GOD FOR ALL
Aside this online photo-exhibition, the sabbatical allowed for ongoing reflection and writing on three key areas. Whilst the final articles are not presented here (they will be published in print form), I am able to outline some of their content here, and am willing to provide further comment/present if requested.
The first paper, written for the God For All team in Cumbria, reflects on the ecumenical context and the astounding progress that is being made across the county, not least in forming mission teams in both sparsely populated rural areas, and in the city of Carlisle. In this paper, I argue that what is happening in Cumbria represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of ecumenical working wherein the focus has shifted away from achieving renewal by uniting in worship and prayer (although this is encouraging), towards striving for unity by encouraging Christians to work together in mission. In Cumbria the desire to work together ecumenically does not so much surface from what the wider denominations demand of their clergy, but because wherever we find ourselves, and whatever our role, we are firstly Christians who are required by God to love our neighbour. God will hold us accountable for our faithfulness in this, and it leaves little room for personal kingdom building. During my time in Cumbria I witnessed moving examples of generosity between the denominations; an openness to sharing resources and to give sacrificially even, for the sake of the gospel.
The second paper on the subject of rethinking church, responds to ongoing questions about what we mean by 'church', not least in light of the Fresh Expressions. This increasingly international movement has had a profound impact in the UK, encouraging church leaders to create new forms of church for those who do not yet attend, and to do this in ways that are sensitive to context. Consequently, this movement continues to raise questions, informed by practical experience, about what we mean by 'church', and the extent to which our inherited discipline and practice is inhibiting rather than encouraging new growth. 'What is Church?' traces the growth of Fresh Expressions from its origins of 'Breaking New Ground' (1994); the earliest report from the Church of England General Synod in response to initial questions about the validity of church planting. The question 'What is Church?' is significant, since although it is helpful for any congregation to revisit their form and function, there is a danger that these new forms of church will become disenfranchised if we allow a traditional understanding of church to limit our inclusivity. Both what we have inherited, and what is emerging, need to inform each other so that we can ensure that we grow healthy churches.
The third paper on the subject of safeguarding takes and honest look at how the Methodist Church has been impacted and shaped profoundly by the Past Cases Review. Whilst it celebrates the progress that has been made, it continues to explore why people find safeguarding to be such a difficult subject, and continues to ask how as leaders we can promote and encourage healthy attitudes to safeguarding. The paper is an exercise in Practical Theology and draws from our understanding of 'grief', insights on how conflict manifests in community, and the processes that influence the capacity for organisations to undergo a change in culture. The paper also takes initial steps to suggest that concerns over safeguarding have impacted the Church at the deepest level, undermining the trust that people once had in each other and in newcomers, and the conviction that God can change people. For example, twenty years ago the approach would have been one of trusting someone first until they proved untrustworthy, and the belief that God could change people and transform lives was held with less scepticism. Today we are rightly wary about trusting anyone until they have passed through our screening processes, and whilst we still believe in the transformative power of God, we are far more careful in the extent to which we allow those who have held any form of criminal conviction to become more deeply involved in the life of the Church. We have reached appoint where we need to assert, for the sake of the gospel, what we do and do not believe about how God is at work in our midst.