Flexibility is Key

12 May, 2024

By the Ven. Michael Berry

Season: The 7th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 1:1-11 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Luke 24:44-53

In all the spare time I have, I exercise ministry as a Chaplain in the New Zealand Defence Force; specifically with the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve. As much as anything, it inspires me to keep fit!

In that work I often spend time with colleagues from the Army and Air Force and, as you might imagine, services each with their own quirks and traditions. In the Air Force, one of the phrases that seems to be regularly repeated is this:

‘Flexibility is the key to air power.’

The saying was coined by an Italian General, Giulio Douhet, in the leadup to the First World War, in an age where flight was still novel and underdeveloped in terms of military application. Douhet’s basic principle was that organisations needed to remain flexibleopen to new ideas and possibilities—as they approached new and developing challenges. In an age of fixed and firm ideas, where there was a rigid and set ‘way of doing things’, Douhet’s notions of flexibility and his ideas to use these new flying machines were quite novel.

It’s no surprise that many of the General’s words fell on deaf ears, though this was probably a good thing. Douhet’s practical application of this theory was to take this new-fangled flying machine, fly over the enemy lines, and indiscriminately drop bombs on civilian populations until they surrendered. Whilst that particular idea is, all too often, tragically, employed in modern warfare, it was thankfully not palatable to the Italian High Command.

Setting aside the military applications of the theory, it’s the idea of flexibility and adaptability that I have been reflecting on in recent months. The concept of having a willingness, openness, and curiosity to be and do differently. Of acknowledging the systems, structures, and traditions in our lives, yes, yet challenging ourselves to approach new and developing situations with a flexibility to do things differently and to apply our resources and energies in creative ways as we seek to achieve our mission and purpose.

At the heart of our Acts / Gospel narrative today – as Luke ends and starts these books – we have a theme of challenged expectations and find a group of people, the disciples of Jesus, facing the need to adapt and shift their understanding of the world and the world that was to be. Most revealing is this question asked in the readings from Acts. As Jesus prepares to take his leave of them, the disciples ask,

‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1: 6)

Not the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of Israel.

Packed in that question, we reveal centuries of expectation and hope that, in many ways, sadly, continues to fuel elements of the conflict that we see raging in Israel and Gaza today.

Since the time of King David, some 1000 years earlier, and following the collapse of that golden age; the dismantling of David’s kingdom; the invasions by neighbouring powers and the subjugation of the people; the destruction of the temple, and; the exile of leaders – through it all, they had developed and held to one central, fundamental hope. That the day would come when a leader would rise amongst them. A Messiah figure. In the people’s minds at least, this would lead to the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel and a new golden age.

As Jesus prepares to ascend to heaven, even amidst this promise of a powerful advocate—the Holy Spirit—even now, after all, Jesus has told them of his ministry, the disciples ask… hopefully… eagerly… naïvely… so, how about now? Is now the time for the fulfilment of this ancient hope for the earthly restoration of kingdom?

In that moment, finally, the disciples are faced with the reality: their expectations, their plans are going to need to change. That plan of kingdom; that wasn’t what was happening and that wasn’t how things were unfolding.

The Good News is, of course, there was a new plan, and it unfolded with spectacular power. The day of Pentecost came and with it, the Holy Spirit, and we witness the spectacular transformation of the disciples as they accepted the challenge to put behind them this notion of restoring an earthly kingdom in Israel and to accept a call to build the Church; to be the Church in this new way.

In the 2000 years since there is no doubt that the Church has needed to continue that journey of adaptation as it has needed respond to the world around it. Increasingly though, amidst the fast-paced changes of late 20th and early 21st century society, change has not always been the strong suit of organised religion. And I’m not alone in observing a church that has not adapted as well, or as quickly, as we have needed to.

In this diocese, alongside many examples of faithful and valuable ministry, we find ourselves facing the challenges of a modern world. Many of these relate to our physical footprint; rising costs; pricey maintenance of old and large buildings; time-consuming compliance. But others are about faith; increasing secularity; and decreasing congregation sizes.

Yet we continue to live, in many ways, as the church of yesteryear. Our own historic processes and structures, designed for a church historically more used to being at the centre, make for unwieldy organisational life.

The scarcity of people resources exasperates the issue in a church dominated by small congregations of time-poor people. We live in a fluid society where people are reluctant to commit to clubs and organisations. Incomes are stretched and people work long days. Volunteer hours for ministry are a luxury item for many.

Yet the needs are great. There is much to be done in the mission field. We know the church has its place.

As a wider church, we are, of course, not blind to this situation. There are a large number of working groups and reviews looking at these aspects of our life; our structures and the ways we resource ourselves. Whilst we might not know all the answers, leaders at every level are aware of the challenges and there is a willingness to face them.

In his Charge at Diocesan Synod last year, Bishop Ross renewed the ongoing challenge for us to honestly and faithfully discuss these matters. Various gatherings of clergy and laity, including your own, are taking up this challenge and this year’s Ministry conference and Diocesan Synod will each provide opportunities for conversation that leads, hopefully, to action.

These conversations are not reserved though for the ‘upper layers’ of diocesan structures. They are ones that we all need to engage with here locally as we adapt to the changing context here in Howick and East Auckland. This is a conversation for all the church as we pivot and adapt for the next season of our life.

As we gather on this day and celebrate once more Jesus’ ascension to heaven, I hope that we might also recognise the watershed moment that this event represented in the life of the Church. As the disciples courageously accepted that they would need to lay aside some deeply held expectations of their world and their faith; in order that the Spirit could move; in order that God could lead them to a new place where they would flourish in a new way.

And as we gather with these themes, I hope we might also hear the challenge to demonstrate that courage in our own generation with a willingness to show that same flexibility, that same ability to adapt, as we face a world that needs the church to be church in a different way. Allowing our traditions and practices and structures to be tested and questioned.

Next Sunday is the Day of Pentecost.

For 2000 years it has been a day of immense hope and encouragement for the future for the future that lays ahead. May we too gather in celebration and with hope as we prepare with joy for all that God calls us to as people of faith in this generation.


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