I’ve crafted myself a more comfortable cross…

 

A few weeks ago a friend of mine tweeted about whether God really called more clergy to the South East than the North East or whether we were being deaf to God’s call. Lots of people objected strongly… which is lovely but not entirely reassuring, and has left me thinking about whether we are, whether I am, really taking up the cross that Jesus commands me to carry.

This is not just a vicar-thing, though, that is just an example of something that challenges all who seek to follow our radical missionary, homeless, crucified Christ. There is a deeply challenging line in one of Matt Redman’s songs which says ‘I’ve given like a beggar but lived like the rich, and crafted myself a more comfortable cross. Yet what I am called to is deeper than this…’

And before people object let me say that the North-South thing is simply the prompt which has got me thinking about this, not least because the same bias is true of richer and poorer churches and often of bigger and smaller churches too. It is perfectly possible to serve Christ sacrificially in a rich, safe, familiar environment which is close to family and friends. It’s just that when everyone does that there seems to be an underlying and concerning truth at work which we need to address if we are to be faithful. For here is the thing that has really challenged me: it seems to me that I am often blind to the ways I struggle most to follow Christ faithfully. I can see the struggle in others, but make excuses when it comes to me.

To return to my example: the fact is that church jobs in the South East have many times more applicants than a similar job in the North. One comparison between dioceses showed that there were, on average, seven applicants for a Southern job for every one who applied in the North. There are fantastic parishes up in the North East that go through three-year vacancies because no-one will come and serve here. There is a problem here!

Consider Cramlington, for example. Here is a great example of Church Planting in a town which will soon be the largest town in Northumberland. It has fantastic congregations with able and willing local leadership. There is youth work happening across the town. There are two church plants meeting. The building is in good order, flexible, and attractive. The missional opportunities abound. The diocese has an assistant curate ready to place in the parish, and money set aside for a Team Vicar to be appointed in consultation with the new Team Rector… but for two years we have been unable to recruit an incumbent and I am baffled as to why: I would love to do the job!

Every time Northern Bishops like me say things like this, people say that they would love to come and do a job like this, but they are tied to family, or schools, or friendship networks. All of this is true, and I understand it, but I don’t find it in the Bible, or in the bits of Church History that I admire. From Abraham’s time onwards God’s people have been told to leave what is familiar and go where God tells them. Jesus’ own model in this is very clear: ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head’ (Lk 9.58). I believe that missionaries setting out for the mission field used to pack their belongings in a coffin as that was what they expected to journey home in…

… and this is what we should expect from a people whose Lord and Master tells them to take up their cross and follow.

The reality, though, is that we don’t take easily to this type of followership, whoever we are. We struggle to lay down our lives and follow, even when it is Christ we are following. As the old saying goes ‘The problem with being a living sacrifice is that it is all to easy to get up and wander off!’ It’s easy to point out the geographical bias of clergy application, but the challenge is there for all of us. And of course, this is a tragedy as what we always find is that serving Christ is actually the way to perfect freedom. It is when we lose our life to Him that we find we have life more abundantly than we can imagine. We take up a cross expecting crucifixion and discover that we actually receive peace, hope, and love more rich and free than we had every known was possible.

Whether you are ordained or not, what is God calling you to this week which you are finding difficult? He knows, He understands, and He will help… but he’ll never force you: the step of trusting obedience is yours to take…

Eternal God,
the light of the minds that know you,
the joy of the hearts that love you,
and the strength of the wills that serve you:
grant us so to know you
that we may truly love you,
so to love you that we may truly serve you,
whose service is perfect freedom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

(after Augustine of Hippo (430) and quoted in this form from Common Worship)

 

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13 thoughts on “I’ve crafted myself a more comfortable cross…

  1. Dear Bishop Mark, this is all very worthy and commendable, and it has to be said that those of us in the outermost reaches of the north very often feel ignored and sidelined. When it was announced that a Suffragan Bishop of Berwick was to be appointed, but that he or she would be based in the cosiness of the southern part of the county, some of us wrote to Bishop Christine to plead for the location of that individual to be here, in the north, and within reach of Berwick. We were, frankly, fobbed off with a lot of platitudes and the excuse that you were more needed in the south of the diocese, and that the Suffragan Bishop of Berwick was just a titular device to allow recruitment from a wider pool (and probably at less cost to the Diocese). Your presence in the southern reaches was justified by transport links, population numbers and other things which I have frankly forgotten and which, in all honesty, are lame excuses in an age when motor cars abound and the internet is fed into practically every home. But it remains a truth that in these northern outreaches, which were good enough for Aidan and Cuthbert and the carrying of their crosses, Christ’s people feel forgotten and of less value. If you would like more clergy to move north, lead by example. Pick up your cross and carry it up here – it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as might be expected.

    I should probably say at this point that the views expressed are my own. But I know they are shared by many people in north Northumberland.

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    1. Thank you for this, Phyl. I understand this feeling and look forward to discussing this further with you when I am in Belford. I am proud to be associated with Berwick and with the whole diocese that I am called to serve. To be honest, though, being North either in the Country or the Diocese) doesn’t feel much like a cross to me, which is why the point of the blog is about the challenges we each face rather than primarily about North/South.
      (For the sake of information readers might like to note that the Diocese houses me in an ex-pit village 15 miles North of Newcastle so it takes me an hour to get to the South East and South West of the Diocese, and an hour to get to the North.)

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      1. Thank you for replying. I appreciate it. Right now there are conversations being held within Northumberland about the challenges faced by our rural communities, which are starved of many things – employment for one, although there is plenty of employment up here for clergy! Perhaps one of the challenges which the Church faces is getting across its message – whether it is the message of the Gospels, or marketing the job opportunities it has on offer in order to make that Good News available to all communities. Our rural parishes struggle on so many fronts: meeting substantial parish share commitments with declining congregations, maintaining church buildings which are part of the nation’s heritage, and having to deal with the fact that there are currently not enough clergy to look after existing congregations or to engage in the work of building new ones – we understand very well what it is to be challenged. In this corner of the world our clergy are stretched between multiple parishes which cover large geographical areas, which is also very challenging. If not enough ordained/licensed people are coming forward to fill those vacancies which exist it might just be possible that the Church needs to do more to make them appealing – more support for rural clergy instead of less, and less; more education about the quality of life to be had here; and perhaps the odd reminder that those fortunate enough to plant themselves in our communities are being given the great privilege of walking in the footsteps of the saints. We should reasonably be able to expect that our clergy are people of real vocation, and not in post for material benefits or power or position. And finally, clergy and readers have to be trained, so it is dispiriting that the future of the delivery of training via the LRTP at Church House in North Shields is under threat. Those of us who study there as independent students are unlikely to continue if the provision is removed to Cranmer Hall in Durham, wonderful though that may be. Home grown clergy are far more likely to appreciate the blessings of what they have on their doorsteps. The Church certainly does face many challenges – we are not oblivious to them, not even at this distance. I look forward to seeing you in Belford – you are very welcome to come here at any time!

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  2. Thanks Mark for this reminder that God doesn’t necessarily call us to be located near family and friendship networks – we so wanted to for curacy be nearer family but it didn’t work out and Liverpool has been EXACTLY the right place for us and God has provided us with friends and actually our friendships we made at college have thrived under the extended distances. Now hoping to stay up North – but part of that is our own selfish love of the North, Northerners and that our clergy friends are predominately in the North so this blog was a reminder to be open to God wherever He leads us next, in a few years time. Thanks.

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  3. Thank you for this post. Just to add to what the previous writer testified. My husband has just served 30 years in the ministry. He is from Kent and I am from Suffolk . In 1983 we moved ‘north ‘ to Nottingham for him to train for the ministry fulling expecting to return to Suffolk for his first Curacy. It wasn’t to be as God had other plans. Despite being offered two curacies in Suffolk we just didn’t feel right about them and we ended up in Stockport! With a brief 4 years in Tunbridge Wells we have served the Lord in the Midlands/North. Our parents missed their grandchildren growing up in many ways…it was a good 5 hour journey…and it was hard at times but God has blessed us with other ‘family’. Thankfully we have other family near our now ageing relatives. I am not saying it is an easy decision but just want to testify to the faithfulness of God. Also who really wants to live in the South east!!! The North is fabulous!

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  4. Great post Mark. It certainly pricked my conscience. I take the deeper point about struggling to lay down your lives but in terms of finding clergy for northern churches, I think the big challenge is recruitment. I am glad the C of E is setting a bold target to recruit more clergy, but she needs to examine why recruitment has been poor (and still unsustainably low) and why clergy leave the ministry – a fair number of people I trained with have left.

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  5. Two points, if I may.

    1. You say: “for two years we have been unable to recruit an incumbent and I am baffled as to why: I would love to do the job!” So why not do it? I’m sure they’ll fill your post OK. 😉 “Lord, here I am; send someone else!”

    2. I hate to say this but I think housing is an issue. A Vicar in London / Home Counties / South / Nice University Town gets a house worth £2, £3 or £4k pcm. That’s a lot of money and amounts to some parish priests being better paid than some bishops. (!) If that Vicar’s spouse also works then that’s a massive subsidy to live somewhere with higher wages (because of higher costs of living, inc. housing.) The simple thing is to pay more in some places / for some jobs and/or less in some places / for some jobs. If clergy are being led by the market and not by the Spirit then play them at their own game.

    (Full disclosure: I am a Vicar in an ordinary working-class town in the Midlands but I come from a nice middle-class background in the Cotswolds. My parish has areas of real deprivation and poverty but I went where I thought / felt God was calling me. I’m not a martyr or saint — except in the strict senses of those words — and I’m not bragging: it’s not like I’ve gone to Pakistan or somewhere dirty and dangerous.)

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  6. A good reflection with some challenge and food for thought. I’d love to do the job too, but somehow have never seen it advertised (two years you say?).

    I do have to say that my experience has been much moaning about it being grim up North (East) because, “No one wants to come,” and yet there is a North/South divide working against those heading North in the heads of some on both sides. I was saddened to be told how cold and arrogant and awful people from London are – especially as it was being said by more than a few members of a NE church to a Sourthern origin potential incumbent.

    But divides? North/South, Richer and Poorer, Male/Female, High/Low/Charismatic . . . Lines are found on maps and in heads and hearts but rarely on the ground. How often we miss the heartbeat desire of Jesus. the Christ, that we would be one and He and the Father are one. We seek the buzz of the metropolis and as one young cleric out it, “The excitement of a place that will enable me to shape my career!” And there was me thinking I had a calling!

    Seem bishops have a job ahead of them educating the clergy to see the mission field and the ministry in a different way, That which I work to get recognised and owned as vocations are tested appears to be getting lost somewhere between selection and title posts being served.

    And of course family location influences some more than other – we go where we go as a family seeking to follow the call – made it fun thus far.

    Can’t think of a more challenging and inspiring area than your patch. Praying for you and your work and the people you pastor: And Cramlington too of course.

    Thanks for the blog,

    V

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  7. As someone that has ministered in the comfortable South (but with a fair few years in a not so comfortable part of it) I now work with ordinands as a bishop and am sometimes told “Lord I will follow you anywhere there is a Waitrose” (which I point out does, actually, include Sheffield). Thank you for helping to resource a better conversation!

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  8. Thanks +Mark – and we have a similar issue in Norfolk – as you indicate this is not just a north / south issue. For us, the perception is that Norfolk is the back of beyond (but it is a popular retirement location!)

    I am sometimes taken aback by the lack of sense of servant ministry among ordinands – there was a story circulating in Manchester diocese when I served there of a curate talking to a bishop about the move to a next post (incumbent level) who said ‘I really need to serve in a large and thriving charismatic church or my talents will be wasted.’ The bishop allegedly replied ‘It’s been lovely having you serve here as a curate. Goodbye.’ or ‘We have no posts for someone like you.’ (Depending on which version of the story you heard.)

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