Clergy from parishes across the diocese attended the launch of Connor’s Vision Strategy in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, on Wednesday February 8.
They came from parishes big and small, urban and rural, to hear the Bishop of Connor speak about how the diocese proposed to help them engage with their communities, empower them in their ministry, and enable them to bring about change.
The Rt Rev Alan Abernethy said: “It is time to put together some thoughts on how we go into the future. As a church we have been talking about decline and we are struggling to make sense of what is happening today.”
The launch of the Vision Strategy follows a survey of parishes in Connor Diocese during 2011 which produced a 93 per cent response rate. Plans for a vision strategy were announced at Diocesan Synod last October, and a working group has been meeting to drive the strategy forward.
Speaking at the launch, which was attended by clergy from virtually every parish in Connor, Bishop Alan said that parishes had to work together to tackle problems. “I sat in a rector’s chair for a long time and I know how lonely and isolated it can be,” he said.
“This strategy is not aimed at making life more difficult, but at empowering, encouraging and enabling you in what you have to do and to help you do it together.”
The Vision Strategy, he said, was inspired by the word ‘connections,’ or ‘disconnections.’ “Parishes are often disconnected from the local community,” he said. “When I was growing up everything was church based. How do we now find connections in our own communities?”
The Bishop continued: “We have to discover how we incarnate the presence of Christ in our parishes.”
He outlined three themes to the strategy – engaging culture, empowering ministry and enabling change.
Relating to changing culture, Bishop Alan said the key point was ‘things aren’t the way they used to be.’ The pace of change just in a lifetime has been ‘staggering’ he said, but added that there are people looking for a spiritual but not religious life. “How do we engage with that?” the Bishop asked.
“People are looking for a connection with God and there is a real need for the church to engage with that culture so people see something they want to be part of. We cannot run away, as we have in the past, and hide in our spiritual sanctimonious bubble.”
Bishop Alan outlined ways of empowering clergy in their ministry. These included Quiet Days and a clergy conference later this year. He urged clergy to do things creatively in their parishes, adding: “Our parish structures cannot continue with a just clergy ministry.”
Bishop Alan admitted that making change was ‘very, very difficult’ but stressed that change was going to happen. “We need to find ways to manage change carefully,” he said.
Looking ahead, Bishop Alan said he would be addressing the subject of the Gospel and Culture today in his three Lent seminars. After Easter, he will visit every Rural Deanery to share this vision with all parishes and their select vestries and to engage them in addressing the issues facing our churches.
“I will give you direction, but it won’t work unless you engage with it,” the Bishop told clergy at the launch. “This will allow people to work together for the good of God’s kingdom and his Church.”
The diocese is looking at the possibility of employing a development officer to work with parishes and establish where they need help.
Bishop Alan said that following the rural deanery meetings, which will take place from April until September, the strategy will come before the next diocesan synod. “Let’s do this together and let’s enjoy the journey,” he said.