Friday, May 09, 2014

Synod 2014: Crunching the Numbers

It’s been a long time since I was, in my regard, a proper mathematician doing research into things gauge theoretic, geometrical and topological. I never really used to deal much with those things that everyone understands to be numbers: they didn’t matter to me. While accountants, actuaries and statisticians deal with numeric quantities (and probably with greater expertise than any mathematician), I was adding together surfaces, holes and orbifolds. It really wasn’t an impressive thing to do: it was more arcane than practical, but it was very interesting.

There are some brilliant numbers out there (which I won’t list for obvious reasons) from the ubiquitous π to the enormity of Graham’s number which can never be written down. It seems though, that institutions have an obsession with numbers – the bigger the better.

At our recent synod, Bishop Damien related a tale in which our Diocese was dismissed because of its size. The word used was “pathetic” and came from a collared female in the CofE who seemed to take issue with our existence. I guess it’s up to her to live by the criteria with which she’s bound herself to measure success. Her comments are sad because they have completely missed the point about what it is to be Christian.

The Church is bound by the commission given to it by God. That includes making disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, caring for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, healing the sick, relieving oppression, clothing the naked, and making the Love of God visible in the world. God has committed the salvation of the world to His Son and it is through the presence of Christ in His Church that this commission will be realised.

It’s fair to say that we fail personally at this commission every day. I know myself to be completely unworthy of the collar that I now wear about my neck, and the mistakes I make in my life make me out to be a hypocrite because of my failure to decrease so that Christ may increase in me. I have failed at being compassionate; I have failed in my duty of care; I have failed to love my neighbour as myself. I can do only one thing and that is pick myself up and start again knowing that, despite my failure, God does not fail. As Ed Pacht always reminds me, Romans viii.28 always holds true for every single Christian who, like me, spends much of their time flat on their face in the mud.

Let us, therefore, look at Our Lord’s approach to numbers. Searching the Gospels, it seems that there is no point where our Lord says, “Verily, verily I say unto you, that it is necessary to grow fifty new disciples a year for the Church to grow.” On the contrary, we have “many are called, but few are chosen”. We have Our Lord’s comments on the widow’s mite: “this poor widow hath cast more in , than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance ; but she of her want did cast in all that she had , even all her living.” (Mark xii.43-44) We have his parable of the talents in St Matthew xxv.

In each of these cases, Our Lord presents us with commitment and not accumulation. The numbers don’t matter, the depth of the intention does – quality over quantity. To berate any congregation over its size is misses the point completely. It’s an attitude of materialism that the more matter there is, the more things exist, the greater value it possesses. Our Lord says the opposite. Faith the size of a grain of mustard seed can move mountains. It’s not the quantity of faith we actually possess, it’s that we’re doing something about it, we’re trying to grow it rather than leaving it buried in the sand. I rather think that this is more the point of the Parable of the Talents than the rather vaguer lesson that I was taught at Sunday School that I must use my talents to please God. I don’t really see life as an enormous version of “Britain’s Got Talent”. God is not Simon Cowell.

Our Lord always uses gardening metaphors in his parables. Sowing the seed is a metaphor for preaching the word. But what does the actual growing? Who is responsible for the actual growth? One can assume that, while it is ultimately the creative power and rule of God, the growth follows natural processes. We have the rule: plant the seed in good soil, water it and it may grow. That’s not to say it will necessarily grow, but that the farmer cannot be blamed if, having done everything that he can to get the seed to grow, the seed fails to germinate or does so in an unhealthy way. The point is that we do what we can. We follow the doctrine that we have been given and remember that we are but unprofitable servants, remembering that growth is utterly in the hands of God.

That doesn’t get the Church off the hook though. “To whom much has been given, much will be required.” As long as the Church is feeding the faithful good and wholesome things, all of which must contain the love of God, growth is bound to happen. It is a false assumption that this growth will be numerical. If the Church grows saints then something is being done.

At the level of the individual, as long as faith, hope and love have not been buried but are put to God’s work, growth will happen, both within the individual and flowing from that individual. Of course, the Church should be concerned with declining numbers, but if the Church is doing everything it can to show forth the love of God, it cannot be held responsible for the people leaving.

A small church has nothing to fear if she is trying to do the will of God and meet His commission to her. “Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day. For the pestilence that walketh in darkness: nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day. A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee.” (Psalm xci, 5-7)

Bishop Damien’s charge to the Diocese always contains the urge to remain faithful. This is not passive – it is supremely active and to be taken on at all levels from the Diocese up to each individual member. A life of increasingly fervent prayer, of deeper and more searching study, and of the hard labour of love in the Lord’s vineyard awaits us all. It’s difficult, but it’s good work. Like the widow, if we’re going to give, we have to give from our very selves, not counting the cost but remember that it is sacrifice and true sacrifices always sanctify. I do beg your prayers that I may indeed hold fast to Our Lord’s Commission to me. You certainly have my prayers.

1 comment:

Fr Tom said...

Thank you, Father, for this splendid article. As a former program manager for the US Navy, I have dealt with the '10% more this year' mindset - it is NOT helpful for the Church. May the Diocese of the UK continue its faithful mission.

In Christ,

Tom McHenry
Archdeacon, DMAS, ACC