Cathy's Letter June 24

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Cathy Bird

A Message from the Superintendent Minister June 24th 2020
Dear Friends,

As the lockdown restrictions are eased, many of you will be taking the opportunity to visit or stay with long missed family and friends. I hope these are special, treasured moments. Some of you, quite understandably, will be feeling reluctant to venture out quite yet. Whatever you are feeling at this time, please stay safe and continue to care and look after yourselves and each other. As I write, Boris has just announced that from 4th July churches can re-open for public worship. This does not mean however that on 5th July our churches will be open for a Sunday Service as usual! We need to await the guidance which will come in the next few days from the national church which will tell us what the specific restrictions are around our opening — you will have heard that communal singing will not be allowed (a particularly tough one for Methodists!) but as yet we do not know restrictions on numbers or which particular interpretation of social distancing will be used. All our churches will need to do risk assessments and we already know that many of our stewards and members will not be wanting to rush back to church, choosing instead to focus on their personal health and safety and that of their loved ones. This is to be expected and so I do not anticipate that it will be 'business as usual' for some time yet. In fact, will it ever be 'business as usual' and indeed is this what we should be hoping for? I have already written about the need for us to think about church differently and try to use this post-Covid time to ensure that we do not just slip back into old habits. Someone wrote this week, why, if churches were failing and struggling before Covid -19 would we WANT to go back to that normal? Not that all our churches were necessarily failing and struggling, but there has for a long time been a certain malaise, a longing for things to be different and revitalised. So why not take this opportunity to explore what that might look like in our own circuit? To ask ourselves what we have learned from the last 12 weeks of being church without being able to use our buildings, and how this learning might shape the church in coming weeks, months and years?

To that end, on Thursday 18th June, we held a mid-week conversation on Zoom, grounded in prayer, with the theme of 'Re-imagining Church.' Thanks to all who attended, which was around 60 people from churches across the circuit. We explored the questions:

  • What have we learned from the Covid-19 pandemic about being Church?
  • What can we happily do without?
  • What have we realised is really important?
  • What lessons are to be learned?
  • What do we see as the mission of our church in the coming months and years? What might God be asking of us at this time?
  • What part could our church play in reshaping society — locally, nationally and internationally?

    For those of you who attended, and for those who didn't, what follows is a summary of some of the key themes, including some quotes from those who were asked to give opening statements about their vision for a re-imagined church. I hope these ideas will stimulate your own thinking. As Raj, Lindsay and I, along with the wider Circuit Leadership Team continue to think about the future, the richness of people's contributions will really help us. I am keen that we offer clear and visible leadership in these confusing and hopeful weeks. At the same time we know that we are accountable, not only to God of course, but also to you all, and what you think matters. The conversations and ideas seem to me to be grouped into 4 major themes, although inevitably some of them overlap:

    • Church as a place of gathering, worship and fellowship
    • Church as a part of the community
    • Church as a Prophetic People
    • Church as Circuit

    Church as a place of gathering, worship and fellowship

    One of those I had asked to offer some introductory thought was Beverley Wheeler, a local preacher on trial and member at Heaton Mersey. Beverley is one of the founding members of Regenerate, a group for 'youngish' Christians which meets one a month. Beverley said this:

    "Regenerate grew out of a need to spend time together where we weren't planning something, washing up, moving chairs, sorting out Easter, Harvest, Christmas or whatever it may be. This time of fellowship provides a time for us to be normal people who happen to follow Christ, we talk about our lives, our work, our families, and pastimes, and we share in these things as friends of each other and friends of Jesus.
    In my reimagining of church — there is more of this, more fellowship, time to exist in the presence of God and other believers. There is less concern about church talk, there is more inclusive language because ultimately this is about a loving relationship between every one of us and God. There is less conformity, there is more excitement and joy at being in the presence of other Christians and the place where we have called God to join us. In my reimagining of church it would be more relaxed more fluid, we could break some of the rules, spend a bit less time ticking off the boxes and more time experiencing the presence of God. We are there to worship God, our audience is God, how much does God care about the checklist of worship? That's one to think about. Fellowship, inclusive language, relaxed environments and maybe even breaking some rules, that doesn't sound far off what was going on two thousand years when Jesus first called us to be his followers. "

    Beverley's emphasis on the importance of church as a community of fellowship and gathering was reflected comments from others:

    "I am missing the fellowship with others more than going to the church building for private prayer."

    In her introductory comments, Annette Sharpe, a Deacon at Romiley and therefore from September a minister in our Circuit said, " We have for a long time paid lip service to the phrase that 'the Church is the people, not the building', and yet, any suggestion to re-order or diversify the use of the worship space has often been met with indignation and yes, even horror. Perhaps we can more readily recognise that it is not the space or the furnishings that make a place 'Holy' or 'Sacred', but what happens within it." Annette imagines, " a Church that has an emphasis on learning, deepening spirituality and small group worship, encouraging more intimate engagement with God, each other and the needs of the world, thus allowing whole Church gatherings to be times of celebration. "
    I have already mentioned that it is the intention to continue with our Sunday afternoon Zoom services into the foreseeable future, even after some worship has resumed in our church buildings, and there was a strong emphasis on the need to continue to develop our skills in this area, perhaps branching out into live streamed services and widening our exposure on social media to connect with a wider range of people. From September we hope that the Circuit will have a specific task group working in the area of Communications and Social Media so hopefully we can really hone our expertise in this area to be able to offer high quality virtual events. But don't worry if this is not your thing! We will remain committed to staying in touch with those who prefer more traditional methods of communication and there was a recognition of the need for old and young to have local and 'live' events — we are after all, people who thrive on relationships with others.

    Within all these thoughts there is a sense that while individual, local church buildings are important as meeting places, perhaps they are not the be all and end all. We need to meet face to face, connect, relate, communicate, but there may be a whole range of ways in which we can do these things. As the Superintendent of the Circuit I am conscious of the tremendous burden which managing buildings can place on local trustees. The maintenance of the premises becomes the end in itself, rather than the means to the end, which is the glory of God expressed through loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. It is tough for us, but we will need to be facing questions very soon about whether or not we need all our church buildings. Is it just possible that by leaving some of our buildings behind we could generate resources that would allow us to be a much more effective and caring church community — investing, for example, in people who can offer more regular and visible pastoral care to those who are housebound, building relationships and helping people to gather more freely in different ways and in different places? If this might be true then perhaps we need to be paying attention to this as an idea. If, as I have said before, Covid -19 has taught us that we can be church without using our buildings, then perhaps God is asking us to take this seriously as we move into the future.

    Church as a part of the community

    We were reminded of a quote by the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who said, "Mission is finding out what God is doing and joining in."

    In her introductory comments, Liz, who is a Circuit Steward and member of the United Reformed Church at Edgeley Community Church asked us to think about the question, "Where is God at work in our communities? And by community, I mean not just where we live, but where our church is, if that's a different place, our school community, our workplace community, our once-a-year festival community and so on. We should identify where, in the communities we're involved in, can we offer ourselves and in so doing, seeking out making disciples. In going forward we must start from where we are now and not go back to what we used to be."

    Raj encouraged us to think about the idea of appointing a journalist in the community to collect stories to help us understand how God is at work in the world, to see what Jesus might be doing, and how can we contribute, with compassion at the heart of it. We can start by sharing our own stories with each other as disciples, and as church families.

    I loved this contribution from someone, "Rainbows and conversations in the street are church!"
    All this demands of us a shift in our traditional thinking — no longer is church about getting people to come to us so that we can tell them what they are missing and what they should be thinking. Rather church becomes about listening and looking and allowing ourselves to be shaped both by our Christian faith and convictions, but also by our experiences and by what is happening in the world, which is after all, God's world.

    Church as a Prophetic People

    Related to the place of the Church in the Community is the sense in which we are called to be a Prophetic people. And remember, prophecy is not about predicting the future, it is about reading the present, interpreting and commenting upon the things which are happening in the world, and where we see God's reign of love and peace being undermined or destroyed. Another contribution reminded us that it is the role of the Christian to "disturb the status quo, to speak for those who suffer in our society, seeking justice for those in need and those suffering discrimination. How impressive it would be to have a Church which gave a big lead in this matter! How much more powerful the words of individual preachers could be if they could be delivered against the background of the people knowing that they reflected what the Church firmly stands for!"

    Raj challenged us to think about whether we could move from the traditional 5 hymn sandwich to 5 course meal, where inclusion is the starter, love, justice and community are the main course and faith and hope the pudding! Well that sounds delicious to me!

    When the new united Stockport Circuit is created in September, welcoming friends from the present Romiley Circuit, we are intending to have a focus on our Public Witness as Methodists, forming task groups to focus on work with those who are marginalised (for example refugees, those living with dementia, children and young people, those living in poverty) and helping us to think about what it might mean to be an ecological and sustainable church.

    Church as Circuit

    Much was said in the Re-imagining Church evening about how the recent situation has brought more people across the circuit together. Methodist Standing Orders talk about how the Circuit is 'the primary unit for mission' and whilst we value our local church communities it is likely that as a Circuit we can be more effective and better resourced, especially in terms of how we approach some of the work mentioned in the previous section. And don't forget, Circuit expertise, resources and finances may also be able to help to support activities in local congregations where that is necessary. It is easy to think of the Circuit — in particular the paying of the quarterly assessment — as a drain on the local church; I hope we can come to a point where we see the Circuit as a crucial part of who we are, and a source of encouragement, support and action. I love the fact then when we will be able to gather again, there will be faces which have become familiar from our Zoom services — we will find we recognise people from other churches even though we have never met them in person!

    It was suggested that social action projects across the circuit could bring people together as well as circuit services — and we are already planning to begin a monthly Circuit Service once we are allowed to. The possibilities for Campaigning and offering strategic to support local charities were felt to be exciting, in particular, the way in which an enlarged circuit will give us a stronger identity and thereby enable us to develop strategies to exert influence amongst opinion formers and political leaders within Stockport and beyond — Councillors/MPs/government officers etc.

    So, there we have it! We intend to hold a second Re-imagining Church Event in the near future as we try to put some flesh on these bones — so please do think about coming along to that when it happens. I feel hopeful for the future and am grateful to be working with such a committed Circuit of people who are open to listening to what God might be asking of us at this time.

    And please remember as always:
    In this time of isolation and separation may we feel the unity of God's spirit in the bonds of peace and love which connect us to one another.

  • When we feel lonely let us know that in Christ we are never alone.
  • When we feel isolated may we be reminded that within the worldwide Body of Christ we are always connected.
  • When we need a hug help us to feel the warmth of God's embrace
  • When we are compelled to keep our distance, may we be drawn close to each other within the Spirit of Companionship that flows from God and which moves through and between each one of us.

    With love and blessings,
    Rev Cathy.

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