Rector’s Letter: Substance and style

Dear friends,

Sorting through some old papers over the summer, I came across a speech I had given at Diocesan Synod nearly thirty years ago.  The speech was asking Diocesan Synod to take to General Synod a proposal from my parish to amend the rules governing relationships with other denominations at local level, to give greater flexibility.  Nearly a year later General Synod approved the proposal, showing that it is possible for an individual parish to bring about a change in the Church of England through the Synodical process.

But that wasn’t what struck me when I rediscovered the speech this summer.  What struck me was that the speech had been typed – laboriously – on a typewriter.  It came from a time when word processors were far from a universal presence in everyone’s homes, when phones were anything but mobile, and when tablets were something you got from the chemist’s shop.

The revolution in communications technology over recent decades has been astonishing – quite possibly the biggest single change in everyone’s life during that time.  And the speed of change shows no sign of slowing.  Despite grumbles when the technology fails to work properly, the gains in terms of making communication easier and faster are huge, and few, if any, would want to turn the clock back to the age of the typewriter.

The Church is beginning to catch up with some of these developments.  Producing the weekly readings sheet is made possible through a piece of computer software called Visual Liturgy.  The parish website is increasingly the first point of contact for a younger generation wanting information about baptisms or weddings.  The diocese has been looking into the possibility of encouraging giving at occasional services by text – putting an end to the old notion of the collection plate going round.

We are, I’m sure only at the beginning of discovering how new technology can be harnessed to serve the Church in its task of communicating the Christian gospel.  We do, though, have to remember that communication involves not just the means of communicating, but the content, or substance, of what we want to say.  There is a danger – evident in our wider cultural life in society – that we become so taken up with the novelty of new ways of doing things that we forget to give an equal value to the message we are trying to convey.  Style over substance leaves us impoverished, just as substance without style can leave us ineffective.  After all, what is the point of having dozens of ways of communicating if you have forgotten what it is you wanted to say, or realise you have little of value that is worth saying?

Our P.C.C. is having continuing discussions about both sides of this substance / style issue.  We are reviewing how we communicate through our parish magazine and website, and what it is we want to get across through them.  We’re also considering how we can best encourage people to deepen their own understanding of faith, and what new approaches or styles of learning might be useful.  If you have any views about either or both of these, the P.C.C. would be glad to hear from you.

Bible Sunday at the end of October reminds us of the centrality of the Word in Christian faith.  Specifically, it asks us to recall the perfect marriage of substance and style God demonstrated in the Incarnation: his concern for accessibility and communication in a form we could more readily understand through his decision to draw close to us and take human form; his concern for the ‘heart’ of the message in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ – without which ‘drawing near’ would have been just a clever trick.

We need to hold both substance and style in equal measure.  Each needs the other, and without both our mission cannot be whole.

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