I spent three days last week in Blackpool, attending the Anglican Missioners’ Conference. We were four Methodist Mission Enablers, with a couple from the Church of Scotland, and about sixty Diocesan and Deanery Missioners from the Church of England. Amongst others we heard from George Ling, of the Church Army, author of the recent report ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, and Phil Potter, the new national Missioner for Fresh Expressions of Church, both offering a mixture of challenge and encouragement in the task of shaping the church to be relevant and effective in today’s culture. A word Phil used often, supported by George’s statistics, was ‘blend’. He spoke of the need to move on from a distinction between, on the one hand, ‘inherited’ or ‘traditional’ ways of being church , and, on the other, new, or ‘fresh’ ways, a distinction where the models seem to oppose each other. Rather, we need to strive for a blending, where those doing things in new ways don’t lose touch with the wider church, and those working in more traditional ways are supportive of pioneers and innovators, and indeed ready to learn from them. A mixed economy not with two distinct groupings, but with a wide spectrum of practice.
In addition to the formal input, we also spent time at the start of the Conference, and early each day, ‘Dwelling In the Word’. This involved listening each time to the same passage of scripture being read aloud (2 Corinthians 4:1-12) and then getting into pairs (with a ‘reasonably friendly-looking stranger’), sharing in the pair whatever had struck you in the passage, listening carefully to the other’s sharing, and then finding another pair and sharing with them what you had heard your partner say. This meant that over the 3 days you had the growing insights of nine other people into the one passage.
As we explored, I found a growing sense of wonder at God’s using ‘jars of clay’ to hold ‘treasure’, the treasure being ‘the knowledge of God’s glory’. Sharing in a residential setting, one becomes aware of the fears, failures and foibles present in each of us, the flawed nature of our humanity, and yet also of the presence and grace of God. This isn’t just true of Missioners! Each of us who call ourselves Christian and seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ is evidence both of the shortcomings of human beings and the generous grace and purpose of God. There is something miraculous about God pouring blessing on people through the efforts of others who are clearly crack(ed) pots themselves! Water into wine didn’t just happen in Cana-in-Galilee.
Reflecting on the paradox of common clay pots holding finest wine brings me back to that tension between traditionalists and innovators, inherited church and fresh expressions, and brings me home to Bradford North. It strikes me as blatantly obvious that a) God is at work in much we have traditionally done and continue to do; and b) God is not content with us simply rehearsing the past and replicating traditional ways. I recognise in myself, and perhaps in you, a human tendency to sometimes settle for what is known and safe, rather than take risks. I also recognise in us an equally human tendency to want things to change for the better, and be frustrated by those who seem to be putting obstacles in the way of such change. It seems to me that one of the lessons of 2 Corinthians 4 is to acknowledge our human failings, and see that God can work through us still. And perhaps if we can name our traditionalism or impatience, our faithfulness or our insensitivity, our fear or our frustration, and offer it to God for healing, perhaps then we’ll get closer to that blend which the God ‘who was, is, and is to be’ seems to ask of us.