By the time you read this letter we will already have welcomed our new Curate, Chris Hodgkins, to the G7 Benefice. We are very much looking forward to getting to know him and his family over the coming years. Maybe this is a good time to pause and to take stock of where we are as a Benefice and re-identify our objectives.
I made the suggestion at all the PCC meetings last month that we should reconfigure our future agendas so that ‘Mission’ ran through them like a thread, helping us to see how in all matters under discussion, whether it was finance, fabric, pastoral or spiritual, our efforts should be focussed on building the Kingdom of God. As anticipated, the subject of mission brought discomfort to some who felt that this was the role of the vicar, an opinion with which I would heartily disagree. The Bible makes it clear that it is the prerogative of all who profess belief in God to share this faith with others. “Go and make disciples of all nations” says Jesus to his disciples, and as his 21st century disciples we are commanded to follow suit.
It is true that former models of Church in which there was one Vicar for every congregation, a Vicar who seemed to have the monopoly on all pastoral visits, all services of worship and all major decisions concerning the life of the church, perpetuated the idea that mission was the sole prerogative of the Vicar. But the Church has moved on from this view and here in the G7 Benefice we are working out almost on a daily basis what mission and ministry looks like in a context which is radically different from the former parish model. In fact, we are busily “Re-imagining Ministry”, a phrase that is used constantly not only in the diocese of Canterbury, as demonstrated at the recent “Gathering” and in the “Novena of Prayer”, but also nationally as declining church attendance, ageing congregations and falling number of vocations to the priesthood, cause us to reshape the 21st century Church to fit the developing context. Should we be downhearted? Should we be despondent? No. We should welcome the opportunity to look at our churches to see if they are fit for purpose in the 21st century, to examine our liturgy and our pattern of services to see if they are appropriate for the context and most of all, to examine our own discipleship in order to ensure that we are equipped for the journey ahead.
Here in the G7 Benefice we are able to celebrate difference whilst also moving towards a greater unity of purpose. Parish boundaries are no barrier for many of those who love the 8am. Book of Common Prayer Services and each week the same core group of people assembles in whichever of the churches in the benefice is offering this service. Some, particularly those with young families, like the informality of Family Services or the ReFresh services. Those who like Matins are welcome to attend this service held once a month in Egerton and for those who prefer to worship in a Celtic style, there are opportunities on a monthly basis in Pluckley and Westwell. Indeed, the Benefice offers a rich variety of worship that would not be possible in a single parish church. For that, we have much to be thankful.
If we are to be a Church that is attractive and inviting, not just for today but for all those who will follow us in successive generations, we have a duty not only to examine our service patterns and our liturgies but also to ‘re-imagine’ our worship spaces. In the 21st century it is no longer acceptable to have a church that cannot offer toilet facilities or provision for serving refreshments. In at least three of the churches in the benefice, with the help of ‘experts’ from the Diocese, we are beginning to shape proposals that will enable us to use the space more flexibly while still maintaining the holiness.
As our life together in the benefice has taken shape, so have we had to ‘reimagine’ how each church is served week by week by a team of ministers both lay and ordained. As the Rector of the seven churches, I have a duty to minister in equal measure in all the churches and part of the agreement when Rev Bob Weldon was appointed as House-for-Duty Priest was that he too would minister with me across the seven. As a full time Curate, there will be an expectation that Chris Hodgkins will, in time, minister across the whole benefice according to his training needs. Rev Sue Starkings is coming to the end of her second year in training as a Curate but while she has been in full time employment and still involved in post-ordination training, she has concentrated her main ministry in two churches. It is a blessing to have the assistance of two retired priests, Rev Richard Webb and Rev Philip Cox without whose devotion to ministry in the parishes and in the schools we would not be able to continue our current pattern of services. This collaborative model of ministry exercised across the seven parishes by a team of clergy and lay ministers is radically different from the ‘one vicar, one parish model’ of former years, but it is increasingly the model of the 21st century church and one which has much to commend it.
Reimagining can be hard because there are no well laid plans to follow. It can be hard because it draws us all out of our comfort zones and into new places we may not previously have cared to venture. But in doing this, we follow the pattern of our Lord Jesus Christ whose way of living and loving, ministering and worshipping was a radical reimagining of what had gone before. And because of this, the Church grew and flourished.
I am looking forward to the unfolding of the next chapter as together we go out in the name of Christ to love and serve the Lord.