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Posted on Thu 20 December 2012

Calling all Christians: Prepare for exile

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The Church need not adopt the latest secular values in order to bring the Gospel to bear on contemporary culture

In 1996 I chaired an ecumenical commission which produced a report called The Search for Faith. The difference between this report and many others like it was that it immediately became a cause celebre in the media. The reason was its treatment of contemporary spirituality which it described as “pick ‘n’ mix” and as reflecting attitudes in culture not only to faith but to relationships, values and much else besides.

The report also examined the persistence of belief, and the need to believe, even if the need to belong is no longer felt with such intensity or felt at all. This is shown, again and again, in the large number of people who describe themselves as Christian when modest percentages of the general population go to church on a given Sunday.

It gave considerable attention to what I have recently called “nothing-but-ery”, or a reductionist view of the universe and of the human condition—allegedly, but illegitimately, based on science. This is sometimes accompanied by an aggressive form of secularism which seeks to exclude religious discourse from the public sphere altogether, while continuing to espouse such values as the inherent dignity of human beings, or equality and freedom that have ultimately been derived from a religious and, more specifically, a Judaeo-Christian worldview. Such secularism favours individualism over community but also has a tendency to capitulate to culture. Not surprisingly, it is in thrall to scientific developments and can take a libertarian approach to how these are applied in the treatment of the embryo, the care of the person towards the end of life, or maintaining the integrity of the family in the face of assisted fertility technologies. In much of this, there is an implicit utilitarianism at work, with neglect of other considerations that may arise from a spiritual or deontological view of morality.

My participation in BBC1’s Soul of Britain programmes in 2000 revealed not only the emergence of “nothing-but-ery” but also the continuing popularity of New Age, karmic and astrological beliefs. The Church’s task cannot then be limited to responding to secularism, whether scientific or political, but must also take account of considerable credulity and even superstition in the country at large. On the one hand we have to uphold the God-given rationality of the universe. On the other, we must draw attention to its spiritual, even mystical, dimension.

How is the Church to respond to such a complex cultural situation, and what is the Gospel or good news for the 21st century?

Christian attitudes to culture have varied over the ages depending on receptivity to the faith or hostility and resistance to it. Thus, Pope Gregory writing to Abbot Mellitus tells him to advise the missionary to the Anglo-Saxons, Augustine of Canterbury, not to destroy pagan shrines but to purify them and use them for Christian worship. Such a practice also seems to have been a feature of the evangelisation of the Netherlands by Willibrord and others. On the other hand the English “apostle to the Germans”, Boniface of Crediton, destroyed pagan temples and his felling of the Great Oak of Thor at Geismar sealed the success of his mission. When the pagans saw that he came to no harm in doing these things, they realised the falsity of paganism and the truth of the faith that Boniface was preaching.

Both Pope Benedict XVI and evangelical missionaries like Charles Kraft have drawn attention to the ways in which the Gospel addresses the deepest aspirations of cultures and, in fulfilling these, enables each culture to find its true centre. Kraft describes biblical revelation as “receptor-friendly”. The (now) Roman Catholic West African scholar Lamin Sanneh refers to the “translatability” of the Gospel i.e. its capacity for being rendered into the language, idiom and thought-forms of particular cultures. None of these distinguished scholars denies that the Gospel also challenges and transforms culture, but this can be gradual and from within. Such an approach reminds us of Richard Niebuhr’s classic “the Christ of culture” category, where the message of Christ is not only the means for underpinning the social order, but also provides the resources for a critique of it and points society towards its destiny.

An approach to culture of this kind needs to be balanced, however, by the Christ who can be “against culture” (another of Niebuhr’s categories) and the Christ who is the “transformer of culture”. The history of Britain is replete with those who, because of their faith, have stood up to the tyranny of monarchs, promoted basic freedoms, even at the risk of their own lives or liberty, struggled against slavery and on behalf of the poor. In our own day, we can think of Christian leadership against apartheid in South Africa, Anglican Archbishop David Gitari’s courageous resistance at the time of dictatorship in Kenya, and Bishop Emmanuel Gbonigi’s stand against General Sani Abacha in Nigeria who, it is said, admired the bishop for his integrity and courage. Just as these leaders had learnt much from the story of Christianity in Britain, so we can learn from it today as we seek not only to find receptivity to the Church’s message in our culture but also, from time to time, resist in the name of Christ what is false, unjust or hateful.

A look at the Church worldwide also shows us how Christ can be the transformer of cultures. Again and again, we find despised, rejected and poverty-stricken groups of people who have been transformed by the Christian message of equal dignity. A change in their personal and social habits, love for the family and the neighbour, the pursuit of the good and honesty at the workplace have been shown to lead not only to personal transformation but to social change.

In such a situation, where the Church has both to affirm what is godly in a culture but also to challenge what is mistaken or wilfully wrong, how are we to recognise the Church’s mission and ministry?

We are faced with an overwhelming loss of personal and social integration: it has long been recognised that people are alienated from one another. The more individualistic society becomes, the more distanced we are from our neighbours. We are alienated from the natural environment around us because we see it only as something to be exploited to fulfil our own needs and not, as the Bible does, as having a destiny of its own. There is even an inner cleavage in ourselves such that our moral, spiritual, emotional and intellectual aspects are not working in harmony but, sometimes, against one another. Most fundamentally, we are alienated from the very ground of our being, the source of our existence and the One who gives us meaning and direction.

Alienation brings anxiety about life itself and the perceived threat to it. There is also, however, a sense of guilt, of not being what we have been called to be, of acting against our nature but being unable to atone for it. Such anxiety often leads to addiction. We seek to suppress it, to turn away from it and to deny it in enforced jollity and escapism. Addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs or to destructive behaviour or relationships, can be a way of forgetting, for a time, our real problems.

The Church’s work has to address this personal and social situation which so many face. It cannot do this by simply repackaging the nostrums of social science or by imitating the methods of secular therapies. While the Church must be ever attentive to whatever is claimed as knowledge, it must also bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on the opportunities and problems of contemporary culture.

One of our great needs is to get out of the rut in which we are stuck and to start again. Repentance is a decidedly unfashionable term these days, but it is central to the Church’s call to people everywhere. To know that we are forgiven deals with one of the basic reasons for the anxiety (or angst) experienced by so many. We are forgiven because Jesus Christ has, once again, opened the way for friendship with God. Instead of seeing the universe as indifferent or even as hostile to us, we can now see it as suffused and patterned by love. Such love is not only about the fulfilment of my desires or to do with my personal history, but with seeking the good, indeed, the best for the Other, whether neighbour or stranger, friend or enemy. It is this experience of forgiveness and friendship which leads to a greater integration of our own personalities, whatever our quirks, experiences or even traumas.

Clearly, the Church’s role has both a personal and social dimension to it. One of the great mantras of the modern Church has been “every member ministry”, that is a sense that God is calling each member of the Church to a particular ministry. The priesthood of all believers, as taught in the New Testament, is turned into the priesthood of each believer. This may be based on a misunderstanding of what the New Testament actually says but whether or not every member has a ministry, every member certainly has to be a disciple of Jesus. In the business of making disciples, the Church will find that people have gifts which can equip them for particular kinds of service (or ministry) in the Church and in the world. How the local and national church discerns what the vocation of different members might be, how it prepares, commissions and supports them, will determine the Church’s effectiveness in local communities and in the nation. Such effectiveness cannot be “bought” by becoming trendy or simply reflecting contemporary values, as politicians want the Church to do, but by making sure that all of the gifts given to Christians are being exercised to make the Gospel helpful, intelligible and liveable in our age, our locality, our nation, our world.

For centuries the Church has been committed to a presence in local communities: rural or urban, prosperous or deprived, mixed or monochrome. This has meant that the Church has been present when other services have withdrawn or only come in from outside to complete given tasks in a particular village, town or ward. The Church’s presence must, however, be effective and this means a well thought out and well deployed ministry.

A basic assumption will be that the Gospel provides everything that a local church needs for its ministry and mission. The task of the wider church, and especially the stipendiary clergy, is to identify and enable those who are called to fulfil specific ministries in the local church, whether that is in serving the community, building up the faithful, teaching children or being prophetic about issues of justice and the proper use of resources. In the recognition of gifts for ministry, how God is calling women and men to serve him in the Church is a specific consideration. While men and women are equal because both have been made in God’s image and given a common task, they are also different and fulfil their vocation in distinctive ways. Just as families and communities need a proper recognition of the distinctiveness as well as the complementarity of genders for balanced flourishing, so also the Church needs this for ministries which are balanced and complementary. The modernist and proto-feminist “one-size-fits-all” approach does not take difference into account and thus presses women into male patterns of work and recreation. The Church may be in danger of repeating this mistake just when the world is abandoning it.

Although there have been women deacons in the Eastern churches and, to a lesser extent, in the West, women have not been ordained priest or bishop in either the East or West, except in some schismatic communities. This should not be taken to mean, however, that women have not had hugely significant ministries in the Church. This is what the Orthodox Women’s Consultation in Istanbul in 1997 had to say about the ministries of women in both the Eastern Orthodox and the Ancient Oriental churches: “Throughout the history of the Church, we have the testimony of countless women saints who responded to Christ in many ways, such as apostles, evangelists, confessors, martyrs, ascetics and nuns, teachers, mothers, spiritual and medical healers and deaconesses. We Orthodox women of today, inspired through the prayers and examples of these women saints, now endeavour to continue in their footsteps.” From an evangelical point of view, we could add missionaries, counsellors, educationists and family-workers.

The historic churches, such as the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox and the Ancient Oriental, do not admit women to the order of priest or of bishop and the biblical evangelicals do not appoint them to public roles which involve leadership of a congregation or an organisation. Together, these churches represent, of course, an overwhelming number of Christians throughout the world. I am not an “impossiblist” in the matter of women’s ordination but the question of universal consent is important. The Church of England, or even the Anglican Communion, cannot claim to share the ministry of the ancient churches and then seek to change it unilaterally. There has to be at least permissive consent, if not uniformity of practice. Until then, any such ordinations will have to be seen as subject to the process of reception (which includes the possibility of these not being received). Naturally, such a situation raises questions in the minds of the faithful about things like sacramental assurance: the need to be sure that they are, indeed, receiving God’s grace in the sacraments through duly accredited ministries.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, and whether women are ordained priest and bishop, we cannot have a monochrome pattern of ministry in which gender does not matter. Rather, we ought to be working towards a situation where the particular natures of men and women, as well as their common and distinctive gifts, are used in the Church’s work and witness in the world.

The partnership of men and women in the Church is not the only partnership the Church needs. When I was the bishop of a diocese, we held a consultation with our partners, and representatives of more than 40 local and national organisations turned up. These included educational agencies, social workers, youth organisations, statutory bodies and others. For the Church of England, with its heavy responsibility for a significant portion of our national heritage, in terms of historic buildings and the like, a new and honest concordat with the state is also very important. Congregations alone, some of them rural and small, cannot be burdened with the upkeep of what belongs to the nation as a whole. If these buildings are to survive for the purposes for which they were built, rather than as museums, they will have to be adapted and extended to meet presentday needs. This requires resources which the Church, local or national, cannot provide by itself.

As far as “establishment” is concerned, if this means a desire by the people of this country to hear the Church’s voice in the councils of state, there can be little objection to it, but this cannot be at the expense of compromising the essential message which the Church has been called to proclaim. This means that the Church should have control over what it believes and teaches, its worship and, however wide the consultation, the appointment of its leaders. If such is not the case, there is always the danger of capitulating to the culture and to power structures, whether through seduction or coercion. In turn, the Church has an obligation to remind the nation of the Judaeo-Christian basis of its life as set out, for example, in the Coronation Service and the Coronation Oath.

Even if there is disestablishment, formal or de facto, two matters will still need to be borne in mind: the Church of England could remain the national church of the land to which people turn in national celebration or mourning and for the “hatching, matching and dispatching” rituals which any culture needs. Second, even if there is no established church, the moral and spiritual resources of the Judaeo-Christian tradition will still be needed in debate on policy and legislation over a whole range of issues such as the status of the embryo, the ethics of cloning, abortion, euthanasia and assisted dying, marriage and family, justification (or not) of armed conflict, the treatment of refugees, and many others. It would be very unwise to lose such a rich heritage which has provided our worldview just because of the disappearance of an established church and when there is no other viable worldview in sight.

It may be that establishment is gradually being eroded by atrophy and attrition. The Church of England will have to decide whether to struggle to maintain it or to lose it gracefully, thus lightening its load for the sake of a clearer witness to the nation. As I have pointed out in my new book (Triple Jeopardy for the West: Aggressive Secularism, Radical Islam and Multiculturalism, Bloomsbury, 10.99), a secularist and secularising paradigm is being set in place in terms of the assumptions of policy, legislation, charity laws and the like. In such conditions, all the churches need to prepare for exile. To begin to see themselves as gathered moral and spiritual communities which attract those in the surrounding darkness by their light and become centres for a Christian vision of society.

A missionary church will be light in its structures. At the very least, it will have the capacity to gather people. Such a gathering must, first of all, be for the purposes of prayer and the giving of thanks (eucharistia). There should be the opportunity then to consult and to decide together. According to the pattern set by the very first Council of the Church at Jerusalem, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, bishops, clergy and the faithful will all have a presence and a say but in the decision-making they will have distinctive roles and duties. This is, in fact, the true meaning of “synod” or walking together in the same way. It is very far from mimicking parliamentary structures and procedures, not to speak of the considerable bureaucracy this requires.

No one is an island and this is all the more so in the Church. We need one another so we can learn from one another, support one another, pray for one another and, when necessary, complement and even correct one another. What is true of Christians in the local church is also true of relationships between churches throughout the world. Every local church has the primary responsibility for mission in its area but it must carry this out mindful of its relationship with all the other local churches. It cannot relate to the state or to culture in such a way that its sister churches fail to recognise the Church of Jesus Christ in it.

At the local level those with pastoral and teaching responsibility must sometimes declare the faith of the Church. This is one of the most important roles of a bishop in the diocese. Universally also, there will be occasions when, to settle a disputed matter or to situate the Church’s position in some crucial area, the faith of the Church has to be set out clearly. Those with such responsibility must only declare what the Church has always believed, even if it is being applied to contemporary issues. They must do it in manifest continuity with Scripture and apostolic teaching and, as far as possible, they must do it along with others who have similar responsibilities.

The Church’s mission in society has two poles to it: that of embassy, of going out into the world, and of hospitality, of welcoming people to the Church’s proclamation, worship and service. Embassy can, of course, be a literal going out, as was the case with numerous young people who went out from this country in the 19th century to open up the interior of West Africa to the Gospel, knowing that for many of them it would mean death from disease to which they had no resistance. Less dramatically, but also importantly, the ministry from Rochester Cathedral during the seemingly endless Dickens festivals is also an instance of embassy: whether through the singing of hymns, invitations to pray in the cathedral (which produce a staggering response in terms of numbers) or counselling those who find themselves in need, the Christian community is going out to those around it. Embassy need not just be a physical going to another part of the world or even into the local high street. For many Christians it is simply going to work and bearing witness to their faith there. As this becomes more difficult, we need to be advocates of respect for conscience and for reasonable accommodation of belief and the manifestation of belief at the workplace. The involvement of Christians and churches in public life or in the media (including new media), however difficult this is found to be, is another area where embassy is a necessity.

Welcoming people is as important as going out. Again and again, I am embarrassed at how the stranger, the person with special needs or the loner is simply left out at church. We must make sure that everyone is welcomed, made to feel at home and helped. Welcoming does not, of course, mean that we affirm or agree with everything people do or believe. The very distinctiveness of the Gospel that warms and heals cannot be compromised by an inclusion that does not challenge or change. At the same time, a welcome must include engaging with people’s beliefs and values and seeking to find connections between them and the faith proclaimed by the Church.

The false will then be challenged and rejected but what is true will be recognised and fulfilled. It has ever been so and must continue to be so.

For the Church to be effective in embassy and hospitality, it must be visible in the society in which it finds itself. For some, like Philip Larkin, iconic buildings are enough, as they breathe an atmosphere of transcendence. For others, it is the people of a community gathering for worship in a place that has been used, perhaps for centuries, by their forebears. We must not neglect such traditional understandings of visibility but there has to be more.

One feature of the Church most appreciated by ordinary people is the sight of clergy “on the beat”: walking the streets, visiting homes and shops and chaplains at the workplace. Processions on important days like Good Friday, Palm Sunday and Easter, worship outdoors, especially at holiday times, evangelistic and prayer rallies and accessibility to worship in ancient buildings all contribute to that sense of visibility among the population. The papal visit to Britain in September 2010, and the coming Billy Graham Evangelistic Association-led mission, Crossing London, can reveal how Christianity can contribute to a deepening of people’s spiritual lives and enable them to address everyday moral questions.

Too often debate about the future of the Church and of the Christian faith has been adversarial and polarised: tradition is set against innovation, authority against democracy and community-mindedness against “congregationalism”. Such polarisation is not always helpful and needlessly forces people into exclusive and excluding models of the Church’s life. We should be promoting a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” view of the Church so that tradition and renewal, order and spontaneity, leadership and consent, mission and maintenance can be creatively held together.

An action plan for today’s Church will therefore include an understanding of the culture and context in which the Church is placed and how the Gospel can address its strengths and weaknesses. There will be an emphasis on partnership among churches but also with the state, local authorities, statutory and voluntary agencies. It should be clear, however, that the Church’s integrity cannot be sacrificed to short-term advantage, and government especially will have to recognise the nature of the Church and its obligations in its partnership with Christian communities of different kinds. The churches should not only be concerned with decline and with needy areas, important as those are, but actively seek and support those at the cutting-edge of opportunity—young families, students and ethnic and other kinds of groups.

Local Christian communities should largely be responsible for mission and ministry in their neck of the woods with support from stipendiary clergy and specialists in education, youth work, worship, music and, particularly, the identification and preparation of leaders. This should lead to a streamlining of bureaucracy at every level, as should reinventing how churches gather for making decisions that affect them all.

At the same time, local and national churches should be aware of the world-wide dimension of the Christian faith. Our partnership with brothers and sisters overseas should be mutually enriching but it may also involve waiting for one another and, from time to time, being willing to be corrected and extended in our particular reading of the Christian tradition.

We should not be intimidated by the challenge of our times but see it as an opportunity for a vigorous engagement with the needs and questions of the day, confident that the good news of Jesus Christ remains just that—even, perhaps especially, for our own times.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, Standpoint Magazine, December 2012.

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