Monday, 24 February 2014

Foundations, Rules and Temples

Epiphany 7 (2014) Year A RCL Principal

Foundations, Rules & Temples

God is here!

Remember that? Those three words, our words for the presentation, a reminder that God is a part of our community and found in one another. They aren’t bad words to call to mind as we go into our Annual Vestry meeting and indeed as I share something of my understanding of what our Church order and governance consist of .

I should say that when I put the question out a couple of weeks back ‘would you like me to say something about what our Church structures are’ the response was quite overwhelmingly ‘yes please’  in fact I only had one person say no and that was because, as they said. “People really should come to the vestry meeting to find out”.  I can see the logic in that, but I think that it might be worth saying something of why vestry is important to encourage you all to come and take part in this part of the life of our Church fellowship.

I want to mix this up a little with my reflections on today’s readings.  Because, and this does make me wonder whether God is just demonstrating her great sense of humour, these readings couldn’t really be better suited to this vestry Sunday.

St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians isn’t a bad reading to begin some thoughts on Church structures and order.  Paul is desperate for the first fledgling churches to survive and flourish, and recognises that to achieve this there needs to be some kind of order.  In certain parts of these letters to the Corinthians Paul expresses his concern about the disorder, particularly in worship, that is putting people off the church – and though Paul’s writings, much to the delight of many literalists – say things which we might find uncomfortable, the background is that he longs for the Church to be a shining example of faithfulness, ordered and exemplars of good conduct – all for the sake of spreading the Gospel, that people will not be turned off by the chaos of a disordered and (as he sees it) immoral church!  We could spend a lot of time contextualising, debating, arguing Paul’s teaching, but I do believe the principle of sound governance isn’t a bad one. 

Even more though, Paul holds the Church up as something rather special.  The Church community is a place where the Spirit dwells – God is here says St Paul. 

What a difference it would make to all of us if we behaved in such a way that honoured this fact.  That we looked at one another and said ‘God’s Spirit is in that person’. 

I’m not going to labour the point further, but the basis of Church order is this belief that the Spirit dwells in each of us, and the desire to be built upon the foundation of Christ.  And St Paul is very keen to talk about each one of us having our place – you are being built into a living temple, each one of you living stones(though I pinched that particular phrase from Peter’s first letter), with the spirit within you.  It’s worth noting that the form of the pronoun ‘you’ is a the plural form here – in verse 16 of Chapter 3 of 1 Corinthians ‘you (all of you) are God’s temple and God lives in you (that’s all of you).  There is something about acknowledging that the spirit is known in us together as well as individually that I think is crucial for our understanding of being a community – of being dedicated to one another in this exciting, but also challenging journey ahead.

Being in community comes with a cost, a discipline about it.  We are challenged to look beyond ourselves and commit ourselves to this wider endeavour, this act of being bound together, of loving one another, of being the body of Christ.
And in this particular expression of the Church that we call Anglicanism, we have structures that are meant to help us in that, we have rules called the Canons which are there to hold the disparate parts of each parish and of the church at large together, to give us (in the words I have used frequently in the past months) a sense of the bigger story, and our part within it.

So what do I mean, you say? Enough about principles and St Paul. What do we do? How is this worked out? I promised you some info about the governance of the Church so here it comes. 

I must just make a confession here, though.  As an incumbent and Rural Dean in England I was often called upon to give advice regarding canon law, because I have a particular interest in these things and a surprising love of Church Order. For about 13 years I have been offering advice on the understanding and interpretation of the Canons, the rules and regulations of the Church, and have made sure I am well versed in the legal grounding for the Churches structures. I am a canon law nerd.  I am, though, learning a new set of canons, and though I have read and re-read the canon law of the Anglican Church of Canada and the Diocese of BC, I am not as experienced in them as I am with the C of E.  I read the canons again yesterday and I am basing this stuff on my newly gained knowledge – apologies for any gaps…  but here we go.

Well, first of all the Anglican Church is – and I quote, though I am not sure who I quote – ‘Episcopally led and synodically governed’.  That means that the Church heeds the voice of our bishop in whom there is vested a certain amount of authority.  When we elect a Bishop – with the help of the Holy Spirit – we expect her, or him, to lead us.  The Bishops hold the role of both leading and serving the Church – they assist in the formulation and they uphold the canons, they have a pastoral role, they speak on behalf of the Church and they uphold clergy discipline. 

But we are a Church which also operates with certain democratic or at least pseudo-democratic structures.  The idea of a Synod is a gathering of the people of God. The word simply means ‘assembly’.  It is often used to refer to a gathering of Christian Leaders, but in our Church we would (taking the principle that we are all priests and rulers in the church of God) say that the synod is us.  The basic unit of a synod, for all practical purposes, is a Parochial Council acting on behalf of vestry, the body elected for oversight of the Church. 

Other synods in the Anglican Church of Canada are the Diocesan Synod which consists of member selected from parishes and the General Synod which is the gathering of representatives from all over the Anglican Church of Canada.  Ultimately, in partnership with Bishops and Clergy the Synods officially run the Church. The wider Synods formulate policy and have responsibility for the finance, discipline, mission and ministry of the Church.  Oh it’s worth saying that Synods consist of three houses – the Bishops, Clergy and Laity.  Usually it is expected on matters of policy or business that all three houses will vote separately but each must reach a majority for or against the policy or proposal.

Our Synod is basically our Vestry, but it would be impractical to meet as the general gathering of parishioners all of the time, so the Vestry gives authority to the PC to act as its regular committee.  Alongside that are the Treasurer, Secretary who sit on the PC but don’t have voting rights unless they are elected as PC members. Then we have the ex officio members:  the Diocesan Synod reps who may be the wardens and maybe one or two others and the Wardens.  We have six Diocesan Synod reps, two from the current PC and the two wardens and deputy wardens.

And then we have the delight that is our wardens!  Officially we have two – one people’s warden and one rector’s warden.  As might be obvious, the people’s warden is elected by vestry and the rector’s warden is appointed by the rector.  Because of the size and activity of St John’s we also have two deputies to that position, elected or appointed in the same way.  Wardens are there to support the Rector – and by extension other Clergy and staff – in making sure the ministry of the Church continues. 

Wardens have a consultative role and they have legal responsibilities in relation to the supervision and reporting of financial matters, making sure there is regular worship and that the Rector is paid and housed. Which is good.  The Wardens are to represent the people to the Rector and the Rector to the people – seeking to consult and consider the needs of the congregation and to make sure the Rector has what she or he needs to fulfil their ministry to the Parish.  If things go terribly wrong then the wardens are the ones who report to the Bishops that there are difficulties and who seek the counsel of the Bishop for extraordinary needs. They are also the ones who sign contracts on behalf of their church. Thank God for wardens. And I mean that most sincerely.  St John’s wardens have much to bear, and they have worked diligently in the vacancy and in my first months here to discharge their responsibilities faithfully, thank you.

So what are we doing in vestry later on this morning, well after our soup and bun (thank you to those who have prepared this) we will hear the annual reports of all the officers and staff of the Church. We will hear about our finances and vote on our financial report of the last year and on our proposed budget.  We will also elect new members to the PC and hear of the appointment of a new Rector’s warden. Though Wardens can serve for up to six years, and then have to stand down for a year at least, it has been usual for wardens here to serve for three years, sometimes four.  PC members usually stand for two years extendable to three. We are electing three new parish council members this year who will be proposed at vestry by the nominations committee before opening to the floor.  It may be that in the years to come we need to revisit this method as the church and the world around it seem to change at a mindboggling speed – but for now we are sticking with this model which is not dictated by canon but comes within the canonical structure.

There is a misconception, and it is a misconception, that the PC and wardens are somehow distinct from the congregation, or (and I have heard the phrase used) they are ‘the suits’ who make decisions in darkened rooms which affect us all.  This is not the case – our wardens and our PC are members of our congregation, faithful members of the everyday life of the church and they work hard to listen and respond to both encouragements and criticisms which come from the wider parish – please make use of your PC representatives and our wardens, they offer themselves graciously in service of the parish and I know – like all of us – only want the very best for our Church.

Any questions (it’s unusual, I know, but I do feel I should allow you to ask for any clarifications you might need to ask for – though there will be time for that both before and after vestry)?

I hope this gives some idea of how we do things, I do want to end by saying a little bit of why.  In our reading from Leviticus we have a little glimpse of some of the law of the Jewish faith which is the foundation of our own faith.  You might question both with regards to the canons and structures of the church and in this passage why we take any account of the law at all because surely Jesus takes away all that need to follow the Hebrew law?  Well, that’s a good point, but it is important to note that these structures, these laws are for our benefit – not to constrain but to free us from the fear of knowing what we can and can’t do.  They take away the uncertainty and subjectivity of the way we often act and offer us a shape and boundaries to our activities.

The reasoning behind the Jewish law was to give the people of God standards to live by – which is why in our lesson from Leviticus we don’t just get a bit of religious mumbo-jumbo but real, challenging, practical demands – do not defraud, take care of the needy by allowing them to share in your harvest, nurture and make allowances for the physically less able, don’t hate, learn to live together. Follow God’s standards.

It comes back to our calling to live together in love, to see Christ in one another, to recognise the Spirit between and within us.  And as human beings we sometimes forget how to do that, we sometimes need the checks and balances that these structures provide.  And behind all this, if we were to delve into our Gospel (which I will do only for a moment) we realise that God’s standards are very high indeed, that we might even say they are greater than we could ever achieve – to be holy, to be set aside, even to be perfect.  This is our calling, and I don’t think I’ve reached it, perhaps we feel we have.  Behind all this structure is an acknowledgement that sometimes it doesn’t all go as well as we would hope and long for, and that sometimes we let each other down. 

And along with all of that comes the promise of grace, of the Spirit of God living within us who says ‘I love you’.  The God who calls us to perfection doesn’t demand that we confine ourselves to rules and regulations, though we may accept they can be helpful, but does promise to strengthen, to guide, to inspire, to love and where necessary to remind us that we are forgiven. 

As a community may we be a place where love reigns, and as we together wrestle with faith, and what it means to be people of faith in a changing world, may we be open to one another, graceful and respectful of one another and willing to bear with the structures – and where necessary challenge them – in order that we can be an effective and safe church, a place where we can explore the depths of being in God and know that there are things, even rules and regulations, that seek to give us the safe space we need.



Bruce Bryant-Scott said...

So, as a C of E Canon law nerd, what is the most exciting thing you find in the new canons and regulations that you are now working with? And what is the most disturbing? The most confusing?

Alastair McCollum said...

Hi Bruce - missed this comment (not used to comments on this blog)

Not sure I find the new canons that different from the old - the ones I have struggled with are the wedding canons which are more restrictive than the C of E ones in some ways... There's much more of a 'gathered community' feel than a 'parish for all' openness about them. Though the attitude to marriage, and same sex unions is much more broad and open, the structural restrictions are narrower. It was wedding law that I was most called on for advice in the C of E, also burial law and advice on monuments in churchyards... that's a very big deal!

Also, I probably have made more effort to get to grips with the structures around committees and the Annual Meeting... which is pretty vague, but usable....

Still learning...