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July 15, Bishop James: Volunteers

Last year I found myself heavily involved with the so-called ‘Flesh and Blood’ campaign. Its purpose was to encourage more people to become blood and organ donors, and we were especially keen to stimulate conversations about ‘donation’ within families. Projects included wrapping Carlisle Cathedral in a huge red ribbon (!), and overall the campaign was extremely successful. For instance, at Greenbelt at one point people were signing onto the organ donor register every sixty seconds, and as a joint initiative between the NHS and the Church it established a good precedent.

So I was amused to hear about a ‘graffito’ on one blood donation poster. The poster read “be a volunteer blood donor” – and underneath someone had scribbled “That’s the best kind”. : I was also prompted to reflect on ‘volunteering’, especially by Christians. As we all know, volunteers don’t get paid – not because they’re worthless, but because they are priceless. Certainly the ‘third sector’ saves this country millions ( probably billions) of pounds every year, and without volunteers usually charities, raising money, serving the Citizens Advice Bureau, organising foodbanks, visiting the housebound, caring for the elderly, transporting patients and so on and so on, much of the fabric of society as we know it would collapse.

That’s especially true of the church. The number of ‘paid professionals’ (mostly clergy) is tiny, and is currently decreasing due to a ‘retirement bulge’. By 2020 we expect there to be 20% fewer stipendiary clergy in the Church of England as a whole. In 1900 there were nearly 20,000 paid clergy – for a much smaller population. There are now about 8,000, so a reduction of one fifth (more than 1,500) will be significant.

This means, of course, that the old days of a ‘paid parson’ in every parish are long gone. It also means that the old perception of the church’s ministry being performed by those parsons is no longer viable. In the past, a vicar was employed to preach the gospel and care for the community. Now we look to him or her to be a ‘leader in mission’, enabling a team of volunteers to teach , preach, visit, lead worship, evangelise and generally use their God given gifts both in the church and in the world. Some of those volunteers are ordained as clergy; licensed as Readers; or commissioned as Local Lay Ministers, and we are looking for a very substantial increase in all of these. But many are ‘ordinary’ church goers, who don’t experience any particular call to ‘authorised’ ministry, but who have a valuable part to play none the less. The church - is basically an army of volunteers.

Or is it? I had always assumed that to be the case (and even ran in sessions in Clergy Leadership Courses called ‘Managing Volunteers’) until I was challenged by the Director of Resource, Martin Cavender. He was speaking at a meeting where someone suggested that she couldn’t be expected to do something because she was ‘just a volunteer’. ‘No you’re not’ he replied quick as a flash. ‘You’re a disciple - and that’s different’.

He was right, of course – and that puts a completely different complexion on the way we perceive our responsibility as Christians. A disciple is a follower: in our case, a follower of Jesus, who is constantly learning how to be more like him, and always trying to be obedient to his directions. So whereas a ‘volunteer’ takes on a task on his or her own terms (I can do this but not that; I can go then but not now) a disciple really is at the beck and call of the Master. Which may well mean doing things we would rather not do - at times we would not necessarily choose to do them.

So discipleship is very daunting – and I will be trying to explain it in more detail this autumn (Bishop’s Teaching Day on October 3rd + 24th; November 21st + 28th) But grasping what it means lies at the very heart of our ‘God for All’ strategy, and is key to the success of our Ecumenical Mission Communities. ‘Just a volunteer’? No - you’re a disciple.


James Newcome

The Bishop of Carlisle

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