No, this isn’t an acronym. In this blog post I want to think about strategy and schemes in our church; and at the end of it, you will learn more about my hobbies than you cared to know.
But first: the context. At central level, the Church of England has been making some attempts to face the brutal facts of its own possible demise. In my own parish, the finances have largely held up during the pandemic – the advantages of moving regular attenders to standing orders rather than relying on the plate collection – and, although we have lost the income we’d expect from coffee mornings and from renting the recently reordered building to local groups, we haven’t spent as much on heating and lighting because of the lower level of use. Within the team ministry in which this parish sits, things are less rosy and the solution has been to draw on reserves, which is fine as a temporary solution, if a church actually has any reserves. But none of that helps with the deeper problem: the skewed demographic which makes me, at 63, one of the younger members of the congregation.
What’s the answer? If we believe in our message, how do we tell other people about it? In recent weeks there has been quite a lot of faff around a plan put forward by a group called Myriad, a name which makes me think of the passage in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus talks to a man who is possessed by “an unclean spirit”, asks the demon for a name and is told “My name is Legion, because there are many of us”: but that’s probably not what Myriad had in mind.
Myriad is an initiative of the Gregory Centre for Christian Multiplication (no, I’d never heard of this before either), choosing the name of Gregory partly because he was a saint “plucked from the business world … amidst the collapsing Roman Empire”. Sort of independent, but sort of Church of England – it’s run from the office of the Bishop of Islington – it describes itself on its website as “a movement of people with a vision to see a multiplication of new forms of church across this nation and beyond”, going on to explain that “Our aim is to support the planting of 10,000 new, predominantly lay-led, Church of England churches in the next ten years resulting in 1 million new disciples of Jesus Christ.” So, alongside the multiplication in the sense of different “forms of church”, there’s the basic maths: 10,000 new churches with 100 new members in each. The website uses a very odd pseudo-Greek font for headings, so in the word “plant” the ‘a’ is an alpha and the ‘n’ is the Greek pi, so if you tried to pronounce that it would be “plapt”. Yes, I’m a classicist and I notice this sort of thing. While we’re on the Classics, the Myriad people say that the word “suggests a variety of lights and colours”, which quite honestly – it doesn’t. The ancient Greek myriad just means 10,000, or in some cases ‘countless’: indeed, ‘legion’.
Much of the discussion of this so far has focused on the words “predominantly lay-led”. So many questions arise: how would these people be selected, trained and supported? What about safeguarding concerns? Then there was the use of the unfortunate term “limiting factors” – factors presented as limiting any growth – which suggested that the main limitation at present is having to spend so much on training priests. At the end of July, the Gregory Centre issued a statement trying to explain that none of this was intended as an attack on priests. At the July General Synod, the Archbishop of York addressed that directly: “Even where some services or mission initiatives are lay led, they remain under the oversight of the local incumbent”. Who, of course, has nothing else to do in their day job…
Nor did it help that this “10,000 churches” statement coincided with the Church of England using exactly the same figure. Coincidence, or not? Different people involved seemed to be giving different versions of whether these were the same 10,000 or a further 10,000; there’s a good summary here. It isn’t clear who currently funds Myriad: the director, Canon John McGinley, referred to “personal supporters” and “a couple of trusts”. So, who is paying this particular piper? He commented on the number 10,000 that “interestingly that number has now been adopted by the church in its national vision and strategy … We are simply wanting to contribute to this”. Oh, so no connection then; just an interesting coincidence? This does seem unlikely. He tried to explain that “We are offering our experience of church planting to serve the national vision for 10,000 new Christian communities” (the national vision??), but that doesn’t really help – it still suggests that there is one scheme, with Myriad offering its solution to the C of E in general. The C of E is officially talking about a “mixed ecology” of parish churches alongside fresh expressions (“new forms of Church”); and, no surprise, Myriad refers to this on its own website (defining a mixed ecology church as one which is “Christ Centred and Jesus Shaped” – the language of the C of E’s “vision and strategy journey”), further giving the impression that it’s all the same 10,000 churches and that they are going to deliver what the C of E has apparently decided it wants.
The C of E is currently very fond of “data-rich discussions” and “measuring progress” (as in the Church Development Tool approach), along with management-speak and official titles for work schemes, although usually these are a lot more clunky than Myriad: there’s “Renewal and Reform”, the “Transforming Effectiveness agenda” or “The Emerging Church of England”, as well as management diagrams like the one here. Then there are the bizarre titles of new senior management posts in some dioceses, such as the Associate Archdeacon Transition Enablers of Sheffield. Such initiatives and posts have been seen as diverting money away from the parish level, hence a new movement to “Save the parish” rather than funding large churches to spawn more churches modelled on themselves. And what is a church, anyway? Earlier pronouncements from the centre seem rather confused about that: this press release, from 2018, talks about £5.3 million for Leicester Diocese to develop “up to 50 new churches, or worshipping communities, in the area”. Isn’t a church a “worshipping community”?
Of course none of this is easy. The Church of England is a very complex structure. But there’s something about these top-down, work streams and management processes which feels all wrong to me. I’ve been mulling over my own solution for a while now, but decided the time has come to throw it out into the blogosphere. Rather than thinking about “vision” and having a list of national strategic priorities to create churches in a particular shape, why not learn from the Wasgij? “Wasgij Church”: you heard it here first.
So: I enjoy jigsaws, and always have. When I was caring for my mother in what turned out to be her last years with us, jigsaws became my sanity device, something I reflected on here when I realised that “At the moment I’ve no idea what the picture within which I’m living is supposed to be”. My favourite type, the Wasgij – as the name indicates – is a jigsaw done in reverse. There’s a picture on the box, but this isn’t what you are aiming to recreate. Something has happened: perhaps a crime has been committed and you are trying to find out what the scene looked like earlier; perhaps it is a few minutes later and something has happened to disrupt the picture; perhaps it’s many years later and the people in the picture are older while the buildings in the background have been upgraded. Alternatively, your task is to create what a particular individual pictured on the box can see, thus explaining why everyone is screaming (there’s a lot of screaming in Wasgijes).
To do a Wasgij, it may be possible to use the jigsaw technique of doing the edge first, but will any of the natural or man-made structures in the picture still be relevant? If you are trying to see the scene from the point of view of someone in it, then there’s no point thinking about the edge at all, as you are looking in the wrong direction. Instead, you need to look for colour: there’s a lot of dark blue, so what can that be? A detailed fabric from an item of clothing can be found on several pieces: can you move those pieces around to make a larger section? But where does that section go, when the box can’t help you?
Why my husband and I enjoy these jigsaws is the sense of mystery which can last right up to the final few pieces. What has happened? As all those brown pieces start to come together into the shape of bears, what is going on in those woods? The designs are in the style of a saucy seaside postcard, which adds to the fun.
The current Grand Scheme for the C of E involves “six bold outcomes … which begin to describe what the Church of England might look like if our endeavours bear fruit”. How about if we turned that around? If, instead of thinking what our church might look like, we looked at what we’ve got, and thought about how it could fit together? If we abandoned any idea of what the picture on the box – whether that’s our historic experiences of church, or some cloned church plant – looks like, would this give us the freedom to find something entirely unexpected, and glorious?