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Social Action, Hospitality and Growth2 weeks ago
In this week’s ReSource Blog Ian Bishop, the Archdeacon of Macclesfield, reflects on how loving engagement with our communities and with the needs of ordinary people not only demonstrates the love of God, but is key to the growth of the church. Drawing on his experience of churches during the pandemic and on his own wide-reading, this is an inspirational and challenging message!
I recently came across Mark Cazalet’s amazing Trinity Reredos which you can see for yourselves in the Fraser Chapel of Manchester Cathedral.
It’s one of those images where you have to keep going back again and again to begin to see everything that’s going on in the picture.
In the centre you have the Trinity modelled on the positioning of the Rublev icon, if you know that, but here portrayed as three very human characters sitting in a circle, a loving Father with his arm around his son and the Holy Spirit portrayed as an Asian woman. They’re gathered around eating chips and tomato sauce drinking coke. The warmth in the relationships shown in the central image is clear to see, hospitality in the Trinity personified in a Manchester sort of way.
It is that warmth of hospitality that is integral to the Trinitarian idea, that should be reflected in our Church life. An openness to each other in the Church and an openness to God to let him in and an openness to our communities that means our doors and our hearts are always ready to receive and welcome.
Hospitality and social action
Hospitality is a good thing to practice because there is plenty of evidence that hospitality and generosity are significant for church growth. Hospitality communicates a genuine willingness to engage with and invest in the community as it is. So lots of Churches are doing that by their social action programmes. So many are running foodbanks or feeding kids through holidays or providing places of welcome to those who are lonely and socially isolated and many Christians are growing closer to Christ through serving in that way and many not yet Christians are recognising the love of Christ expressed in the love of his people.
As well as the routine of being an Archdeacon I have the privilege of chairing a number of committees and organisations. So, I’m chair of the Diocesan Outreach Committee that shapes it’s agenda from the five marks of mission. I’m also Chair of Transforming Lives Together a Charity that was formed out of a joint venture between the Church Urban Fund and the Diocese of Chester and I’m also Chair of a small Charity called the John Holford Charity that supports the weakest in the Congleton area.
Key to growth
What links those three different committees is the desire to be the difference, to want to change lives and to support the weakest. From the very earliest days of the Church that was key to the growth agenda. 2000 years ago the priority was the widows and the way they were being supported, or rather not supported, in a society that had little time or place for those caught in such a predicament. Today the needs are vast, even in a country like ours which is the sixth or seventh most wealthy in the world.
What is humbling is the way I see Churches being the difference and doing amazing and wonderful things because of their faith in Christ.
You may have come across the GRA:CE Report, published by the Church Urban Fund and Theos last year. I found it inspiring reading. So many stories of wonderful social justice driven mission. The research that went into the report found that the church grows in number and depth when it is active and connected to its local area through its social action.
In a way I guess that’s obvious but it’s worth saying anyway – Love your neighbour. Making those hospitable, loving, caring connections demonstrates something really important about what faith is all about and how much we are loved by God. Investing our time, gifts energy and money in making the world a better place shows something profound about what we understand by the love of God.
These relationships are a key mechanism through which the church grows and also through which individuals grow in their own personal faith,
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things
It is a joy to see ordinary people doing extraordinary things often in places where it would be easy to think there is nothing but problems. For instance, I was in St John’s Dukinfield in East Manchester recently listening to the team there talking about the foodbank that has fed thousands of people in recent months and how they could help those who have mental health issues and the possibility of running an art project for the lonely and isolated. Dukinfield is an old mill area and there is a fair bit of deprivation, but the Church is about social action and it’s growing.
I heard someone recently say that ‘you can’t fulfil the great commission to go until you understand the great commandment to love’. Well…. again and again I witness love being expressed by ordinary Christian people in their everyday lives.
Interestingly you may not have recognised that people outside the Church are noticing that as well. Last year Conservative MP Danny Kruger wrote the Kruger report. It’s a report that tries to think through how society can be levelled up. That’s a laudable aim, which you may have heard the Prime Minister speaking about. In a manifestly unequal society I think we can all agree it needs to happen. But coming out of the pandemic how important to be trying to re-think how society might work and how Church works with society. When I read the report, I was immediately struck by the way Kruger talks about the Church. On the very first page he uses the example of his local Church St James in Devizes, as an example of how the Church responded when the pandemic hit, by forming a volunteer army to support the lonely and isolated.
Powerhouse of social and spiritual good
I happen to think the report misses key points, by avoiding any mention of reform of the tax and benefit system but he comes up with lots of good ideas – especially creating a new relationship with the faith communities. Kruger recognises what a powerhouse of spiritual and social good the Church can be. He calls for a new deal with the faith community. It’s not certain what that faith deal might look like, but it hopefully looks at the offer that Churches can make and encourages greater partnership and collaboration with local and national Government.
And before you think this is an isolated report that is going nowhere – there have been other reports recently – most notably a significant post Covid response document published by the University of York pointing out the immense potential of harnessing the resources of the Churches. What they mean of course is harnessing the power of the Spirit of God to transform. Well Amen to that!
Hopefully it will challenge decision makers to deal with the religious illiteracy and religious phobias that have been growing in Government for too long, because quite clearly as communities of faith we have so much good to contribute to the common good and the social capital we generate is worth millions to the national economy. Never grow weary in doing good was Paul’s appeal to the Galatians.
Because we are human, it’s easy to see the negative in Church. We can all too easily focus on broken relationships in our churches or our lack of money or an aging worshipping community and a million other problems. That’s deficit thinking – and as those with all the resources of God to draw upon our thinking should only ever be asset based. Never lose sight of the impact the Holy Spirit has on our world through our ordinariness. The simple acts of kindness, the generosity and sacrifices that we take almost for granted. Every single one is a gift of God. And together it builds to a powerful witness of the power of God in our human weakness. His power made perfect in our weakness as St Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 12. Because his grace is sufficient for us, so that Christ’s power may rest on each one of us.
A few weeks back I was at another Church as they handed out supplies to the desperate and once the rush was all over, my eye was caught by three tired people sat around a round table each with a sandwich and a coffee placed in front of them. I wish I’d taken a picture because I was right back at Mark Cazalet’s picture of the Trinity. The helpers were exhausted but demonstrating co-operation, partnership, love, kindness that Father, Son and Spirit would I know be proud of.
Honestly if you are reading this and you’re a part of the Church – you are amazing. And if you’re reading this and you’re not part of the Church become amazing and join in with what the local Church is doing.
God bless you for what you do in Christ’s name.