am looking for a means of heating the Mackonochie Chapel which doesn’t involve heating the main church. And what an extraordinary collection of exhibitors was present at the Docklands Arena. My colleagues made straight for the clerical outfitters whilst I went in search of electric radiators, running the gauntlet of all manner of other stalls, of which by far and away the most impressive was manned by a guy who does funeral transport in a motorbike with a sidecar… an especially long sidecar, if you see what I mean.
There was plenty of practical stuff being exhibited: church furniture, heating, lighting, organs, notice boards, bibles, hymn books, and so on. But what an outmoded and narrow view I have of ‘resources’, for the exhibition was also the place to go to find suppliers of media training, sports ministries, T-shirts and puppets. And how about Comedy for Clergy? – ‘for ordained ministers to learn humour techniques for speaking engagements’. I was slightly nervous of Apostle Alfred Williams, billed as ‘Preparing the Church for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ’. Apparently, ‘Apostle Alfred has seen God heal the blind, the lame, and a number of people raised from the dead around the world. He will speak on discipleship, taking the nations for the Lord, and leadership.’
There was a ‘Worship Zone’, where I couldn’t see any advertised mass times, and a ‘Film Zone’ too, advertising such fare as Planet Biblia: ‘Three young Christians are abducted by aliens and told to renounce their faith or be zapped in the dreaded plasmanator.’ And in another zone altogether was an outfit called ‘More than rubies: a mobile beauty and pampering event company using the gifts of beauty therapy and pampering under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit’. Hmm… it all made the Meaningful Chocolate Company seem drearily mainstream: ‘Let us make you a customised bar’.
Well, frankly, by that point, any bar would have done, and we duly found one. Equilibrium was restored after a little Pinot Grigio, and I found myself reflecting on the meaning of ‘Christian resources’. The term had been given a distinctly elastic meaning by the conference organizers, but, as our Evangelical friends have long realized, the greatest resources we have are the human ones. Committed laity working with faithful priests, that’s our primary resource, working at parish level as leaven in the lump. If only there were any recognition of that at diocesan level. If in doubt, employ another officer – the parishes will pay.
The diocese of Chelmsford, for instance, has four bishops and seven archdeacons, exceeding the diocese of Southwark by one archdeacon. The newly formed Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales has five bishops, but makes do with only five archdeacons. What it saves in archdeaconries, though, it spends on cathedrals, retaining the three it had before the reorganization, each with its dean, sub-dean, precentor, and an assortment of canons. Is that a good use of our Christian resources? It is often noted that cathedral congregations are going up in size: well, so they ought to be, given how many priests they have on the payroll, and how much administrative support. St Paul’s, as far as I can count, employs eight clergy and heaven knows how many lay staff. I wonder what their quota is? Oh, what’s that, Sooty… they don’t pay a quota? Funny, as the full whack in London diocese is now £75,000.
Deans, archdeacons and suffragan bishops are all paid much the same, which is about half as much again as your parish priest. And they, of course, all get a secretary and a company car. Neither of those were on offer at the Christian Resources Exhibition. Somebody newly employed to give administrative assistance in my diocese recently wrote to clergy asking us to encourage members of our congregations to join in a charity run on a Sunday morning in July. You won’t be surprised to learn that I intend to keep encouraging my congregation to be at mass on Sunday mornings, but what do I know? I’m only a parish priest. Perhaps if I had some administrative assistance, I’d see things differently. But in my old fashioned way, I just wish the institutional church would value the local a bit more.
Do you remember that wonderful passage in The shape of the Liturgy that begins ‘Suppose you were a grocer in Brondesbury’? It’s near the beginning of chapter 6 if you want to look it up. Gregory Dix transplants the early Roman church to west London. ‘At the other end of the drawing-room sitting in the best arm-chair is an elderly man, a gentleman by his clothes but nothing out of the ordinary – the bishop of London… The eucharist is about to begin.’ And in participating, they risk their lives. Our parishes, their priests and people, are the best Christian resource we have got. It is they who are on the front line, day in, day out. And what resources them? The same morsel of bread taken to mass by the grocer in Brondesbury, risking his life in order that it might be changed into the Body of Christ. That’s what resources the Church of God. ND