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Redeeming Evangelism: Authentic Mission in the Church of England

A lecture by The Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, Dean

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Redeeming Evangelism: Authentic Mission in the Church of England

Posted By : Katie Clark Thursday 25th July 2019

A lecture by The Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on Saturday 13 July 2019

 

Introduction

Mutuality, charity and a concern for economic justice marked out the very first Christian communities.  Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a deacon with special responsibility for the daily distribution of alms to widows and orphans (Acts 6: 1-3), reflecting the commitment of the church to charity and service advocated in the gospels.  In character, the first churches, although diverse in practice and belief, appear nevertheless to have exhibited a radical openness to mutuality, parity and inclusion.  Indeed, the term for ‘church’ is the simple Greek word ekklesia, meaning the ‘assembly of the people’ who belong to but are called out of their community.  All over the Mediterranean world, assemblies determined the politics, polity and civic ordering of communities and cities.  But they were usually only open to citizens, and the power to speak and vote was normally confined to men. 

 

The assemblies of the New Testament church – the deliberate adoption of the more internationalist term which must have caused confusion to some potential converts, as well as making a point – were, in contrast, inclusive bodies and models of mutuality.  In these ekklesia, women were admitted, as were slaves (c.f. Paul’s Letter to Philemon), children, foreigners and other visitors.  In other words, the character of the New Testament ekklesia represented and embodied a different kind of spiritual and social ordering that eschewed discrimination on grounds of race, gender and other criteria.

 

The very term ‘economics’ is rooted in the Greek word oikos – the concept of a well-managed, stewarded household.  Oikos was one of the early terms for ‘church’ – literally, the ‘household of faith’.  In terms of etymology, the management of the household was linked to the budget.  It is no accident that Jesus told so many parables about stewardship and money, linked to the church.  So implicit in the term oikos is not merely an idea about protecting the wealth of a modern nuclear family.  The oikos known in the first century world of Jesus was a household comprising servants, slaves, distant relatives, perhaps a tutor for the children, and other workers.  The oikos was, in other words, a small social unit that transcended biological family-relations.  The oikos had a care for the poor, and for the destitute; it cared for its members.  As did the church later.

 

Linked to this, therefore, we often find that churches foster and focus distinctive values that are derived from the process of training (often through hidden curricula rooted in shaping virtues and character) that then go on to provide leaven in complex contexts.  Here, faith communities often find themselves promoting forms of goodness that secular and utilitarian organizations might miss.  In this respect, Bruce Reed explains how mutuality and ministry partly functions by drawing on an analogy from nature:

 

“If bees could talk, and we came across them busy in a flower garden and enquired what they were doing, their reply might be:  ‘Gathering nectar to make honey.’  But if we asked the gardener, he would most certainly answer:  ‘They are cross pollinating my flowers.’  In carrying out their manifest function to make food, the bees were performing a latent function of fertilizing flowers.  The mutual dependence of bees and flowers is an analogue of churches and society.”[i]

 

Here, Reed offers us a vivid picture of mission and ministry that we might recognize.  Through a simple ministry of ‘deep hanging out’ with the people we serve, attentiveness, hospitality, care and celebration, celebration, ministers often do more good for the parishes, communities and institutions they serve than they can ever know.  This may simply be through the offering of regular lunches, simple visiting, or open house for tea and coffee at any time.  These are manifest intentions.  But the potency of the gesture and practice lies more in their latency, and is significant for ministry.  Much as Jesus set an example in this respect, simply by walking from place to place, and developing his ministry through seemingly casual encounters, rather than through overt planning. 

 

The practice of being engaged in an occupation of this kind says something about the possibilities for different kinds of spaces in communities – social, pastoral, intellectual, spiritual, to name but a few.  They open up a different side of the humanity of a community or institution to those individuals within it. In being there with programmes and events, as well as in being purposefully hospitable, churches actually enable to begin that work of becoming the social transcendent communities they are called to be. 

 

Economic intentionality can be highly focussed and immensely productive.  But sometimes, values and ‘soft’ forms of valuable social capital come out of time and space that might at first sight seem ‘unproductive’.  This is a subtle concept to grasp.  According to John Kay, the concept of obliquity describes a simple process: that of achieving complex objectives indirectly.[ii]

 

Kay discusses the verdict of Charles Jencks, the architectural commentator, who opined that modernism ended at 3.32 pm on July 15th 1972.  That is the date when contractors detonated fuses that blew up a housing development in St Louis.  Only two decades earlier, such housing – high rise tower blocks, most notably – had been feted by Le Corbusier, who famously claimed such buildings were the supreme expression of modernism, and that a house was (merely) ‘a machine for living in’. 

 

But as Kay points out, the modernists knew less than they thought.  A house is not simply a machine to live in. Indeed, there is a difference between a house and a home.  The utility of property and its actual functionality is only one element in design.  The spaces that we inhabit are formational. They say things about individuals and groups.  They arrange social living.  Buildings have aesthetics that can promote subtle qualities and values.  Some prompt alienation and individualism.  Others, in contrast, can foster civic sociability, generosity and mutual flourishing.

 

Kay’s concept of obliquity is more fertile than it may at first appear, To take intentional church growth as an example: is this best achieved by clear aims and objectives, and with clarity on programmes and activities?  Or, is growth better achieved through oblique means?  To some extent, the answer will depend on what is meant by ‘growth’.  If measurable numerical growth is the primary goal, and is rooted in a concept of member-based organisation, then yes, straight, direct and forthright programmes will be cherished and valued.  The missional activity will have manifest intent, and clarity to its aims, objectives and outcomes that is often ‘measurable’.  And then there is that that question: what do the bees think they are doing? And what are they actually doing?

 

Abby Day’s prescient study of ‘Generation A’ women who, born in the 1920s and 1930s, have provided the backbone to organisations such as the Mother’s Union.[iii] Day’s analysis picks up on the function of these laywomen in churches who are often found providing support through ‘soft’ forms of pastoral care and, in particular, through their catering.  Specifically, she writes about them baking together.  Day shows how through activities such as communal baking – which are technically uneconomic – nonetheless provides an environment that promotes mutual care, flourishing, prayer and pastoral wellbeing.  It is obviously cheaper to buy the cakes and buns at any supermarket. But the communal baking fosters something else.  The obliquity lies in the gap between the manifest and latent function of the activities Day so richly describes.

 

The manifest intention of the communal baking is to provide a supportive catering service to the church and community. The latent intent that emerges is the thick pastoral care that the gatherings engender, which also produce deeper and richer spiritual lives.  It makes no economic sense, please note, to bake buns like this.  The value lies in the actual and apparent inefficiency - which leads to deeper, unintended rewards; and goals no-one aimed at.

 

Authentic Mission

A few years ago, we crossed an un-marked line in the developmental life of the Church of England.  The best-selling Report ever produced by the Church of England had been Faith in the City.[iv]  Published in 1985, it engaged seriously with the decay and despair in our inner-city communities.  It changed, amongst other things, how we shaped the training of clergy.  It shone a very public spotlight on our Urban Priority Areas (UPA’s).  It championed the poor. And for focussing on UPA’s, the Report earned the opprobrium and scorn of our Tory right-wing press.   

 

But perhaps the more serious edge to the Report, and often missed, was that it marked out a particularly distinctive mode of theological reflection.  For we might say that what Faith in the City represented a kind of theology rooted in the Kingdom of God. One that put the people and the places they lived in before the needs and concerns of the church.  The Report took seriously the fact that before the church took root as an institution, with its own needs and concerns to develop much later, the ‘Jesus Project’ began with preaching and proclaiming in word and deed, the Kingdom of God for all.

 

The moment of Faith in the City being the Church of England’s best-selling Report, has, however, passed.  The biggest-selling Church of England Report is now Mission-Shaped Church.[v]  For the uninitiated, this showcases forms of congregational life that appeal to homogenous groups, and are largely Evangelical and evangelistic in character, appealing as they do to specific, identifiable and narrow interest groups (e.g., certain kinds of youth culture, etc.). These new emerging genres of church are usually apolitical in outlook, and often tend to be socially, politically and theologically conservative, as Robert Bellah has observed.[vi]

 

Thus, new forms of ‘Fresh Expression’ promoted by the Church of England are normally careful to avoid anything that could be construed as theologically, politically or socially divisive.  At the same time, these groups inhabit a social and theological construction of reality in which they believe themselves to be risk-takers and edgy.  But they are usually anything but this. So, for example, we rarely learn of ‘Fresh Expressions’ for the LGBTQ+ constituency. We rarely find any ‘Fresh Expressions’ that focus on disabilities. Or, for that matter, on serious forms of exclusion from the mainstream of our society.  (That ‘Fresh Expression’ for Asylum Seekers would be an interesting kind of ecclesial gathering). 

 

In all this, we must also remember that Jesus did not plant synagogues. Jesus did not grow synagogue congregations. Jesus did not advocate ‘Fresh Expressions’ of synagogue. But Jesus did send time with the marginalised and disenfranchised. Jesus did challenge prevailing religious structures and outlooks. Jesus did admit people to the kingdom of God who were not Jewish. Often, unconditionally. None were Christian at that point; or became so, needless to say. Jesus expresses the body language of God: he sees the unseen; he hears the unheard; he speaks for the dumb; and he frequently embraces the untouchable.

 

To be sure, there are other kinds of ecclesial communities that are advocated by Mission-Shaped Church and its spin-offs. So-called Pioneer ministry places Clergy or lay ministers in communities or neighbourhoods that do not have access to a local church, or are for other reasons excluded or marginalised from socio-ecclesial life.  There are some remarkable testimonies of such ministry in places and amongst people that are ‘off the grid’, so to speak.

 

For example, I think of one Pioneer Ministry who trained at Cuddesdon whilst I was Principal (2004-14), who went on to minister in a working-class community with high levels of historic unemployment, and exceptionally low literacy rates. In such a place, gathering people around a written liturgy was always unlikely to be the best recipe for ecclesial life.  The ‘church’ that was planted in the community began with some basics - helping people to read for a start, which was itself a commendable act of socio-political intervention, empowering the community to engage with the social and civic services that were neglecting the community as a whole. This was good, earthy ministry.

 

For some time now, I have held that one of the wrong-turns we have taken in mission and ministry is that we have assumed that the church is an organisation. That it can be managed, branded, and mobilised.  Add the right three-word strap-line to a church or diocese and just watch it fizz and buzz. ‘Committed to Growth; ‘Going for Growth’; ‘Empowered for Mission’ – it’s all there.  It is as though all the body of Christ needed was a short course of ‘missional steroids’.  Pop the pills, and watch the strength return.  But the church is not an organisation suffering with a temporary blip of weakness. It is, rather, an institution. It exists not to adapt, survive and succeed; but rather to be faithful, independent of its popularity. It may be called to martyrdom, not growth. It does not need steroids. It needs holiness, truth, light; to be fed by source that alone can patiently grow the fruits of the Holy Spirit in its body.[vii]

 

Of course I do think churches should be organised. But I don’t think they are organisations. True, our Unique Selling Point (USP) is indeed Jesus. But our Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), and drawn from the gospels, are rather mixed. It may be an abundant harvest; it may be martyrdom. It may be conversions; but it may also being hated by our friends and family for our faith.  We are not, in other words, called to measure ourselves through metrics of popularity and growth. The only game in town is faithfulness. So it is a pity that so much of our church-focussed mission is about getting people in; but the gospel is basically about getting people out: ‘go!’ is one of the last words Jesus says to us.[viii] We should focus our energies on finding our communities and loving them; not on hoping they might find us, and like us long enough to stay awhile. 

 

The origins of our problem probably lie with the Decade of Evangelism. There was little discontent and much optimism when the 1988 Conference passed a resolution approving a Decade of Evangelism. Each Province of the Communion was to develop plans for evangelism that led up the millennium. Most did, including the Church of England. But this essentially marked a departure from Faith in the City. Because by the late 1980’s, a new cultural turn in the Church of England was already underway. The Church of England was shifting to the right. Away from politics and Faith in the City, and towards charismatic-evangelicalism. This lay emphasis on individual decisions for salvation; and healing as something individuals could claim and attain – despite poverty being the major cause of most illnesses across the globe.

 

Nonetheless, the late 1980’s saw a significant ascendancy for evangelicals in the Church of England. And the Decade of Evangelism would be, to a large extent, a vehicle that gave them further prominence. Time, energies and resources were channelled in to making the Decade successful. With evangelism now firmly on the radar, this ought to have been the moment for evangelicals – the resident specialists in evangelistic theory and practice. But the Decade was essentially an underwhelming affair. Church attendance and membership continued to decline. And as the more the evangelical wing of the church asserted its overt brand of faith, the public quietly stepped back.

 

The problem – the legacy of this Decade, in effect - can be simply expressed. The Church of England - or at least its hierarchy - are stuck in broadcast mode. Like the proverbial Englishman abroad, they cannot make themselves understood in a world that increasingly finds the church incomprehensible. Especially in spheres such as sexuality, gender, equality, safeguarding, the exercise of power, the holding of authority and being open to accountability. But does the church perceive this? No. It just talks louder, hoping, somehow, it will be heard. It won’t.

 

In all this, the Church only seeks to make itself more appealing, and attractive to those who might join. Yet it rarely asks the same public why they don’t join. It is like a business doing even more hard selling, with increasing desperation. But unwilling to ask the consumers why they aren’t buying. (If you don’t research the reasons for your lack of ‘foot-fall’, it is no use blaming the stay-away consumers).  What is strange about this situation is that the drivers of the agenda are deeply concerned about mission and evangelism. So, they act out of the best of intentions. But the problem is that the underlying theology of mission and of the Holy Spirit - missiology and pneumatology - is deeply deficient. 

 

Let me explain more here. Explicit and expressive evangelistic campaigns tend to achieve very little. Even the Evangelical Alliance, in 1994, admitted that the main achievement of the Decade of Evangelism was to establish ‘new levels of co-operation between the churches’. This was hardly a great result.  But as other writers in the field of missiology have known for years, what is more compelling and credible to outsiders is an authentic and humble church. One that listens deeply and lives its faith, faithfully and unassumingly, rather than brashly promoting its own brand on some hard-nosed recruitment drive.

 

John V. Taylor’s classic The Go-Between God,[ix] describes true mission as finding out what God is doing, and then trying to co-operate. Evangelism, said Taylor, is first and foremost God’s work; not a sacrificial effort on the part of the churches to appease God.  This Missio Dei is our traditional way, as a church, of understanding how God acts in the world, to reconcile all things to God through Christ. This recognises that God is omnipresent, and so can and does act in all creation - so not just within the recognised boundaries of ecclesial life (which are, in any case, like all borders, inherently contestable and marginal). There is ample scriptural warrant for thinking about the work of the Holy Spirit in just this way. The Jewish disciples, for example, ‘discovering’ that God is at work amongst the gentiles - and that God had started something in those communities before any proactive mission had got underway.

 

The Missio Dei recognises something crucial in God’s ecology of mission. Namely, that God might choose to speak from the world to the church. The church, in other words, is not always God’s starting point for conversion-related initiatives. Sometimes, God needs to convert the church, and can’t do it from within. So, God works from without.  The Holy Spirit is omnipresent, and at work ahead of the church, and outside it. The question, always, is can the church recognise this? And can the church receive what the Spirit is doing beyond its boundaries? And in the act of reception, be prepared to be reformed and renewed? 

 

The answer from the churches to such questions - say on issues of gender, sexuality and equality - is frequently, ‘no’. The church will not receive the progressive truth, justice and change that the world has undertaken and adopted. The church resists the change. It resists contemporary culture. It does not believe that the Holy Spirit could be at work, independent of church leaders, in our contemporary culture; and could use that cultural change to reform and renew the church. So, the world, slowly but surely, backs away from the church, and leaves it to live in its own bubble of self-justifying rhetoric and self-shaping strategies. This gets the church nowhere, of course.  Just further up the creek without a paddle. And as for evangelism, only the converted are left to be preached at.

 

It is perhaps interesting to point out the unevenness and contradictions of the church here. We are apparently very willing and able to receive expertise from the private sector in spheres such as the re-shaping of the financial funding formulas for clergy training. Or for providing a more ‘incentivised’ and ‘targeted’ approach to diocesan subsidies, that replaces a commitment of supplementation with entrepreneurial ‘growth-led’ bids that are then rewarded with ‘grants’. But the church can’t seem to receive the wisdom of the world on equality legislation, safeguarding practices and protocols, the treatment of LGBTQ+ clergy and laity, and gender-related policies, which might include developing joined up thinking on anything from maternity leave to sexual harassment. Here, the church lags behind the world, locked into its own kind of bunker mentality. Meanwhile, a posse of ex-bankers and former civil servants are given free rein to reform the church in much the way they please.

 

We should be alive to the paradoxes here. As one commentator put it to me some while ago, it is a though the Christian Union have taken over the College Chapel.  Along with recent graduands who now work in city banks. But the people now running the reformed services can’t understand why all the people who used to come to church no longer attend. No amount of reorganisation or enhanced evangelism initiatives can take away from the fact that the world, as a whole, experiences the way the church behaves and speaks as alienating. Pastorally, on the ground, we remain good, kind, authentic and engaged. It is the direction of travel and drive of our hierarchy that let us down.

 

So, all that said, any decent missiology would always critique the notion that the church or congregation is in possession of God’s power, and then simply has a range of choices on how it reifies and dispenses such power. Any proper Kingdom Theology would try and reverse this perception. Can God not bring the gospel to the church from outside - and through agents and channels the church would not normally regard as pure, licensed or proper? This is essentially what we should concern ourselves with. It is a simple question. What does God want to say to the church from the world?  How can the church be open to and receive from what God is doing outside the church?  Can it learn a lesson from its own exilic period? This is the essence of Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered[x] and the way in which the missionary was transformed by the Masai: those to be converted are the ones who actually do the converting. 

 

Following Donovan, I’m reminded of two very contrasting approaches to mission that I witnessed thirty years ago, whilst I was training for ordination. Both were in a UPA in the North-East. The first project was evangelical, intense and focussed on converting local people. This evangelical mission lasted just a few years – and then left. It reasoned that the lack of ‘results’ meant the neighbourhood was stony ground. There were few conversions of note, and little interest from the community, who gave the mission a wide berth.

 

The second mission was Franciscan, and consisted of two brothers, who arrived in the community empty-handed. They drew in the community by asking them if they could help furnish the Brother’s bare flat. The locals obliged. The first item to arrive was a chair for the unfurnished sitting room – a passenger seat taken from a written-off Ford Capri. More bits of odd furniture arrived. A kettle was found. A toaster was rustled up.  The Brothers rejoiced at every gift. The Franciscans came to a community usually written off as a place of poverty and lack. Yet as the Brothers brought nothing, they affirmed their neighbours and their goodness and integrity. They were able to encounter and encourage a community that was generous and resourceful, but were frequently written off as ‘spongers’ and ‘needy’. In fact, the community liked to give, and they took pleasure and pride in looking after those less fortunate then themselves.  That included the Brothers. The Franciscans still work there in the community. 

 

In return, the Brothers simply offered a ministry that listened, and only then helped.  The Brothers made no assumptions about what the community lacked. They went in, expecting to find God’s provision in what many would have described as a moral and economic desert. They lived joyfully with their people, and did not presume any lack on the part of the community that they served. For the Franciscans, God was already dwelling there – long before they arrived. The same principles are at work in the beautiful novel by Dominique Lapierre, The City of Joy,[xi] set in the slums of Kolkata.

 

John Robinson, in his fine The New Reformation (SCM, 1965, p. 27),[xii] has this to say: “We have got to relearn that ‘the house of God’ is primarily the world in which God lives, not the contractor’s hut set up in the grounds…”. Put another way, the Church was only ever meant to be the Constructor’s Hut on God’s Building Site, which is the world (or if preferred, substitute ‘world’ for ‘Kingdom of God’). The church is not God’s main project. The world is. So, let me give two further examples of what this looks like in terms of mission and ministry. The first is reactive; the second proactive. Both examples remind us that the church must listen if it wishes to speak; silent if it wishes to proclaim.

 

The first of these examples has the same roots (i.e., trauma) that gave birth to the Samaritans under the Revd. Chad Varah. As a Curate in the city of Lincoln in 1935, Varah had taken the funeral of a young teenage girl who had killed herself, because she had started her menstrual cycle. It led Varah to pilot sex education in the parish he was serving, and he later founded the Samaritans, enabling a free and confidential help and listening service to “befriend the suicidal and despairing”. In 1953, he founded the Samaritans in the crypt of his London church, attributing the girl’s death - whom he did not know - as the seed that gave birth to this extraordinary new work. A ministry, effectively, that transcended the church.

 

In a similar vein, the suicide of another fourteen-year-old girl in 2014 also caused a change in direction for ministry. This time, the girl had taken her life because she feared she might be gay. But she was a member of a prominent evangelical Church of England congregation in Didsbury, Manchester. She believed that to be a lesbian was wrong. The teaching of the church said so. Unable to cope with the guilt, her feelings, and her sense that she would face condemnation - in this life, or the next - she took her own life.

 

The suicide had a significant impact on the congregation. The girl had been a prominent member of the youth group.  But in the congregational soul-searching that followed in the wake of this suicide, the church began to change. It moved from being benignly homophobic to being proactively inclusive. Some stable members of this evangelical church therefore left. But new people came, including groups and individuals who had never felt they could be welcomed at a church such as this. The congregation grew, even though it had moved from being evangelical to inclusive. The exilic lesson was learnt. This church could now receive from the community around it, and because of its receptiveness and hospitality, it began to grow. Differently; but perhaps better?

 

My second illustration comes from Australia, and is an example of some extraordinary progressive pastoral ministry. Like many clergy, the Rector of this parish was more than used to being asked by new parents who had little or no relation to the church, if they would nonetheless baptise their new-born child. Most clergy would respond to this request with encouragement and catechesis. The clergy would normally insist on stipulating a course of Christian instruction for the parents - sometimes lasting months. Many clergy would also insist that the baptism took place in the context of a normal act of worship, in order to enculturate the parents, godparents, wider family and friends into the ways of faith.

 

But not this priest. The Rector took a different view, and let the parents choose the time for the baptism to begin with – a Saturday, or even a Sunday afternoon, and a (so-called) ’private’ ceremony was countenanced. Frequently, this was the preferred option, as it suited families with their dispersed range of relatives. Then the Rector, in seeing the parents, would go further. To begin with, he handed over a copy of the bible and a hymn book, and invited the couple to keep these copies, but choose a hymn and a bible reading for their service. He made it clear too that they could also use other songs and readings as supplements - but they were to choose a hymn and a bible reading that spoke to the couple about what God meant to them in the birth of this child. So far, so good.

 

Then he added this. The couple were to choose between themselves, or nominate someone else from the wider family, a person to give the short homily that accompanies the baptism. Yes, the family were going to provide the preacher.  But the sermon was a simple thing, explained the Rector, and need cover only three things.  First, what were their family values? What did this family stand for, and what mattered to them as virtues? Second, how were the family and friends attending the baptism proposing to raise this child in accordance with those values? And third, as they had chosen the hymn and a bible reading, how did the rookie preacher think God was going to be involved in this family now, and helping with the raising of this child? How would they collectively respond to God’s commitment to this child in baptism? As the Rector reported, no family ever failed to produce a riveting, rich sermon and testimony to God’s blessing and providence. They became conduits of God’s grace; unwitting ambassadors of the gospel message.

 

What is the lesson here? Instead of the church preaching at the family, hoping a few seeds would take root - somehow - the Rector got the family to preach to themselves. The result was that most of the seeds at least germinated. And many took root. As an exercise in evangelism this was clearly far more effective. And, of course, it proceeds from a far more trusting, generous-orthodox pneumatology and missiology. In this example, the church places itself in a humble position where it receives the gospel from the world. It is a risk, to be sure. But it does not fatally fall for the flaw that always assumes the church possesses the truth, and needs to pester the world with this. Or is permanently casting itself in the role of broadcaster to a largely indifferent audience.  This theology of evangelism strikes an entirely different note. Most clergy would feel obliged to preach at the baptism and to the gathering. The Rector’s initiative, however, ensured that the family remembered the homily for a very long time: every word. They had preached it.

 

In a similar vein, the same Rector used to hold a monthly Evensong, and invite local community leaders, heads of local business, charities or other members of the community, to preach. The same formula was followed. A bible and hymn book handed over to the unsuspecting (often non-religious, or non-observant individual), inviting them to pick a hymn and bible passage, and then talk to the congregation - and any of their own friends or colleagues who happened to be invited to come along - about what their work meant to the town, how it built up community values, contributed to wider society, and helped and supported others. As the Rector said, it was the easiest way to get several dozen new people in to church every month. They simply could not contain their curiosity at what one of their own might say from the pulpit about values, hope and faith. And God. No-one declined the invitation. And all had something to say about the good news for the community. God spoke through each preacher. 

 

(A note to anxious clergy at this point. Yes, the Rector always had a spare homily just in case.  And yes, those preaching at a baptism or one of the Evensong’s often checked their text with the Rector beforehand – only natural when it is your first time preaching in front of friends, family and colleagues).

 

If we started with a theology of evangelism rooted in the values of the Kingdom of God and Missio Dei, the churches would spend much more time listening, and less time talking. More time receiving from the world, and less time pumping out propaganda. But I wonder, sometimes, if church leaders really do trust God, and genuinely believe in the omnipresent power of the Holy Spirit abroad in mission? Our leaders don’t talk and behave as though they do believe this. They seem to think it all depends on them.  They sound, all too often, like sacred custodians of a tribal deity in a remote village. Their God is small and tame; but it is their god. But all transcendence has been thoroughly domesticated.

 

Conclusion

So, what am I saying? Trust God a lot more, and our strategies for growth a lot less.  Remember that anxiety is a degenerate form of pride. So anxious leaders, fearful that the church might fail on their watch, is never a good foundation for evangelism.  Remember that the Holy Spirit is the fundamental expression of God’s overflow - and total, excessive abundance. The problem the church has always had is coping with God’s overwhelming abundance. We just never see mission as beginning from this.  We should. So, let us spend less time reasoning that the Holy Spirit is ours to give the world, and more imagining that God is already abroad. Because the Holy Spirit has this uncanny knack of converting and confounding the church from without. So it is strange that so many Christians continue to operate as though they, and the church, are the repositories and dispensers of the Holy Spirit, and hope that the world will be susceptible to some reception. But the Holy Spirit is outside the church too - and has been known to make the odd “cold call” on unsuspecting congregations. Often in disguise. The church, in my experience, is not good at discernment; and often fails to recognise the person of Jesus in the prisoner, the hungry and the hopeless.

 

Too often, our church leaders behave as though all that matters is the church.  Sometimes, the reputation and safeguarding of the church can be put before justice, integrity and truth. Even before compassion. To borrow from Pope Francis, the Church is not a ‘custom house’ – it is a field hospital. It exists not for the perfect, but for sinners. God’s mercy extends far beyond the church. Our leaders, though, conservative as they are, create a kind of ‘marsh’ on areas like safeguarding, gender and sexuality, only hampering progress. Their world is one of determined resistance, born of fearful or hardened hearts, content with the empty rhetoric of (spiritual) window dressing, typical of those who say they are ready for change, but want everything to remain as before.[xiii]

 

Yet tradition is not an unchangeable bank account. It is the doctrine of going forward.  The essential does not change; but it grows and develops. How does it grow and develop? It grows like a person - through dialogue - dialogue with ourselves, and dialogue with the world around us. If we are not engaged in dialogue, we are not able to grow. The church will stand still. It will remain small.  We will eventually be dwarfed by the world around us. People will speak over our heads. This is not so much sad as tragic. When you think of the good news - the power of the gospel - we are caught up in an ecology of overwhelming love and abundant grace that is revolutionary and revelatory for our broken world. Partly for this reason, I admire Harry Smart’s poem, ‘A Fool’s Pardon’[xiv] reminding us of what this Kingdom of God Project is all about:

 

Praise be to God who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God who pours his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.

 

For he knows what he is doing; the healthy
have no need of a doctor, the sinless
have no need of forgiveness. But, you say,
They do not deserve it. That is the point;

 

That is the point. When you try to wade
across the estuary at low tide, but misjudge
the distance, the currents, the soft ground
and are caught by the flood in deep schtuck,

then perhaps you will realise that God
is to be praised for delivering dickheads
from troubles they have made for themselves.
Praise be to God, who forgives sinners.

Let him who is without sin throw the first
headline. Let him who is without sin
build the gallows, prepare the noose,
say farewell to the convict with a kiss.

 

“Jesus is the answer, what was your question?” would be a reasonably fair characterisation of our current evangelistic approach as a national church. We are far too absorbed in ecclesionomics, and far too invested in our own ecclesiocracy. It is time to put the Kingdom of God first. If our church leaders think they do have all the answers, and behave like defensive omni-competent rulers, I doubt we will sound as though we are genuinely interested in the concerns and questions that people may have. If the church really wants to recover some theological vision for national mission, and something of the urgency of evangelism, then there is only one thing to do to begin with: nothing.

 

Yes, nothing. Just be still. And then learn to listen to the world around: tune in. Then we might hear what are the actual cares and concerns of our communities. Then we might begin to discern where God is already at work. Then we might receive from these communities what God would have this church become. Yes, get off broadcast mode, and learn to receive. God is out there, abroad, already ahead of mission. Can we receive what God might be saying to our churches through the world? I dare to believe we can. Only then might we see ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

 

[1] Parts of this talk were first aired at the Liverpool MCU Conference on Liberal Evangelism, February 2019.

[2] B. Reed, The Dynamics of Religion: Process and Movement in Christian Churches London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1978, 139.

[3] J., Kay, Obliquity, London: Profile Books, 2010.

[4] A., Day, The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[5] Faith in the City: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Report on Urban Priority Areas, London: Church House Publishing, 1985.

[6] G. Cray et al., Mission-Shaped Church, London: Church House Publishing, 2004.

[7] R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996 (New Edition).

[8] Galatians 5: 22-23.

[9] Matthew 28: 18-20.

[10] John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God, London: SCM, 1974.

[11] Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, London: SCM, 1978.

[12] The City of Joy, London: Arrow, 1985.

[13] John Robinson, The New Reformation, London: SCM, 1965, p. 27.

[14] On this, see my recent work on the purposes of the church, and discussed in I. Markham and J. Daniels (eds.), Reasonable Radical: Reading the Writings of Martyn Percy, Eugene OR: Pickwick/Wipf & Stock, 2018.

[15] Harry Smart, A Fool’s Pardon, London: Faber & Faber, 1995, p. 7.