Setting God's People Free through national elf service
In my formative Christian years, we used to sing a song that went “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” a lyric as repetitively unhelpful as Boyzone’s “love me for a reason, and let the reason be love”. I know the Osmonds actually sang it first, and I know Paul wrote to the Galatians about being set free for freedom long before John Gibson was celebrating Jesus’ victory with that particular song. But it is a curious thing to say that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free and indeed some of Paul’s contemporaries were deeply suspicious of his proclamation of freedom. They thought this was an invitation to immoral and selfish behaviour and that telling people they were free was opening the door to all sorts of excesses of hedonism and licentiousness.
I am not sure that the Church shook off that suspicion of freedom in the first century. Christian communities still don’t always feel like very free places. Our gathered worship is often organised around the expectation of a high level of conformity – when to stand up, sit down, join in, stay quiet; and that’s before we get on to the sorts of behaviours expected of us so that we can be Christians who are just like the other Christians there. Institutions struggle with freedom because they have a vested interest in people behaving a certain way.
The Church of England currently has a project of Setting God’s People Free. This started off as a report that went to General Synod in February 2017 outlining the sort of culture change needed in the church to release all of God’s people for the mission and ministry to which they are called. I thought it would be like many other General Synod reports where people nod enthusiastically and agree with them, but nothing much happens. However, the national church has taken this on as part of the work of Renewal and Reform. Lichfield Diocese are one of about 25 Anglican Dioceses who are participating in Learning Communities with the aim of sharing with and learning from others about some of the ways in which God’s people can be set free.
The stories from other parts of the country helped us to reflect on where we are in this Diocese and our particular challenges and opportunities. Just as every person has a unique vocation, so does every church, parish and Christian Community and so does every Diocese. Wanting to be Oxford Diocese is as much a sin as wanting to be someone other than you are because you think different gifts or a different calling would be better. Being Lichfield Diocese is what we are and we are called to be it in a way that brings glory to God and transformation to the people of our region. And, talking to our colleagues from around the church, we realised some of the unique gifts of this region and how far we have actually traveled on our journey together to discover the freedom into which Christ has called us.
Undoubtedly there is still a long way to go. The progress we have made is patchy and there are plenty of examples of people who remain bonded to the yoke of slavery in its many and varied guises. But there are also things to celebrate. The focus on discipleship, vocation and evangelism as diocesan priorities helps to keep the focus on our core business: being faithful witnesses to the transforming love of God. We have been proactive in finding ways of working that show that this is not just up to clergy and it’s not just about the church. We are constantly trying to find ways of discerning what God is doing in this region and joining in with it, supporting it and equipping people to be part of it. We are not having to persuade colleagues that God’s people are created for freedom, but rather work with them to discover all of the ways that we can be part of releasing people into this freedom.
In the fantasy world of Harry Potter, there are a breed of creatures called House Elfs. Dobby the House Elf is a major character in the story and indeed becomes a key player in the eventual triumph of good over evil. House Elfs are servants in households and they can only gain their freedom if their master (or mistress) hands them a piece of clothing. When Lucius Malfoy throws a sock and Dobby catches it, he unwittingly gives him his freedom. From then on Dobby is a free elf. And Dobby wears the sock that gave him freedom for the rest of his life.
What’s the ‘sock’ you need to be free? What metaphorical piece of clothing will release you to become the person God has called you to be? What item of apparel does your church community need to be fully liberated as the people of God? Setting God’s People Free might help us find some new socks that give people their freedom in Christ, and it might help us find some old clothes hidden at the bottom of the cupboard that we can take out and use; but really we already have everything we need to fulfil our vocations as individuals, as Christian communities and as this Diocese. Christ has already set us free.
The C of E has committed to this project of Setting God’s People Free – if it works they may not like the result! That’s the thing about freedom: you can’t control it and it might not look like what you were expecting. Who knows what a free elf will end up doing? But the freedom for which Christ has set us free is not entirely unknown; it is freedom to be God’s people, freedom to be part of God’s growing kingdom, freedom to grow in Christ-likeness, freedom to discover the purposes for which God has created us. And now is the time for all of God’s people to be released into that glorious freedom.
Dr Lindsey Hall
Director of Vocations
Pictured above: The Diocese of Lichfield Setting God’s People Free team, from left: John Wilson, Lindsey Hall, Matthew Parker, Helen Dent, Matt Hurd Rose Westwood.