It is an exciting time to be part of the Church of England. A thought that occurred to me several times at the New Wine Leaders’ Conference in Harrogate last week. One such moment was bumping into one of our (Liverpool Diocese) archdeacons, Mike. He introduced me to an ordinand, to be deaconed in just a few months time. I asked him where he was going to serve and he explained that part of his time would be in a parish, but the remainder would be continuing his work in rural Somerset, running ‘pop-up’ worship for young people in isolated communities. Proof that we are able, as a church, to be creative in our processes and structures.
As our old systems change, either by design, or by withering away, new patterns of church life are possible. The Church of England has long been a diverse church, but all too often that diversity has not been lived out by individuals. The various streams of Anglicanism have co-existed alongside, rather than enriching, one another.
Since moving to Liverpool 18 months ago I have met many people who are involved in New Wine, and been impressed by them. It is probably the single largest grouping or network of clergy in the diocese. I was curious to know more. In addition, Catholic Charismatic Renewal has been a significant factor in my own faith journey. I have puzzled recently over why Renewal hasn’t been more fertile an influence on Anglo-Catholicism in general, in the way in which it has heavily influenced, for example, French Catholicism and is clearly influential among Evangelicals here in the UK.
I spoke to a number of people in the diocese who are involved in New Wine and duly booked my place at last week’s conference. I had a helpful briefing from Kate Wharton, a vicar in the diocese, who is also a member of the New Wine leadership. Like everybody, she was deeply encouraging. New Wine is an important resource for us, as a diocese, as we pursue our goal of ‘Bigger Church, Bigger Difference’, particularly for my work in establishing new worshipping communities emerging from our schools.
Happily, Dave Hill, who runs the excellent HeartSmart project in many of our schools, offered to come with me. So I had a New Wine buddy which was great, and the chance to unpack the experience as we drove home – in blizzard conditions over North Yorkshire.
The three days in Harrogate were powerful. I often look back on the moment when, aged fourteen, I experienced baptism of the Holy Spirit, as my coming to faith. New Wine was a chance to renew that experience and to see how it relates to my prayer life now. I say this because my attending the conference was also a personal commitment; to integrate these streams – not just an academic or professional exercise. It feels like an important expression of my vocation. There is a strong sense of being called and led to this, a fulfilment, not only of my own more distant past, but also of my encounter with the black Pentecostal churches in Lewisham. I have already booked on the summer New Wine conference and am looking forward to exploring this more.
It was an easy conference to attend. Brilliantly organised, there were guides at every possible point. The hotel and conference centre are part of the same complex. The substantial Liverpool group, made sure I was invited to meals and to drinks together. I am very grateful to Mike Hindley and everyone for making me so welcome. As well as printed programmes, daily email updates made it impossible to miss what was going on, and today I received my first post-conference email too. Everywhere from the lift to the seminars and the restaurants in Harrogate, people were friendly and eager to chat. It was not a cliquey gathering and I was one of many people there for the first time.
Paul Harcourt was the perfect opening speaker. He is the National Leader of New Wine and has a good, understated way. It was a gentle, clear and straightforward introduction to what New Wine is about and why the theme Transforming Your Community had been chosen. Paul returned to the two key themes repeatedly in his talk, renewing local churches and social justice – community transformation. His text was Isaiah 61 – 62. The opening verses are well known. It was good to be taken through the remainder of chapter 61 and the following one, showing the justice application. It was brilliantly done and I can’t wait to get the opportunity to preach on the passages to try and repeat it. Paul stressed the need to be focussed, not just on the next world but on this one. He challenged the assumption that Christians are better than other people, just better than we would be without Jesus.
Paul also painted the context of the last Leadership Conference when the network was grieving the loss of a key leader. This open vulnerability was impressive and again made the network and conference very accessible. It was a far cry from the triumphalism that I might have feared.
David Stroud, of Christ Church, London gave two talks. There was some very good leadership material from him; a call to be engaged in the public square and some very practical advice on families and marriage for those in leadership. I thought this final element was especially important given the social justice aspect of the breakdown of so many families. I would have been interested in more on this. As he rightly said, “Our society desperately needs great families.”
Social justice was also an important theme in the panel. This included the elected mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees ; Debra Green (of Manchester based Redeeming Our Communities ROC) as well as conference keynote speaker, Kris Vallotton, of Bethel Church, Redding, California. This was important, because at times it might have appeared that social justice/transformation was only concerned with the poor. Marvin brought a strong narrative of racial justice and Debra’s presence signified the importance of equality for women. Since all but one of the key speakers was male and white, Marvin and Debra provided important diversity. It would have been good to have more of them. Marvin’s presence also signified the importance of Christians being actively engaged in politics as politicians, not just working with politicians. I liked Marvin’s prayer for the gathering the following morning, that we might have the “strategy, audacity & humility to be influencers for change”. Christians are great at the inspiration, often less good at the strategy.
Perhaps the most powerful witness of the panel was to being people who just get things done, and this came equally from all three participants. Kris was at a loss to understand the many questions texted to the host referring to fear of being too explicitly Christian in public life – obviously very much a British concern. Both Debra and Marvin were clear that this is an unfounded fear. We need to be braver and just get in there and do it. Marvin has dedicated his city to Jesus, and is not afraid to say so. It was Kris though who was clear that engaging in the public square can mean we have to compromise, he cited a naked Hallowe’en party in the auditorium space his church runs for the city.
Worship and Ministry
Most sessions began with a period of worship, led by a seriously good band. Some of the songs, from Hillsong, I knew from Lewisham days, but most were new to me. The style was easy and the singing from the gathering was excellent. There was usually a discernible structure including a time of singing in tongues. There were no announcements, song flowed seamlessly, and brilliantly, into song or a period of instrumental worship. Many of the sessions also ended with worship in a similar style but often building in a period of ministry to individuals who came forward for prayer. I thought this was very powerful. At Walsingham and other Catholic gatherings there are opportunities for those who are in need of healing, but this was for anyone wanting particular renewal in their ministry, to rededicate their work or for other, stated, purposes. There was an open invitation to come out and pray for those coming forward. This too was impressive lay-leadership. It was carefully managed from the platform.
There was, of course, no liturgical element to the worship and no Scripture readings. However, most of the songs are scripturally based. I especially liked a great version of the Creed from Hillsong, and many songs that resonated with my own use and teaching of the Jesus Prayer:
“Jesus, the name above every other name,
Worthy of every breath
We could ever breathe
Show me who you are
And fill me with your heart.”
‘Fill me with your heart’ is a phrase that has stuck with me, thinking about Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What could it mean to be filled with Jesus’ own love and compassion? His heart beating in mine.
Scripture was most evident in the talks. All the speakers made extensive use of Scripture. It was fascinating to see how much the Old Testament was used. Isaiah, as already mentioned, Jeremiah and especially references to Nehemiah. The was also common in my experience of Pentecostal churches. I wonder whether as Catholic Anglicans we concentrate too much on the Gospels, and neglect the Old Testament? In particular, the way in which the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary is designed, the passages are often included simply to illustrate the Gospel readings. They don’t carry the narrative forward over a period of weeks – the Church of England lectionary does offer alternatives but I have never been part of a church where they are used. Scripture was much quoted in my many fruitful conversations with people over the three days, often New Testament passages in relation to the gifts of the Spirit and how these manifested in people’s lives and work. This was a key feature of the experience for me: people recognising the difference God makes in their lives and being able to talk about that.
Kris’s talks were utterly brilliant. I haven’t laughed out loud so much for a long time. His account of the birth of his first child made me cry with laughter. He has impeccable comic timing and a great matter of fact delivery. His message is profoundly important. He delivers at such a rate that I need to listen/watch again (they will be available in due course) to take in everything he said. He gave four talks and this pattern worked really well giving him the opportunity to build an argument, but also to reflect on who we were and what the message we needed to hear was. I thought he did this particularly well.
Echoing Paul Harcourt, Kris began by emphasising the need to be interested not just in individual salvation, or what happens in heaven, but in what happens here. He very clearly showed that we are called to make the will of God done on earth and that “Our job is not to get people to heaven, but to get heaven to people.”
It is always interesting to hear familiar vocabulary being used in a different way. ‘Apostolic’ can mean many things, doctrinally, in the succession of episcopal ministry and so on. Kris provided a powerful exposition of apostolic ministry, contrasting it with pastoral ministry. “The only thing that makes your church apostolic is if it transforms culture”. It has given me much food for thought on the future of Anglican life. Are we too wedded to old pastoral models (it was the commemoration of George Herbert while I was in Harrogate)? Do we need to embrace the apostolic model more firmly?
Kris was brilliant on not getting caught in patterns of complaining and whining. What one headteacher colleague of mine calls ‘awfulisation‘. “We’re not called to complain about our cities, we’re called to transform them”, Kris stated, “Repeating the BBC’s reporting on your city is not prophetic it is pathetic. Heaven to earth, not earth to heaven.”
If Kris was good in his first talk he was even stronger on the second day. Beginning with a call for unity, he described the Protestant problem of fragmenting churches because of doctrinal differences. For him loyality isn’t agreement, it’s covenant relationship; regardless of whether we agree or not. As he put it, “Why do we look for unity that resembles total agreement when Jesus couldn’t get 12 disciples to agree?” He stressed that churches have to be places where mistakes are possible and where trusting some people, in the hope that they will succeed means that some people won’t. Think, Judas.
Perhaps the strongest message that Kris had for us, seemed to come from his reading of the people he was speaking to. It was on the need to be confident Christians. We should not beat ourselves up as miserable sinners, “I WAS a sinner, I AM a king and a priest.” There are no lay ministers, only a royal priesthood. He was very good on the power of the imagination, we become what we see in our imagination. He was scathing about “Kum ba yah” Christianity and the sheer awfulness of “This little light of mine.”
At the end of one session Kris prayed a word of prophecy on a number of individuals. This approach is deeply impressive and in marked contrast to the widespread non-directive ‘spiritual direction’, strongly influenced by secular counselling. A directive approach must be based on a true discernment of spirits and a willingness to believe that God speaks to and through the Director.
To avoid seeming uncritical I suppose I should offer some things that were not perfect about the conference. I would be cautious, as a guest, at being particularly critical but actually, there is very little. The conference was very white and very middle-class. That probably reflects the Church of England pretty accurately. But given my experience of Pentecostal Christianity it is a shame that there is not more sharing. I sat next to a black woman from south London (who knew Trinity and my work there) for one of the sessions and asked her why there wasn’t more overlap. Her view was that the black churches have got so used to working outside the mainstream that it is a hard habit to break.
I was also surprised at some of the language and attitudes to women. I haven’t heard ‘ladies’ used so often for many years. One talk referred to a woman assistant being unmarried and looking for a husband. Other comments about the supposed characteristics of women – ‘more intuitive’ – would make many of my women friends see red. I know plenty of women who aren’t intuitive at all, and plenty of men who are.
An extra seminar was held on the current sexuality ‘storm’ affecting all the churches. It was late in the evening, and coincided with a Liverpool gathering, so (perhaps fortunately) I didn’t attend. Apart from that the culture wars were blessedly absent.
A Gift for Catholic Anglicans
There was much at New Wine that Catholic Anglicans could receive as a gift. Kris Vallotton’s call for us to be more confident needs to be received by Anglicans of all persuasions. The call to greater commitment to social justice should resonate with Anglo-Catholics who have often claimed the high ground on this, but in reality have probably abandoned it to others.
I have long believed that a spirituality of brokenness, combined with an ‘absence of God’ type of theology has created spiritual impotence. If we are stuck in our brokenness, if we never move beyond Wounded Healer, to the powerful, resurrected Christ, we will be unable to change the world. We are called to be transformed people before we can transform others. The role of imagination in our spiritual lives is essential here. St Ignatius of Loyola knew this well and we have neglected it at our peril.
Most important of all is the need to believe in the reality of the Spirit and the gifts that the Spirit brings. We can do more because the Spirit empowers us to do so. Reclaiming a proper Catholic sentimentality will enable us to be open to the gifts of the Spirit. During Lent I have been praying Compline using, every day, Fr Faber’s beautiful hymn (which is in the Breviary) Sweet Saviour, bless us e’er we go. It was a seamless transition from the songs of the conference. We will only receive the gifts of the Spirit if we believe in them and if we expect God to pour them on his people. Spirit-giftedness is not about a particular style, music or culture, but is the transforming, converting gift of Jesus to us as we seek to live in friendship with him.
Catholics could also learn much about using traditional Christian vocabulary and biblical language rather than adopting the language of the secular milieu.
We also need, as Marvin prayed, to be strategic. Lay leadership will be essential in a church with a pared down structure
A Gift for the Whole Church
New Wine has tremendous gifts which it is bringing to the whole church. It is not an Anglican organisation, although probably the majority of people present were Anglicans. But for the Church of England the sheer scale of its reach, and the energy and vitality it brings, is much needed. I know from the diocese of Liverpool that many of the most engaged and lively clergy and laity are deeply influenced by New Wine.
One old hand at New Wine mentioned to me that he feared it has become too establishment and has lost its edge. I suppose there is an element of inevitability in this for any grouping as it grows. It didn’t feel especially mainstream to me. Compared to many an Anglo-Catholic gathering few bishops were present.
It seems to me that one of the things we have learnt over the last few decades in multi-cultural education is that trying to make everyone the same allows no one to be themselves. We have become better in schools at celebrating difference. The more you are yourself, the more I can be myself. That would be a wonderful gift to the church, not living alongside one another in a form of co-existence but by being distinctively different enabling everyone to be better themselves. Disagreement and difference, as Kris said, does not need to lead to division.
A gift to me
Some years ago I attended a retreat at a Buddhist monastery. In a one-to-one meeting with the abbot, who was leading the retreat, he said that he hoped I would leave a better Christian. After three days of great teaching, powerful worship and strong Christian fellowship, I feel I have left New Wine a better Christian, but also a better Anglo-Catholic. In real meetings, or encounters, we are never left the same. That does not mean I am going to be singing Hillsong choruses instead of chanting the Daily Office each day. While I was in Harrogate my normal round of Mass, Office, Rosary, lectio and meditation continued, enriched by the experience of the conference. A lovely husband and wife who I got to know in our hotel’s lift joined me for Mass in my room twice. Her father had been an Anglo-Catholic priest and I offered one of the Masses for the repose of his soul. Their generosity in being with me matched that of everyone at the conference. I hope that I will be returning to New Wine for many years to come.
It was uplifting to be at New Wine. My Christian life and ministry has been enriched by it. It showed the Spirit bringing creativity to the very processes and structures I work in. It is an exciting time to be part of the Church of England.