A CACTUS OF PANIC

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I WANT UPFRONT to grant that I may be a useless parish priest – plain idle, maybe. Uninspired, too tired, too old (at 54) or impractical – head in the clouds. In need, after 30+ years of “the ordained life”, of a zeal injection, a business management course, something to gee me up a bit so that I, in turn, can set about geeing-up others – get “a heart” for Mission (as though I’ve never had such a novel frame of mind – or heart – before).

All of the above are real possibilities. And of course I have noticed reports of the dear old CofE’s apparently being in steep decline. People have been talking about it, and agitating about it for years. (Though not half as many, I suspect, as the remnant church-folk have enjoyed imagining – because for contemporary talkers and agitators there are, it seems, so many other interesting things to talk and agitate about). Nonetheless, I find myself drawn to an unlikely hero, in company with Tania Ahsan …

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Yoda is my hero. Not because he’s a Jedi master or because he ignores the rules of grammar, more because Yoda is an oasis of calm in the face of crisis. When I’m hit by a crisis, I get flappy handed and shrill; I am pointedly not an oasis of calm, more a cactus of panic.

Tania Ahsan
The Brilliant Book of Calm

Flappy handed and shrill. Oh dear. I wish it wasn’t so, but that sounds too alarmingly like my belov├ęd Church of England for comfort. Too alarmingly like the jaded religious institutions – many hundreds of them – that have spent much too long spouting noisy hot air about who’s in and who’s not, whilst endlessly passing round either a “collection plate” or another invitation to a Jumble Sale to “keep the Church thermometer heading in the right direction”. Too much “mission planning” seems to me to have lost the plot. It troubles me that diocesan retreat centres up and down the land are being closed (even Gloucester’s glorious Glenfall, aaaarrrgh!) – whilst the Church pours millions into maintaining crumbling old Victorian barns whose dwindling congregations would be better equipped for Christ’s mission by a single weekend in a quiet retreat house.

We’re really going to have to let go of the dry rot. Sooner rather than later. And let go, too, of the embarrassing ecclesiastical talk of decline – as though said decline were a mildly irritating phenomenon just beginning to appear on our horizon. Less than 5% of the population of some dioceses attend Church at all. The rest of the population has moved on. Years ago now. One diocese reports the “loss” of 25% of adults and 60% of children during the 1990s. These people are just not interested in our crumbling buildings (with a few notable and worthy exceptions of artistic and historic merit and interest) – and our long past their sell-by-date and very embarrassing arguments and insistences. Some of our “growth planning” and mission talk makes this parish priest squirm, so heaven knows what it must sound like to a casual “outsider”.

Is the Church taking note of the large numbers of weekday visitors flocking to the “deep silence” of our ancient cathedrals? What’s their appeal? Should more of their “turnstiles” be cast out of the temple – thereby, incidentally, increasing both footfall and willing donations – as Chester has done? Could the Church clarify, please, exactly what is meant by throwaway garden-centre-advert lines like “we’re seeking to grow disciples of Our Lord Jesus”? What, precisely, is a disciple? And who is Jesus, let alone “Our Lord”? And what, if we succeed in growing disciple plants, is to be their purpose and function in our fractious world? Clarification please. Sharp, calm, clarification.

And yet it is obvious to me and to many that the Divine Oasis lives in, and through, and for, and all around all of us. Jesus stills models “the silent music of praise” and what it might mean for the world if all The One God’s children could work at their vocation to be “an oasis of calm in the face of crisis”. Surely the Divine Silence invites all humanity away from the flappy handed and the shrill. Surely a child of God, still less a whole institution, ought not to be a “cactus of panic”. How about a bit (or a heck of a lot more) of silence? How about a bit of sabbath (and weekday) stillness? Gardens, public parks, the trees and the fields are great – if not better than some “places of worship” – for that. Looking out over Ullswater I never feel that the Divine is in decline. And is that Jesus over there on the fellside? Wow, that’s quite a crowd of peacefully attentive picnickers. Isn’t this place gloriously quiet? Healing.

God can cope with losing a few more Church buildings. God loves outsiders – with a special affection, apparently, for those deemed unworthy by the religious certainties of the world. What God calls us to, now as always, is the ultimate Oasis of Calm – what might truly be called his “Kingdom”, and the sooner – for all of us in our currently brutal, brutalised and noisy world – the better.

O sabbath rest by Galilee
O calm of hills above
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love

That’s the real mission.