The presence of Jesus

An introductory contribution to an ecumenical conversation on the Eucharist, organised by Liverpool Parish Church as part of “Adoremus”, the Roman Catholic National Eucharistic Congress, held in Liverpool, September 2018.

The Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcom McMahon OP, and the chair of the Merseyside Methodist District, Dr Sheryl Anderson, shared in this conversation. We each began with a brief prepared statement. Here’s mine.

I’d like to talk about two things: about theological and philosophical theories of things, and about what Anglicans do when they come to Communion.

ARCIC 1 on Eucharistic doctrine says: “When his people are gathered at the eucharist to commemorate his saving acts for our redemption, Christ makes effective among us the eternal benefits of his victory and elicits and renews our response of faith, thanksgiving and self-surrender.”

I don’t know of any Anglican who would deny this. As one writer has said: “Anglican eucharistic theologies universally affirm the real presence of Christ in the eucharist… Evangelical Anglicans believe that this is a pneumatic presence, while those of an Anglo-Catholic churchmanship believe this is a corporeal presence.” But we stay in the same church. In other words, corporately speaking, philosophical clarity is not all-important for us. We put up with diversity. This is most clearly summed up in the verse attributed to Queen Elizabeth I:

“Christ was the word that spake it,

He took the bread and brake it,

And what the word did make it,

That I believe and take it.”

This relaxed approach to philosophy is not, of course, held by all individual Anglicans. For some there is a full and glad embracing of the doctrine of transubstantiation in its most conservative expression. For others there is a passionate adherence to the bare memorialising of Ulrich Zwingli, for whom the Eucharist was helpful, useful, even central; but in the end a mnemonic, a reminder, like a photograph, and nothing more.

The problem can be that these two extreme views, neither of which is held by many, is presented to Anglicans as a bare choice. “Do you believe in the presence of our Lord Jesus in the sacrament or do you not? Philosophically speaking, is it all or is it nothing?”

This crude opposition is not a helpful frame for our theology, or our devotion. For myself I prefer to look to the language of two of the Fathers in God of the universal Church, John Calvin and Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI.

Calvin said that in the Eucharist we see “the true and substantial communication of the body and blood of the Lord”.

Pope Benedict said that “[The doctrine of transubstantiation] is not a statement of physics. It has never been asserted that, so to say, nature in a physical sense is being changed. The transformation reaches down to a more profound level … Christ lays hold upon what is, from a purely physical viewpoint, bread and wine, in its inmost being, so that it is changed from within and Christ truly gives himself in them.”

Queen Elizabeth’s verse may imply that it doesn’t really matter what the theology is. But for Anglicans it is not so. We come to church to engage in the true and substantial communication of the God who gives himself and changes creation from within, and we understand it variously.

This is a way of speaking that embraces a mystery. And so in this spirit Anglicans can all say that we meet Jesus in Communion in a real way. We tend to talk about what it means to us in pictures, or not to talk about it at all.

Let me give an example of how we speak in pictures, and try to echo the Bible. You’ll hear the echoes I hope in a moment.

When I was installed as Bishop of Liverpool (that makes me sound like a piece of software, but I prefer it to the older word “enthroned”!) I preached a sermon to the Diocese in which I spoke of the Christian Church as if it were a table. And in that sermon I said this:

“It’s a simple table but it’s well made, because it was made by a carpenter. The guy who made it is a poor man, but he’s generous. He offers a place at the table to anyone who wants to sit and eat. This is a table that started in one place but now it can stretch down every street, and it can go into every home, if people want to sit there.

“Most of all it’s a table for eating. You can’t eat alone at this table. You can’t buy a meal at this table. You can’t buy a ticket to sit here. Anyone can sit here. It’s a table like a table at a wedding. You sit with guests you never knew, and you find out about them, and they become your friends. And the table is spread with a beautiful fair white linen cloth…

And if you eat the food served here you will never be hungry again. Because the poor man offers the food at this table. And the poor man will serve you, and the poor man’s hands are wounded when he serves you, because the food came at a price, and he paid the price.

The poor man’s name is Jesus, who though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich. And if you sit at his table he will feed you and he will ask you to feed others; he will serve you and he will ask you to serve others; he will love you and he will ask you to love others.”

With this understanding I can stand gladly beside my brother here (the RC Archbishop) and my sister here (the Methodist Chair of District) as a Eucharistic Christian. I can rejoice that Adoremus is here in our city. And I can walk proudly and gladly in the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament tomorrow. I cannot receive that sacrament. But I know and I hope that in attending the Solemn Mass, and in venerating what my friends venerate, I am gathering with them around the table of the poor carpenter where in the end we will all sit and be filled. Thank you.

Tapping into love

First posted on via media.

Last week the General Synod met to address a wide-ranging agenda which included listening to victims and survivors of abuse, debating the Church’s approach to climate change, to appropriate investment in (or disinvestment from) energy companies, to nuclear weapons, and a large raft of legislative business. In and among all this a debate on evangelism, built around the final report of the Archbishops’ Evangelism Task Group, was squeezed out and will be debated at a future Synod, hopefully and presumably in February 2019.

This was a pity, not least for those of us who had prepared for the debate and had written the report on which it was to be based.

I need to declare an interest in all this, as I served as vice-chair of the Evangelism Task Group (ETG), under the chairmanship of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I’m so glad to have been asked to serve on the ETG and to have worked with an outstanding group of colleagues from all traditions, whose presence on the group at different times blessed the whole Church. I thank God for every single one of them, and I thank God that in our Church there is a place at the table for them all, for as long as they wish to stay in the room, or to re-enter the room if they’ve left it, so that wisdom and grace may abound.

The motion on evangelism which the Synod hoped to debate asked the national officers of the Church to continue their work of resourcing and supporting Christians in their sharing of the good news of Jesus. This was an excellent thing, as far as I was concerned. I served for six years as the National Mission and Evangelism Adviser in our Church of England, and I am proud to have done so and to have tried to make a difference from that position. I continue to value the work of national officers and of the new and expanded Evangelism and Discipleship Team. So I would have supported the Synod motion.

But as I have reflected on the non-debate, and on the undebated motion, I find myself worrying that it might have deceived the Church into believing that the responsibility for evangelism lies solely with Church House teams and officers and diocesan staff, as if without nationally smart ideas no evangelism can be expected to take place.

It is not so. Evangelism is simple if you do it, as Archbishop Moon Hing said to the Synod from his own experience in Asia. Evangelism happens when people talk. It happens when people talk. Evangelism cannot be delegated upwards. It takes place between friends, across kitchen tables and at school gates and in workplaces, when Christians listen to the ones they know and talk to them about Jesus.

Evangelism, the sharing of good news, happens most especially when there is love; that is when the redemptive love of Jesus is shared by people who have been redeemed, and who (you might say) love large.

Outstandingly the most significant single example of commending the faith in recent memory is the sermon preached by the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church at the Royal Wedding. Bishop Michael communicated his humanity and he told the couple, and 1,900 million people besides, that there was power in love, and that Christians were people committed to redemptive love and to justice.

As the Archbishop of York said at the Synod, this came as welcome news to the world. Millions of people did not know that Christian preachers could be human, and they did not know that the Christian faith was about love. Repeatedly in newspapers and magazines Bishop Curry’s message was described as “unorthodox”. Since then, preachers have been invited to be like Bishop Curry. I agree that we should be like Bishop Curry, if that means we communicate who we are as beloved children of God (not pretending to be who he is!) and talk about the love that has made us beloved. As the man said, there’s power in love.

Evangelism is a long, churchy word, and love is a short, everyday one. Evangelism is a blah blah word and love is a real word. I’m afraid people expect blah blah from church people. They don’t expect Christians to talk about love. They think it’s unorthodox. That is a sadness and an indictment of course, but let’s not be too gloomy. We beat ourselves up too much as it is. Instead, let’s look on the bright side;  when we talk about the power of love then people are surprised and they want to hear it. People are glad that love is real. Isn’t that great?

The Washington Post was one of hundreds among the media that reported positively on Bishop Curry’s sermon. This is what they said:

“Based on social media, the reaction to Curry’s sermon showed that it was incredibly well-received, especially by black Americans. But emphasizing the power of love seemed to resonate across countries, races and even political views perhaps because such a unifying message is rarely shared so prominently. And it also possibly connected because the current times are politically divisive, and even violent.

Curry spoke for an alternative:

“Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way,” he said. “Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive.”

There is a lot to take away from Saturday’s ceremony, and there will be numerous pieces reflecting on it. But the component of the day that had the greatest potential to connect is that hate will never be an effective approach to righting societal ills. Therefore, tapping into love is worth a try.”

Tapping into love is worth a try, the love that’s “unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive”; as we would say the unique love of Christ that saves the world. Churches that speak of this love are like sprinkler systems on a parched lawn. Suddenly the dry and brown grass becomes green again. Suddenly the dry, harsh, misrepresented, half-forgotten Christian narrative makes sense again. Suddenly the ones on the edge of things realise that they are included. Love makes things work. Love large; love is big. Dante hit the bullseye when he said that it is love that moves the sun and the other stars. Love is as big as it gets. In short God is love, and Jesus is the word of God. As Brian Zahnd puts it, Jesus is what God has to say.

But we must, must, must be clear; if we live as Jesus people and say what God has to say, if we tap into love as the way God is, then people will expect to see love as the way we are.

In his Presidential Address at the recent Synod the Archbishop of York specifically and explicitly reminded the Church that its leaders have committed it to a radical new Christian inclusion. Each of those four words matters. No one of them cancels out the other three. Together they speak of a deeply rooted and refreshed welcome within a changed and changing world. Together they speak of love. There’s power in love.

Becoming a community marked by radical Chrisian inclusion has not been postponed until 2020, or even till next week. Our Archbishops have called us to it now, today, this moment, this breath; this welcome. There will be no evangelism without it. If it’s not radical, not new, not Christian, not inclusion, then it’s not good enough.

In my own Diocese we have a rule of life and each person who commits to it will be committed to prayer and to reading scripture and to living justice and to generosity, but they will also be committed to bringing one friend into the conscious company of Jesus each year. Talking to one, listening to one, bringing one. If that happens it will be because of love, radical, new, Christian, inclusive love, and where that is seen there will be evangelism. There’s power in love.

Can we then democratise evangelism, a radical, new, Christian, inclusive evangelism? Between friends and across kitchen tables and at school gates and in workplaces, can we speak of the love that is for all, of the power of love to embrace and to bless and to redeem the world? Can we tap into Jesus’ love? It’s worth a try.

Rule of life: practical steps

Over the past six posts I’ve looked briefly at each of the six dimensions of our Rule of Life. I’ve tried to suggest what it might mean in each of these dimensions to live as a disciple in the Diocese of Liverpool, as we make the inner and the outer journey together.

Here at the end of the series, and before the Summer break overtakes us all, I just wanted to make some practical suggestions for you to consider and perhaps to include in your daily and weekly routine. As with everything in the Rule of Life, let me say clearly that these suggestions are not a whole new initiative for you to pile on top of what you’re already doing. Instead of that, here are six simple suggestions for now which will help you take your place with the 60,000 other disciples in the Diocese as a practical follower of Jesus.

1.      Called to Pray.
Say the Lord’s Prayer each day. If you already pray the Lord’s Prayer as part of your daily pattern, this is great.

Before you pray it, simply say something like this in your heart: “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool and across the world, as our Saviour has taught us, so we pray…”

2.      Called to Read.
Read a short passage from the Bible each day. Some will want to use the daily readings set by the church. There are many other reading plans, and in the next week or so I shall be offering my “Called to read: Summer challenge”, which will recommend a book of the Bible and a commentary (if it helps) for you to read over the Summer.

Before you start reading, simply say something like this in your heart: “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool and across the world, I open my heart to God’s inspired Word.”

3.      Called to Learn.
Commit yourself to finding other people in your church, school, fresh expression or chaplaincy who want to learn together. Learning happens when we meet others, whether in person, or in the pages of a book, or online.

If you’re already in a house-group, study group or similar, simply continue. If not, talk to your church leaders about the right way to join a group.

Before you study, simply say something like this in your heart:  “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool and across the world, we commit ourselves to learn from Jesus though His Church.”

4.      Sent to Tell.
As a disciple you will want to see more people knowing Jesus. Commit yourself to bringing one friend to church each year, and to speaking to them about your faith as and when the moment comes. Pray that you will know the right moment to invite that person.

As you pray about who to bring, simply say something like this in your heart: “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool and across the world, I commit myself to sharing my faith with another person.”

5      Sent to Serve.
As a disciple you will want to see more justice in the world. Commit yourself to doing ten things each year that will contribute to the common good. These may include volunteering for a charity, visiting a neighbour who is unwell or housebound, campaigning on behalf of people on the edge of things, and many others. Pray that you will know the right things to do.

As you pray about what to do for justice, simply say something like this in your heart: “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool and across the world, I commit myself to work so that God’s Kingdom may come closer.”

6     Sent to Give.
As a disciple you will want to give your time, your talents and your material resources so that God’s work may go forward. Commit yourself to a generous lifestyle that will help and bless others.

As you pray about how to live the generous life, simply say something like this in your heart: “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool and across the world, I will seek the right way to give back to God what God has given me.”

None of this is rocket science. But if we make these simple beginnings I believe we will be sharing in God’s work in the Diocese and beyond. Resources and materials will be made available to us all over the next few months. Meanwhile, may God bless you as you take these simple steps.

Rule of Life: sent to give

Called to pray, read and learn. Sent to tell, serve and give.

In his book “Arabian Sands”, an account of his travels among the Bedu (Bedouin), the nomadic people of what is now Saudi Arabia, Wilfrid Thesiger tells the following story:

Two days later an old man came into our camp. He was limping, and even by Bedu standards he looked poor… [My companions] pressed forward to greet him: “Long life to you, uncle. Welcome – welcome a hundred times.”

I wondered at the warmth of their greetings. The old man lowered himself upon the rug they had spread for him… while they hurried to blow up the fire and to make coffee. I thought, “He looks a proper old beggar. I bet he asks for something”.
Later in the evening he did and I gave him five riyals, but by then I had changed my opinion. Bin Kabina said to me: “He is of the tribe of the Bait Imani, and famous”.
I asked, “What for?” and he answered, “His generosity”. I said, “I should not have thought he owned anything to be generous with”, and bin Kabina said, “He hasn’t now. He hasn’t got a single camel. Once he was one of the richest men in the tribe, now he has nothing except a few goats”.
I asked: “What happened to his camels? Did raiders take them, or did they die of disease?” and bin Kabina answered, “No. His generosity ruined him. No one ever came to his tents but he killed a camel to feed them. By God, he is generous!”
I could hear the envy in his voice.

The capacity to give without reserve is not common, even among people like the Bedu who value giving. How much more difficult is it to be a person of generosity in a culture where giving is not valued; where increasing what you have is valued more. In 2016 when Hillary Clinton said that her Republican rival Donald Trump had paid no federal income tax in some years, Trump didn’t deny it. He said: “That makes me smart.” He was elected for many reasons, but his generosity was not one of them.

In our Rule of Life we believe that God calls us to pray, and read, and learn; and sends us to tell, and serve, and give. We want to live that way. On the inner and the outer journey each and all of the six dimensions is important, And “sent to give” may be last, but it is not least.

A generous lifestyle is profoundly counter-cultural and gospel-centred, in the spirit of the Lord Jesus: “Although he was rich, he became poor for our sakes, so that you could become rich through his poverty.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) Our Rule of Life reaches into every aspect of our lives, including the use of our time, our talents and our money – and giving each and all of these is not least in our Rule.

It is important not to avoid the reality of the call to be generous, nor the call to establish a culture in the Church where generosity is valued as highly as it was among the Bedu in Thesiger’s story. The phrase “time, talents and money” recalls many a stewardship campaign, and catches well the breadth of the giving we are sent to perform. But holding all these three aspects together is the generous life, as a response to our generous God. We are sent to give; in other words giving is part of our mission. It does us good to give since it detaches us from an addiction to “our” time or talents or money. And it does the world good if we give these things, in the service of the common good.

At the beginning of this brief series I asked you to embrace the life of prayer and to begin each Lord’s Prayer by saying in your heart: “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool, as our Saviour taught us so we pray…”. In the same way now I ask you to embrace the generous life, and when you give your time or your skills or your resources, to say in your heart: “Together with all disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool, I thank God for what I have received, and I offer it for the needs of the world God loves”.

As my brief introductory reflections on the Rule of Life come to a close, let me repeat again that in the next few months we will be offering resources for those who need them, in this area of giving as much as in any other of our six areas.

In the meantime, please keep things simple. Align your life with the purposes of our Diocese within the framework of your parish, or school, or fresh expression, or chaplaincy. And may God bless you as together with the 60,000+ people in our Diocesan family you make this Rule your own. You are called to an inner journey; called to pray, read and learn. You are sent on an outer journey; sent to tell, serve and give. May God bless you as you set out on these journeys once again.

Rule of Life: sent to serve…

Called to pray, read and learn. Sent to tell, serve and give.

Above the doorbell in the porch here at Bishop’s Lodge is a tile, with words from Adrienne von Speyr.  It reads “Holiness in the Church is always service”. I wanted these words to greet visitors to this house, and to nudge me each time I came home myself.

“Holiness in the Church is always service”. The inner journey and the outer journey are closely linked and are often indistinguishable. We are called and sent to serve the world God loves, and in particular to serve those who for whatever reason are on the edge of things. And so I hope that each individual disciple in the Diocese of Liverpool, and each one of our parishes, schools, fresh expressions and chaplaincies, will have a clear sense of what it is that they are doing, and can do, to act as servants.

I write this in the week of our deacons’ ordinations. Fourteen women and men will be ordained on Sunday, and in the Cathedral, I shall speak the words of the ordination service and say among other things: “In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of his kingdom.” And I’ll point the congregation to the example of our Lord Jesus, “…as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.”

Jesus was not falsely modest; he knew himself as God’s beloved child, and he knew the love of his Father as an infinite reality. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’” he said to his disciples, “and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do.” And he went on, “I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.”(John 13:13-17)

“You will be happy if you do them.” Serving the world God loves can be done in millions of ways, some tiny and fleeting and others involving the offering of your whole life. As with every aspect of our Rule of Life, I do not want to prescribe or limit what our 60,000 disciples can do.

So I simply ask each disciple to “do ten things” in this coming year as acts of service. Ten things? What things? Well, that depends entirely on where God has put you. Just a few examples, then – and none of them may apply to you. So one of these things may be a regular commitment to visit and help a housebound neighbour, or to telephone a lonely friend, or to join a political party and advocate for the kingdom’s values, or to volunteer at your local foodbank or debt advice centre. You will know what you can do, and what the world needs from you.

In the coming months, as with every aspect of our Rule of Life, we’ll be offering resources and suggestions to help you in your service – to help you in your mission to see more justice in the world. But for now it’s enough to take stock of what you’re already doing, and perhaps to add one or two more. Why not talk to others in your community about what might help most?

Do ten things. There will be no penalty if you do eleven! But since holiness in the Church is always service, as disciples in the Diocese of Liverpool our commitment to draw close to the Lord Jesus must issue in action; so do ten things, as you are sent to serve.

Rule of life: sent to tell…

Called to pray, read and learn. Sent to tell, serve and give.

As a student I used to take the bus to college. As I was standing at the bus stop with my friend Tony, we had a ringside view of a traffic accident – nothing serious, just one of those slow-motion shunts that happen regularly in any city. We gave our names to the drivers, and a week or two later we received witness-statement forms to complete. After we’d done so, we compared notes, and found that our accounts differed substantially. Neither of us thought that this was a problem. We argued the toss over a coffee, and then we sent our forms off and thought no more about it. We didn’t amend or change what we had written, because we had been asked to give an account as we remembered it. We were not advocates for one or other point of view. We were witnesses.

Being a witness is not a stressful occupation. All you have to do is say what you have seen and heard, as it seems to you. If others have a different perspective, so be it. 

In the Bible the experience is the same. 

1 John begins: “We announce to you what existed from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have seen and our hands handled, about the word of life. The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete. 

In 2 Peter the writer says: “[Jesus] received honour and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, ‘This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.

In the Diocese of Liverpool we’re asking God for a bigger church so that we can make a bigger difference, and we say “More people knowing Jesus, more justice in the world”. And if you choose to be a disciple, and to follow our Diocesan Rule of Life, then among other things you are sent by God to be a witness, in the places you know and to the people you know. More people will know Jesus, as you witness to him. They don’t need to be impressed, and they don’t need to be persuaded. It is the Holy Spirit who impresses and persuades people; the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin and assures forgiveness; the Holy Spirit who converts people to Christ. 

They don’t need to be impressed, and they don’t need to be persuaded. But they do need to be told. God has arranged the world that way.

In Romans St Paul says this: 

All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.  But how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent…?

Some are sent to preach, but all are sent to witness. In 1 Peter the writer says this, and he writes for all in his church: “Always be ready with an explanation for anyone who asks you why it is that you’re so hopeful.” Being ready with an explanation, when the witness-statement is requested; that’s a core part of any disciple’s life.

As with every dimension of our Rule of Life, I will be pointing in future weeks to some of the wonderful resources and tools that every part of the Church has developed – resources to help people tell their friends about their faith and about their Lord. But in this short piece, as you’ve seen, I just want to underline two things. Firstly, if you’re a disciple then you’re sent to tell others as a witness would. And secondly, being a witness is easy and light. God asks you to give what you have, not what you don’t have.

Some people worry that they’d better have all the answers ready before they dare admit to being a Christian. Good luck with that. Some of the simplest questions – a child’s questions – can’t be answered snappily and glibly. If they are answered that way, the answers will not be believed, and will not deserve to be believed. If a six-year-old asks “Why did my granny have to die?” or if a sixty-year-old asks “Why are people suffering if God is good?” then the mystery of existence opens up right in front of you. And yes, great minds have thought about this and great books have been written to explore and advocate the answers. But for a witness the response can be as simple as “I don’t know. Life’s a mystery to me too. But what I do know is that God is real, and God’s love makes a difference to me, and I meet other Christians to worship God and to help people all I can”. And in the moment of witnessing, God will take your answer – yes, yours; your own, honest answer – and will use it to grow the church.

Being ready with an explanation. Being sent to tell, and to be honest, and to bring your friend to meet God and to meet God’s people. That’s part of our Rule of Life. I shall pray for you, and I ask your prayers for me, as we do that together.

Rule of Life: called to… learn …

Called to pray, read and learn. Sent to tell, serve and give.

Our Rule of Life tries to point towards a rhythm, like breathing, that will focus our lives as disciples in worship and mission. Called…Sent…Called…Sent… – the inner and the outer journeys which enrich and complement one another as together they move us forward in the life of the Spirit.

We’re called to pray, and called to read, as I wrote over the past couple of weeks. In the first instance called to pray the Lord’s Prayer, and to read Holy Scripture. As a daily rule, these things are often – though not always – solitary activities. But when I speak of being called to learn I’m pointing to something that happens in community.

You can find wisdom about learning in many places. The silent cowboy-movie star, Tom Mix, is reported to have said: “If you’re talkin’, you ain’t learnin’”. The Rule of St Benedict begins with the word “Listen”. In my own family those of us who talked too much were silenced by my Grandma who would point to her face and say “Oi. Remember. Two ears, one mouth”.

Learning, then, begins in listening, but it doesn’t end there. The tremendous and richly-deserved success of the Alpha Course, and of other courses like it, depend on the opportunity to hear significant teaching – and then to be able to question it, to engage in dialogue, to put our point of view, to bring our own insights to the party, to have our questions answered and to ask new ones, in short to have a conversation. 

As a parish priest I used to worry about the people we called “Alpha-holics”, who wanted to do Alpha over and over again rather than coming to church on a Sunday. It was only over time that I came to see that they wanted dialogue and conversation as a normal part of the Christian journey, and that our regular patterns of worship and life gave them no opportunity for that. When the BBC Sunday Programme went on to the streets of Manchester a few years ago, to interview young people about “Back to Church Sunday” the responses were not encouraging: “I’m not going back to church if it means I have to sit quietly while some vicar rabbits on and I can’t even ask questions”. It was a fair point, and it presents us with a challenge. To be a learning people means to be a people in conversation, and whether or not it’s on a Sunday morning, we need to make space for conversation in our weekly rhythm as Jesus people if we are to grow.

The Gospels are full of dialogue, as the disciples share their own thoughts and reflections in response to the words of Jesus, and as Jesus gives them time and space to share. “Lord, how many times…?” “Never, Lord!”, “Lord, tell my brother…” – all these and so many others become openings for Jesus to respond, and teach in conversation, and for his followers to learn by listening and speaking and listening again.

In my work for the national Church, which began over fifteen years ago, we undertook research which made it clear that if a church provided opportunities for this listening-speaking-listening rhythm then its people grew in faith, and that churches that grew in numbers were almost always providing these opportunities regularly. As the Rule of Life unfolds I’ll be looking at the application of this principle to our evangelism, as we find ourselves sent to tell. But here at the beginning of the journey I simply want to encourage you to find a regular opportunity to listen, and speak, and listen – where you are.

Many of our parish churches have a network of small groups, set up for discussion or bible study or friendship, often combined with worship and (of course) with a cup of tea. For others the regular organisations of the Church – for example the Mothers’ Union branch – provides the same opportunity. In our schools, dialogue and conversation is a central part of the teaching process. In our chaplaincies, the opportunity to ask questions and to hear opinions is greatly valued by those who encounter the chaplains in the course of their everyday lives. All these moments are to be treasured and developed, as we become a community of learning.

Listen-speak-listen. If you are already doing this, simply continue, knowing that tens of thousands of others across the Diocese are doing the same thing in all their different ways. If you’re not, why not begin? Talk with your friends and with the lay and ordained leaders of your community about the best way to start those conversations weekly, and to learn together.

Once again we will be providing resources in the coming months to enable this learning, for those who will find them helpful. But there will be no pressure to use any particular ones. As with all the aspects of the Rule of Life, I’m asking you to make your own sense of this in the place where you are. Not an additional burden on time and energy, but an intentional desire to receive from God the treasure of wisdom that the Spirit has placed in the church, and in the wonderful and rich experience of our friends who also pray and read and learn together.

And when you meet your friends to learn, whether over coffee for ten minutes, or in a house group for an evening, or in your church’s nurture course, or wherever, just begin your meeting by saying quietly in your heart or aloud: “As disciples together in the Diocese of Liverpool and around the world, we learn from our God who loves us and who gives us one another…”