By now you will probably have heard of the Shaped By God Together process and how we as a diocese are looking to God, listening to his prompting, making sense of what’s happening around us, and moving into the future.
The process began in September 2020 with Bishops Martyn and Guli calling us all to pray and was followed by us gathering literally hundreds of stories that you sent in about your faith and your Christian community’s experience of “everyday faith” during the first lockdown. These stories were then reviewed and reflected on by many in the diocese and ‘made sense of’ among focus groups and large scale online sessions.
Your stories were more useful than you might have thought.
The insights generated have helped shape the focus of our working groups and offered understanding into how we care for and use our church buildings, how we raise and best use our diocesan finance, and the provision of our ministry going forward.
But we’re far from finished.
It’s quite some task to understand the complex dynamics at play amongst the 19000 people, 320 churches, 80 fresh expressions of Church and other worshipping communities who make up our diocesan family.
We’ve all played our part in adapting and finding new ways to ‘do church’ during the last year. We’ve started to notice and be open and attentive to the new and exciting things God is doing amongst us and through us.
Your stories highlight a growing understanding of what it means to be an everyday follower of Jesus, and an awareness of the importance of faith as a daily reality as well as a Sunday ritual.
Although people are missing their familiar buildings, many of you say that your faith is becoming much less building dependent. Some of you feel more included in church than at any time; particularly the disabled and those who struggle to be present at a certain time on a Sunday for work or family reasons.
There is a recognition that the church cannot afford to lose some of what it has learnt and gained. You’ve said online and other changes must stay, and church in the future should be a hybrid of what we previously knew, alongside new ways of engaging with our faith.
For some, personal discipleship and confidence in your faith has grown. People are worshipping together as a family in new ways in the home, while others have been compelled to demonstrate God’s love to their neighbours.
There is also the feeling that our previous definition of what is “real” (for instance, our physical presence versus our online presence) need to be revisited and the divide between them seen as less stark.
And that brings us onto the tensions – a number of which have risen to the surface about the fundamental nature of church, faith and what might emerge as a new normal.
These are not things that indicate a simple answer, but are likely to be areas where we live with a tension.
But that’s okay; there will always be tensions in complex change. What we need to do - to make sure that every voice is heard and that every concern is addressed - is to keep talking about them.
The first tension is found in faith. Is ‘faith’ personal, or collective? Some of you love the convenience of streamed services sampled individually, whilst others feel the gaping hole of not having gathered and are desperate to return.
Is ‘local’ geographical, or accessible and welcoming? Local was always thought of geographically, but people also now feel something is local if they can access it easily, whether that is welcoming for a young family or easy to navigate and join for a person with disabilities.
Do you see ‘growing your faith’ as your responsibility or your priest’s responsibility? There are more resources for groups and individuals available than ever before and you can choose to follow your faith according to your interest, but this conflicts with the plight of the ordinal priest who is called to ‘teach and admonish’, to ‘nurture the faith’, ‘unfold the scriptures’ and ‘foster the gifts of all God’s people’.
Do we ‘gather’ to celebrate, or to be equipped? Whether gathered around the Eucharist or worshipping in song together, we gather on Sunday with the people of God to enjoy God. Or, do we gather on Sunday to be equipped to be effective disciples in mission out in the world throughout the week?
Are we about ‘life’ before death, or after death? Is serving the needs around us now and advocating for the oppressed the key calling? Or, are we sharing hope beyond death?
Our ‘Church’ structure is shaped by the hierarchical 3-fold order of deacons, priest and bishops, but one thing the pandemic has highlighted is that we all ‘just got on with it’ and therefore, it is also shaped by the relational priesthood of all believers.
Is ‘Church’ about gathering and supporting the faithful, or seeking the Kingdom? We need each other, but if we only focus on each other, we limit our experience, engagement and attentiveness to the coming Kingdom of God.
And finally, is our ‘vision’ local or Diocesan? As we discern locally, as a parish and benefice, we remain a part of a diocese in which we are also seeking to discern together – two simultaneous levels of discernment.
You might recognise yourself in these tensions – we hope that you do.
Are some of these insights/tensions more important than others? We hope this is provoking the level of thought in you that will bring conversations to the surface – whether out on your daily walk in the community with friends, or during a PCC meeting or Zoom coffee after church.
“As we make decisions throughout SBGT we will need the gifts of wisdom and understanding,” says Claire Bampton, Project Manager for Shaped By God Together.
“That means looking beyond our own roles, parish and benefice and considering implications for the whole church, the diocese and people across all our churches.
“The pandemic has challenged and changed ideas of many aspects of life. These changes to assumptions and behaviour will affect the way we will all live out our faith in the future as well as in the present. “
Learning is an important part of the process – from lockdown, from one another – and we must ensure we find the right time and way to embed these new findings, rather than lose them in rapid change.
We have to be realistic. When restrictions lift some things won’t be feasible. Some things will never be the same again.
How we ‘do church’, how we speak about Jesus, how we live together as communities of faith, and how we make space for new things all have to be considered.
We have been praying Thy Kingdom Come for a long time, but what are we actually looking for and how do we recognise it?
We are living and leading with uncertainty, but God is with us - shaping us - and we should not fear the unknown.
There’s no drawing pin in where we started last year, no perfect straight line from here to there that has brought us to a point of expectation. Rather, there is longevity in these insights - the conversation is changing.
“We want to seek healthy balance not uncomfortable compromise,” says Stuart Burns, Director of Mission and Ministry.
“Some of these tensions may seem easily fixed, and lead to definitive answers. Others may be rather more complex and every changing in their required response. We also recognise that there may be a difference of opinion and understanding.”
So where do we go from here?
God is a God of movement who calls us to growth and change. As we enter into this new phase of conversation, there will be an opportunity for you to share your thoughts. We are seeking to be faithful to the past, the present and to our future, and every worshipping community needs to be part of the conversation.