Damian Feeney offers a vision for a mission focused future

It’s very good indeed to be here at Wakefield Cathedral. Thank you Bishop Tony and Forward in Faith in the Diocese of Leeds for the kind invitation to be with you today, in order to explore the task before us as members of The Society. We will take the information and ideas we have gathered over the last couple of years and reflect upon what all that will mean for us as Society chapters, operating in a whole range of dioceses up and down the Church of England. What follows is an attempt to promote the document Forming Missionary Disciples. I’ll say something about how it came about, there will be an exploration of the core themes of the document, and finally there will be some thoughts about how we might advance the ideas contained in the document further and bring our plans to reality.

The document began its journey back in April 2016, with a meeting in York convened by Bishop Philip North, with myself as his sidekick. Present at the meeting were clergy, invited by Society bishops from their constituent dioceses and episcopal areas—about 20 in number—as well as a number of Society bishops, including all the provincial episcopal visitors. We met in York and we worked hard, played hard and, above all, we prayed hard. It was as good and positive and joyful a meeting of clergy as I have experienced since ordination. The role of the Society bishops was to facilitate, to encourage, and otherwise to keep quiet. It was tough, but they managed it, perhaps in the knowledge that their turn would come later. The process went through a number of stages, until the document which was presented to the National Assembly—and which you have before you today—was finalized. That it was presented in the same session as Anne Gray’s excellent statistical analysis and demographic information meant that we were joining the dots, and doing so efficiently and successfully.

Thanks to Anne Gray’s excellent work, we are in a position to know and understand ourselves better than ever before. 421 ‘Resolution’ parishes, a population of 3 million, with 84% of our parishes in more deprived areas, with 176 of our parishes in the bottom 10%. 1.4 million people live in these 176 parishes. Of the 1% most extremely deprived parishes, nationally, 23 out of 126 are Society Parishes. That’s where we are located. That’s where God has placed us.

Many of us will be in dioceses where diocesan strategies are already in place. We carry some interesting straplines around. ‘Come follow Christ,’ says my own diocese of Lichfield, ‘in the footsteps of St Chad’—a clear reference to the first Bishop of Lichfield. The strap line ‘Making Mercia Great Again’ remains, alas, on the cutting room floor. Some of those strategies will have had listening processes attached to them, and will have been formulated as a result of that listening. None of them will have gone through quite the rigorous processes that the Society strategy has; never has so much endeavour gone into one side of A4.  

Perhaps the first question—a generic one, and a common one—is ‘what’s the point?’ We have been inundated by Mission Action Planning, by vision and mission statements, by a period of time in which strategic ways of mission have been emphasized to the virtual obliteration of the more classic, intuitive models of operation. Well, pendulums have a habit of swinging, and I’ve no doubt that the time will come when we will achieve a more balanced approach to understanding mission than the model which the church nationally seems to be inhabiting. In any case, ‘Forming Missionary Disciples’ is deliberately concise. It is also distinctively catholic, and is intended to be a template which will serve the needs of Society parishes up and down the country without being too prescriptive as to detail. When this document was approved by last year’s Forward in Faith National Assembly one question was asked, and it was an extremely fair one. The language, it was suggested, wasn’t sufficiently sacramental in emphasis. If that’s the case, there is an argument that in so brief a document that’s perhaps not surprising, because this isn’t the ‘how,’ it’s the ‘what.’ What areas should we be concentrating on in our parishes in order to emphasize the distinctive nature of Society parishes? As we will see, the success or failure of this document will be determined not by its language but by how it is applied, and how effectively and with what enthusiasm it is adopted—not by assemblies, but by the people and priests of our parishes.

A second question, which I feel sure has occurred to many of us, will concern the fact that many of us will have been party to, and part of, similar looking initiatives in the diocese of which we are a part. I think we need to be pragmatic about this. By all means, seek the points of convergence in this document and whatever your diocese offers. The Diocese of Lichfield has done a very clever and coherent thing in its most recent exercise, undertaken following Bishop Michael Ipgrave’s arrival in the diocese. In the footsteps of St Chad, we are following three core areas: discipleship, vocation, and evangelism. Simple and all embracing, it finds clear points of convergence with the Society document, and so it should be relatively straightforward to see this as a helpful and more focused contribution which more accurately reflects the needs and godly aspirations of catholic parishes.

A third question—one I encounter frequently—concerns the value of such documents in the life of the church. Didn’t we do perfectly well without them? Don’t we now obsess about things like this? Perhaps we do, but no one can claim that we don’t need a renewed vision, a sense of purpose and direction. Many of us feel ‘under fire’ from more than one direction. This document, and its implementation across the Society, reminds us that we belong to a catholic ecclesial body within the Church of England. More than that, our God-given task is to grow, and we are to grow in a way which glories in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and all that has been revealed to the Universal Church. It also highlights for us what a growing Society church should look like, pinpointing the things we are already doing well and highlighting areas for improvement. It reminds us that no one priest, no one PCC, no one parish, can excel at everything, and that there are some things for which we might need assistance from outside. Perhaps it might encourage us to speak to people in our dioceses for support, advice and help. Let us use the people, and the structures, God has given us! I have a dream, friends—a dream that diocesan officers will from this day forth be inundated with requests for resources and support, for help with events, and the like, from Society parishes. Then, when those diocesan posts come to be reviewed, dioceses will be under pressure to appoint the kind of support we need. Just a thought.

Much as there is a political upside to this document, I want to stress the obvious: that we are interested in mission because we are interested in the world which God made, and gave his son for. We who seek to stand at the foot of the cross wish to draw others to that same place, because it is the only place worth standing. We long to play our part in recalling the world around us from the folly and idiocy of sin, and to live in right relationship with one another and with God. The Church has a particular and distinctive role in God’s mission to the world, and we in our turn have a distinctive part to play in that task. This document is meant to act as a template for a most sacred undertaking. Today is not simply about giving parishes a sense of togetherness, but the revealing of an ethos which will inhabit and inform the structures of the ecclesial body in which we live.

There are six sub-headings or categories following on from the initial preamble. That preamble reminds us of some of our context, as those who are led by the Holy Spirit, formed by the scriptures and the sacraments. It reminds us that our core task as God’s people is to draw people to new life in Christ. We do so as loyal Anglicans, dedicating ourselves afresh to mission. The six sub-headings are perhaps unsurprising. They are ‘Forming God’s People,’ ‘Nurturing Young Disciples,’ ‘Offering Excellence in Worship,’ ‘Celebrating Sacramental Priesthood,’ ‘Being intentional in Evangelism’ and ‘Serving the Common Good.’ It is my intention to explore these one by one, and to draw out any specific strands which might speak to us today as we ask the key question about how this translates to the everyday life and mission of a Society parish.

This first section places great stress on the need for our churches to be places where all the baptized are formed into missionary disciples. This takes place through a number of specific, repeated encounters with God through worship, prayer, the study of scripture and through the joys of pilgrimage. This is the core diet for all Christians, of course, but in our case we will bring the distinctive insights of catholic Christendom to bear. All of these encounters will be informed and enriched by the sacramental economy which lies at the heart of our being. The very act of worship places us in a context where we come to understand, better and better, the reality of our relationships with God, with one another, and with our understanding of ourselves. Our lives of prayer, enriched through Eucharistic adoration, contemplation and intercession, operate with a particularity which is distinctive and daring, as the ongoing truth of God’s particular presence in sacramental form encourages us to share with him the very detail of our lives. Our study of scripture is most often within the context of the Eucharist, the sacramental life of the church, as Scott Hahn reminds us: ‘Liturgy is the place where the Scriptures emerge into light. Liturgy is the place where tradition lives… Liturgy is the place where the stream of Salvation History runs swift and clear… sweeping Christians into the current of the divine and sacramental economy.’

There is nothing about our lives that liturgy does not touch, but more about that later. The point about pilgrimage is especially important. The combination of heightened expectation of the journey, the joy of arrival, the ‘thin places’ where God seems more imminent still, the heady mix of worship and ever-present intercession, the conviviality and laughter of the pub… no wonder pilgrimages change people, and change them forever. All of this forces us to review what we offer across the board, finding opportunities to enable the converting ordinances from cradle to grave.

Following on from this is the healthy and wholesome recognition that it is through baptism that we receive vocation, and through baptism that we are called to Christian ministry. This really is the silver bullet. Get this right, and the rest falls into place. The language of liberation here echoes the Church of England report Setting God’s People Free. It does not merely emphasize the complementarity of ordained and lay ministry in the business of running the church; rather, it reminds us that there is nowhere that is ‘off limits’ to the gospel—no workplace, no point of gathering. The witness of the church in these many places are critical facets of our mission, and one which we sense is under threat. We need to come alive to the connections faithful people make between places of work, education, or the retired state, and the living out of faithfulness to Jesus Christ within those contexts. The renewal of the religious life is critical to the flourishing of the church. As a priest associate of one religious community, I am confident that one day, in the world to come, we will discover just what the prayers of contemplative religious communities saved us from, and how one-dimensional life would be without that witness. Pray for the renewal of these communities and, what’s more, start to seek out those who might even now be candidates for ‘being alongside’ communities prior to the novitiate.

The issue of leadership is not merely about discerning vocations among black and ethnic minority Christians, although that would be most welcome. It is about ensuring that all God’s people are encouraged, supported and invited into the mainstream of God’s grace, and that those at the heart of the church’s life and activity are reflective both of the congregation and the wider community within the parish.

The question concerning catechetical materials is a vexed one. We invariably try to adapt existing materials (we adapt them because as they stand they don’t quite hit the spot) or we write our own, whether it is for confirmation classes, adult catechesis, Bible studies or discussion groups. Various attempts have been made to ‘bridge the gap’ between existing catechesis and nurture courses, but the fact remains that this is an area which needs attention. Think what a difference a reliable, well produced, multimedia set of resources would bring. An attempt to make something like this happen in the Ebbsfleet area, in conjunction with Pusey House, was called ‘Trinitas,’ but it foundered on a funding technicality and it’s a great pity it didn’t happen. We need material which is both a repository of the tradition, conveying the riches of our apostolic and hermeneutical inheritance, and also which takes as its starting point the reality of people’s lives, beginning, if you like, ‘from below’ rather than ‘from above.’ In this the production and promotion of a rule of life, based on prayer, charity, mercy and generosity, is really important. It is about finding pegs to hang daily living upon. A renewed emphasis on teaching and formation, coupled with a renewed understanding of the centrality of liturgy, makes the church stronger from within.

Our second area concerns the present reality and future hope, the time and energy we invest in nurturing young disciples. This has all the elements you would expect: quality of leadership where young people are concerned, and ministry to schools (both church and community.) There is an emphasis on specific and regular events for young people, with specific and differentiated materials to help them grow together and to create a ‘throughdraft’ of young people through choirs, serving teams, youth groups, uniformed organizations and school ministry. Many of these areas interlock and feed each other, and (it goes without saying) our procedures concerning the safety and welfare of our children should be utterly beyond reproach. That in itself requires an investment of time, as well as a great deal of patience. It can be hard sometimes to see the intimate connection between the frustrating and fast-moving world of safeguarding and the call to mission. But if we are to offer the abundant life which Jesus comes to bring us we have to make that connection, because safety, trust and right relationship are evidence of the Kingdom of God.

Our third heading feels like safe ground for catholics. To offer excellence in worship feels like more of a ‘given’ than other categories. The place of our liturgical life, its centrality and its vitality, is non-negotiable, and we know that it demands the very best of ourselves, both as individuals and corporately, if we are to bear fruit in our worship. It is also a subject which encourages a certain defensiveness among catholic clergy: worship is what we are known for—we are proud of it, and we invest time and effort and energy in it. When we have a patronal festival, or Feast of Title, and others come, we become prickly, and sensitive. In one of my other guises I have been part of the Leading your Church into Growth team for about thirteen years. I’ve had the joy of teaching at many conferences, big and small, but the teaching team will guarantee that it will be sections on worship that will attract the most animated discussion, the greatest level of fallout, even if all the other sessions have felt like we were speaking to cardboard cutouts.

To encourage this excellence still further, and in recognition of the fact that all of us are constrained in our worship by a variety of local factors, this document pleads for an assessment of our worshipping and devotional life. Perhaps I might offer the following thoughts about this. First, if worship is about the drawing together of the divine and the human, where are the specific points of meeting, and how can we draw them out and make them more obvious and accessible without destroying the numinous nature of worship and liturgy? How do we enable those relatively unfamiliar with liturgy to negotiate their away through an act of worship? Do we worship at specific times through habit, or have we asked ourselves what the culture we serve needs? I think of the parish near me which launched a new service, later in the morning, because those who don’t go to church don’t tend to get up early on a Sunday morning. It’s a massively challenging parish and it’s hard to get people to come to church without offering the Mass at a time when they are out of bed, so a new Mass has been launched, later in the morning, in addition to the earlier one. Slightly less formal, but still beautiful, accessible and full of teaching, with wiggle room for those who are not used to it. The parish priest has taken the risk of splitting an already small congregation because he knows that, unless this happens, the church will cease to function. It’s an example of a bold evangelistic strategy, in a tough UPA (Urban Priority Area) parish in the Black Country, in a Society parish. Tomorrow that service will witness its first four confirmations.

Our preaching continues to be of vital importance, and we need to be looking, strategically, at those we feel have such a ministry. More broadly, we might consider the whole area of the ministry of communication, of teaching, of storytelling. Who are the people who can speak, and to whom others will listen, because they have something of value to say? I think of the trainee reader in my own parish who has taken to preaching like a duck to water, and isn’t even licensed until September. Her social demeanour is larger than life, but her preaching style is quiet, serene, to the point, and wonderfully focused. She tells stories, makes connections, and has been a real gift to our community. The beautiful thing is that her potential was spotted by an existing licensed reader of many years’ service, and he encouraged her to think the unthinkable. Our parish preaching would now be unthinkable without her.

When we think of liturgy, we think of beauty. Beauty is itself a converting ordinance, because beauty is evidence of the divine. How can we emphasize the presence of beauty in our worship and common life? How good is the acoustic in your building? Is it used as a place where music is performed, where art can be displayed, where our eyes and ears are opened to the possibilities of the arts as creative and converting forces for good, enriching our lives and lifting our eyes to further possibilities? I remember putting on a Passiontide service in which a visiting choir sang Tallis’s Lamentations interspersed with scriptural reflections. This took place in a UPA estates parish, and to say that some doubt had been cast as to the numbers who would turn up was something of an understatement. The place was packed. Nowhere is off limits to beauty.

My suspicion is that there won’t be another mission strategy in the Church of England which seeks to restore, and celebrate so overtly, the nature of sacramental priesthood. That in itself is a sadness, but as an ecclesial body we have a vital role to play in reminding the wider church of the apostolic inheritance evidenced in the three-fold historic order. It seems at times as if this understanding is being supplanted by a generic understanding of leadership, which blurs understanding and gives a core place to the understanding that leadership is somehow primarily about self, about the gifts possessed by an individual rather than the relational outworking of God’s grace in the local church through the complementary ministries given in and of the whole people of God. We need to remember who we are before God: his creatures, his Church, with a specific and distinctive role in his mission, recalling that it is God who calls, God who converts, God who sustains and redeems. For that task we need to recall ourselves, to teach and be taught, offer insights about the catholic nature of the church and recognize again in the gift of Holy Order something which stains not only those called to it but (and primarily) the whole Church, the whole world. To speak of the nature of leadership, to understand it as the means by which ordained and lay together seek to advance the life of the church is one thing. To replace or supplant the distinctive nature of Holy Orders with generic references to leadership is quite another, and it is a serious category error. All of this becomes more serious still in the light of the capacity of seminary life, constrained by length of course, resource and the unwillingness of many to encourage and sustain residential training. We hope and pray that there will be a constant supply of young men, formed in the catholic faith and in an ontological understanding of priesthood and diaconate, streaming forth from our places of training. At the moment there are not enough, and this is starting to show itself when vacancies occur. Very often the truth for many is that the training courses on offer are uncomfortable places for many catholic ordinands to be. As a constituency we need to address this, challenge it where appropriate, and enable within the Society a culture of lifelong formation and care for our clergy. This is a complex task which will involve all the various catholic societies.

Under our fifth section—about intentional evangelism—we are reminded once again of the importance of planning. This isn’t just in the sense of planning events, or projects, or indeed being well organized about the ongoing existence of the local church. Instead, it’s about having a goal in mind, about targeting such resources as we have, and about discerning where the fruit actually lies. Parishes need to be supported in the task of discernment and of parish development, as well as forging the opportunities for sharing the good news. If we plan for growth we are optimistic, believing it to be God’s desire that we flourish, that contact with the gospel will bring about conversion, that we will look again at the things we offer invitation to, and ensuring that we are as generous and welcoming as it is possible to be. All of this goes hand in hand with a desire to plant new churches. You can call them ‘fresh expressions’ if you like, just make sure they are distinctive—formed and based around what the church does, the gifts of God in word and sacrament—and that they gather people around the table of God’s word and the outpouring of his sacramental generosity.

A huge part of our understanding of ourselves, our calling as catholic Christians, and of our Anglo-Catholic patrimony, concerns the serving of the common good. This, of course, concerns our care for the poor and vulnerable, both through practical care and through advocacy. It concerns serving our locations, often in the most deprived and challenging communities. It concerns a greater concern for the wider glory of God’s creation, doing less and less harm to the only earthly home we have. Our initial challenge at the York conference was to come up with only five headings. We wrestled with this one, this most particular and distinctive feature of the lives of so many of our parishes up and down the land. In the end, we felt we couldn’t leave it out, and the process, as was right and proper, extended to accommodate the truth. So much of what this document proposes is, at heart, counter-cultural in a church where we can feel alien at times, in a society whose values fail to have regard for the poorest and most vulnerable, in local communities which have often had the heart ripped out of them in a post-industrial age, and where people are defined by what they no longer are.

One key question remains, and it is a process question, critical to whether this document will achieve what it sets out to achieve. It will only do so if all members of the Society are unanimous in our desire to make it happen, and if the key ‘second stage’ issues are addressed. Here, then, are a series of ‘second stage’ ideas, formed at a meeting which took place in Leeds between those of us with some form of responsibility for mission within the Society, with Rachel Jordan, National Advisor for Mission and Evangelism.

First, immediate implementation of ideas, where possible, in parishes up and down the land. Where there are plans, projects, and potential: get on with them. We do not need a 72 page glossy brochure to persuade us to evangelize our people. Go and convert people, teach others to do the same, and get better at it by living it and doing it, until people respond. I am reminded (and chastened) by the words of Bishop Mervyn Stockwood, who once said: ‘If some of my own clergy, who go around to their endless committees and yak and yak and yak away, would only get on with the job of trying to convert their own parishioners, I think that we should not be in quite the state of decline that we are.’

Meanwhile, Rachel Jordan suggested some research to pinpoint, accurately, how we might grow—a piece of research similar to Anecdote to Evidence, asking where the healthy catholic parishes are, what helps catholic parishes grow, and how we can distill that into transferable wisdom.

The rollout of this initiative would continue with an ad clerum from Society bishops, introducing Forming Missionary Disciples (FMD) to parishes. At the same time, communication would take place between the Society and the dioceses, focusing on the relationship between diocesan strategies and FMD.

In the medium term, FMD would be attractively designed into a leaflet and launched with video back up, with copies to be sent to all parishes.

In the longer term it would make sense to have a series of annual themes strongly promoted by the Catholic bishops. These might include: faith sharing (giving laypeople confidence to invite, pray, tell their story and grow as witnesses); intentional evangelism (we encourage every parish to hold an evangelistic event at some stage during a calendar year); youth/children (encouraging every parish to do something new to minister to children, schools and families); welcome to worship (a focus on the welcome ministry and quality in worship); holiness of life (encouraging people to go deeper with resources such as a rule of life, stewardship materials etc.).

If this sounds like a lot, the group recognized that at the moment we lack the capacity to implement the above beyond the very earliest stages. What follows, therefore, might look something like this. First, and in the short term, an application is made to the Strategic Investment Board for some capacity building funds and use these to employ an enabler on a short term contract. Their role would be—


  • to develop FMD into a full strategy;
  • to liaise with stakeholders, catholic societies etc.;
  • to prepare an application for Strategic Development Funding;
  • to raise funds from other sources; and
  • to oversee the early stages of FMD implementation (this role would be largely organizational).


In the longer term, we need to develop a ‘home mission agency’ which would sit within the Society and would have a role in engaging catholic parishes in mission in line with FMD. This might comprise: a director with the skills of a catholic evangelist who could encourage, train, enthuse; an administrative support; a communications officer, and either a team of missioners with portfolios (e.g. youth and children; vocations; evangelism; resources) or regional missioners across the Society. These would form a network with a pool of lay skills and talents, specifically audited and available to places and parishes where the demographic works against the necessary skill sets being in place to enable good governance and administration. This would need to take account of the natural growth and development of partnerships and groups if parishes across the Society. It would also be necessary to free up people with particular gifts to take a lead on specific projects, perhaps through secondments and sabbaticals.

Of course, this is all a little way in the future. It is also ambitious, and indicative of an ecclesial body that is hungry for growth in number, in discipleship, and in service of one another, the wider church and society in general. We are not prepared to settle for anything less than a whole-hearted and faithful response to the call of God, within the church. In commending this approach to you this afternoon, and in thanking you for your kind attention, I pray that this strategy may find a home in the hearts of all our parishes; that we may recognize challenge, and face the future with joy and hope; and that we may rejoice in a growing, vibrant, and holy church. May the prayers of Our Lady, St Wilfrid, St Hilda and all the saints avail for us as we dream dreams, that we may be prepared to pay the price to make them come true.

This lecture was given by Father Damian Feeney at Wakefield Cathedral on Saturday 12 May 2018