Some have taken yesterday’s post to be hyper-critical of ++ Justin, a reminder that the post-modernists have a point when they say the author of a text has no control over how it is read. It seems to me that the Archbishop’s words have been taken out of context, but that even in context, they show a deafness of tone which is worrying.
The Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, commented some years ago that “one of the disappointing and alarming features of ++Justin’s primacy is his refusal to birth his proposed reforms in any good theology.” For Professor Percy, the heart of the problem is “++ Justin’s bewildering reluctance to talk about God.” That is not a problem confined to one Communion. The speed with which, mainly white Bishops moved to condemn the “systemic racism” of their own churches, has been contrasted by some with the want of serious theological talk about the pandemic and the place of Christianity at this time. Others think that unfair and point, rightly, to the good work done on parishes up and down the land.
One of the best analyses of how Christian churches should respond in the aftermath of Covid19 is that of the Bishop of Burnley, The Rt. Rev. Philip North in the Church Times, where he writes:
First, it is revealing something about our national life, and any attempt to rethink the ministry of the Church of England must begin with an attentive listening to the culture that it is our task to transform in Christ.
This is a brave and evangelical approach, but +Philip is clear:
We need priests — and bishops — who see themselves not as functionaries of an organisation, but as free-roaming evangelists in the style of Aidan or Cuthbert.
There is, of course, here the danger identified by Adrian Hilton (“Cranmer”) in his discussion with Professor Percy, that there is “no point teaching if no-one is listening.” But +Philip sees in the events of the past few months a period where, despite churches being closed, people have been listening, and may remain attentive – for a while:
we are seeing the unpicking of the lie that people today are not interested in the gospel. We have, instead, a nation relearning how to pray, looking to us for answers to the big questions, and accessing church life through online means in a way that we could not have imagined possible six months ago. Some studies reckon that one in three of the population have attended online worship since lockdown began. One Sunday, the Christians crashed Zoom.
At the same time, the economic and social consequences of the “lockdown” period are likely to be severe, and that part of parish ministry which has been quietly devoted to foodbanks and helping those bady hit, is only going to increase. As one whose family benefitted from such an initiative during industrial action in the mid-1960s, I can attest to the lasting effect of such a ministry; the Church was there for my family when no one else, including the Union which had called the strike, was.
Bishop Philip is right to say:
We now need to be ready to honour and acknowledge this new generation of lay leaders who have learnt how to use their gifts in Christ’s service, and who will not be happy to be mere consumers again.
To quote Professor Percy again (and yes, I know there may seem to be an irony in juxtaposing him with +Philip in view ofhis part in the former not becoming Bishop of Sheffield, but that just shows God’s providence, and maybe His sense of humour): “Theology and faith is always contextual, but that does not suggest an ultimate capitulation to relativism.” (Percy, Thirty-Nine New Articles, 2013, p. 19). A Church which, in times of crisis, adapts to bring the Word of God in action to those in need, has in the past, and can again, help transform the society within which it is set.
And this is where Professor Percy and +Philip are at one. If the Church is to meet the challenge set then it will need to be theologically-grounded as well as nimble. That would require it to move beyond the current “understanding of the diocese as an organisation, and its bishop and clergy as no more than “leaders”.
a diocese is not an organisation. It is a communion: a network of sacramental relationships flowing from the bishop, which together make up part of the body of Christ. Rather than draw everything into the centre, perhaps we need smaller, looser, central structures, which trust the local and encourage resourceful leadership; a bishop would offer oversight, but not control
In Professor Percy’s words, there needs to be more“God talk” and it needs to inform and drive how the Church reacts:
If A nation is, indeed, turning again to its Church, now is not the time to withdraw and manage decline. This crisis is showing us patterns of ministry which can enable us to reconnect to the culture and recapture imaginations with the gospel.
What +Philip writes, although addressed to a predominantly Anglican audience, is true for all Christian Churches.
There is a hunger for something beyond the material rewards offered by the consumerism that has been dominant in the West for so long. The question is whether the Churches are led by those who can seize the opportunity identified by Bishop Philip North.
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