Applying Industrial Mission Theology in a remote rural context: lessons from the celtic fringe.

 

As a child in Lincolnshire I could see Lincoln Cathedral some 20 miles away, from the small flat roof outside my bedroom window, through the trees around our house, mysterious, drawing me, yet rarely accessed.  It was an icon for God.

Churchgoing reinforced the notion of an Almighty and invisible God, whom I encountered in worship and the natural world. The sense of justice pervaded all. Law and Grace filled my genetic heritage, with clerics and lawyers abounding.

During this lecture I will develop three overarching themes, illustrating them from my own experiences. The first is applied empirical theology – relating theory to actuality, by careful observation and gathering evidence. The second is to reflect on that actuality – to be a reflective practitioner. The third is to see how the first two are applied in a culture that has little knowledge left of our Christian tradition; this sometimes emerges in a way that might be called prophetic – for it can have a critical edge based on knowledge of a context combined with reflection on both faith and context.

My time studying social science at University tested the faith I carried with me and that carried me. Time in the food processing industry continued that testing which led to the vocation to ministry, taken forward, for which I am eternally grateful, at Kings College London.  Theology in a secular University – the best place – for me at any rate.  This was foundational in that between lectures on theology etc we were exposed to all the best current thinkers and practitioners in politics, economics, media and so on.  It was a varied and rich preparation for what happened for me on ordination.

Industrial Mission

I arrived in Jarrow, raw and eager. On the day after ordination I borrowed a recorder from the local radio station and acted as a journalist, incognito and asking people in the street what they thought of the church and its ministry. An elementary market analysis method.  I was an empirical theologian. “Come down from on high and be where we are” was the challenge I gathered, and so I did – by joining the Northumbrian Industrial Mission team.  My chaplaincy was to be part of the shipbuilding and the coal industry of south Tyneside. There is insufficient time now to share the many wonderful experiences and encounters that enriched those seven years. But I will share three stories from within shipbuilding. The first is around a man whose job title was Berth Manager – not surprisingly nicknamed “the Pill”. He was a Scot who had a serious alcohol problem. Normally, there was a constant tension between what he wanted and the shop stewards who saw their role to frustrate his best efforts in their bid to win bonuses for this or that, for their members. Many shop stewards had benefitted from being involved in the Roman Catholic St Vincent de Paul programme.  But on the occasions when he had had too much to drink they protected him and gave him plenty of slack – not to enable them to bargain harder, but because they were good Catholics and would not hurt a man when he was down. A sign of God’s Kingdom.

The second story showed how well industrial chaplains had won the hearts of the men. There was a mass meeting of Boilermakers to discuss new strategies of dealing with the company. Over 3000 men were gathered, and they banned the press from the meeting and then took a vote on whether the chaplains could stay.  They stayed.

The third arose from my being invited to attend what were euphemistically called Consultative meetings when management sat on one side of a long table and the union reps sat opposite; both sides in descending order of power.  The chaplain sat at one end, an external observer of the charade. After several such monthly meetings as an empirical theologian the chaplain asked for permission, and was given it, to change the way the meeting was set out.  Tables were set out in a triangle and the protagonists placed in random positions so that an open discussion could ensue.  Their futile game had changed into one in which sides began to evaporate, and some useful discussions could take place. An act of prophecy in which no one was slaughtered.

The lessons drawn from these three stories is that loving care can be found in the unlikeliest of places and circumstances and that the church’s ministers can be appreciated when they are not on religious territory with their assumption of authority. Chaplains are not drawn into the clerical trap waiting for them in religious institutions of being the ones who know everything, fuelling the horrid myth that clergy are always telling people off – preaching at them. One success the Industrial Mission team had was to draw many parochial clergy into the work place as learners as well as to be chaplains in a very part time capacity.  The intention was to help them see how the faith they nurtured on Sundays was being applied during the week. They became reflective practitioners. Twenty years later in Bristol we developed a week-long course for ordinands on the “Theology of Money”.

Research showed why Britain was slower, in the 1960s, than our main competitors, Germany, USA, Japan, in coming out of recession. It was clear that Britain was dominated by the large national corporations while our competitors relied on fleeter of foot family businesses with even the larger corporations, like Honda, being based on dispersed autonomy – a contrast that pervades Britain still in its governmental structures.

The Bishop of Carlisle invited me in 1973 to move west to be the first chaplain to agriculture in the UK.  He wanted the style of ministry of Industrial Mission to be applied in a rural context.

So what are the key elements of Industrial Mission theology?

  • The primacy of the Kingdom of God to be found here – and there
  • That all creation reveals the glory of God
  • That Christ’s disciples work towards the abundant life that is offered to all – see John 10.v10
  • That no-one is excluded except those who choose to exclude themselves

The style of ministry developed in industrial mission has a prophetic aspect and includes:

  • Respect for and understanding the structures and processes of the secular context
  • Respect for those who work in them
  • Valuing all people as children of God
  • Willingness to learn from those who know about the world they inhabit
  • Willingness to use ears and eyes more than mouth
  • Patience and humility
  • Inviting local churches to support by prayer and understanding
  • Willingness to share insights when invited, even with a cutting edge

This prophetic approach is also based in reflective practice, and is a shared enterprise in empirical theology, being worked out in a sector of society that operates without reference to ecclesiastical tradition.

A rural context

Could these principles be applied in a remote rural context?  Certainly contexts vary.  Visitors from urban Tyneside expressed serious anxiety when they came to support us in my induction to the living in the small Cumbria hamlet with only 400 residents spread over 30 sq miles. “Eh Pet”, they wondered, “nay people and all them trees”!!  But people are people wherever they are to be found, with the normal strengths and weaknesses; only the systems that are created to manage the contextual variants are different. I delighted in a welcoming present from one parishioner – a wheelbarrow – practical and symbolic too.

The parish chosen as base for this innovative ministry was a dairy farming area, including the bulk of the Rose Estate, owned by the Church Commissioners. Parishioners were encouraged to teach me about agriculture. They did.  A farm discussion group was established with support from staff of the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

In rural Cumbria these elements from industrial mission practice came together as the Diocesan Rural Group was formed. Over two years people not yet at the head of their organisation from around the county from the range of rural and agricultural organisations were chosen to form the Group.  By the time I moved on, seven years later, this group had become a most influential and informal group outside Local Government, working quietly, effectively and largely unseen. The group was drawn from NFU, Agricultural Workers Union, Country Landowners Association, The Agricultural College, the Government’s Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, The Rural Community Council, Countryside Commission, the Methodist District and Anglican Diocese.

It was in 1972 that, in Warwickshire, the Arthur Rank Centre came into being, the year before my move to Cumbria; it became of fundamental importance in the rest of my life.  More of that later. In several ways the expertise in the group was drawn on to support, advise and strengthen the Church. One issue I recall was when the Diocese was considering what to do with several surplus rectories in the Lake District.  At that time, as chair of a large Housing Association with good links into the Lake District National Park, I was able to ask our professionals to look at the opportunity.  Their report suggested that good use of those rectories would pay cover a large % of the  diocesan budget.  The Bishop rejected the advice on the grounds that the diocese was not into property. The Bishop was told, “you are, my Lord Bishop, but just not very good at it”. A better story is how one Deanery came to support planning applications for small businesses and changed the attitude of Eden District Council to one of encouragement for that micro-business sector.

The concept of Partnership was then coming to the fore in public policy, in recognition that silo thinking was inhibiting the best use of diminishing resources, and that the State could not do all that was expected of it. The practice of partnership also enables and invites “thinking outside the box”. The Church has found it difficult to engage in Partnership thinking.  One example of this was the failure of the then Anglican Methodist talks, for which Cumbria was raring to go, having established good working together at all levels. A principle I have tried to apply in much of my work since was developed in Cumbria.  It is a simple question to be asked of oneself when thinking about or planning some new thing:  “who else might be interested in this?” This approach has found allies in many people who may not share our core beliefs, but who are supportive of our best endeavours. One can see Jesus moving in the same direction when he converses with the Samaritan woman, heals the Roman centurion’s servant, or proclaims the turning point when Greeks ask to see him. He rejects the narrow parochialism and nationalism of the Jewish leaders, for the Kingdom of God knows no boundaries. This approach embodies all three of my key messages – to be an empirical theologian (find out the facts) to be a reflective practitioner and even dare to speak out in a prophetic way.

The Partnership principle has become even more significant as our society adjusts to the new global order in which Britain has a less dominant role. As the State withdraws from parts of what we had come to expect of it, the resilience of communities is being tested. How are health and education, public order, care of the elderly and vulnerable to be provided? These mega questions are the background against which some reflections from Pembrokeshire will be shared later.

But first, some words about the Arthur Rank Centre. It began as the outworking of a shared vision of an Anglican NSM – Peter Buckler – himself a marketing manager in an international agricultural firm with a President of the Royal Show – Lord Rank – a committed Methodist. They saw the potential of a Christian resource at the heart of the agricultural industry, which was then focused at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire. It was, and is,  for many of us a place for inspiration and sharing.  No surprise then that one recommendation of the Archbishops’ Commission on Rural Areas in its 1990 report Faith in the Countryside was that the new National Rural Officer should be based there.  It was a constant source of initiatives to further the wellbeing of rural people, notably training courses for clergy new to rural ministry. During my thirteen years there we saw the establishment of Farm Crisis Network, Rural Churches in Community Service, the National Church Tourism Network, The Centre for Studies in Rural Ministry (of which more later), the ARC Addington Fund as a response to the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, Hidden Britain – a UK wide community based tourism project, Eco-congregation, the computers for rural people project and much else. The ARC continues to be a source of inspiration, reflection and discussion with Government and Church leaders ministering in rural areas.

A word about the ARC Addington Fund. When the Foot and Mouth Disease was discovered it was clear that a disaster loomed. I rang the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask him to invite national faith leaders to call for a day of prayer.  Later that day he rang back saying “you’ll need more than prayer – you will need a fund”. And so the fund was established and started its work with hundreds of local clergy and farming representatives involved. Our telephone team of 24 took in over £6m in 10 weeks and our panels of farming experts allocated grants to thousands of beneficiaries. This précis shows that faith with knowledge and sufficient reflection, working in partnership can do prophetic wonders. The Church was the only body that came out of this crisis with any credit – said the NFU President.  I must tell you that, although there was no intention or system to achieve one outcome – the average donation was equal to the average grant made.  The Good Lord had his hand on what we did.

The Arthur Rank Centre has, over the years, helped hundreds of clergy prepare for ministry in our rural areas. My involvement in this process led to the development of a specific programme for those working in what came to be called multi-parish benefices. During these, participants were invited to map their benefices showing the aspects of those several communities where they believed God’s work was being done.  Most came to see that the church has no monopoly on such work; the beginning of new reflective practice. In my own travelling the country as a preacher, data was gathered from congregations on sundry different aspects of ministry and the church. These data formed the basis of several books charting the move from clerical ownership of ministry to the growing involvement of laypeople. Reflective practice has to be based in sound data. Strong oratory, such as excites many people – without a base in sound data – can be dangerous and misleading.

The Arthur Rank Centre continues to press forward, focussed especially on multi-church ministry and on the rural economy. Long established work continues: the excellent “Country Way” magazine, training for church leaders new to the rural context, and a vast range of information on the web site on mission, worship, buildings, case studies, discipleship and so on. In addition, a range of initiatives has been launched under a “Germinate” brand. Germinate Leadership is an 18 month national programme that helps release creative and entrepreneurial leadership skills for multi church ministry. Germinate Enterprise is a six session rural business start-up programme that churches across the country can deliver in order to create employment and develop thriving village economies. Germinate Groups are being piloted to offer affordable Learning Communities in a rural multi-church context. And the biennial Germinate Conference attracts hundreds of church leaders across denominations and ecclesiology. Do take a look at germinate.net for more information.

I have struggled, like Jacob, with the two selves I am aware of inside me.  One as a Christian Minister and one as a developer working with social and economic structures.  Is there a distinctiveness in what is done by a Christian starting useful projects? What are the gifts of the Spirit that are needed in such a person – durability, patience, long suffering, cheerfulness, forgiveness, determination, hope and faith. These are nearer the list in 1 Timothy 6 v11 than the more spiritual gifts that would startle those not in the household of faith that are found in 1 Corinthians 12 vv 8-10 or Ephesians 4 vv 7-13.

It was on Ascension Day this May that those two selves came together for me in a fresh way in the singing of Matthew Bridges’ hymn “Crown him with many Crowns”. The Lamb is on his throne, God incarnate born, yet the wounds are visible above in beauty glorified. He is the Lord of peace whose power a sceptre sways. He is the potentate of time and creator of the rolling spheres – throughout eternity. I was reminded that all is under God’s authority and that is my motive for involvement or action in society. All our abilities and gifting is to that end – all else is by-product.

Priests or laypeople, working as a chaplain, are used in traditional pastoral ways, but also as a means of resolving disputes in industry or community, even in political circles, to revamp the way that consultation was done between management and unions in another, to teaching young apprentices in another, those approaching retirement in another, even exorcising some strange work places or being an adjudicator in elections. The privilege of engagement in an enterprise as a chaplain because of both wisdom, knowledge and reflective capacity is a wonderful opportunity to share something of the religious insight because one has earned the trust of those in the workplace or community and one is a neutral, outside the normal power structures. This is empirical theology in action.

A prophetic role

I will now draw on my experience of living and working in North Pembrokeshire to discuss how industrial mission theology is worked out in the rural parts of my adopted county, which will stand for the Celtic fringe for my purposes today. I referred to North Pembrokeshire because we live north of the Landsker line – an invisible line that you will not see on a map, for south of it is sometimes referred to as little England beyond Wales.

May I say something about my context first?  I retired as the National Rural Officer for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England in 2003 and moved to the house we had owned for some 30 years in the village of Goodwick, part of Fishguard and Goodwick which has a single community council = parish council. Fishguard and Goodwick are separate Anglican parishes, and there is also a Roman Catholic church with resident priest, a Kingdom Hall, an English Baptist, Welsh Baptist, Welsh Presbyterian and Calvinist Methodist chapels, none now with a minister. Of the 14 pubs, three remain stubbornly closed. Discussions I have had with Brains Brewery have contributed to the sale of two of them this month. The population is c5000 weighted to the older age groups. Two Health Centres short of 3 doctors, a secondary school, a Catholic primary, a Welsh medium primary and an English medium primary.

After the Local Authority (Pembrokeshire County Council is a unitary authority) the largest single employer is Stena – the ferry company.

The Unique Selling Point (USP) for Fishguard, after the port, is that the last invasion of Britain happened here in 1797 and failed – a French force of 1400 motley soldiers who were supposed to create a revolutionary diversion in the Bristol area, but were blown off course. The tapestry to commemorate this event is a worthy rival to the Bayeux, but not so well known. It has its own splendid gallery in the Town Hall – and that is a story in itself. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a major attraction and tourism is our single largest industry. Agriculture is predominantly dairy farming.

The nearest dual carriageway is 35 miles east, the train service now has 7 trains a day. Ireland is 3 hours away and Cardiff is 2 ½ hours.

My wife and I attend the Anglican church in Fishguard.  Early on I conducted a survey of the members of the Fishguard Anglican church and discovered that there were some 25 people who were then office holders in over 30 local voluntary organisations. Among the possible conclusions was one that suggested this church was playing a great part in the dynamic of the community but was largely unaware of the crossover and level of involvement. Another was that the residual tradition of establishment – that had been given up in 1920 on pressure from the non-conformists – remained culturally active with most of the respondents being English rather than Welsh speakers.

Moving new into an area means connecting with the community slowly and carefully. As our church is on the tourist trail it was suggested the church should join the Chamber of Trade and Tourism. This reflects the effort by this church to connect with the wider community is a variety of ways. I represent the church in the Chamber. It had a membership of 35 which was waiting for some new energy. I walked the streets inviting businesses to pull together for there was, and is, a great potential for a regenerated economy. Membership rose to 170. We obtained a grant to build a website www.gofishguard.co.uk which is now in its third edition. Public meetings drew on advice from the equivalent of an English Rural Community Council and from a branding consultant. Fishguard Bay was born and we have a logo and an App.  We have a five-year strategy. After two very good chair people we currently have a rotating chair, enabling more people to experience that leadership role.  We won a grant of £300k from the Coastal Communities Fund to develop tourism across North Pembrokeshire and have a small team working on that; not to create new enterprises but strengthen existing ones by helping them work together. The Chamber was instrumental in conducting research on the use of trains in a 3 year pilot scheme and the Welsh Government Minister credited us with persuading her of the need for the pilot to become a permanent feature, with a new station in the middle of Goodwick. We are currently working with Government to increase the number of cruise ships calling at Fishguard and to give their passengers a good experience. We now employ a cruise coordinator to arrange the meet and greet; this year has been a learning experience on which we will build next year with a doubling of cruise calls already sold out. Next Monday I have been invited to meet Cardiff Airport Board to explore ways of bringing visitors through there to West Wales.

The Chamber was involved in establishing a Town Team, following the advice of Mary Portas, the UK Government adviser on reviving High Streets. As secretary of this I am responsible for bringing together local politicians, the business and community sectors and spending public money for regeneration, supplemented by an additional £50K because we are held up as a good example of how to operate.

Change does not come easily to most people. An important point to note is that Fishguard has a local group called Transition Bro Gwaun, set up some 6 years ago, one of the >300 Transition Groups world wide working for change with a focus on a sustainable future on planet Earth. Transition Bro Gwaun has achieved several award winning projects; notably a scheme to divert food before it becomes wasted and goes to landfill, but still has plenty of safe usage time, it is used to supply wholesome food in our café; and we now have a 50% community owned 225KW wind turbine for which local people have provided £290K in loans.

On a number of fronts we are exploring ways by which our community can take back to itself the responsibility for service provision which has hitherto been in the hands of Local Government. For example, managing the Town Hall which includes the Tourist Information Centre and Library.  Those in public service are traumatised by the rapid thinning out of staff and resources and need care.

In these few examples in which I am involved I look to the church for support – prayer, discussion, encouragement, recognition of the issues and of those whose life has been or is committed to business or public service. My identity as a priest is not known by everyone. In Wales there is little-unearned respect given to clergy, it having a socialist and level culture. Places of worship in Wales are normally small and unobtrusive, partly because there was a small landed gentry class with large estates seeking to provide expensive mausoleums in their honour. As a consultant to the Diocese on matters of communication the response to my suggestions is normally some respectful bewilderment, for church people are consumed by doing familiar church things. The sense of mission has been dulled for many apart from asking “how many people come to church?” The search for a proclamation of God’s Kingdom has given way to maintaining the church.

The Church in Wales is busy re-structuring in the face of a diminished supply of stipendiary clergy. Local Ministry Areas are being developed, from the bottom up with guidance on their resourcing, staffing and modus operandi being developed on the hoof. Each diocese is developing its own way of doing this, and local churches can be left bewildered. Those that are strong may be able to carry on as normal hoping the storm will blow over and leave them with a roof on; those that are weak may be hoping that there will still be a cleric available to take their reducing number of services. An exciting time.  In our local LMA, which comprises some 16 churches we have set out to discover facts on which to base a strategy. Those leading ministry have been asked to identify others with leadership potential or achievement who may not be on the diocesan radar. Those so identified have been asked to share their main areas of concern and interest and how much time they may be willing to give to the work of the church across the LMA. Weaker churches have been identified and their needs analysed.  A key point is that the name of our LMA has been chosen by the churches included which have also insisted that it is called a Mission and Ministry area, for without the central focus of mission it is believed that ministry has less impact.

In both church and society I seek to live out the principles derived from scripture, for a Christian society that has been in danger of being sidelined by the Church in the pursuit of personal salvation. The theology that inspired industrial mission must be recovered if the Christian Gospel is to have any impact on the majority that see the Church as a fringe activity. But the Church will have to re-engage with society in ways that bring respect and fresh attention.

But now to…

Reflective practice

Reflective practitioners are needed to explore the interface between church and the mission field (to use a very old concept).

I want to share something now from what our students explore in the Centre for Studies in Rural Ministry (CSRM).  Leslie Francis and I started this virtual centre, attached to a University over 13 years ago.  It is now a core part of Glyndwr University in Wrexham, North Wales. The Centre provides an opportunity to lead others into the valuable world of research; it also provides an opportunity to gather data to illuminate the many issues discussed in church circles and often decided on by a powerful orator who may not have had anything more than personal prejudice to fuel the argument. The students become equipped to change the way thinking and practice are developed in churches by virtue of their becoming quality researchers. Students join the Centre from all over the UK and Ireland. They may be lay or ordained and of any faith tradition or none. The thrice yearly residential seminars are invigorating and demanding; they are an occasion for the work the students undertake to be shared. Each focuses on the issues they wish to explore within the broad canvas of “rural” and “ministry”.  The four modules each student completes on the way to the Master’s Dissertation give opportunity to examine different topics or the same topic using different lenses. The following three years complete the doctorate level work, and some stay with the Centre thereafter having been bitten by the bug of rewards from being a researcher. Baptist, Church of Ireland, Church of Scotland, Society of Friends, Church of England, Methodist, Welsh Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, Readers, Clergy, Bishops, worship leaders – all are welcome and the mix is wonderfully enriching. Some of the topics (my words to mask their identity) which have been studied include:

What is the faith of those who call themselves Christian but are not part of any church?

What are parents actually wanting when they ask for Baptism?

How should my church building be adapted to serve the needs of the community?

What are the prayers that people pray when they are in church alone.

What is the church’s role at an agricultural show?

What is the effect of combining worship across a multi-parish benefice into single Sunday events?

Is the language of worship accessible to the people?

Comparing the church school with the state school in my parish.

Is Gareth Malone a model to follow in work in the community?

How do different personality types find expression in the work of a local chapel

What do the memorials in the churchyard tell me about the Christian story in a remote rural community?

What is going on for those engaged in pilgrimage?

Does my diminishing denomination have a future?

What does compulsory religious worship do for children in a secondary school?

It has always been our intention and hope that some of these studies can be reframed to become articles in Rural Theology, the Rural Theology Association’s publication and, in a more popular way, in Country Way.

Perhaps the most rewarding outcome, apart from students achieving an academic award, is to see how, by incorporating research methods into a life of ministry, students can enhance their professionalism and deepen their understanding of what is going on around them.  They become effective reflective practitioners.

Like all busy people, they have to juggle the needs of their day job with the additional demand of academia. The discipline of being a reflective practitioner develops the focus for the student. The discipline of reflecting develops a professionalism and competence that sees above and beyond the hundreds of ordinary chores to see the bigger picture, with greater depth and clarity. Most students do not branch out into some new abstracted topic, but delve more deeply into some issue that is enormous significance – to them individually, but also to the wider church and community.

Concluding remarks

I make no apology for the autobiographical nature of this lecture.  I am who I am (who said that first?). My life’s work has been for the Rule of God – a God who shares our life, its challenges, pains, triumphs and fun. In sharing that with others I reflect, study, speak and act; these actions focus for me in the offering of the Eucharist to share with Jesus his way of life and death. So let it be. Amen.