James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38
‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us,’ said James, ‘Make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes ... is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.’
I know someone who entered the teaching profession about 20 years ago and climbed up the slippery pole to become a headteacher, first of a village primary school and then of a large urban primary school on what I suppose we might call a sink estate. He was what the newspapers like to call a super head. He established a groundbreaking rooftop garden, won plaudits from the parents and raised educational standards and rates of attendance.
He had two OFSTED inspections in that time, the first one which was judged to be satisfactory and the last one which was judged - as James says it should be - with greater strictness. He and at least one other teacher were sacked and two others resigned rather than explore new ways of working.
His mistake, and - as James says - all of us make many mistakes, was to fail to raise all of the children in his school to the average level of attainment, which is the expected level for children of their age across the nation. Now you may say that children from tough estates will always perform, on average, less well than the national average. You may also think that in order to have an average level of attainment, some children are likely to rise above it and others are - unfortunately - likely to fall below it. It’s very hard for everyone to be average. But those are now the rules, and headteachers whose children do not at least reach the national average can expect to be judged with great strictness.
Of course you may also be wondering whether this new policy might have something to do with the fact that there is a shortage of headteachers. People are understandably reluctant to stick their heads above the parapet. You can be a super head for three years, and enjoy a super salary to match, but then along will come OFSTED to knock you off your perch!
How would ministers fare, I wonder, in such a rough and tumble world? What if they were only allowed to continue in office so long as their average congregations were going up year on year? What if they were only permitted to continue preaching so long as the congregation could complete a short test on the way out of church summarising the three main points of the sermon? What if, as well as membership increasing, the number of churches in a circuit had to be constantly growing? Most ministers are used to managing decline. What if they were told they had to go out and grow the Church in order to be judged successful?
I think we would see a lot of changes in a world like that - shorter sermons, more use of computer technology so that services were full of pictures and little movies instead of words, more services taking place in converted shops, or in schools and pubs. Ministers would have to take less notice of the people who were already members and spend most of their times reaching out into the community to try to make new members while the existing congregation fended for themselves.
Would we want to be part of a church like that? Truly, honestly? Maybe that’s why it doesn’t happen, nor is it likely to happen, perhaps, unless Michael Gove applies to be the Church’s general secretary.
But then again, the Methodist Church is a bit more ambivalent about this idea than we might care to think. Michael Gove may not yet be at the helm, but there has been at least a half-hearted attempt to learn new, sharper ways of working from the world of business and enterprise. People often say that if the Church were to be run like a business, many of its branches would need to close, and when they say that they’re not necessarily suggesting that it would be a bad thing! But Methodists don’t just talk about a bit of rationalisation here and there. There are also now Fresh Expressions of church, and there’s something called Venture FX too.
You may wonder what exactly Venture FX is. This year Conference was told that it’s a programme designed to target ‘the growing number of people in our society who do not engage to any meaningful extent with Christian faith and the life of the Church.’ It is made up of pioneers whose ‘starting point is the community where they are based and, although they work closely with the wider church and value the “mixed economy” environment, they seek to make disciples of Jesus and form new ecclesial communities in the places where people are’, focusing especially on the under-forties. ‘Mixed economy environment’ and ‘ecclesial communities’: that’s enough jargon to satisfy Michael Gove himself! Venture FX costs quite a lot of money, but Conference has just committed itself to keeping the programme going without any cuts to its funding. The cuts - because there will have to be cuts - will be made elsewhere!
So why is the Church nonetheless ambivalent about embracing the lessons of the market? Because, I suspect, the way businesses are run is a bit too directive. We don’t feel entirely comfortable about adopting the same methods. Captains of industry would understand where James is coming from when he talks about keeping the whole body in check with a bridle, like riders keeping several hundredweight of horse under tight control in the dressage events at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, or like the pilot - or captain - of a great ship setting its direction with a tiny rudder. But is that how we want to run the Church?
It’s also possible for groundbreaking programmes like Venture FX and Fresh Expressions to boast of great exploits when they aren’t really setting on fire the cycle of nature. but instead making only a fairly small dent in our decline. We may choose to employ techniques borrowed from the marketplace but I suspect we’re still wary of the hard sell.
And, whatever James might think, we continue to hope for miracles, don’t we? We hope that one day a whole load of new and probably much younger people will turn up and reinvigorate the life of our existing churches so that they suddenly pour forth the fresh water of new life and growth alongside the more brackish water that we’ve become accustomed to drinking, or that our church will be able to produce olives and figs at the same time, lively modern worship which attracts outsiders sitting snugly alongside more traditional worship which comforts those who have been around for a long while. James says that it ain’t possible, but we continue to hope that it is!
Finally, there’s what Jesus has to say, isn’t there, about success coming out of failure. Peter is a Venture FX kind of person. He’s looking for a messiah in the mould of Elijah or Elisha - a miracle worker who can conjure fire out of the sky, begin and end droughts with the snap of his fingers and even raise the dead. Jesus offers him a messiah who ‘must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and [only then], after three days, rise again.’ He rebukes Peter who, he says, is setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. This encourages us to think that the ways of the Department of Education and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills are not necessarily God’s ways. God’s way is, perhaps a more dogged, less flamboyant, way of living and achieving, which takes on board suffering, and struggle, and decline and baptises them with Jesus’ transforming presence.
And yet Mark juxtaposes the story about what happened at Caesarea Philippi with a saying of Jesus which is perhaps more Venture FX than traditional Methodist. ‘Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ In other words, only by being daring, by trying new things, by stepping out of our comfort zone, can we hope to get to where we’re meant to be going. Jesus does suffer, but he doesn’t submit to suffering as a way of life, but only as a means to an end. His aim - and therefore our aim - is to bring profit to the Kingdom of God, but the right kind of profit.
And therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? Michael Gove aims to get greater profit from the world of education - not necessarily in terms of making money out of it but in terms of getting a better return on his investment. Every school must be at least average, or better than average, and every pupil must attain the average or else what does it profit us to invest in education? The Church aims to make mission more effective, and more profitable, by targeting money towards new ways of being Church so as to engage with younger people by doing something fresh and innovative which excites and attracts new markets. And we struggle to discover what it means to follow a Saviour who calls us to suffering and surrender in order that the whole Church might become more perfect and we might save its life and turn our own loss to profit.