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Fruit we can’t begin to imagine

Bishop Andrew Proud has seen the deep change Partnership for Missional Church provokes and has become a champion of the process. A cluster of churches in his area are now almost halfway through this three-year journey of discovering and joining in with what God is doing in their community. He spoke to Jeremy Woodham of Church Mission Society, which recently began hosting and running Partnership for Missional Church in the UK.

JW: What makes Partnership for Missional Church different from other things on offer?

AP: What makes Partnership for Missional Church different is that it is not a take-offthe-shelf programme that you can complete in six months but a much more organic, intuitive thing. It is something you need to keep working on and as you work on it, it is going to change you.

The church as a whole needs Partnership for Missional Church because we’re in a sticky position. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that for the first time the numbers of people attending church in our country is below a million and in 30 years that’s going to halve.

"I think we'll see fruit we can't begin to imagine"

We’re not going to be able to sustain ministry and mission as we have at the moment in every place. I think there will still be presence in every place and we’ll find new ways of making that presence happen. We’re going to need to be thinking differently about ministry for mission. Partnership for Missional Church is to my mind just the process that we need to engage a changing environment where we don’t know what the future is going to look like in five years’ time, let alone 10.

Why are you so enthusiastic about the Partnership for Missional Church process?

I’m enthusiastic about Partnership for Missional Church because it’s aimed at getting deep culture change in a congregation – it’s not a quick fix – and I’m enthusiastic because of the change I’ve seen in me and in the people around me who have been part of the journey.

One of the spiritual disciplines of Partnership for Missional Church is Dwelling in the Word, a little bit like lectio divina, where you focus on a passage of scripture [reflecting and meditating rather than analysing] but the idea of Dwelling in the Word is that every time you meet you use the same passage [for an entire year]. So you dwell in the word until the word begins to dwell in you.

We decided to use this at area deans’ meetings and area team meetings. We began to notice that the quality of our conversations changed and the things we wanted to talk about changed. So instead of – with area deans – constantly talking about insurance and downpipes and gutters, we wanted to start talking about the stuff that really mattered to us.

Embarking on the Partnership for Missional Church journey takes at least three years. What would you say to people who say that is too long?

I would say that actually it’s worth every month of those three years. I would want to say that I understand your desire to see something happen more quickly: we’re concerned about the numbers, we all want to leave a legacy of growth and I understand all of those drivers, but actually if you can sit with this process, let yourself be shaped through it – not by it but through it – and allow God to do what God wants to do I think we will see fruits that we can’t begin to imagine.

What change have you seen practically and spiritually so far?

The change I have seen so far is in the quality of the conversations that we have when we dwell in the word together, when we talk about God at work together. People are talking theologically in a way in which they never imagined that they could. We are seeing lay people growing in confidence, talking about what they are seeing God doing.

Looking forward, how do you hope Partnership for Missional Church will change the church at large?

My hope is to see confident churches where the lay people’s ministries are of equal importance to that of the clergy, congregations that are outward looking, that are working beyond the walls of their churches with people in the local community who like them want to make a difference – and recognising that God is deeply involved with all of that and to see these people rejoicing that they are doing what God is doing.

My hope for the communities around the church is to discover a new sense of hope and purpose: to be less anxious about things like isolation and identity and discover a stronger sense of who they really are.

One of the lovely things about Partnership for Missional Church is that it focuses on us as Christians remembering whose we are; I think one of our key missional tasks as a church is to help people beyond the walls of the church to discover what it means to be truly human.

I think the result is going to look different in every place where God’s people are growing and flourishing. I am just trusting that it’s going to be good.

Do you think it will help the church as a whole refocus for mission?

I really believe it’s got to. Not in the sense that we are investing so much in it that if it doesn’t, it will be disappointing. But because if we are seeing transformed churches through deep culture change, then we’re going to see a laity growing in confidence, a clergy who are prepared to let go and to encourage. As neighbouring congregations see that taking place, as they begin to ask if it could happen where they are and people begin to seek opportunities to be on a similar journey, I can’t imagine how that can have anything other than a positive impact for mission across the church more widely.

Is Partnership for Missional Church for every church?

I want to say yes because I am passionate about it. But I don’t think it is necessarily. It’s got to be one of a raft of different things that we have to offer to engage more faithfully with what God is doing. And I’m very happy with that. At the moment I’m putting a lot of my effort behind Partnership for Missional Church because it’s fairly new on the scene and because it’s focusing towards those who would think of themselves as being ‘ordinary’ parishes that know they have got to be different, want to be different and are prepared to embark on that journey. If they are prepared to embark on that journey, I’m prepared to walk with them.

You were previously Bishop of the Horn of Africa, and set up the Anglican centre in Gambella, featured in the last issue of The Call. Does this cross cultural experience resonate with Partnership for Missional Church?

We were living in Addis Ababa but most of my work was on the border with South Sudan where Bishop Grant [LeMarquand] is now; Church Mission Society have just sent a couple to go and work with him. We were there providing the resources and structure, if you like, to allow local mission to take place.

Looking back on it, it was important to have rules and regulations and structures but they are containers. They were only useful up to a certain point. Here they seem to define us. But there mission was always bursting out way beyond the structures. People always came to see me when I travelled down to Gambella to say we just discovered another congregation or we just planted another church or we want to go and plant another church because we’ve just discovered a people group that’s moving across the border from South Sudan and they are settling. So God was always at work and coming up in extraordinary and exciting places.

And coming back [to Britain], I felt that it was all happening there, and it wasn’t really happening here. What Partnership for Missional Church is helping me to see is that God is always working for good and he’s as much at work here as he was there; we just have to open our eyes and see what he is doing.