"Let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and dung it. If it bears fruit next year well and good but if not you can cut it down"
I was recently in one of the parish churches of the Two Cities Area which has endured some turbulent times. It was a happy occasion because the partnership between the new parish priest and a small remnant of the congregation had, like the tree in the gospel, revived and borne fruit. Connections with many non-church organizations within the parish had been re-established and the congregation had grown to embrace people whom the world at large did not esteem at their true worth. The woodman's axe was no longer necessary and it was time to signal that the parish was on a different and upward trajectory by instituting the priest in charge. Like so many clergy in this Diocese he is a talented and unusual person...
One of the most nourishing experiences is the delighted awareness of communion with partners in the gospel in all our diversity but united by "the Spirit of the Lord" and a common dedication to proclaiming "the day of the Lord's favour".
The parish church ... should both reflect the diversity of a given locality and act as a hub serving the full range of community needs and organizations. Many numerical growth strategies are based on the undoubted truth that "like attracts like" but parish churches deliberately seek to bring together people of unlike life history and experience simply on the basis of their place of residence. As a result in many parishes there is mix of ages, classes and ethnic groups and this creates circumstances in which spiritual growth can occur through the exchange of strengths and gifts. In a lively parish, generosity in sharing gifts between very diverse people can generate new possibilities and new energies for transformation both in individuals and in society. This is the ideal but experience suggests that there are ways in which the development of a genuine parish experience can be frustrated. Jesus said, "there was a fig tree in a vineyard and the owner came looking or fruit and found none".
This can happen in various ways. There are Meldrew clubs [for whom] Heaven was about twenty years ago... They are not too concerned about progeny or fruit, as Jesus put it, although sometimes they say that they want the Vicar to "bring in the youth" but they are most unwilling to make it possible by changes which might be disturbing but make them joinable.
There are other places where things are even more serious. Resources, buildings and finance which are meant to serve the local community as a whole have been appropriated by small groups quite unrepresentative of the parish at large. The structure of the parochial system is such that the law gives too much power to such groups who by capturing the PCC can resist the attempts of the most determined parish priest to chart a fresh course. It is vital to distinguish between the potential fruitfulness of the parish church and genuinely whole parish ministry as against the capacity of the parochial system, elaborated in a different age and bristling with "keep off" notices to constitute a formidable obstacle to growth and fruitfulness.
We are as a Diocese utterly committed to see the parish churches flourish - complemented by other expressions of Christian community serving particular social groupings and networks...
We are serving the greatest city in the world. What we do here for Jesus Christ reverberates for good or ill throughout the globe. If we pray and work together we can touch and help transform every aspect of London life. And with painful slowness the fig tree is coming back to life...
We could of course waste these opportunities and poison our life together by cynicism and turning in upon ourselves. One of the most shocking reports I have heard in the past year is from a parish that had successfully transformed its financial situation but as riches increased the spirit of generosity shrivelled.
...We and those whom we serve are either growing into God or growing apart from God. Our special concern is with Christ's own body, the church "to train it" as St John Chrysostom says, "to perfect health and incredible beauty". We are "to give the soul wings by the distribution of the Word". [Gregory Nazianzen]
My prayer for us all this day as we re-commit ourselves as pastoral leaders is, in the words of the letter to the Christians of Ephesus [III: 17]:
"That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God".
With a vision of redeemed humanity in Christ, everything else loses its allure and seems small. With such a vision Christ gives us, in all our diversity and debates about this issue and that, a delighted awareness that we are brothers and sisters, servants united in a common cause and in self-giving love. Love Christ; keep humble; be generous and make friends – even the gates of hell will not prevail against a church energized by such a contagious Spirit.
by Rt Rev'd Richard Chartres