On 14 July 1833 the Rev. John Keble gave the Assize Sermon at St Mary’s, Oxford, the University Church. Its title was “National Apostasy”, and it has usually been taken to mark the beginning of the Oxford Movement. Keble asked: “What are the symptoms, by which one may judge most fairly, whether or no a nation, as such, is becoming alienated from God and Christ?” Whatever the answer in his day, it would seem that the answer in our own time is obvious.
The challenge facing the Church in the West is a unique one. The literature on the unfashionable subject of “mission” and “church planting” mostly proceeds from the assumption that we are moving into areas where the Church has not had much, if any reach. What it does not generally do is deal with how to work in an environment which was Christian and where the Faith has been ebbing for some time, to the extent that in large areas the tide has gone out altogether. The difficulty there is that what is left on the beach is the detritus of anti-Christian polemic, aggressive secularism and the failure of the Church. In some senses, indifference is a worse enemy than active hostility, in so far as the latter is a sign that Christianity is to be challenged.
Our view of “mission” tends to be skewed by the Western experience, where missionary activity is seen historically as white people going out to convert non-white people, but that is a very small part of the history of mission. We have fogotten, if we (in the West) ever remembered those missionaries who went out along the Silk Road as far as China and established large and thriving Christian communities on the way. Indeed, if one placed oneself in the nineth century, one might easily have presumed that the area between North Africa and China would become the heartland of Christianity which was under extreme pressure in western Europe.
Keble’s fear of “national apostasy” came to realisation in a way that even the most pessimistic Christian could hardly have predicted. But we should beware of historical myths. Scholarship has shown that the Church of England was not the bloated and corrupt caricature which is sometimes assumed from the polemic of the Oxford Movement. The nineteenth century saw growth, not only from the Oxford Movement itself, but from other parts of the Church, and in some ways the most notable achievement of the Catholic revival in Anglicanism was what happened at parish level, although what is most often noted is the achievement in theological terms.
Which brings us full circle to now and to the challenges of a Church that is getting smaller and narrower. The idea of “hell” is not one which, outside certain Christian circles, has much purchase. One might say “so much the worse” for us, but emphasising that unless you believe in Christ you are going to hell is not, I venture to suggest, going to be a successful strategy for mission, quite apart from what that says about our view of God. If the reason we believe in God is that we are frightened of what He might do to us if we don’t … well an appeal to what sounds like an eternity of abuse because we deserve it isn’t saying anything very positive about Christianity. There will be some who think “tough”, but it’s not clear what their mission strategy is other than to welcome the “Benedict option,” which seems something of a cop-out from the Great Commission.
If in Christ we have “life abundant” then how does the Church reflect that? In the parishes of England priests inspired by the ideals of the Oxford Movement worked to make life better for their parishioners, recognising that part of that was to reflect the “beauty of holiness” in worship. Do we do that any more? How does going to Church elevate us? Does it elevate us? If not, what should and could we doing to change that? If Church is simply like a social club with added music and worse coffee, what in that would attract anyone to it?
At a time when Government in the UK has increasingly withdrawn from the expanded role it took on post-1945, what is the Church doing to move into the vacuums created? The answer here is more than one might think but less than it might, partly because there is no strategy. So, foodbanks have been a great initiative and the local Churches have played, not least in the current crisis,a notable role. When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron talked a lot, for a while, about the “Big Society,” but it came to little in practice. Is this not a role that the Church is well-placed to play. What can we do in those areas where the State is withdrawing or has withdrawn? How do we work in communities and what is our role in them?
Here there may be a salutary lesson, if we are humble enough to learn it, from the pandemic. We allowed the Churches to be shut as though they were not essential buildings for the community. If they weren’t, why weren’t they and how could we set about changing that? In the parishes run by clergy inspired by the Oxford Movement, as well as in circuits inspired by the Wesleys, church buildings were not just places of worship, they provided centres for community life.
On this anniversary of Keble’s call to arms, it’s worth reminding ourselves that throughout the world priests and laity are working hard to bring the Word of God to all who will receive Him and to acknowledge that work and pray for them and for the Church as we face the challenge of how to revangelise our Society.