I know that not everyone in our own Church family finds this assertion a persuasive one. Does that mean we expect you to shape up or ship out? Not a bit of it. The Nicene Creed (which is said every week at our Holy Communions at St Edmund’s and All Hallows’) says ‘We believe…’ That’s a statement of what we collectively affirm as a local expression of the Church catholic (a word which means ‘universal’ – for everyone). That doesn’t mean that every one of us has to be signed up to every single clause. It means that there is room in any local Christian community for people to be part of the family, wherever they are in their journey of faith. There is room for different convictions. What it does mean though, is that we can’t decide as a local expression of the universal Church that we collectively affirm something different. At that point we would break our fellowship with the bigger Christian family of which we are a part.
This all relates to how we approach our mission too. In the afterglow of Pentecost, we are reminded that we undertake our mission in the power, grace and encouragement of the Holy Spirit. But we need also to remember that failure is an inevitable part of the journey. On the way to the fully-formed doctrine of the Trinity, there were many false starts and blind alleys. It might have taken 300 years, but the Church didn’t give up. Our predecessors in the faith kept on going until they found a way of expressing faith in God, made known through Jesus and experienced in the infilling of the Holy Spirit, that appeared to them and generations to follow to capture deep Truth.
In our own situation, we should not be surprised if, in trying to meet the missional challenges of our own time, we too experience false starts and blind alleys.
This is a very real experience at the moment for the students based here and for me. At the end of our first year, we are painfully aware that some of what we hoped for in shaping the Community Mission Pathway has not been realised. College work has left little time for community and for involvement in the parishes, and my time with them has not been the priority it needed to be. I’ve made mistakes. The college has made mistakes. We’ve been trying to do all this in the context of massive change for St John’s College and for theological education nationally. It’s painful to be let down and to let people down. It’s tempting when it hurts to avoid innovation and experiment. St John’s could try to turn back to familiar ways. But this way lies stagnation and ultimately, death. So we recognise like those Church Fathers and Mothers that it hasn’t been quite right. We identify what we need to hang on to, what we need to change and what we need to discard as we attempt to reshape the pathway with this cohort, for them and future cohorts.
At All Hallows and St Edmund’s, if we are going to try to meet the future and the change that it brings head on, we too will experience failure. But we should be encouraged that, at each turn, God is with us and that we are part of a wider family of churches that can help us discern what we need to hang on to, what we need to change and what we need to discard. That way, our failures can be excellent. They can spur us on to trying again rather than giving up. Let us journey onward in faith, knowing that it is God who leads us; it is God who carries us through our failures, and it is God who through them makes us more and more the people we’re called to be.