Rev’d Dr Mark Clavier – Reflections of a Yank

2014-10-08 10.33.39Good sheep for straying shepherds:
Reflections of a Yank on the Church and Local Communities.

Revd Dr Mark Clavier, Acting Principal of St Michael’s College, Cardiff.

Mark is a Yank (definitely not a Yankee!) with dual citizenship; his mother is from South Carolina, father from Barnsley and he has relatives who live in Wales. His hobby horse is consumerism and the way that this fulfils the role that religion had in the past. (See his recent book ‘Rescuing the Church from consumerism’ which argues that most people in our churches live within a consumer rather than a distinctively Christian culture; we need to rediscover our sacramental identity, grounded in narrative tradition and brought to life in local worshipping communities.)

Mark’s first parish in western North Carolina was liturgically very conservative. Liberals were in favour of George Bush and conservatives thought he was too liberal! But … it bubbled with energy. The church of 130 members had a 200,000$ budget, raised an additional 50,000$ for local charities including soup kitchens, provided support for individuals and a generous vicar’s discretionary fund. Initiatives bubbled up from energy at the grassroots level rather than being imposed top down – and with an element of competition with other churches. In the US a lot of activity happens under the radar … but more activity is needed as there is less social framework for those who have little, and much extreme poverty. The population as a whole has a heart to help those in need and sense of responsibility for one’s neighbour – but there is concern for what will happen as a more secular society develops. Hospitalityand generosity are likely to suffer.

Moving to County Durham opened Mark’s eyes to the joys of bureaucracy in the Church of England! In the ex-pit village where he had a ‘house for duty’ there were multiple multigenerational social problems. Everybody recognised what the problems were, but felt that ‘Someone needs to do something about it.’

Mark responded ‘No-one else will care as much as you do about your local community’. Local people must care enough about what is happening locally to take the initiative. A sense of communal identity is needed to get things going ((as provided in American churches). The only thing bringing the community together was shopping, drinking and sport. There was a need for an alternative narrative.

Then there was a miracle – the Durham Gala. No vicar had gone with the local people to the Gala before, and Mark went with them on the bus in his dog collar! This tapped in to the mining heritage, with banners and brass bands, and led to a special ecumenical service attended by 400 people and 2 MPs to commemorate the village’s history. The churches should have been doing this since the mines closed and providing social cohesion from which other SR initiatives can bubble up.

Moving on to village ministry in North Oxfordshire, Mark tried to develop initiatives as in US. He found neither opposition nor enthusiasm, and it was hard to sustain anything where there was apathy. Too much power is located centrally in the diocese and not enough at parish level (opposite to his experience in US).   British society works with ‘establishment’ and has initiatives originating from the top and not bubbling up from below – eg difficulty in reducing the size of a PCC when working with ‘Church Representation Rules.’ Committees produce ideas, then reports and marketing campaigns, and the parish says ‘There goes the diocese again!’

‘We need to re-think Christian formation to embed in worshipping communities the simple acts of kindness that are the building blocks of a holistic way of doing SR. ‘

Current thinking revolves around ‘empowering the laity’… but the laity don’t feel any need to do the things that are suggested! We need a change of culture within the Church away from being fed ideas from others and from a consumerism which is ‘all about me and my needs.’ Instead we should develop a different narrative about initiative, active discipleship and social concern with energy.

Questions and discussion following Mark’s reflections

 What mechanisms can we use to engage local congregations in SR projects? Regulation makes this more difficult – eg 15 volunteers were reduced to 2 when energy and enthusiasm waned due to requirement for CRB checks. Simple, small acts of kindness become harder. People don’t recognise how much these count and are defensive about mentioning them. Is this British reserve, or regarding them as too insignificant? More is going on than the vicar is aware of! The church needs to see itself as a distinctive community to which you belong rather than a local agency providing a service.

Theological formation (of ordained and lay leaders) is vital. Clergy training in the US is at a deeper and more academic level, but there are very few from working class backgrounds. Many ordinands here have little knowledge of the Christian faith. We need to introduce children to faith from a grassroots level so that it catches and populates the imagination and provides the narrative of Scripture in their bones. Then we are in a position for serious engagement later in life rather than discarding God along with Santa Claus.

Funding for SR work and the role of philanthropy or tax. The American instinct is to give generously but see tax as bad; the US tax system funds charitable giving much better and social problems are handled by individual and collective charity. In Britain there is sense of social justice and a better social net provided by taxation for those who need it, but a higher sense of entitlement and an expectation that support is provided by agencies rather than individuals. Both approaches have some good aspects and some that are more problematic. Complacency about the way society is can be a problem.

Consumerism and the personalisation of faith. Britain is in the grip of consumerism which affects the whole way that we perceive the world around us. Contemporary understanding of success is a product of consumerism, a means of constructing identity and pursuing happiness though a chosen lifestyle in which God is an accessory. Worship is about marketing the church! Difference between Catholics and Evangelicals is less theological than aesthetic.

Better integration between liturgy in church and what happens effectively outside church is needed. Ritual is important to us as human beings, and patterns of behaviour influence us in ways we don’t always recognise. We need to expand our Christian identity from cognitive to whole body language and sink deep roots into the Gospel to provide a robust witness to the world.

Too often in the church, we clericalise everything and drum out initiative. We inject piety and earnestness where it is not necessary. Hospitality is a Christian activity in its own right – ‘Provision of coffee is a corporate mercy!’

There is a hunger for meaningful engagement with faith as a place of joy and inspiration. We should model holding together theological life, worship in church and joyful relationships. In the Eastern Church, a theologian is seen as one who prays. ‘All theology should be done on one’s knees and to the sound of church bells.’ Michael Ramsey